The Braves left Flushing in the exact same shape they arrived: trailing by five games in the National League East. They did manage to trim a game off the chase back to get back to .500 — where they’re now three games away — and don’t find themselves in any worse shape by splitting the four games with the division-leading Mets.
That’s where things stand with these Braves, where a showdown series is twinged with positives when it doesn’t derail the season, though that’s just the first leg of this potentially defining sets between the teams, as New York comes to Truist Park for three games June 30-July 1.
Plenty of concerns did pop up during the trip to Queens, though, including the return of Max Fried’s blisters, another forgettable start for Kyle Wright — who now has a 6.56 ERA in 21 career games — and the late scratch of Ronald Acuña Jr. with lower back tightness.
But let’s take a spin around the Braves universe and start with a young backstop who has become a punching bag among this team’s roller coaster of a season.
William Contreras has big-league power pic.twitter.com/vnoKFbFABW— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) June 19, 2021
1. In defense of William Contreras
William Contreras can rake. Of that, there should be little doubt with a maximum exit velocity (114.2 mph) that ranks in the top 92 percent, and he has the 10th best ISO (.205).
The defense, meanwhile, to be fair, has left a lot to be desired. His game-calling and receiving from one knee has become fodder for Braves Twitter and the advanced metrics don’t help him much either. Among catchers with at least 200 innings behind the plate, Contreras is 41st with minus-1.8 defensive runs above average. Only the Orioles’ Pedro Severino (-2.1), the White Sox’s Zack Collins (-2.8) and Angels’ Kurt Suzuki (-3.2) have been worse. He’s the league leader in passed balls (seven) despite playing in nearly 200 innings more than the next closes player (the Red Sox’s Christian Vazquez with six) and has been behind the plate for 20 of the Braves’ 34 wild pitches.
He’s also tied for 38th with minus-5 defensive runs saved — tied with the Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto, and one behind the Royals’ Salvador Perez, a duo which represents the two biggest contracts for a catcher based on average annual value, so not the worst company — all leading to a 0.0 dWAR from the Braves’ young catcher.
And that’s the key word there, isn’t it? Young.
Contreras is on pace to appear in 77 games this season at age 23, and in the last 40 years, 42 catchers have played more games at a younger age than the Braves backstop is trending toward, and no one has been in more than 73 since Mike Zunino in 2013-14. Just seven, by the way, hit at a clip better than Contreras, who has a .756 OPS, bested by Joe Mauer (.870), Brian McCann (.842), Matt Nokes (.857), Wilin Rosario (.821), Jason Kendall (.801), Charles Johnson (.779) and Russell Martin (.792). Only 12 catchers appeared in 75 or more games through their age-23 season and 15 had a better OPS+ than Contreras’ 96, including Hall of Famers Craig Biggio (106) and Ivan Rodriguez (97).
For those wondering, Contreras’ brother Willson appeared in 76 games in his first season with an .845 OPS and 132 OPS+.
Thrust into the role with Travis d’Arnaud’s thumb injury (and Alex Jackson’s struggles), Contreras is likely to lose playing time should d’Arnaud come back in late August, as was recently discussed by general manager Alex Anthopoulos. but just consider what we’ve seen from him at the plate in having to suddenly become the top catcher on this team.
But that defense ...
It has had its moments though, as Contreras is tied for eighth in throwing eight runners out, and he is one of only two catchers with more than seven to log less than 300 innings of work.
Has the work behind the plate been at the level of a team which, since 2017, ranks eighth at 67.6 DEF from its catchers? No, but Contreras’ dWAR, by comparison, is just a tick behind what Brian McCann posted during his rookie year of 2005 (.0.1).
The defense hasn’t been as awful as the talking point it’s often become (though it does figure to be a point of conversation considering the work Shea Langeliers continues to show behind the plate at Double A Mississippi), measurable even against the best catcher the Braves have had in a generation. But at a minimum, what this team is getting offensively from Contreras certainly makes any defensive miscues more than palatable.
2. Luke Jackson ... All-Star?!?
When the Braves’ bullpen was up, Luke Jackson was down. Now that it’s collectively down again, Jackson is up in a way that has him in contention for a spot in Denver for the All-Star Game. In 2020, the right-hander had a 6.84 ERA that was among the 11th worst in the majors for a reliever, and nearly four runs worse than the next qualified bullpen arm in Atlanta’s pen. Fast-forward a season and Jackson is the only qualified member of that relief corps that has an ERA under 3.33 at 1.04 and ranks sixth among all relievers and fifth in the National League in that department. He’s also stranding 99.2 percent of runners and had induced more ground balls (60) than any other reliever in baseball. The Braves figure to be well represented, and with the NL averaging five relievers over the past three All-Star Games it will be tough. The Padres’ Mark Melancon, Cubs’ Craig Kimbrel, Brewers’ Josh Hader and Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen are all in the top four overall in saves and Richard Rodriguez (1.91 ERA and 0.95 BB/9) may be the Pirates’ best shot at the mandatory roster spot. Regardless, Jackson has been spectacular after last year’s struggles and that we’re saying his name and All-Star in the same sentence is a testament to that.
3. Austin Riley and another chance for a Braves takeover
Continuing the topic of the All-Star Game, Austin Riley moved up from fifth to fourth in the latest updates in the Phase 1 of voting, which concludes later today. The results will be announced Sunday at noon, with the Phase 2 voting lasted for four days and ending Thursday, July 1 at 2 p.m., leading into that night’s announcement of the starters. The top three vote-getters at each position advance, meaning Riley is right on the cusp as his 10 percent of the vote trails the Cubs’ Kris Bryant (29 percent), the Cardinals’ Nolan Arenado (15 percent) and the Dodgers’ Justin Turner (13 percent). From a purely statistical standpoint, Riley is deserving, ranking second in wRC+ (123 and behind only Turner at 141 and trails just the Los Angeles star in wOBA (.353 to Turner’s .371). But we’ve seen the power of Braves Twitter before, taking FOX Sports’ Best Uniform vote in 2020 and propelling Acuña to be named MLB Network’s Best Player under 25. Riley’s All-Star fortunes may be next on that list.
4. Fried, and the return of the summer sequel nobody wants
A return to a full season has meant the return of Max Fried’s nemesis: blisters. They meant an injury list stint in 2018 and another in 2019 and now — like the horrible sequels nobody ordered that we’re used to seeing this time of year — they’re back, with the left-hander winding up on the 10-day IL with a blister on his left index finger. This marks the third time this season Fried has been on the IL, and while any missed starts are a blow to a team in the hole the Braves are in, this is exceptionally ill-timed with now four starters (Mike Soroka, Huascar Ynoa and Tucker Davidson) on the IL. Fried’s spot went to Kyle Wright (who proceeded to last just two innings and allow five earned runs on four hits in Wednesday’s loss to the Mets), and is followed by a bullpen game for Thursday’s opener against the Reds, not exactly the formula for two confidence-building performances. While the hope is that Fried just misses one start, the resurfacing of an ailment that continues to bother him this time of year (just as it’s getting truly hot at humid) is concerning.
5. Acuña, Statcast God
While we await further word on Ronald Acuña Jr. after sitting out the finale against the Mets, let’s all revel in the fact that he’s hitting the ball very, very hard. His 49.2 percent of hard-hit balls (95 mph or more) is tied with Shohei Ohtani for the sixth best rate in the Statcast era, which began in 2015 and he’s 10th in barreled ball events (19.9 percent) as well. But Acuña’s 117.2 mph lineout against the Marlins on June 12 was the 26th hardest-hit ball in the last seven seasons and he’s had three of 112.3 mph or more since, including 115.7 mph on the home run that set the stage for his taunting Mets fans Monday night. It all amounts to an average exit velocity of 94 mph, which is fifth in the majors and an increase of 1.6 percent over year. Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s 2.2 percent increase is the only one better among players who had an average exit velocity of 92 mph or higher in 2020.
6. Starters (and Smyly) had been on a run
Before consecutive days that saw Fried land on the IL and Wright fail to capitalize on another opportunity to plant his flag for a rotation spot, the starting staff had been exceptional. The past seven games they had combined for a 1.55 ERA and over last two weeks, Atlanta was third in starting fWAR (1.8), behind the Mets (2.3) and White Sox (1.9) and had the fourth best ERA (3.00, coincidentally, trailing three other NL East teams with the Mets at 1.55, the Marlins at 2.04 and a 2.06 out of the Nationals). That’s now been pushed to 4.42 over the last week, but let’s get back to the positives. Charlie Morton, who claimed his 100th career win Tuesday against the Mets, has posted a 1.93 ERA with 10.13 K/9 in the last 14 days, and Ian Anderson’s last three starts have included a 2.20 ERA and paltry 1.65 BB/9, but the team’s best starter ERA in the previous two weeks belongs to ... Drew Smyly at 1.69. It’s been a steady climb for Smyly — who has been lambasted in this space a time or two over that one-year $11 million contract — in going from an 8.05 ERA in April to 4.24 in May and now 3.26 this month. There’s time for the stat to swing in one direction or the other, but this month currently represents the first with multiple starts for Smyly with an ERA under 3.65 since he was at 2.60 in April 2016.
7. Who’s ready for some fireworks?
The Braves will now hit the road for four games at the Great American Ball Park and fireworks are certain to come in bunches. The Reds’ home has been the launching pad of the fourth most home runs in MLB this season (56) and will match up two lineups that are fourth (Braves with 103) and ninth (Reds at 96) overall in HRs and include Acuña (second in the NL with 20) and Freddie Freeman (ninth with 16) and the Reds’ Jesse Winker (fourth with 17), Eugenio Suarez (11th with 15) and Nick Castellanos (15th with 13 HRs). In all, 10 players with at least 10 homers will be in action. The last 30 days, Braves’ arms have allowed the third fewest long balls (25), but the Reds are yielding the second most in the NL (93) and the most by any bullpen with 20.
8. Little Big Leaguer, whether you’re ready or not
In 1953, the Braves made history when they signed Joey Jay from Middletown, Connecticut, who would become the first Little League player to make it to the majors ... thanks to a rule that thrust him onto the big stage well before he was ready. After graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School (where he pitched three no-hitters), the Milwaukee Braves signed Jay to a contract that included a $40,000 bonus. But due to a “bonus baby” rule imposed by MLB that year, anyone who signed for more than $4,000 had to be kept on the big-league roster for at least two years, and if that player had started in the minors, he would be put into the unrestricted draft. Not wanting to lose Jay, the Braves threw him into the fire. He’d make his MLB debut on July 21, making one start that season. The next year, he had a 6.50 ERA in 15 games, and after the “bonus baby” rule was nixed, Jay bounced back and forth between the minors and was largely a spot starter before being dealt the Reds in 1960. He’d land on the cover of Sports Illustrated with Cincinnati and make the Reds Hall of Fame, but with the Braves he does hold the distinction of being the youngest player in franchise history at 17 years, 34 days. As a footnote, in 1960, he was also caught trying to steal signs and relay them from the stands.
9. HBD, Freeman
... Sam, that is. Today is the birthday of two former Braves in Juan Francisco, whose legacy is topped by losing a third base battle to Chris Johnson in his out-of-nowhere career year, and reliever Sam Freeman. We’ll focus on Freeman, who had a 3.34 ERA over 121 games in 2017 and ‘18, because the left-hander was always reliable: for flossing. Freeman could be seen most spring mornings at his locker, plucking away with one of those green plastic floss contraptions. Freeman’s out of baseball, appearing in one game with the Angels in 2019 and seven for the Nationals last season before his release in August, but he’ll always be a beacon of dental health to the Starting Nine. Happy Birthday, and hope you were gifted another multipack of flossers.