As they begin play on Friday night, the Braves will find themselves in depressingly familiar territory for this 2021 season: four games under .500, in a morass of flailing teams in the division, and five-plus games back in the division. With the Fangraphs playoff odds hovering between 10 and 15 percent, and the Braves failing again and again to reel off a clump of victories without offsetting losses, things are getting increasingly more dire... but with the deluge of injuries inundating the Braves, there’s not much they can do. The time to reel off those wins was apparently earlier in the season, as it’s going to be increasingly hard to do so when the rotation depth has been shredded by the absences of Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Huascar Ynoa, Tucker Davidson, and even Touki Toussaint.
That long list has left just Charlie Morton, Ian Anderson, and Drew Smyly as mostly-constant members of the starting staff, though even Smyly’s had a stint on the shelf to date. Morton and Anderson have been quite good despite some meltdown outings (both are pitching at well above average, 4 fWAR/200 IP or higher rates), but Smyly, well, that’s a different story, albeit one that has some chance of a happier ending.
It’s hard to sugarcoat just how bad Smyly’s been: his seasonal line is a 126 ERA-, 143 FIP-, and 121 xFIP-. The only pitcher given 60 or more IP this season with a mark worse than Smyly’s -0.2 fWAR is Jake Arrieta, at -0.3. Sure, some of that is driven by his top-20-ish HR/FB rate, but he also has the seventh-highest xFIP among the 100 or so starters with the most innings this season, so... yeah it’s just been a tough season all around. But, the silver lining is that his most recent two-start stretch has been his best of the season, and the Braves have won both games. Two Sundays ago, he allowed two runs in five innings with a 6/1 K/BB ratio to the Marlins; last Sunday he held the Cardinals to one run in 5 2⁄3 innings of a doubleheader, albeit with a 5/3 K/BB ratio. It’s been just his second stretch of the season with zero homers allowed across consecutive starts, though whether he’ll be able to manage the same in the launching pad of the Great American Ball Park remains to be seen, given that he’s been a pretty fly ball-oriented pitcher this year, as well as throughout his career.
Smyly’s mound opponent will be Vladimir Gutierrez, who will be making his sixth career start. Gutierrez has the ol’ small-sample-ERA-out-of-whack-with-peripherals going on, as his 94 ERA- is betrayed by a 107 FIP- and horrendous 139 xFIP-. The Braves will try to bring those first two marks up to the third, or else it could be another long night in what’s been a smattering of them so far. Gutierrez, to his credit, has done a great so far eliciting a ton of weak fly balls with his middling peripherals... but that’s a dangerous strategy in this ballpark and it’s not clear whether that’s actually something he can keep up. He does have a four-pitch mix and can hit the corner consistently with his curveball and slider, but his pitches are fairly generic and his fastball averages just 93 mph. In another year, you could say that his arsenal in this ballpark could be easy pickings for the Braves, but nothing’s been easy for them in 2021, and I don’t expect this game to be particularly different.
Atlanta Braves @ Cincinnati Reds
Friday, June 25, 2021
7:10 pm EDT
Great American Ball Park, Cincinnati, OH
TV: Bally Sports Southeast, MLB.tv
Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, WNNX 100.5, Braves Radio Network
XM Radio: Online / Ch. 183