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Same ol’ rut snares Braves in June

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The 2021 Braves didn’t get it going in June, either

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The 2021 season is nearly halfway over, and I regret to inform all of you that, unfortunately, the Braves are still more or less stuck in neutral. After a 12-14 April and 13-12 May, all they could muster was a 13-15 June. While there are still three months remaining for the team to really kick it into some previously-unseen gear, June gave little indication of them being able to do so. Over the course of the month, the team’s longest winning streak was three games... which was immediately followed by a four-game losing streak. The end of that winning streak was the only time they hit .500 in the month, as well. The rest of June was basically just alternating one or two wins and losses.

Overall, this was not an easy month, schedule-wise, but the Braves still underperformed. Game-by-game odds suggested a 14-14 or 15-13 month, but the Braves undershot that as well. And, even worse, they were favored to win in 18 games in the month. It’s just not the sort of thing that’s going to leave a pleasant aftertaste. While Atlanta did pull off some surprising games, including winning a Drew Smyly-Aaron Nola matchup by a 9-5 margin, they also faceplanted pretty substantially. I’m not sure if the team will have a more brutally self-inflicted-while-also-very-important-in-the-standings loss than the abominable June 29 game where Charlie Morton gave up a three-run homer to James McCann en route to a 4-3 defeat, but it’s hard to see what that would even look like.

Team performance, wins and losses aside, was also fairly middling in June. Ending the month with a 20-run outburst certainly helped, but the Braves still finished June 18th in team wRC+ (13th without pitchers hitting) and 16th in position player fWAR. The pitching staff as a whole was actually fourth in MLB in fWAR in June, including the second-best rotation fWAR... but the bullpen was still below-average and the pitching staff (and fielding/defense) meant they finished with negative WPA for the month as a whole. There was probably some version of June where the Braves got some breaks and combined mediocre hitting with great pitching to win a bunch of games, but it didn’t happen.

All of this leaves the Braves as a pretty generically blah team. For the season as a whole, they’re 12th in position player fWAR and 15th in pitching fWAR. If you use fWAR as a guide to “how many wins should a team have?” the Braves should be either 40-39 or 41-38, but alas, this hasn’t been the sort of year where that sort of thing works out for the team. We’re 79 games into the season and the Braves still have one of the worst xwOBA underperformances in baseball (sixth-worst at this point); among the team’s nine players with the most PAs, Guillermo Heredia is the only one outhitting his xwOBA by over .008, while Freddie Freeman continues to carry one of the largest underperformances in baseball. That’s really been the story of the 2021 Braves so far: they’re not particularly good, especially not with their disheveled, injury-plagued roster, but they’re also getting essentially no fringy benefits from anything to help bolster the team’s record. They’re not outperforming WAR-wins, they’re not outperforming run differential, they’re not getting big sequencing boosts, they’re not implementing anything novel to get the most out of the roster, they’re not making great tactical decisions, and so on and so forth. Playoff odds entering play on July 1 were around 15 percent, the same doldrums-esque locale that they have been since June 10, which was the middle of that four-game losing streak.

Maybe they’ll get it going. I hope so, but time is dwindling. To be candid, I don’t think they will — not because they can’t, but because nothing is being managed with any sense of urgency. I don’t mean that they should make trades or reconfigure the roster in some way — those things are probably fringy enough that they won’t make much of a difference at this point anyway — but rather that at this point, the first time in three-plus seasons that the team is really, legitimately, not playing well, there has been no impetus to actually shore up the pitfalls that weren’t a big deal when the team was rolling in spite of them. To put it another way: if the team won’t recognize that starters are considerably less effective the third time through in a game against the division-leading Mets, where they only took a lead because the Mets let their starter face the lineup a third time... when will they? If they do at any point in 2021, will it be soon enough to matter?

Anyway, enough of that. Let’s do the usual “hey remember when this thing happened this past month?” game.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for June 2021 Performance - Position Players

Ozzie Albies capped his June with an insane, 5-for-6, two-homer game against the Mets that gave him a 161 wRC+ for the month, passing his BFF in that monthly mark by a hair (159). Both of those guys had insane, MVP-level months, combining for 2.8 fWAR, over a quarter of the team’s position player total in June. But, I want to give this shoutout to Freddie Freeman instead. Freeman’s wRC+ was, by comparison, only a pedestrian 135. But, and you’ll be totally shocked to read this, Freeman actually led the team in xwOBA for the month: .421 to Ronald Acuña Jr’.s .410 and Albies’ .354.

Again, you will be out-of-your-mind flabbergasted to learn that Freeman was basically a top-10 xwOBA-er in June, yet his results were pretty-damn-good-but-not-awesome. Because that’s just how it’s been.

Even while being mauled by the tigers of BABIP and HR/FB, Freeman was able to come up big in more than a few spots in June. He had that crazy game against the Red Sox (that the Braves still lost), where he hit a go-ahead homer, had two walks, reached on an error and scored, drove in a run with a single, and so on. A few days before that, he hit a game-tying homer in the ninth against Hector Neris (but the Braves still lost). In between those two, he hit a two-run homer to turn a 3-0 deficit into a 3-2 game, but the Braves also lost that one. This actually kind of sums up how dumb everything is for the Braves in general: Freeman had seven games in June with a WPA above .010. The Braves still lost four of those games. (Pre-June, the Braves were 6-2 in such games, which makes way more sense.)

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for June 2021 Performance - Starting Pitchers

Hey, the starting pitching was great in June! A part of that, and the recipient of this nonsense award: whichever deity(ies) kept Drew Smyly’s HR/FB to a measly 6.1 percent in June.

Smyly entered June with a HR/FB of 22.0 percent, along with a horrendous 146 ERA-, 161 FIP-, 121 xFIP- line. Over the next five starts, Smyly allowed just two homers, good for a 70 ERA-, 90 FIP- aaaand wait for it: 121 xFIP-. Thanks, baseball and/or other gods! The net result was that the Braves actually went 4-1 in games started by Smyly in June, even though he was knocked around in two of them and failed to finish five innings. The highlight of the month was probably the bizarre, no one saw it coming 5 23 innings of one-hit ball in a seven-inning game against the Cardinals. The Braves played with fire in a 1-0 game by letting Smyly pitch to the top of the order a third time, pulled him after a two-out single broke up his pseudo-no-hit-bid, and still won the game. Yay. Not yay: Drew Smyly has a 5.92 xFIP the third time through the order this season, and he’s still being put into that situation, especially in a one-run game.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for June 2021 Performance - Relief Pitchers

2021 is apparently the Luke Jackson revenge tour season. In 2019, the mere mention of Jackson’s name was the cause of much dropping-to-one’s-knees-and-rending-garments among a subset of the fanbase, even though he was killing it with his relief work and being victimized by paranormal phenomena or whatever. In 2020, Jackson apparently forgot to renew his pledge to whatever eldritch entity transformed him from a roster barnacle into an effective out-getter, and was quite not-good. So, here we are in 2021, and... Luke Jackson has a 106 FIP-, a 97 xFIP-, a below-average xwOBA... and a 40 ERA-, along with positive WPA and a 9/6 shutdown/meltdown ratio. Luke Jackson 2k21: The Ghosts are on his Side Now, coming to a theater near you this summer.

Jackson made 11 relief appearances in June. Only two ended with a negative net WPA for him, only one was a meltdown. You will not be surprised to learn that his highest-WPA game of the month, pitching a scoreless bottom of the ninth in Philadelphia, still resulted in an eventual Braves loss.

In reality, though, this is mostly Jackson-by-default, as his 71/123/90 June line was not exactly enticing. No Braves reliever but Jackson had a WPA higher than .13 for the month (Josh Tomlin). Aside from Tomlin, Will Smith and Tyler Matzek’s marginal .03 WPAs, and Ty Tice’s barely-there .01, every other reliever on the team finished with a negative WPA for June. Lame.

Best Offensive Play - Freeman ties it with a dinger

Freddie Freeman, top of the ninth, down a run, Hector Neris on the hill. And suddenly, the Braves are no longer down a run.

The Braves still lost this game, though. Sigh.

Best Run-Stopping Play - There but for the Grace of Liners Finding Gloves Go We

This play was so close to being another walkoff loss for the Braves. But it wasn’t. And hey, the Braves actually won this game.

Upon replay review, the runner was ruled safe at third, and Smith had to retire another batter (Brandon Drury, pop-up to second) to end the seven-inning game. But the Braves came so close to yet another crushing defeat here. Kevin Pillar did not the ball particularly hard, just 91 mph, but if Austin Riley is elsewhere, that would have been terrible.

Most Dominant Single-Game Offensive Performance

For some reason, there’s no good video highlight of this, but in a losing effort, here’s what Freddie Freeman did against the Red Sox on June 16:

  • First inning, down by two runs: walk with one out.
  • Third inning, down by two runs: reached second on an “error” where the right fielder couldn’t nab a liner hit right at him. Scored the Braves’ first run.
  • Fourth inning, down by two runs, first and second, two out: RBI single to bring the Braves within a run.
  • Sixth inning, game tied, one out: solo homer to give the Braves a lead.
  • Seventh inning, down by three, runners at the corners, two out: walk.

And then he struck out to end the game. But still, what a game for him. And nice to see Freeman take a ball out to left field, something he hasn’t been keen on doing, perhaps due to concerns about the current baseball vis-a-vis prior baseballs that made it relatively easy for him to do so.

Most Dominant Starting Pitching Performance

There were a lot of good ones in June, but I’m partial to Ian Anderson’s effort on June 10.

To be honest, this wasn’t the best start. It was a good one, sure, but not a great one, as Anderson only managed a 4/1 K/BB ratio. But he also allowed a sub-.200 xwOBA in the game — of all balls the Phillies hit off him over 100 mph, each was hit into the ground; the one hard-hit fly ball they had against him was an easy out to center. It was a fun contrast with his start prior to this one — same-ish FIP, worse xFIP but still below 4.00 — yet in that prior start he didn’t make it out of the fifth, and in this one, he threw seven scoreless innings.

Oh, and the Braves lost the game.

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

A.J. Minter, like many Braves relievers, had a horrendous month, with five meltdowns in 12 appearances. Yet, he also had arguably the best single relief performance for the team in the month. On June 6, with a two-run lead, the Braves let Max Fried go out for the seventh, having had a chance to pull him to pinch-hit the prior inning but declining to do so. Fried allowed back-to-back singles to start the game, and that got him yanked. On came Minter to face a righty and then two lefties, and Minter got three weak flies to end the inning with the lead still intact — none hit harder than 85 mph, none further than 230 feet, none with a hit probability of even 10 percent.

Most Crushed Dinger

So many Acuña choices here. I choose this one. No, it wasn’t the most superlative by exit velocity, but it was hit higher than his 117.4 mph smash against the Reds, and went a lot further. Fun stuff.

And hey, the Braves won this game.

Now for the bad stuff.

Worst Offensive Result

Pablo Sandoval was responsible for so many bright spots in a dour season for the Braves, at least in the early going. However, that all shriveled up in June as the Panda apparently went into hibernation. In 18 pinch-hit PAs in June, Sandoval managed just one single and one walk. His seasonal wRC+ is down to 101, and he shed nearly 30 percent of his positive WPA as a result.

The team’s worst offensive result came during one of his pinch-hit appearances — on June 24, down by a run with the bases loaded and two out, the Braves gave him the nod against Tejay Antone, who had already given up two runs in the inning. The result was this sad not-a-bloop hit at under 60 mph.

The Braves lost the game.

Worst Pitching Result

Last month, this was the Tomas Nido homer off Will Smith. I implored the Braves to not let the lowest point of the season get any lower. Oh, it did. How it did.

Even worse was the fact that Chris Martin replicated Smith’s meltdown in the very next game. But this was just brutal. The -.904 WPA from this play is almost impossible to replicate; it is already, essentially, one of the worst pitching results in franchise history. Thanks, Will Smith and 2021 Braves, for that gift.

Worst Single-Game Offensive Performance

Remember that game where Pablo Sandoval could not make things happen? That game also featured a real terrible set of PAs from Ender Inciarte.

In the first, in a tie game and two on, one out, Inciarte flew out. In the fourth, down by a run, two on and two out, he struck out. A groundout started the seventh with the Braves still down a run. And then, right before Sandoval’s at-bat, after the Braves had five consecutive hitters reach base against Antone, he struck out again. Inciarte has seen his playing time dwindle as a result of injuries and very poor play, but this (-.325) was still his worst single-game WPA since 2017, and the third-worst of his career.

Worst Starting Pitching Performance

This one should be pretty obvious. On June 23, Kyle Wright got the call to make a spot start for a Braves team whose rotation depth has been shredded. He gave up two walks and a double in the first, leading to two runs. The second featured a double, a single, a homer, and a walk. He didn’t come out for the third, putting the Braves in a 5-0 hole against the Mets. After the game ended, Wright said this depressing tidbit:

I never really had anything going from the get-go. The only pitch I had OK was my curveball, but even then I tried to do a little too much with it. Fastball command was really bad. And then the slider kind of flattened out and…yeah, it wasn’t very good.

I mean, you kind of feel for the guy, and you feel for the Braves, who have so little rotation depth at this point that they’ve had to start him, as well as a bullpen game led by the ageless Jesse Chavez, but still... Wright’s been around in the organization for five years now, and while he may never even be the fourth starter type that seemed possible at some point, having him get hung out to dry like this, and then getting pulled after two innings without saving the bullpen more, is pretty brutal.

Wright has -0.3 fWAR for 2021 despite making just two starts this year, which is horrifying.

Worst Relief Pitching Performances

No real need to relive most of it, but Will Smith and Chris Martin are tied for this very dubious honor. Both shed .804 in WPA after blowing one-run leads in the final inning of their respective games.

The Braves, as a franchise, have only had 67 pitching appearances with a WPA of -.800 or worse. They’ve had some of these appearances pretty close together (Cecil Upshaw had two epic implosions in the same week in 1971), but of course, never on back-to-back days. I love baseball because every day is a chance to see new things, but this was not a new thing I wanted to see. Stupid relievers.

Most Crushed Ball Allowed

This Juan Soto smash off Drew Smyly was both A) obliterated and B) arguably incredibly obvious that it was going to be obliterated and cost the Braves the game, even before the PA started. Just say no to Drew Smyly and the third time through the order, folks.

See you next month, if you have the wherewithal to stick with this team through July!