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Braves performance check-in: Position Players

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To say things haven’t gone as expected would be an understatement.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Miami Marlins Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve all heard of “they are who we thought they were.” That, as we’re going to discuss below, doesn’t quite apply to the 2021 Atlanta Braves. Instead, the club is more, “they are (a little worse than) who they’ve been,” in terms of performance over the 2021 season. The Braves hit the All-Star Break at 44-45, a highly disconcerting, disappointing record for a team that was likely going to finish with a win total in the high 80s or low 90s. Yet, the team ranks just 10th in position player value and 16th in pitching value (both by fWAR), their combined fWAR through 89 games suggests an 83- or 84-win team, a not-too-lofty mark that they’ve also underperformed.

Let’s look at it player-by-player to see what went wrong (and sometimes, what went right).

Freddie Freeman - .274/.381/.489, 132 wRC+, -7.7 Def, 2.2 fWAR

After a slow start, Freeman has righted the ship and mostly looks like the player we were all expecting. The big drag on his line has been true most of the season, as his outputs haven’t reflected his inputs. At the break, Freeman has a top-10 xwOBA in baseball but only the 38th-best wOBA; only 15 players with 140 or more PAs have underperformed their xwOBAs as much as Freeman, and only six of them have 300 or more PAs (Freeman has 388, third-most in baseball). The xwOBA underperformance was remarkably consistent across each of April, May, and June (roughly .050), his 199 wRC+ in July is driven by an overperformance of .044 so far.

Freeman also currently rates poorly by all three of UZR, DRS, and OAA — this is his first year with a very negative OAA, and UZR actually makes him look better than the other two, which is propping up his fWAR a bit.

Knowing his inputs are fine, the main disappointment as it pertains to Freeman has to do with his contract situation. Freeman says he wants to stay in Atlanta and Alex Anthopoulos has publicly stated that the team wants him back. It’s hard to imagine a situation where Freeman doesn’t return, but there really isn’t any appearance of urgency around the situation, and if Freeman leaves, that’s a bunch of wins the Braves are going to have to find elsewhere.

As you can see, Freeman’s underperformance has led him to understood expectations to some extent. The TC community was fairly split on Freeman’s outlook, basically 47/52 on him clearing 4.8 fWAR for the year (and 41/58 on him clearing 4.6 fWAR/600), so his xwOBA-underperformance-driven underperformance is only a little disappointing.

Ronald Acuña Jr. - .283/.394/.596, 161 wRC+, 0.3 Def, 4.4 fWAR

This one still hurts. Acuña was on his way to a career-best season before he was lost for the season due to a torn ACL. He is a generational talent that doesn’t get mentioned nearly enough when people talk about the best players in the game. And now the Braves have to figure out a way forward without him, which is probably going to look more like “standing in place.”

Sadly, he’s not going to hit that 8.0 mark, leaving us just to wistfully ponder what could have been. It’s a very unhappy victory for the approximately 20 percent of folks who voted that he’d come in under 5.1 fWAR in aggregate, though at least those same ones have seen him smash through that 5.2/600 O/U threshold.

Ozzie Albies - .283/.394/.596, 118 wRC+, 1.1 Def, 2.6 fWAR

Albies is another player that got off to a slow start but has made up serious ground of late. He put up a .321/.367/.607 line with a 158 wRC+ in June and parlayed that into another trip to the All-Star Game. The walks are up and the strikeouts are down for Albies who is carrying a .283 BABIP from the first half. He currently has a career-best hitting line despite a middling OBP, as he keeps tapping into his power. One thing to watch is his defensive production — Albies has mostly rated as a positive (if not elite) defender, but is negative by both UZR and DRS this year, with an average-y (+1) OAA.

In any case, though, he’s still produced above expectations given the power surge — over 90 percent of TCers thought he’d clear 3.5 fWAR (including 3.5 fWAR/600), and, well, that seems pretty likely at this point. Ozzie Albies: definitely not the reason the 2021 Braves are struggling.

Marcell Ozuna - .213/.288/.356, 77 wRC+, -0.7 Def, -0.1 fWAR

Let’s get this one out of the way. If we were handing out performance grades then Ozuna would receive the lowest possible. He wasn’t good before he got hurt and then he went out and made it worse. It is a black eye for the organization and will remain so for as long as he is under contract. The whole situation is just a huge mess from basically every angle.

There was a sizable chunk of folks who thought Ozuna wouldn’t clear 3.3 fWAR (37 percent) or 3.4 fWAR/600 (46 percent), but no one saw this coming.

Dansby Swanson - .243/.302/.453, 99 wRC+, 2.6 Def, 1.4 fWAR

Swanson has been a hot button topic among Braves fans of late although he quieted some of that with nine hits, including three doubles and two homers, over his last four games. Swanson has had an interesting season. He is hitting the ball harder than at any point in his career, but that has resulted in an elevated strikeout rate and fewer walks. Atlanta’s roster attrition has forced him higher in the batting order and perhaps for that reason, he may be guilty of just trying to do too much. Overall, though, he’s actually done a bit better than expectations, and has been pretty much average this season. People talk about trading Swanson, but he’s not actually a problem, in terms of either performance, or performance relative to expectation, for this team.

Most people (around 80 percent) took the over on 2.1 fWAR and 2.3 fWAR/600 for Swanson this season. This one could still go either way, but the chatter of him as a bete noir is interesting in this context.

Austin Riley - .276/.359/.468, 123 wRC+, -5.8 Def, 1.3 fWAR

There have been some peaks and valleys along the way but where would the Braves be without Austin Riley right now? Riley had a blistering May where he put up a 165 wRC+, slumped a bit in June and then recovered through the early part of July.

Riley’s walks are up and the strikeouts are down from his rookie campaign but his power has returned as he is barreling balls again at a rate similar to 2019. The defense hasn’t always been pretty during the first half but at the least, Riley has solidified his spot in the Braves lineup with his first half performance. The defense really keeps this from being a full-throated breakout, as Riley has really only moved to average-y despite his good hitting, but average-y is still better than expectations for him coming into the year.

Like Swanson, most people (80 percent or so) took the over on 0.9 fWAR and 1.1 fWAR/600, and well, he’s cleared those modest marks already. Now just to figure out a way to shore up his defense, which features a horrendous UZR and OAA (DRS is somehow positive).

Cristian Pache - .111/.152/.206, -6 wRC+, 0.2 Def, -0.7 fWAR

We came into the season hoping that the Braves wouldn’t toy around with Cristian Pache and would instead pencil him in as the team’s Opening Day center fielder. Well they did, and it didn’t work out. To say he struggled would be an understatement.

Pache posted a 36.8% strikeout rate in just 68 plate appearances. When he did make contact, he didn’t hit the ball hard, with just an 81.7 average exit velocity per Statcast. The good news is, he has started to show signs of life again at Gwinnett, but the questions remain about whether he will ever hit enough to be a viable player at the Major League level.

There was a ton of talk about Pache’s high floor because of his ceiling, but no one envisioned he’d hit this badly. To be fair, his .160 wOBA is much worse than his .196 xwOBA, but the latter is still a terrible number. We’re also talking a tiny sample of opportunities here, but he also didn’t stun defensively — his catch percentage added was basically average-y.

Basically everyone (95 percent) of TCers had Pache as cresting 0.5 fWAR and 0.6 fWAR/600. That’s not a very high bar. That he’s so far below it in just 68 PAs is a pretty good explanation of why the Braves are where they are. He can certainly bounce back, even this season, but that’s such a deep hole to climb out of.

Travis d’Arnaud - .220/.253/.341, 59 wRC+, 3.0 Def, 0.0 fWAR

The Braves are hoping to get d’Arnaud back sometime in August from a thumb injury that required surgery. They used him heavily early on and he had not really hit his stride at the plate before he was injured. Still, 87 plate appearances is a terribly small sample size and perhaps he can provide a lift at the catcher position once he is able to return. Like a bunch of other guys, d’Arnaud was felled by xwOBA underperformance (awful wRC+, league-average-y xwOBA).

By community vote, d’Arnaud was only about 45/54 in terms of clearing 2.2 fWAR, and 39/61 i terms of clearing 3.2 fWAR/600. Given the lack of time on the schedule vis-a-vis his injury, and his dreadful start, it’s going to be hard for him to clear either.

A bunch of other guys

William Contreras - .204/.278/.387, 78 wRC+, -3.0 Def, -0.3 fWAR

Also Alex Jackson, Kevan Smith, Jonathan Lucroy, Jeff Mathis (combined -0.9 fWAR)

Contreras played well during Spring Training but didn’t make Atlanta’s roster initially because they wanted him to play every day rather than see action as a backup. However, that never materialized as he was pressed into action before the Minor League season ever began.

Contreras hit well enough early on posting a 124 wRC+, but fell way off in June and July, as his swing-happy approach proved exploitable even though his contact quality was impressive. There were plenty of bright spots along the way, but it was pretty clear that he needed some time to work on things in a less pressured situation.

As for the other guys, well, too small of a sample size to really have any thoughts and the only reason we’re mentioning them at all is to point out that the Braves have used five different players behind the plate through the first 89 games of the season.

Alex Jackson began the season on the active roster but didn’t hit and then got hurt. I am more disappointed by Kevan Smith’s work as a receiver than I am his production at the plate. Lucroy has seen a total of nine plate appearances and maybe, he can bring something of value to this group, since no one else has. The combination of d’Arnaud’s lack of production, d’Arnaud’s injury, and everyone else being pretty terrible is one of the big reasons the Braves are where they are.

Ehire Adrianza - .256/.338/.432, 108 wRC+, -3.1 Def, 0.2 fWAR

Adrianza won a spot on the regular season roster with a strong performance this spring and has been the team’s best bench player. Whether or not he can sustain that performance over a full season remains to be seen but he has been a marginally positive addition. Preseason expectations for Adrianza were right around replacement level, and he’s been a bit better, but not regular-quality or anything thus far.

Pablo Sandoval - .200/.325/.385, 97 wRC+, -0.7 Def, 0.1 fWAR

Remember when Sandoval homered three times in his first 20 at-bats? That turned an unexpected roster surprise (Sandoval making the team out of Spring Training) into something that could have built the legend of the 2021 Braves. Since then, though, he is 7-for-45 with one homer, and the Braves aren’t building any kind of lore-worthy campaign. He’s beloved in the clubhouse but his lack of production and versatility could put his roster spot in jeopardy at some point during the second half.

How far has Johan Camargo fallen? Camargo has seen his role and standing with the team take another dip in 2021. He rode the shuttle between Atlanta and Gwinnett several times early in the season but has not seen many opportunities and is 0-for-16 at the plate. He has put up good numbers at Triple-A but seems to have fallen way down the depth chart. If he doesn’t do anything at the major league level for the rest of the year, Camargo will have three straight sub-replacement-level seasons, which is brutal considering he put up 4.4 fWAR in his first 780 career PAs.

One of the feel-good stories from the first half was Sean Kazmar returning to the majors for the first time since the 2008 season. Kazmar appeared in three games and logged two plate appearances.

Guillermo Heredia - .253/.343/.414, 105 wRC+, -1.5 Def, 0.8 fWAR

If you had told us before the season that Guillermo Heredia would be playing a significant role for the Atlanta Braves in 2021, we would have said you were either crazy, or things had gone very wrong. If you had told us that he would be the team’s primary centerfielder and producing at a league-average rate at the plate, well, we’d wonder if you were joking.

Credit to Heredia for coming in and grabbing hold of the opportunity that was presented. I don’t think any of us should expect it to last through the second half, especially given that he has a weak .302 xwOBA and one of the 30 biggest xwOBA overperformances in baseball, but you can’t really complain about his performance even if he falls off significantly, given that he’s probably already given the Braves more than you’d expect from him for the whole season.

Abraham Almonte - .227/.372/.392, 113 wRC+, -2.5 Def, 0.3 fWAR

Like Heredia, Almonte came out of nowhere and has played a big role with the Braves during the first half of the season. His hitting has dropped in recent weeks, but he gets on base at a high rate and could be hitting leadoff if the Braves are unwilling to hit one of their better hitters there for some reason now that Acuña is hurt. Again, credit him for taking advantage of his opportunity.

It is fairly notable that despite the number of injuries and underperformance in the Braves outfield, Ender Inciarte has not worked his way into an every day opportunity. Inciarte has played sparingly and has pretty much been regulated to a late inning defensive replacement which is probably the right call at this stage. It’s not really saying anything, but Inciarte being more valuable than Pache (and Ozuna, I guess) so far is why the Braves are where they are.

The Braves finally lost enough outfielders that they elected to give shortstop Orlando Arcia an opportunity to prove that he could handle the left field job. Despite being a below average hitter for his career, Arcia put up good numbers with Gwinnett and has hit well over his first week with the big club, though his xwOBA in that tiny sample is under .300. With Acuña out, the Braves are going to need all the help they can get.