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Starting Nine: Revel in a generational moment in Atlanta sports

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Braves’ Ronald Acuña Jr. and Hawks’ Trae Young giving city embarrassment of riches with young superstars; Freddie Freeman takes place in franchise All-Star lore

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MLB: JUL 01 Mets at Braves
Ronald Acuña Jr. is the fourth Brave to lead the National League in All-Star voting, and the first outfielder since Dale Murphy in 1985.
Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Give Freddie Freeman this: the man knows how to celebrate a spot in the All-Star Game.

Back in 2013, the night of the announcement of his first election, when he beat out the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig in the Final Vote — in the days when “Will Hug for Votes” T-shirts were all the rage — he followed it up with a three-hit, four-RBI night in a Braves’ win.

Thursday, a mere hour and a half after he was announced as the National League starter at first base for the third straight time, Freeman did it again, beating out an infield hit to deliver a 4-3 walk-off win over the Mets. That victory moved the Braves within two games of .500 with six against the Marlins and three vs. the Pirates remaining until the break.

There’s a heavy All-Star flavor as we dive into this week’s Starting Nine, but first, a nod to something special that’s happening in Atlanta, both on the diamond and the hardwood.

1. Revel in a generational moment in Atlanta sports

Travel back 36 years into Atlanta past, when the Braves’ Dale Murphy was the All-Star game’s leading vote-getter and Hawks’ Dominique Wilkins was prepping for a season in which he’d lead the NBA in scoring (30.3 points per game) in an All-Star season of his own that would end with a trip to the Eastern Conference finals.

It was a time capsule moment in the city’s sports history — and it’s happening again.

In Ronald Acuña Jr. — who lead all National League players in voting in this year’s All-Star balloting (2,510,041), en route to a Phase 2 win that gave him his second straight Midsummer Classic start — and Trae Young — whose ascension to the NBA’s upper crust has put the Hawks one step away from the NBA Finals, and Atlanta is basking in the glow of two captivating young stars.

While All-Star votes aren’t the definitive measuring stick of how beloved a player is — and we’ve seen a fanbase or two stuff the ballot box (ahem, Royals) a time or two — the Braves have had the top vote-getter just four other times with Hank Aaron in 1970 and ‘71, Murphy in ‘85 and Freddie Freeman in 2018. As beloved as Chipper Jones was, he never led the league in voting, and with the pitchers’ selections not up for fan vote, you can’t put the same ruler up to the popularity of the Big Three of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz.

By the time Chipper reached the majors, the Hawks had long shipped Wilkins out of town and in Jones’ entire run with the Braves, the Hawks never had a player rank in the top 20 in Player Efficiency Rating. Now, when Chipper was averaging 4.9 fWAR from 2002-05, he and the rest of Atlanta were operating in the shadow of Michael Vick amid his three Pro Bowl seasons with the Falcons, which included the then-22-year-old quarterback silencing Lambeau Field in ‘02. It may be the closest thing post-Murphy/Wilkins, and you can throw Freeman and the Falcons’ Matt Ryan/Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez in the mix, but when were any of their stars on the same level from the national perspective at the exact same time?

The idiosyncrasy of this summer is that we’re seeing the NBA’s shortened and delayed season stretch the playoffs into July, creating this opportunity for Young’s rise from fantastic watch to superstar level coinciding with Acuña leaving no doubt he’s in the conversation for best player in the game.

The embarrassment-of-riches factor of it all, is that this may be just the beginning. Young, after all, is just 22, less than a year Acuña’s junior. When Wilkins was dueling Michael Jordan in the dunk contest, Murphy was fading into a below-league average hitter. We may not have seen the heights of either of today’s stars.

Regardless, revel in the moment, Atlanta. Revel in the love fans in and outside the city are heaping on Acuña, and where Young’s rise has lifted the Hawks. Here, it only seems to come once every couple of generations.

2. Albies may have lost All-Star starter vote, but he’s still winning

The Braves will have two starters in Coors Field for the All-Star Game with Acuña and Freddie Freeman, but Ozzie Albies will have to wait until Sunday’s reserve announcement to see if he joins them. He was beaten out by the Pirates’ Adam Frazier, who claimed the start with 47 percent of the vote, but this was anything but an upset. While Albies has 43 extra-base hits to Frazier’s 32, and a slightly higher fWAR (2.6 to 2.5), Frazier has the better wRC+ (141 to 129) and among NL second basemen with at least 330 plate appearances he’s first in average (.327), on-base percentage (.395) and second in slugging (.471). But let’s not turn this into a debate over who should be starting at second for the NL. Albies is likely to still get a trip to Denver and is still basking in the afterglow of driving in seven with two homers as part of a five-hit performance in Wednesday’s 20-2 rout of the Mets. Albies became just the second Braves player with five hits, two homers and seven RBI, joining Joe Adcock in 1954 and is on pace for 89 extra-base hits in all, with 31 home runs and 48 doubles. Just six second baseman have had 30 or more homers and at least 40 doubles in a season, the last coming in 2012 with Robinson Cano, and it’s been done eight times in the last 20 years. He’s often lost in the shadow of Acuña (you did just make it through 500-plus words on his friend’s level of stardom) and Freeman, and last year’s injury-hampered 0.6 fWAR season may have skewed the perception outside of Atlanta but let this scorching first half of 129 wRC+ be a reminder of how bright his star is shining, All-Star starter or not. Since he broke into the league in 2017, Albies has been doing the extra-base hit thing better than any second baseman with 218. Only 75 players have had more extra-base hits in their first 500 games, and the only Braves with more are Eddie Mathews (236), Hank Aaron (233) and Wally Berger (231).

3. Freeman and the All-Star company he now keeps

Freddie Freeman is headed to the All-Star game as a starter for the third straight season, claiming 48 percent of the vote to beat out the Dodgers’ Max Muncy. He now finds himself in some extremely elite company in franchise history. He’ll become just the fifth Brave to start in at least three straight, following Wally Berger (1933-35), Hank Aaron (1957-60 and 1965-74), Eddie Mathews (1959-61) and Dale Murphy (1982-86). We’ve come a long way since eight years ago and that aforementioned Final Vote win, when Freeman set a record with 19.7 million votes (4.1 million votes ahead of the previous mark). That Freeman is the starter despite Muncy’s 3.2 fWAR being double that of Freeman speaks to either the power of the Atlanta fan base or the first baseman’s MVP resume, depending on your vantage point. But Freeman has carved out a place in Braves history at what is routinely one of the deepest positions in both leagues.

4. Austin Riley: The All-Star Case

His breakout season has been All-Star worthy, as he ranks third at the position in the NL with 126 wRC+, but is it enough to beat out the two guys ahead of him for the roster spot? The Cardinals’ Nolan Arenado, the league-leader at the position in fWAR (2.3) gets the start, while the Dodgers’ Justin Turner (140) and Cubs’ Kris Bryant (131) are 1-2 in wRC+. That accounts for the three players that made it to Phase 2 of the voting. Then there’s the Padres’ Manny Machado, who is nearly a full win over Riley’s 1.2 fWAR and tops the position with 4.7 defensive runs above average. Hitting a two-run home run off the Mets’ Jacob deGrom — just the fourth the MVP/Cy Young candidate has yielded this season — was a nice touch, but Riley’s best bet was hoping that Braves fans could force his way in via the ballot box. That didn’t happen, and he’s likely on the outside looking in.

5. Luke Jackson: The All-Star Case

We got into this a bit last week, but it’s worth digging back ahead of Sunday’s reveal. The biggest problem facing Luke Jackson aren’t his numbers — his 1.88 ERA is in the top 13 and he’s stranding a higher percentage of runners (98.7 percent) of any NL reliever — it’s the competition and the roster rules. Among the 12 pitcher spots, the starters have their no-brainers with likely game starter Jacob deGrom (Mets), Yu Darvish (Padres), Kevin Gausmanm (Giants), Dodgers’ Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer (Nationals), Zack Wheeler (Phillies) and Brandon Woodruff (Brewers) and you can expect to see Mark Melancon (Padres), Craig Kimbrel (Cubs) and Josh Hader (Brewers) among the relievers. If just one spot is up for debate, the Cardinals’ Alex Reyes (0.96 ERA and 20 saves) has a better resume, as does the Mets’ Edwin Diaz (11.65 K/9 and 10 saves) and Kenley Jansen (Dodgers) a bigger name, even if he is walking 5.51 per nine. Frazier getting the start at second could mean Richard Rodriguez (1.78 ERA and 10 saves) is no longer an option to take the Pirates’ guaranteed roster spot, but it’s tough to find a path for Jackson. There’s no longer shot among Braves, though Jackson’s turnaround after a 6.84 ERA 2020 has been one of the few bright spots on one of the NL’s worst bullpens.

6. Michael Harris II’s star just keeps rising

The Futures Game roster is absolutely loaded. The Orioles’ Adley Rutschman, Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson, Mariners’ Jarred Kelenic, Royals’ Bobby Witt Jr. and the Yankees’ 18-year-old Jasson Dominguez are among the headlines of the 50 players selected to appear July 11 at Coors Field, and the Braves will be well represented too. Drew Waters, the franchise’s second-ranked prospect, is a no-brainer to earn a selection as the latest tools-laden outfielder the Braves have put on direct path to a spot in Atlanta, but Michael Harris II’s rise in making this roster has been simply astounding. The third-round pick in 2019 opened this season as Atlanta’s 10th-ranked prospect per MLB Pipeline has been blistering A-ball pitching with a .320/.341/.477 slash line, five home runs and 12 doubles with 11 stolen bases and a 123 wRC+ in 43 games. The season-opening prospect rankings are laughable, and with Harris getting this kind of nod, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see his name rise way up when the prospect lists are updated in the coming weeks (in 2019, MLB Pipeline did its complete re-rank in July), likely making the top 100 and pushing Shea Langeliers for a top-three spot along with Waters and Cristian Pache. Harris has been generating tons of buzz since raking in spring training, and it doesn’t show any chance of slowing down with the Futures Game spotlight.

7. Happy anniversary to the Greatest Game Ever Pitched

This is not, I repeat not, a “get off my lawn” moment. It’s just that dialing it back a notable pitching duel that went down on this date in baseball history is a reminder of something we may never see again as Braves great Warren Spahn and the Giants’ Juan Marichal both threw 15 scoreless innings in 1963 before Willie Mayes hit a homer off Spahn in the 16th inning to give San Francisco a 1-0 victory. It’s pretty ridiculous and was the subject of a book by Jim Kaplan. No one has tossed 15 innings in a game since former Brave Gaylord Perry in 1974 when he was with the Indians. The last 14-inning start came via the A’s Steve McCatty in 1980 and the last time anyone threw 11 innings was another Oakland arm, Dave Stewart, in 1990. Even 10 innings in a game hasn’t been accomplished since Cliff Lee in 2012.

8. You get an HBP, and you get an HBP

Batters are being hit at an historic pace this season, with 1,034 as of this writing making MLB on pace for a record 2,088 in 2021. There was a record 1,984 in 2019, which broke the mark set in 2018 of 1,922, but let’s dial it back to a game that seems so 2020 by comparison. On this day in 1969, the Reds’ Gerry Arrigo hit three Braves in the second inning, and Cincinnati relievers would plunk two more, setting a modern-day record of five hit batters in a game, a mark that would stand until June 9, 2018 when the Astros hit six Rangers. In keeping with our All-Star theme, making up three of those hit by pitches in that 1969 game against the Reds, were the team’s All-Stars for that season, as Felix Millan had two HBPs and Aaron one.

9. ‘It has good wood’

Happy birthday to Tim Spehr, who had one of the most memorable debuts in Braves history, and that was about it. On July 14, 1997, just two days after he was called up from Triple-A, Spehr went 1-for-1 ... with a grand slam in a 10-6 win over the Phillies. Spehr, who after the game admitted “I’m not a home run hitter. I was looking to drive the ball and got it up in the air a little,” was out of his comfort zone as bats hadn’t arrived from Richmond, so the catcher used one from the clubhouse. The result was his connecting on the home run off Philadelphia starter Tyler Green, for what was Spehr’s ninth HR in six MLB seasons. “It has good wood,” he said after the game. “I hope I don’t break it.” He’d last just eight games with the Braves, hitting .214 in 14 plate appearances.