With last night’s 7-2 win over the Phillies, the Braves are once again in second place in the NL East, and either they or the Phillies will be knocked into third when tonight’s game ends. The Braves’ playoff odds are still meager, still under 10 percent despite last night’s victory, but injury-depleted roster or not, they’re sallying forth anyway, the inexorable demands of the season schedule being what they are. Tonight, Atlanta will send Max Fried to the hill to face off against, and hope to avoid being destroyed by, familiar foe Zack Wheeler.
Let’s say it plainly: Wheeler has been a monster in 2021, including against the Braves. He’s third among all pitchers in fWAR with 4.6, just decimal points behind Jacob deGrom and Corbin Burnes. He’s second in MLB in innings pitched and will likely retake that lead tonight, and is doing so with a “hey opposing batters, run for your lives!” line of 60 ERA- / 53 FIP- / 64 xFIP-. He’s striking out over 30 percent of batters faced as a starter with a walk rate below six percent, he’s averaging over six innings a start, his third time through the order split still features a 3.77 FIP and 3.20 xFIP — he’s been tough. That’s an understatement. He’s been a particularly destructive wrecking ball set loose on opposing hitters once or twice a week.
The Braves are plenty familiar with the carnage, too. In Wheeler’s first start of 2021, he threw seven one-hit, zero-walk innings with 10 strikeouts against them. On June 10, he somehow outdid even that, throwing eight innings with a 12/0 K/BB ratio (four hits, zero runs). The Braves lost both games, though they actually tied the game in the latter before losing in walkoff fashion (the Chris Martin meltdown game). To be fair, they’ve also knocked around Wheeler once — his second start of the year, six days after that opening series domination — dealing him one of his worst outings of 2021: 4/4 K/BB ratio, a homer allowed, and three runs in 4 2⁄3 innings. But that’s not much to hang one’s hat on, given that Wheeler obliterated them twice.
If you’re feeling optimistic, one saving grace might be that it appears that Wheeler has “struggled” in his last two outings. In his last pre-All Star Break start, he allowed seven runs to the Cubs (four earned) in 5 2⁄3 innings. But, he still had a 6/1 K/BB ratio and didn’t allow a homer, along with a .310 xwOBA-against. T’was the BABIP and defense that did him in, not his own pitching. Then, in his most recent outing, he gave up four runs in six innings, along with a homer. Still, though a 7/2 K/BB ratio and an xwOBA-against in the .250s shows that even there, he wasn’t pitching poorly. So, it’s not much to bank on, but if you want to hope, I won’t stop you.
To duel Wheeler, the Braves will deploy Max Fried, who hasn’t faced the Phillies since Opening Day (two runs in five innings, 8/2 K/BB ratio). Fried’s had an up-and-down year and his effectiveness has fluctuated greatly from start to start. On the season, he has a 104 ERA- / 92 FIP- / 91 xFIP-. His HR/FB is actually normal so far this season, but his fastball’s been hit hard, even while allowing an average launch angle of zero. Fried sparkled his last time out against the Rays in arguably his best start of the season: seven scoreless frames with a 7/1 K/BB ratio. But, he wasn’t nearly as effective in his prior three outings, though the Braves won two of those games anyway.
In any case, this game is going to be all about finding a way to beat Wheeler — if Fried struggles, then oh well. We’ll see what happens. Maybe the Braves can get their playoff odds again 10 percent?
Atlanta Braves @ Philadelphia Phillies
Friday, July 23, 2022
7:05 pm EDT
Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia, PA
TV: Bally Sports Southeast
Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, WNNX 100.5, Braves Radio Network
XM Radio: Online / Ch. 185