To put it mildly, the 2021 season has not gone as planned for the Atlanta Braves. To put it more directly would require using words I probably shouldn’t use in my first post at Talking Chop.
As the trade deadline approaches, the Braves‘ record sits at 47-49, a .489 winning percentage. Over a full season, a .489 winning percentage is 79-83. At no point did even the most pessimistic projections of the Braves’ 2021 season have them finishing with a sub-80 win total. So what’s happened?
Injuries are certainly part of the equation. Ronald Acuña Jr and Mike Soroka are both out for the year. Travis d’Arnaud has missed most of the season with a thumb injury. Marcell Ozuna dislocated two fingers in late May and then was arrested on domestic violence charges shortly after, effectively ending his season (and maybe more). After a breakout start to his season, Huascar Ynoa broke his hand punching the dugout. Yes, punching the dugout. Injuries have certainly mattered.
But injuries are only part of the equation. The Braves were playing bad baseball even before they lost so many key players and they still have enough talent that just getting to a .500 record shouldn’t be such a monumental goal. Something else has been happening. A team with the fourth best run differential in the NL shouldn’t have the ninth best record. Digging through the numbers, one conclusion becomes perfectly clear: the 2021 Braves have failed in the clutch.
To most fans, “clutch performance” is usually associated with two-out hitting, or late game hitting, or hitting with runners in scoring position. And while Atlanta has certainly struggled at times in those areas, it’s not where they’ve struggled the most. No, in 2021, the Braves biggest problem has been clutch pitching.
FanGraphs has a leverage index, created by Tom Tango, that basically tracks how critical each situation in a game is, using the change in win expectancy to calculate it. Each situation gets put into one of three categories: low leverage, medium leverage, or high leverage . You can read more about LI and the math behind it here.
Obviously, high leverage situations are the most critical moments of a game and where the largest swings in win expectancy can happen. So how have the Braves pitched in these moments? Here are the stats along with their corresponding MLB rankings:
Hits: 95 (29th)
AVG: .298 (30th)
ERs: 101 (28th)
OBP: .372 (27th)
wOBA: .355 (27th)
In the moments of the game where a win or a loss gets most decided, Braves’ pitching has been among the worst in baseball, if not the worst.
And the picture is even uglier on an individual level. Here’s what a few Braves pitchers have given up in high leverage situations this season:
Charlie Morton: .533 wOBA
AJ Minter: .447 wOBA
Drew Smyly: .432 wOBA
Tyler Matzek: .426 wOBA
Chris Martin: .368 wOBA
Morton, Smyly, Martin, Minter and Matzek…I guess it’s a good thing it’s none of the important pitchers.
Morton’s numbers are some of the craziest you’ll ever see. In low leverage, he’s given up a .217 wOBA. In medium leverage he’s given up a 272 wOBA.
In high leverage it’s .533.
He’s given up 58% of his earned runs (26 of 45) in high leverage situations despite the fact they only represent 8% of his innings pitched. And yes, those 26 earned runs in high leverage spots are easily the most in MLB this year.
And make sure to note that Martin, Minter, and Matzek represent the three setup men the Braves were most counting on this year late in the close games. When your high leverage relievers have been terrible in high leverage situations, winning becomes difficult.
A good way to check to see if a team is performing dramatically different in clutch situations versus other parts of the game is the Clutch stat. It does basically just that. It measures how much better or worse a player or team is performing in high leverage situations vs more neutral situations. The Braves, as a team, have the third worst Clutch score in baseball this season. Their performance in high leverage spots has severely deviated from their performance in more neutral situations.
There is some good news to this. Pitching, or hitting, in the clutch is not a skill despite what most of us have heard our whole lives. Numbers in high leverage situations or the Clutch stat are in no way predictive. They are only good for looking at the past. They provide nothing for the future. Starting tomorrow the Braves could become the best high leverage team in baseball. Or not. It’s just how these things work.
Despite the fact the metric themselves are not predictive, we can use large disparities in performance in “clutch” situations relative to baseline performance as an indicator something is amiss. Braves’ pitching ranks 13th in MLB in low and medium leverage situations and almost dead last in high leverage spots. There’s no logical reason for that to continue. Just like a team who hits .260 overall but are hitting .190 with RISP, at some point, there should be some regression to the baseline for Atlanta’s pitching. And this by itself could mean three or four more wins even before get you into additional talent acquisition.
By BaseRuns, the Braves should have a 51-46 record based on their production so far this year. Their actual record is 47-49. That -4 drop in expected wins is the third largest drop in baseball, and most certainly because too often their worst performances have come in the most crucial situations. Not only have the Braves not played to their talent level, they haven’t won to their production level. Sequencing has not been their friend in 2021. Being disproportionately terrible in the biggest moments relative to rest of the game will do that.
I imagine that BaseRuns record is one reason Alex Anthopoulos isn’t quite ready to sell yet. The weak division being another. The Mets BaseRuns record is 52-43, only one win better than the Braves. There is still some hope.
The injuries are what they are and the talent level of the team will definitely have to be increased at the deadline if they want to accomplish anything of worth in 2021.
But the Braves could also get some help from standard regression to the mean, and seeing their pitchers not completely forget how to get guys out in the biggest moments of each game.