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Starting Nine: Braves infield running down franchise, MLB history with power surge

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Ranking the many feats Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson are chasing based on the probability of each happening

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals
Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley are all on pace for 30-home run seasons, which would be a franchise record for infields (with the catcher excluded).
Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

“I ... HAVE ... THE ... POWER!”

Netflix is probably let you in on the He-Man renaissance, which, if you can recall your 1980s, had Eternia’s Prince Adam going through all the trouble of raising his magic sword and calling upon Grayskull to hulk up before he let loose my opening line.

There are no proclamations needed with this Braves lineup — though we really should get a petition going to see a certain reigning National League MVP with a pageboy haircut — because they most definitely have the power. In spades.

Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley are chasing down history, both within this franchise and in the annals of baseball, a herculean feat considering two of the lineup’s most bankable home run threats are out of the picture in Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna.

A conversation with Grant McAuley on the From the Diamond podcast — check it out if you haven’t yet — got the juices flowing for a deeper dive into the many things Atlanta’s infielders couple accomplish. Let’s run them down, based on the probability they can pull it off.

1. Most 25-home run seasons by Braves infield (sans catcher)

This one would seem to be a given. Since July 11, Swanson has been homering ever 12.1 at-bats, and sitting on 24, it’s only a matter of time until he joins Freeman (27) and Riley (26) to give the Braves three of their infielders with 25 or more. If you narrow this down to first base, second, third and shortstop — which we will for most of this exercise — the most the Braves have ever had in a season with 25 or more HRs is two, a number they’ve now hit 12 times with Freeman and Riley joining Freeman and Josh Donaldson (2019), Chipper Jones and Adam LaRoche (2006), Jones and Andres Galarraga (2000), Jones and Fred McGriff (1996), Darrell Evans and Davey Johnson (1973) and Joe Adcock and Eddie Mathews five times (1962, 1961, 1960, 1959 and 1956). If you want to throw catchers into the mix, Swanson — or if Albies, who is at 22, goes on a run — this group would technically tie the infield record of three players at 25 that Galarraga, Jones and Javy Lopez set in ‘98.

2. Freeman joins the upper echelon among Braves, 1Bs

Mounting another MVP campaign, Freeman already has his eighth 20-home run season, which is the sixth most in Braves history, trailing Hank Aaron (20), Chipper (14), Mathews (14), Dale Murphy (11) and Andruw Jones (10). What he doesn’t have is a second 35-homer season, which first came in 2019 when he hit 38 after falling one shy in 2016. Trending toward 36 this year, Freeman can join Joe Adcock as the only Braves first basemen to ever have multiple 35-HR seasons. From a larger perspective, if Freeman can get to 35, he’d be just the third player at his position with multiple 35-home years in the past 10 seasons, joining Paul Goldschmidt and Chris Davis, who both did it twice. Given the way he’s been hitting of late, with 10 homers in his last 129 at-bats, he could mount a challenge of Galarraga’s franchise mark of 44 by a first baseman from 1998, but at a minimum he figures to have the three of the top four seasons at the position since the team moved to Atlanta with this year joining his 2019 and 2016 outputs.

3. Riley does something Chipper Jones didn’t

Since July 16, Riley is hitting .352 with a 1.109 OPS and has gone deep 12 times — tied for the second most in the majors in that span — putting him on pace for 35 on the season. The Braves have had 12 such seasons by third basemen, most recently when Donaldson hit 37 in 2019, and Chipper did it three times (2001, 2000 and 1999), but Donaldson was 33 in ‘19 and Jones was in his ages 27-29 seasons. Riley is 24 and has a chance to deliver the first 35-homer campaign at his position since Bob Horner hit that number in 1980 at 22. Despite his recent tear, it’s unlikely that Riley can catch Mathews, who hit 47 in 1953 at 21, which remains the franchise record at third.

4. Swanson does what few NL shortstops have

In the expansion era, we’ve seen 35 seasons by 21 different shortstops in which they’ve hit 30 home runs (seven of which came from Alex Rodriguez), but whittle that down to the NL and you’re talking 11 seasons by nine players, with only Trevor Story and Troy Tulowitzki doing so multiple times. The Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. has already joined the 30-HR shortstop list, and Swanson’s previously mentioned pace gives his more than a strong chance of being next. If he can pull it off, he’d be just the fourth NL shortstop to reach 30 bombs in the past 12 years, with Paul DeJong (2019), the other player to join Story, Tatis and Tulowitzki.

5. Albies further cements power profile at position

When he homered against the Reds on Aug. 12, Albies passed Uggla for the most career homers by a Braves second baseman (82 and counting), and that blast was part of a run of HRs in four straight from Aug. 11-4, a stretch that was second only to Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, who went deep in five straight in 1928, in franchise history. With 22 homers this year, Albies also has the most 20-homer years by a Braves second baseman with three (at just 24), but he’s still chasing even more franchise lore. Davey Johnson (43 in 1973) and Uggla (36 in 2011) are the only second basemen with 30 or more jacks, and pacing toward 29, Albies is going to have a chance to match them. Since 2000, there have been just four NL second basemen to go deep 30 times in a year, Uggla (five times), Chase Utley (three times), Jeff Kent (twice) and Brandon Phillips (once). Albies has been on the cusp for years, hitting 24 in both 2018 and ‘19.

6. One of the prolific double-play combos ever

Five teams have had 25-homers from both men that comprise their double-play combination, with each player logging at least 75 percent of their innings at those positions. That would be the 2008 and ‘07 Marlins with Ramirez and Uggla, the ‘06 Phillies with Utley and Jimmy Rollins and the 1950 and ‘48 Red Sox with Bobby Doerr and Vern Stephens. Bump that up to 30 homers and Ramirez and Uggla in ‘08 are the only tandem to ever pull it off with that minimum threshold of playing time. If they can’t join that Miami duo, Albies and Swanson still have this going for them: they’ve already the first full-time second base/shortstop combo in Braves history to both reach 20 home runs in a year and need to team for six more homers to break the combined 51 set by Johnson and Marty Perez in 1973 and tied by Uggla and Alex Gonzalez in 2011.

7. Braves record for infield homers

Getting reigning Silver Slugger Travis d’Arnaud back helps, but he can’t retroactively help the black hole that has been the Braves at catcher, where they rank last in wRC+ at 46 and have hit 10 home runs. That’s key considering what the Braves infield has been able to accomplish without the catching spot providing much pop. With a combined 110 homers, this season’s infield has the 10th most long balls by any Braves infield and is pacing toward 143 behind the trajectories of Freeman, Albies, Riley and Swanson, which would be the second most of any Braves infield. D’Arnaud has hit just three and could be the difference here in taking down the 2019 team that hit a record 148. That season, Freeman bashed a career-high 38, with Donaldson at 37, Albies with 24, Swanson at 17 and the catching tandem of Tyler Flowers and Brian McCann teaming for 23.

8. Most 30-plus infielders (sans catcher) in history

As previously mentioned, the Braves would seem a lock to get at least three 25-home run seasons out of this infield, and with 41 games to play, adding a fourth name to that list is a very real possibility. Those 2008 Marlins are the only team that had all four positions reach the 25-HR mark, with Ramirez and Uggla joined by Jorge Cantu and Mike Jacobs, and if — though it’s probably a when — Freeman, Albies, Riley and Swanson join them, they could set their sights on MLB history. There’s never been a team to have its first baseman, second baseman, third baseman and shortstop all reach at least 30 homers. Given their current paces (36 for Freeman, 35 for Riley, 32 for Swanson and 29 for Albies), they’re at least going to make it interesting.

9. What could have been ...

For all the history the Braves are making a run at with that infield pop, let’s consider just for a second what might have been. Acuña was sitting on 24 home runs, and while Ozuna was struggling with just seven and a 74 wRC+, he’s hit at a 27-HR pace in his previous six 162-game seasons. The 2019 Twins and 2003 Red Sox are the only teams to ever have six players with 25 or more homers but add Acuña and Ozuna into the infield’s output and it’s a very real possibility. The ‘19 Twins also had five players with 30-HR seasons, and at the rate Acuña was hitting, that also could have been in the cards for the Braves, with the potential for history as the only team with six players to hit No. 30.