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Are things looking up for the Braves after July?

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The Braves aren’t in a good place yet, but July was the team’s best month so far

Milwaukee Brewers v Atlanta Braves Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda/Getty Images

When the Braves ended June, they were 38-41, 4.5 games behind the Mets, with playoff odds of 15 percent. Their final game of that month was a 20-2 drubbing of the division leaders, but was part of a span of six games where the Braves alternated wins and losses (sound familiar?). July started off with a bang, as the Braves inched closer — first by taking the series against the Mets in walkoff fashion, and then beating the Marlins 1-0. After beating the Marlins to take that series in a crazy July 4 contest, the Braves had won back-to-back series for the first time in about two months, and you could say that hey, maybe things were improving.

Then the hits came, and I don’t mean the kind in a box score. The Braves lost a series to the Pirates. Ronald Acuña Jr. tried to make a catch, landed awkwardly on his leg, and tore his ACL. For a team with fringy playoff odds as it was, that injury was akin to an expensive, fragile chandelier to the head. The All-Star Break and a brutal schedule came next, and the Braves responded by A) picking up some reinforcements and B) alternating wins and losses in every game since. They split a series with the Phillies. They took three of five from the Mets, but bought at the deadline anyway. It’s now August 1, they’re four games out, and playoff odds, Trade Deadline roster changes accounted for and all, sit at around 17 percent. It’s better, but the Braves are still a game below .500 and have a ton of work to do to make the playoffs again. But with all the stuff that happened, it’s kind of amazing that July wasn’t worse.

In fact, July was better. The Braves went 14-12, their best month of the season, with their best run differential of the season so far. The team’s position player performance and wRC+ were middling, meaning that for the season, they’re still an above average-y (105 wRC+, 10th in MLB for position players) unit dragged down a bit by weak defense. The rotation was average-y in July as well (11th in fWAR), and while I know people will struggle to believe this, the bullpen was actually seventh in MLB in fWAR for the month. The pitching staff is now average-y overall as well... and I guess none of this is really surprising because in total, that’s where the Braves have been too: you combine above-average-but-not-by-much position player production with average pitching production, and you get an average team. The Braves hope for, yearn for, need more, of course, but that’s where they are.

But how much more could they have reasonably gotten in July? This was how they went 14-12:

By a priori win probability, the Braves should’ve gone 13-13 or 14-12. Nothing too weird here. They were favored in 14 of the month’s games, and they indeed won 14. There were some bad losses, like dropping the Charlie Morton-Michael Wacha matchup at home (or getting blown out by the Pirates with Max Fried facing Chase de Jong), but also some pretty cool wins against the Mets, including winning games started by Marcus Stroman, Taijuan Walker, and yes, Jacob deGrom when their opponents were Kyle Muller, Drew Smyly, and Ian Anderson, respectively.

So, the Braves didn’t go on a run in July, but they didn’t do the ol’ step-on-a-rake-and-it-hits-you-in-the-face thing, either. There’s still a little bit of time to make waves in the division. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. They’ve still given most of us reasons to watch, even if the likely outcome is disappointment in the end.

But all of that seems pretty blasé! The reality is that the month wasn’t. It was actually pretty crazy, especially at the beginning. The Braves played a ton of close games with wacky finishes, some good for them, and some very bad. The same went for player performances, some of which were absurd. Let’s take a closer look.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for July 2021 Performance - Position Players

To start, we come to one of my favorite Braves July 2021 facts. Here’s a list of batters for the Braves with positive WPA for the month of July.

  • Dansby Swanson at 0.01, only because of his two-homer game on the month’s final day.
  • Josh Tomlin at 0.01 (not kidding).
  • Ehire Adrianza at 0.06, not a starter.
  • Joc Pederson at 0.09, acquired halfway through the month.
  • Jorge Soler at 0.11, played one game for the team.
  • Ozzie Albies at 0.24.
  • Ronald Acuña Jr. at 0.26 (missed half the month, sigh).
  • Max Fried at 0.28 (yes, he really is second on the team in hitting WPA for July).
  • Freddie Freeman at 1.74.

The Braves, as a hitting whole, finished with -1.00 WPA for the month. Meanwhile, Freeman’s mark was the third-best in baseball, and he led MLB for much of July. Before the month started, Freeman was 32nd in MLB; he’s now fourth. I won the TC WPA game for the month pretty handily by just picking Freeman every single day.

Oh, and it’s not like he was picking off the meaningful opportunities and not doing much else. Freeman put up a 179 wRC+ in July, with a .371/.470/.588 line that included more walks than strikeouts. He had the highest xwOBA (420) for the month among non-Acuña Braves (well, except for Jorge Soler’s one game, I guess), too. (Austin Riley, whom we’ll get to later, had better results but an xwOBA .010 lower.) After a first three months with one of the biggest xwOBA underperformances in baseball, Freeman’s overall line (.380 wOBA, .415 xwOBA) is still depressed by luck tigers... but he’s probably a lot less depressed about it himself, now that July’s happened.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for July 2021 Performance - Starting Pitchers

When Kyle Muller got promoted to the big league club, it was hard for me to read it as anything but a desperation move, given that his high minors performance was always more okay than a billboard blaring, “Promote me! Promote me!” Yet, through his six major league starts so far, Muller’s been more than fine. While only four of those came in July, and while the Braves only won two of those four games, Muller himself has been quite a boon for a team with depleted, inconsistent starters.

Muller’s four starts in July were a mix of everything. He had a mediocre outing against the Marlins that was partly mediocre because the Braves let him face the lineup a third time, where he allowed a homer. (This is way too common an awful trend for this season.) He also lost his next outing against the Padres with a four-inning, 3/3 K/BB, one-run effort, that had a bad xFIP but was fine otherwise. Then, he once again posted a bad xFIP but beat the Mets by holding them scoreless over five, followed by a truly good and cool start against the Brewers, with a 7/2 K/BB ratio and just one run allowed due to bad defense. Three of the four starts had a positive WPA, including a hefty 0.32 against the Mets. The slash line was 55 ERA-/87 FIP-/120xFIP-; Muller’s xFIP remains scary, but the results are what they’ve been because he’s allowed all of one homer in the majors to date.

Charlie Morton gets a nod here as the Braves’ actual best starter of July, but whether deserved or not, Muller had more of an effect on the games he started, which were largely close and taut.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for July 2021 Performance - Relief Pitchers

Will Smith’s month started pretty miserably, as the third pitch he threw in July went for a game-tying homer by Dominic Smith. After that, though, he was lockdown city, making eight appearances, recording shutdowns in the first six of those, and allowing just one other run. His overall stats weren’t particularly gladdening (48 ERA-/89 FIP-/111 xFIP-) and there was at least one successful game-ender that almost turned into another life-ruining homer, but considering that in every other month so far this season, Smith had either multiple meltdowns or an insane, mind-bending loss, six straight shutdowns was pretty sweet. The contract is still awful, but Smith’s still been a top-25 reliever in baseball this year, so it is what it is.

(Also Jesse Chavez didn’t allow an earned run in July and led the relief corps in fWAR, ERA, FIP, and xFIP for the month, so, you know, relievers. They exist. Whatever.)

Best Offensive Play - It’s a tie!

Yes, doing my best Jeff Goldblum impression here. All of these happened early in the month (two in same game!), but it’s hard to pick just one.

First, you have Freeman’s walkoff against the Mets on a comeback off Seth Lugo, an event on July 1 that set his insane WPA month into motion.

Then you have Abraham Almonte’s improbable one-out grounder double (.380 hit probability, .345 xwOBA) on July 4.

And lastly, of course, Max Fried’s pinch-hit walkoff hit from that game, because baseball is insane all the time.

It’s hard to pick one of these, so I didn’t. (Also they’re tied in Fangraphs’ WPA model through the third decimal place, but that’s me really drawing back the curtain a bit.)

Best Run-Stopping Play - Will Smith Recovers (against a backup catcher)

Backup catchers have annoyed the Braves this year. Backup catchers have annoyed Will Smith this year. The Braves led the Marlins in a 1-0 game on July 2, and the Marlins pinch-hit their backup catcher, Sandy Leon, with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth. Smith had already walked two in the frame, but he got ahead of Leon 0-1, and then...

Phew. Exhale, all over again.

Most Dominant Single-Game Offensive Performance

Dansby Swanson had a pretty great month! It was overshadowed by the Julys of teammates Austin Riley and Freeman, but still, pretty great. His 141 wRC+ was actually his best in a single calendar month, aside from the one week to begin the shortened 2020 season that occurred in July. How did he manage that? Well, mostly by hitting two dingers on the month’s final day, giving him a 20-point wRC+ swing as a result. Yes, one of the dingers came after a blown call, but hey, we’ll take it. He also tied the game before his first homer, with a first-pitch single into left. Overall, this was the best offensive game of his career (aside from a game in 2018 where his contribution was just a pinch-hit homer).

Most Dominant Starting Pitching Performance

Charlie Morton, seven scoreless innings, two hits, two walks, seven strikeouts, Braves win 5-0. Ho-hum, but not really. Arguably one of his best starts of the year, with most of it coming in a 1-0 game before the bats blew it open late.

One big reason why it’s this game? Because this was one of the outings where Morton was allowed to pitch to batters a third time through in a close game, and it didn’t explode in the Braves’ faces. It’s happened about half the time, but not here, so hooray.

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

The Braves have not had a fun time in extra innings, as they are 2-7 on the season. No one really has a fun time in the Manfredball version of extra innings, after all, but the Braves have been particularly woeful. On July 4, Max Fried’s epic walkoff happened in part because Will Smith stifled the Marlins in the top half of the 10th. Groundout to third, fly out, pop out dispatched the Marlins. The .311 WPA that Smith earned for confuting the Miami attack with the Manfredball runner on second to start the frame was his second-highest of the season, and fourth-highest of his career. Neat.

Most Crushed Dinger

This Austin Riley grand slam, man. Just obliterated. 112.5 mph, 432 feet, surefire mega-barrel. Boom.

Of course, any month that involves nearly setting the MLB record for alternating wins and losses had its share of bad stuff, and we’re not just talking about certain ACLs going to ACL heaven.

Worst Offensive Result

A lot more on Austin Riley a little below, but first, this: second game of a doubleheader, Braves trailing by a run. Facing Seth Lugo, the Braves start the inning with a single and a walk, and Freeman’s fly ball moves the tying run to third. Guess what Riley does? Hint: the Braves lost this game 1-0, so you can figure it out. Or watch the below, for some reason.

Worst Pitching Result

July 1. Braves vs. Mets, in a rubber game, representing a two-game swing in the standings. Braves fall behind early by a run, but immediately get to deGrom and lead 3-1 going into the seventh. Dominic Smith homers, but the Braves still have a slim lead. That score holds to the top of the ninth. Will Smith enters. His third pitch of July ends in a tie game, thanks to Dominic Smith once again. Smith versus Smith, I’m tired of it.

The Braves went on to win this game thanks to Freeman’s walkoff hit (see above), but still, blah. So very blah.

Worst Single-Game Offensive Performance

This warrants its own post so I won’t belabor it here, but Austin Riley had one of the most bizarre months that I can remember. Offensively, he was great! He had a top 10 July among all MLB players, finishing with 1.4 fWAR, nine homers, and a 181 wRC+. Remember when Riley came up and took MLB by storm, putting up a 186 wRC+ in 63 May 2019 PAs? Well, he did pretty much the same thing over a period twice as long in July 2021. But, there’s a big difference.

When Riley made his debut, he was a WPA God-Emperor, tallying 1.57 in just 15 games. If position players could earn shutdowns or meltdowns, May 2019 Riley would have had eight shutdowns and three meltdowns in 15 games — basically a huge contribution every other game. Remember, in July 2021, he hit pretty much as well for a whole month, but... he not only finished with negative WPA, but with -0.39 WPA for the month. We’re talking 28 games, with six “shutdowns” and nine “meltdowns” — while putting up a 181 wRC+. Again, there’ll be more on this ridiculous confluence, but the point here is that on that July 4 extravaganza, Riley somehow managed -.411 WPA as a hitter. Well, actually, as a baserunner.

He started the game 0-for-3, but also initiated the Braves’ ninth-inning rally with a leadoff single in a four-run game. He ended up also being the last man of that inning, being the winning run with the bases loaded and two outs, but struck out. That meant Riley was the Manfredball runner for the 10th, when he lost nearly .200 WPA for this:

And while this was the most ridiculous game of the month Riley, there were so many more things like this, all while he was a top ten bat in MLB for the month. Good times, except not.

Worst Starting Pitching Performance

This one was recent, and I’m still mad about it. In short: Touki Toussaint, in his third start of the year, was obliterated for seven runs, and the Braves lost the game despite a four-run first against MLB pitching fWAR leader Corbin Burnes. To be clear, I’m not mad that Toussaint got lit up. It happens, and it’s not like he’s supposed to be infallible. What I’m steamed about is this: Toussaint had already limped into the third time through the order, having allowed a three-run homer the prior inning. To start the fourth, he hit a batter and got his only out on a failed bunt strikeout by Burnes. The first batter of the dreaded third time through hit a go-ahead double. The next batter hit a two-run homer. Then the Braves pulled Toussaint. It’s the same stupid reel we’ve been subjected to over and over this season, and the Braves sometimes manage to avoid this predictable outcome (see, for example, the very next game), but sometimes they don’t. It makes no sense, but it ruined Toussaint’s line, and the Braves’ chances of winning this game. Thanks but no thanks.

Worst Relief Pitching Performance

Not putting a video of this because it’s stupid, but this one should be obvious. It truly was the worst. Tyler Matzek came into a 1-1 game against the Pirates in the bottom of the ninth. He walked the leadoff man. Then there was a single. Then Matzek walked another batter to put the winning run on third with none out. Yeah, the Braves were hosed. But then he threw four straight balls to Bryan Reynolds, ending the game. Amazingly, this somehow wasn’t Matzek’s worst outing by WPA as a Brave, nor was it even his worst context-neutral performance of the season. But in context, nothing was stupider, even from a class of players for whom stupid outings are kind of the default.

Most Crushed Ball Allowed

Last month, this was a two-run homer by Juan Soto off Drew Smyly in the fifth inning, as Smyly was facing the order a third time. This time, it’s a two-run homer by Pete Alonso off Drew Smyly in the fifth inning, as Drew Smyly was facing the order a third time.

At least the Braves pulled Smyly after this and won the game. And honestly, leaving him with a four-run lead is way better than most of the other situations they’ve let Smyly get crushed the third time through before. But, seriously Braves, cut it out before we have to get the spray bottle and spritz you.

See you next month!