Well, friends, our multimonth fandom-related nightmare is over: the 2021 Braves are finally, finally over .500. They got there by sweeping the Cardinals in St. Louis with back-to-back comeback wins, and now return home to play the only other squad they’ve swept this season: the Washington Nationals.
But wait! These aren’t the same Nationals that the Braves swept. They’re not the same Nationals that the Braves have taken seven of ten from this season. They’re not the same Nationals that, as a team, come into this game with a fine 15th overall team fWAR for position players (Braves are 12th) and 22nd overall team fWAR for pitchers (Braves are also 12th). No, this Nationals team committed harakiri at the Trade Deadline, sending away basically everyone of interest to another team but Juan Soto. As a result, they’ve gone 1-4 in since, with some of the majors’ worst pitching over the past week. In addition to Soto, their lineup regulars are now:
- Yadiel Hernandez, a 33-year-old who didn’t debut until 28 PAs last year, but is hitting well this year;
- Josh Bell, whom no one wanted at the Trade Deadline, I guess, in the midst of a poor year as it turned out the Nats couldn’t really fix him; and
- The trio of Carter Kieboom, Luis Garcia, and Victor Robles, all of whom are/were well-regarded prospects that have struggled in the majors so far. Kieboom is at least hitting well in a tiny sample, but Garcia isn’t, and Robles has been brutally bad since his 2.5 fWAR season in 2019.
To that end, this should not be a particularly tough test for Kyle Muller, who continues to wow and confuzzle on the mound. To wit: Muller’s peripherals are a bizarre 58 ERA-, 71 FIP-, but 109 xFIP-, with an xERA of 3.24. In short: his walk and strikeout rates are kind of scary in concert, given that he’s walked over 12 percent of batters faced... but he’s benefited to an extreme degree by just getting hitters to hit weak flies over and over, with a “hit under” (that means poorly-hit fly balls) rate close to double the league average. If I had to guess, this is occurring because his fastball has just enough “rise” to get batters to get under the ball a bit, but he neither has the horizontal movement nor the high-enough location to transform those mishits into whiffs so far. Due to the xFIP, it’s not a particularly confidence-inspiring profile since we’re left wondering whether hitters will start creaming those fastballs eventually, but it’s worked so far; Muller even outdueled Brandon Woodruff last time out with five innings of one-run, 7/2 K/BB ratio ball for the Braves’ only win in that series.
Meanwhile, the still-very-injured-but-reinforced Braves will present a tougher test for Erick Fedde, who will be making his 18th start of the year for Washington. Look, I’ll just come right out and say it: my views on Fedde have already condemned the Braves to some offensive foundering tonight. Yes, it’s my fault, yes, you can blame me. I’ve laready put it out into the universe.
Fedde has been the opposite of Muller this year — his xFIP- is perfectly fine, right at 100, but he’s been crushed to a 119 ERA- and 110 FIP-. Both his walk and strikeout rates are below average, and he’s tried to survive on an above-average grounder rate, but an elevated HR/FB and a poor strand rate (basically the Scylla and Charybdis of pitch-to-contact nightmares for groundball pitchers) have killed his line. Moreso than results, though, Fedde has always confused me because his arsenal just doesn’t seem very major league-capable. While his changeup and curveball have good elements (in particular I kinda wonder how well he’d do as a 60 percent changeup guy), he doesn’t lean on them much, instead getting very sinker-that-doesn’t-really-sink-heavy this year.
To date, Fedde has faced the Braves twice in 2021, once in his season debut, and again a month later. In that first outing, the Braves scored more runs off of him (six) than he recorded outs (five), which is the sort of thing that happens when your K/BB ratio is as gnarly as 1/3 in a game. Fedde actually lasted five frames in his next outing against Atlanta, but still allowed five runs and two dingers in the process. The Braves actually lost both games Fedde started against them in 2020 (and won both games in which they faced him in 2019), but they’ve consistently hit him incredibly hard. Which, again... sorry for jinxing it, everyone.
My hexing my favorite team aside, this is a pretty big series for the Braves in terms of the playoff chase. Atlanta’s playoff odds sit roughly around 1-in-4 at this point, and the two teams ahead of them in the standings are locking horns this weekend. With an agreeable set of outcomes (i.e., Phillies win two of three, Braves sweep), the Braves could even find themselves leading the division when they wake up on Monday morning. But they’ve gotta keep doing the work first, and winning a Muller-Fedde matchup is the first step. Stay tuned.
Washington Nationals @ Atlanta Braves
Friday, August 6, 2021
7:20 pm EDT
Truist Park, Atlanta, GA
TV: Bally Sports Southeast
Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, WNNX 100.5, Braves Radio Network, La Mejor 1600/1460/1130 AM
XM Radio: Ch. 187