The “MVP” chants rained down during Wednesday’s Braves-Dodgers series finale, and while the Los Angeles crowd was directing them to Max Muncy as he came to bat, the ears of two Atlanta players out in the field should have perked up too.
Freddie Freeman is very much in the mix for a National League MVP repeat, joined by Austin Riley, as the Braves vie to deliver its first back-to-back winner since Dale Murphy in 1982-83 or the franchise’s first ever instance of two different players winning in consecutive seasons.
The Starting Nine offers up the cases for and against those MVPs, and three more storylines that will weigh heavy in the final month of the season as the Braves’ push toward a fourth straight NL East title and beyond.
The Case For/Against Freeman
Freddie Freeman - Atlanta Braves (28) pic.twitter.com/JqSuzBXmuv— MLB HR Videos (@MLBHRVideos) August 31, 2021
1. The Case For: A major turnaround
The latest odds have Freeman third at +800, trailing the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. (+600) and the Dodgers’ Max Muncy (+600), and say what you want about the NL East — which up until Aug. 15 had teams operating with negative run differentials as the only division leaders (ahem, Mets and Phillies) — but helping pull the Braves out of a 7 1/2-game deficit to seize the division lead matters. Since that crawl up the standings began June 16, Freeman is first in the NL in average (.344) and hits (89) among players with at least 110 plate appearances and third in on-base percentage (.420). Speaking of turnarounds, Freeman’s season, not just the Braves’ has been defined by one. Last season, his OPS sat at 1.102 and in the previous eight years had never been lower than .841, but on May 7, it was a paltry .733 before he restored order with a .925 OPS since that date and 144 wRC+ compared to hitting four percent below league average in the first month-plus of the season. It also helps Freeman’s pursuit that San Diego has been floundering, dropping 15 of 19 since Aug. 11, and despite a home run and a triple Wednesday against the Braves, Muncy hasn’t been Los Angeles’ most impactful bat since the All-Star break (Mookie Betts has 209 wRC+ in that stretch, while Will Smith is at 180 with 12 home runs to Muncy’s 11 bombs and 134 wRC+).
2. The Case For: The center of attention
Riley is finally getting some love from Vegas at +2000, with the Phillies’ Bryce Harper (+850) and Reds’ Joey Votto (+1600) the only players separating the third baseman from Freeman. His power numbers and been better than Freeman’s, and no NL player has a better second-half average (more on both of those points later), but when Atlanta lost Ronald Acuña Jr. for the season, things could have gone sideways. Instead, they’ve vaulted to the top of the division. He’s the known commodity the household name, and the foundation of the franchise, and Freeman’s perception amplified with solid numbers continues to make him the clear favorite should the Braves hold on and make it four consecutive division titles.
3. The Case Against: The repeat bid
From 2001-09, seven of those nine NL MVPs were claimed by either Barry Bonds or Albert Pujols, with the former winning four straight (2001-04) and Pujols going back-to-back in ‘08-09 (with a ‘05 win sprinkled in). Of course, Dale Murphy’s career was defined by his consecutive MVPs in 1982-83 but go back to the start of the expansion era (1961) and the feat has been pulled off just 10 times, most recently with the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera winning in 2012 and ‘13. But those previous cases have rarely come with a teammate pushing the reigning MVP. The Reds’ Joe Morgan won in 1977 with George Foster second and Bonds won in ‘94 with Giants with Matt Williams sixth, and Jeff Kent was sixth to another Bonds’ victory in 2002. Riley’s place in the latest odds sets the stage for another Atlanta player grabbing attention and further complicating things for Freeman.
The Case For/Against Riley
4. The Case For: The breakout
For all those who were predicting a breakout season for Riley, this has been beyond anyone’s expectations, as he’s closing in on becoming the second Braves player since 2000 to hit 30 homers at 24 or younger (Acuña and Andruw Jones being the others). Add in an NL-best .349 average since the All-Star break to go along with 14 home runs (second), a 1.047 OPS (fifth) and 174 wRC+ and you get a picture of how valuable the third baseman has been in his third MLB season. On the year, Riley is slashing .302/.374/.530 with 28 home runs, 23 doubles, a triple and 80 RBI. There aren’t many positions deeper in all of baseball than third base in the NL, and Riley’s 3.5 fWAR is tied with the Padres’ Manny Machado for first in the circuit and fourth among all third basemen. Freeman has been the constant and glue holding the Braves together post-Acuña, and general manager Alex Anthopoulos has helped spark this team by reaming the outfield, but where are the Braves without this emergence from Riley? Probably not atop the NL East.
5. The Case For: Timing is everything
Last season, Freeman closed with a ridiculous 1.246 OPS over the last month of the season in cruising to the award, and there haven’t been many hitters hotter than Riley over July and August as his 170 wRC+ the past two months trails only Harper (192) and the Nationals’ Juan Soto (186) and he’s hit the third most homers (15) in that stretch. A similarly hot September should do the trick to get voters in Riley’s corner, but on the topic of timing, he’s also shown an ability to meet the moment within a game. In late and close situations, Riley’s .982 OPS puts him behind the Dodgers’ Will Smith (1.118) and Brewers’ Willy Adames (1.054) among all NL players (minimum of 65 at-bats) and he’s been better as games wear on, posting the NL’s ninth-best OPS (.961) from the seventh inning-on and hit nine home runs in those innings. By comparison, Freeman has a .745 OPS in late and close situations and .707 OPS in the seventh inning and later. Riley is playing his best baseball late in the season and is showing a penchant for coming up when it matters most.
6. The Case Against: The repeat bid
Not only is Riley dealing with having the reigning MVP ahead of him in Vegas’ eyes (along with being ahead of him in the Braves batting order), but there’s also the rarity of a team delivering back-to-back MVPs with different players. In the last 50 years, it’s happened seven times: the Reds with Jonny Bench in 1972 and Pete Rose in ‘73 and then again with Joe Morgan (‘76) and George Foster (‘77); the Brewers’ Rollie Fingers (‘81) and Robin Yount (‘82); the Rangers’ Juan Gonzalez (1998) and Pudge Rodriguez (‘99); the Giants’ Jeff Kent (2000) and Barry Bonds (‘01); the Phillies’ Ryan Howard (‘06) and Jimmy Rollins (‘07) and, most recently, the Tigers’ Justin Verlander (2011) and Miguel Cabrera (2012). In those seasons, just once did the team repeat while having the reigning MVP finish in the top five in voting: 2007, when Howard was fifth to Rollins’ first.
September Watch Party
Eddie Rosario, everyone. pic.twitter.com/otWwFl9zdF— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) September 2, 2021
7. Sorting out the new-look outfield
With Eddie Rosario’s arrival from Triple-A Gwinnett, all of the trade-deadline acquisitions are in uniform, and it creates all kinds of intriguing approaches in the remade outfield. Against right-handers, Brian Snitker could roll out a group of career above league average hitters with Rosario (111 wRC+), Joc Pederson (124) and Jorge Soler (107); he could do the same vs. lefties with Soler (121), Pederson (68 in his career, but 103 in 2021) and Adam Duvall (100). Throw in Guillermo Heredia, who has a 111 wRC+ this year against lefties, it could lead to machinations aplenty. But so far, Rosario — who has a career 86 wRC+ vs. southpaws — has made three starts, including one Monday with the Dodgers starting lefty Julio Urias. “I wanted to get my eyes on him again,” Snitker said of the decision. “I hadn’t seen him for a long time and when I saw it, I wanted to see it again.” Rosario has made three straight starts, including homering in Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the Dodgers and has four hits in 11 at-bats. “The outfield thing we’ve been talking about is real, and I’m still not 100 percent sure how we’re going to navigate this,” Snitker said. It appears playing the hot hand might be the desired approach, but with four players in Duvall, Pederson, Rosario and Soler who all have 30-home run seasons under their belts, how he divvies up playing time and how to best utilize those options into the postseason may be the most daunting decision Snitker faces over the next month.
8. Sorting out the arms
A week after wondering how a glutton of arms was going to “work itself out,” the Braves glutton of arms may be doing exactly that. The talk of a six-man rotation, if only for the time being, went out the window as Drew Smyly gave up four home runs Monday against the Dodgers, pushing his August ERA to 6.08 as he’s allowed seven HRs this month and 27 in all, the fourth most of any NL pitcher. He had been putting the Braves in position to win games, with Atlanta claiming six of his starts in a row and 12 of 13 starts. That run ended, and amid Smyly’s struggles, Snitker said Wednesday that Touki Toussaint would get the Thursday start at Colorado, and it’s unclear how they’ll use Smyly going forward. With the also struggling Josh Tomlin going on the 10-day injured list — backdated to Aug. 29 — with a strained neck, it opens the door for Smyly to slide into that long relief role for the time being. But does he have a role in the postseason? It’s clear Charlie Morton, Max Fried and Ian Anderson would log the brunt of the playoff starts, with the potential that Huascar Ynoa could start, if not work relief innings and the same with Toussaint. Are changes coming to the bullpen, where Will Smith has blown two saves and has a 6.97 ERA since Aug. 7 and yielded five home runs in 10 2/3 innings? Despite Tyler Matzek giving up a run in back-to-back appearances vs. the Dodgers, he still has a 0.90 ERA since July 11; A.J. Minter has tossed 7 2/3 scoreless innings since his return, Richard Rodriguez had a 1.38 ERA in his first month as a Brave and Luke Jackson is coming off a 1.46 ERA in August.
9. How do the Braves stack up?
With the series against the Dodgers wrapped, the Braves went 2-6 against three teams in postseason position after facing Los Angeles, the Giants and Yankees. The good news is that barring a collapse that takes Atlanta completely out of the playoff picture, it wouldn’t face either of those NL powers until the League Championship Series anyway. As things currently stand, the Braves would meet the Brewers — who are currently 10 1/2 games up in the NL Central — in the Division Series, with the West winner getting the winner of the Wild Card Game. Getting there may be an accomplishment on its own given the challenges the Braves have faced, but it could make for a favorable matchup. Atlanta and Milwaukee split their six regular-season games, with the Braves taking two of three at Miller Park in the May 14-16 series, while the Brewers — owners of the majors’ best road record at 46-23 — claimed two games during the July 30-Aug. 1 set at Truist Park. The Braves did hold a 14-13 scoring edge in that second series and outscored the Brewers 34-27 overall in those meetings, but it’s worth noting that since the All-Star break there hasn’t been a better NL offense than the Brewers’. They lead with an 8.8 fWAR and meanwhile their pitching staff has racked up an MLB-best 7.3 fWAR in the second half. It’s daunting, but the Braves did get to the Brewers’ Cy Young contenders, roughing up Corbin Burnes for five runs on nine hits July 30 and got to Brandon Woodruff for three runs on eight hits.