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Starting Nine: Statistically speaking, Braves have been ridiculous

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From Freddie Freeman’s base-running acumen to Adam Duvall’s clutch gene, the infield’s power and Luke Jackson stranding runners, Atlanta is delivering some eye-opening numbers

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Colorado Rockies
The National League leader with 98 RBI, Adam Duvall’s 15 home runs with runners in scoring position are the best in the majors.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Numbers don’t lie.

Well, OK ... maybe you can bend them to fit your narrative, but Baseball-Reference’s Stathead and FanGraphs are the fuel to define a season in so many ways.

After that nine-game winning streak, Atlanta continues to sit atop the National League East, and while they’ve won just five of the last 14 since that run of Ws, they have a 73.9 percent chance of making the postseason. It’s leaps and bounds from where they were on June 16, when those playoff odds were at just 12 percent.

At the core of that run from third place to having spent the better part of a month atop the East, have been some eye-opening numbers. Statistically speaking, the Braves are doing some things.

Let us count the ways as the Braves

1. Run, Freddie, run

Freddie Freeman is not fast. His 26.9 ft/sec sprint speed is 320th in the majors and its 10th among Braves, and his most memorable moment on the base paths came in spring training 2020 when he was mic’d up with ESPN and using the wind to his advantage. That 2021 sprint speed figure does represent a career high for the reigning National League MVP, who was at 26.4 ft/sec last season, but Freeman’s biggest asset when he’s on base isn’t his legs, but his acumen. The five-time All-Star tops all first basemen with 4.1 BsR, FanGraphs’ all-encompassing stat that combines all base running events (steals, taking extra bases, etc.) with a league average of zero. Freeman has the lead in his position by a wide margin, with the Cardinals’ Paul Goldschmidt second at 2.7. During his MVP season, Freeman was in the negative (minus-0.3), and has never been higher than 2.7, which he had while playing 115 games in 2015. Freeman is well on his way to breaking his own franchise record for a first baseman in a full season of 1.5 from 2013.

2. Fried, pickoff artist

Back in 2007, VH1 gave us The Pickup Artist, where the interestingly (aka oddly) dressed Mystery and his soul patch wooed women and imparted his wisdom on his dating padawans. Max Fried is doing the same thing the art of the pickoff, without the furry hats, though the mustache has been its own vibe. Fried now has six pickoffs on the season, giving him 20 since his 2017 debut, three more than any other pitcher and he’s nabbed runners at a 17.2 percent clip (20 of 116) which also leads the majors. The left-hander’s move — where he appears to be starting his windup before rifling the ball to first — is devastating and he’s already in the top eight in franchise history in pickoffs. It’s a long way to the top, with Hall of Famers Warren Spahn (72) and Phil Niekro (72) holding the first and second spots on that list but Fried has appeared in all of 91 career games with 74 starts. The next three players ahead of him Ed Brant (29 pickoffs), Tom Glavine (28) and Bob Smith (24) logged 283, 518 and 349 games, respectively. At this rate, Fried is going to be looking down at them in a hurry.

3. Riley setting the standard at third

There aren’t many positions deeper than third base in the National League, where there’s the collective of elite names like Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Manny Machado and Justin Turner and players with 40 (Eugenio Suarez) and 30 (Eduardo Escobar) home runs on their resumes. They’re all looking up at Austin Riley when it comes to wRC+, with Atlanta’s 24-year-old at 138, six percent higher than the next closest player in Turner (and 10 percent higher than Bryant, who more than a few members of Braves Twitter wanted the club to trade for ahead of this season and Riley’s breakout). In the last 13 years, the Braves have had the NL leader in wRC+ at third base twice: Chipper Jones in 2008 at 174 wRC+ and Chris Johnson with 127 wRC+ in 2013.

4. Albies, grand marshal of the scoring parade

With 93 RBI, Ozzie Albies leads all second basemen in run production and there’s not another switch hitter who has driven in more runs on the season. Overall, Albies is tied with the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani for ninth and is all but guaranteed of making Braves history as he’s just three behind the franchise-record of 96 Davey Johnson posted in 1973. Albies could be chasing down a Hall of Famer too, as he’s on pace for 113, which would be the second most of any switch-hitting second baseman in history, and he has a chance to break the mark set by Roberto Alomar in 1999 with 120. Albies’ current trajectory would give another Braves record and the 30th most RBI of any switch hitter in history, well ahead of the career-high 111 that Chipper Jones had during the 1997 and 2000 seasons.

5. Infield’s power play

At this point everyone is well aware that the Braves infield of Freeman, Albies, Riley and Dansby Swanson has become the second group to all hit 25 home runs in a season and is challenging to become the first players at first base, second base, third base and shortstop to each hit 30. That group is doing more than just bashing home runs — an MLB-leading 111 to be exact — they’re delivering the whole power profile better than any other infield. Atlanta is tops in four different categories in all, backing up those long balls by ranking first in slugging (.496) and ISO (.220). We’re watching history unfold as no Braves 1B/2B/3B/SS combination has ever had a better ISO, OPS (.848) or wRC+ (122) and Freeman, Albies, Riley and Swanson are on pace for 131 homers, which would take down the 2019 team’s 124 for the most in franchise history from those positions.

6. Duvall, in the clutch

Yes, he’s hitting .228 — the seventh worst average of any qualified NL hitter — with a near 30-percent strikeout rate — the fifth worst in the NL — but Adam Duvall does two things very, very well. He rakes at Truist Park, where he has the second-best OPS (1.003) of any player who has played in the park as a visitor with a minimum of 25 at-bats, and he comes through in the clutch. The outfielder’s 15 home runs with runners in scoring position is the best in MLB and he also has 12 homers in high leverage situations, which is also the game’s best. That production with RISP isn’t anything new for Duvall. Since 2016 he’s homered 44 times in those situations, the fourth best in that span behind only Nolan Arenado (55), J.D. Martinez (49) and Manny Machado (48). While he did much of his damage this season in a Marlins uniform before being dealt back to the Braves, Duvall is in the driver’s seat for the NL’s RBI crown with 98.

7. Left-handed starters, beware

The Braves have faced some daunting left-handed starters this season, taking on 11 of them that rank in the top 25 in ERA among southpaws. That includes two games each against the Marlins’ Trevor Rogers, who ranks second with a 2.52 ERA and the Blue Jays’ American League Cy Young contender Robbie Ray, fifth with a 2.60 ERA. Atlanta has posted a league-high .800 OPS against those lefty starters, fueled by a .494 slugging percentage that also leads the majors. Those successes have eight Braves hitting at or above league average vs. lefties with the out-for-the-season Ronald Acuña Jr. (176 wRC+) trailed by Albies (149), Jorge Soler (143), Travis d’Arnaud (119), Joe Pederson (117), Guillermo Heredia (110), Freeman (109) and Swanson (104). Four NL teams have a better winning percentage against left-handers than the Braves’ .578 — the Dodgers (.658), Cardinals (.606), Padres (.600) and Rockies (.600) — and, of course, Atlanta was no-hit over during a seven-inning double header by a lefty in the Diamondbacks’ Madison Bumgarner, but the Braves are having success at the plate against lefties, nonetheless.

8. Luke Jackson, leaves ‘em wanting more

The peripherals say Luke Jackson shouldn’t have anyone throwing around the “E” word (elite, that is). A minus-2.36 differential between his xERA (4.46) and his actual ERA (2.10) is the biggest disparity among all pitchers and his 116.4 average exit velocity is in the bottom five percent of the league. No matter. With runners in scoring position, opponents are hitting a measly .148/.239/.518 vs. the right-hander and they are hitting .196/.266/.555 against him with men on. The end result is no relief pitcher has been better at stranding runners than Jackson. His 90 percent rate tops those with at least 50 innings pitched and at its core that’s the biggest difference in Jackson year over year in helping him rebound from a 6.84 ERA. Last season, he was stranding just 60.5 percent of runners and opponents had a .824 OPS against him with RISP and .981 with men on.

9. Richard Rodriguez, in the zone

Picked up from the Pirates at the trade deadline, Richard Rodriguez is pitching to a 1.53 ERA in 17 2/3 innings over 18 games with the Braves and while the strikeout numbers aren’t eye popping — he’s fanned six to four walks since being acquired — Rodriguez continues to illicit weak contact at a ridiculous rate. He has a .173 BABIP against in Atlanta and .218 on the season and a big reason is that opponents know what’s coming with a heavy diet of fastballs (87 percent), but they just can’t square up. Rodriguez has seen the game’s biggest jump in swing percentage on pitches in the zone — up 14.4 percent to a rate of 74.1 — and the biggest decrease in whiff percentage (minus-15 percent) and it’s led to the NL’s second best BABIP (.218) among relievers with at least 50 innings pitched.