Staying power. For a team off to a good start, it’s an important factor in how far that good start may take them. The Atlanta Braves are off to a surprising beginning to their 2018 campaign, winning 26 of their first 42 games. Granted, it’d be closer to 30 if the Replay System baseball has made any sense, but ten games over .500 is an accomplishment many didn’t think the Braves capable of at any point in 2018.
But will that success remain? Will the Braves continue to perform like a first-place team and challenge for a playoff spot? Let’s take a look.
Catcher – 0.9 fWAR, .318 wOBA, 100 wRC+
Tyler Flowers‘ injury led to 38 PA going to Chris Stewart and Carlos Perez. Hardly a great option for the Braves. With Flowers back in the mix and Kurt Suzuki performing well to this point, things are looking up. Suzuki is off to a .341 wOBA start despite a BABIP 26 points below last year’s pace. The flyball rate that boomed last year and sustained and he’s pulling the ball more than ever, leading to a bit better contact. His home run rate is down, though it may have been a bit inflated last year at 17%. He’s slowed down of late, but that’s part of the ebb-and-flow of a season. As for Flowers, it’s hard to put much into his numbers because he only has 34 PA. Though, it is fun for stat porn purposes to look at his BABIP and wOBA and see an identical .400.
Replicating last year’s 5.1 fWAR is a bit much to ask for, but I think the early Steamer projection of 2.0 fWAR from behind the plate is also too low. Provided Suzuki and Flowers stay in the lineup, I think this position has staying power and likely a bit more with Flowers rounding into form.
First Base – 2.0 fWAR, .420 wOBA, 169 wRC+
I mean…the only concern about Freddie Freeman is that his batting stance and style makes him vulnerable to the high inside pitches. The Braves already had one scary moment with Freeman this year. If he should miss any significant time, it’s hard to imagine the Braves competing in 2018. But if he avoids any possible injury – which is quite possible – first base not only has the staying power but then some. Freeman is only now rounding into form as MVP Freeman. Over the first half of this season, he was hitting .293/.438/.480. Tremendous numbers, but not Super Freeman yet. Since April 24, he’s hitting .354/.432/.646. That’s superstar level. That’s what we expect out of Freeman.
Second Base – 1.9 fWAR, .384 wOBA, 144 wRC+
That is almost all Ozzie Albies, who has missed just three innings at second base so far. The defensive value has been muted by some early season issues in the data but it is climbing. The bat just hasn’t gone away and sure, maybe a .315 ISO is destined to decline a touch. But do we really believe his .285 BABIP won’t also climb? And yeah, it’d be great if he upped his walk rate, but these things will come with time.
The bigger question for me is how Albies will continue to adjust to a league that is finding spots to attack. Just like Freeman, pitchers know where to try to get Albies out. Not every pitcher can pitch up-and-away against Albies, but those that can are finding some success. That’s an adjustment Albies will have to make. It’s also an adjustment I see no reason to believe he won’t make.
Shortstop – 0.9 fWAR, .306 wOBA, 92 wRC+
This position was looking better before Dansby Swanson went down. To be fair, Swanson was also scuffling – possibly due to his wrist. Camargo has struggled as a fill-in, though he’s walking at an absurd rate. Charlie Culberson has provided very little as well. Swanson is expected to return shortly and he was off to a .330 wOBA/108 wRC+ start before hitting the DL. That was a massive improvement, though his .388 BABIP is concerning. As is a walk rate that is nearly half of what it was in 2017. You’d also like to see him elevate the ball a bit more.
That said, he’s making much better contact, playing great defense, and looking carefree. All of these things were missing in 2017. I think the staying power is there from a value standpoint, though how far he regresses once the BABIP comes down is a question.
Third Base – 0.4 fWAR, .302 wOBA, 89 wRC+
Welcome to another year of third base being a weakness for the Braves. Many are still pushing for Ryan Flaherty to receive more at-bats, though he’s hitting just .227/.310/.320 since April 9 (84 PA). His defense has been wonderful, though. Camargo and Culberson again aren’t hitting – through Camargo is walking! And then, there is Jose Bautista. Through eleven games, he has 0.0 fWAR. A .158 BABIP is destined to improve and he’s flashed some pop. There may still be value here, but it may not be as a starter.
The Braves aren’t pressed to make a move here yet. With Swanson coming back, they have three guys they can move in-and-out of the lineup while trying to find a hot bat. Austin Riley is off to a great start in Triple-A, though the Braves may want to avoid counting on yet another kid to fill out the lineup. A trade could help here. As far as staying power, Flaherty’s continued regression should be combatted some by Bautista not being woefully unlucky. But even if that does happen, how much more can the Braves really expect here?
Camargo could be the key if an outside move isn’t made, but he’s going to have to prove he can hit right-hand pitching. He currently has a .299 wOBA against them in the majors.
Left Field – 0.6 fWAR, .329 wOBA, 107 wRC+
Ronald Acuña Jr. is far from a finished product and early defensive metrics aren’t a huge fan, but he’s up to a .365 wOBA and 132 wRC+ through his first 89 PA. That gives this position quite a boost over what Preston Tucker and the occasional appearance from Lane Adams or Peter Bourjos. This is another position that not only has staying power but should only improve moving forward.
Center Field – 1.0 fWAR, .306 wOBA, 91 wRC+
Overall, the Braves are in 13th place in fWAR largely because Ender Inciarte‘s offensive value gets a boost when you look at just center fielders and, oh, he provides excellent defense. Of course, the Braves are hoping for more than what they have received to this point. Because Inciarte is all about contact, when his BABIP slumps, he struggles more than a player with a double-digit walk rate or extra pop. The silver lining here is that the BABIP should improve from its current .294 rate. That’s about 30 points under his career average and close to 40 points below where it’s been the last three years. While I’m not a fan of Inciarte hitting high in the order – I still prefer him ninth – he’s better than we have seen so far.
Right Field – 1.8 fWAR, .393 wOBA, 150 wRC+
If you saw this coming, you’re a liar. Nick Markakis has a .397 wOBA and a 153 wRC+ to this point. That not only makes his production over the first three years of his contract with the Braves look microscopic, it would be easily his best season at the plate. Much like Suzuki last year, Markakis worked with Kevin Seitzer to tweak his swing. That has led to more fly balls and line drives and, logically, fewer grounders. Markakis isn’t really hitting the ball that much out of his career norms – he’s simply adding launch angle. As a result, statcast predicts a .397 wOBA. Which matches exactly his current rate.
For more on Markakis’s chances to sustain these improvements, check out yesterday’s article from our friend Chris Jervis of Outfield Fly Rule. My perspective…if these adjustments hold, there is a good chance Markakis will continue to produce at a high rate. I’m a little skeptical of the power. I predict a few less home runs, dropping his 14.6% HR/FB rate, and more doubles. But as long as his launch angle and exit velocity stats don’t suffer much regression, he just might have the staying power to finish with just the second 5-win season of his career.
Starting Rotation – 2.9 fWAR, 3.41 ERA, 3.92 FIP, 3.95 xFIP
If you would have told me on opening day that through the first quarter of the season, the Braves would be 12th in starter fWAR, I would have been shocked. Sean Newcomb has been tremendous, pacing the staff with a 2.51 ERA and 3.08 FIP. Mike Foltynewicz continues to give up a bit too much hard contact for my tastes but is second on the team with 0.9 fWAR. Mike Soroka has been unlucky to this point, saddled with a .408 BABIP. That will regress. Julio Teheran, who always out-pitches his FIP, has shaken off some early season struggles, while Brandon McCarthy looked decent two days ago after getting beat around for a couple of starts.
Will it continue, though? Let’s start with Newcomb. One of the biggest developments this season is Newk’s change-up. This was something I mentioned back in February in my “Five Pitches That Could Decide the Braves’ Fate in 2018.” Newcomb didn’t use the change-up much in 2017 and when he did, it got blasted. This season, hitters are only hitting .267 off it with two extra-base hits out of the 36 times they’ve put it in play. He’s not really throwing more strikes – he’s simply throwing better ones. As a result, hitters are barreling up just 3.5% of the batted balls. I believe his staying power is high.
Like I said, I’ve never been a big believer in guys who get hit hard and Foltynewicz gets hit hard. His xWOBA is currently 22 points higher than the actual wOBA he’s given up. That implies regression. On the bright side, his xWOBA is down 22 points from 2017, which implies improvement. I’m not ready to believe Folty is back on track, but he’s certainly showing something to watch.
Mike Soroka, as I mentioned, will get better simply by his BABIP coming back down to Earth. With his control, pitchability, and swing-and-miss stuff, Soroka should be fine moving forward. Of course, the Braves scared the hell out of the fanbase by placing him on the DL yesterday with a shoulder strain. It seems, however, that it’s a precautionary move (or a way to manipulate the DL for innings reasons) and Soroka will be fine.
As for Julio Teheran…yeah, I’m not buying this one. The only things that really stand out are a LOB% rate that is 7% above his career norm and a BABIP that 50 points under his career norm. These two will regress back to their norms. Much was made this spring about Teheran’s re-worked slider, but it was his changeup I wanted him to develop further. I believe that could be the missing link for a guy who needs to keep batters off-balanced. I wish I could believe he’s back, but I can’t buy into Teheran rounding back into his 2016 form just yet.
Brandon McCarthy has been massively unlucky. A .361 BABIP and a 21.2% HR/FB? These things will correct themselves. That’s why his xFIP is 3.77 – comparable to his career totals. Honestly, I like the chances that he finishes the season, if healthy (and that’s a big if), with better numbers than Teheran.
All told, the Braves starting staff will go as far as the youngsters take them. If even one of the Newk/Folty/Soroka mix falters, we could see Kolby Allard or Kyle Wright try to fill in. This may be a position Alex Anthopoulos tries to fix via a trade. Perhaps not an “ace,” but a good established starter. If the Jays fall out of contention, a guy like J.A. Happ could be a fit.
Bullpen – 1.5 fWAR, 3.35 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 4.41 xFIP
To be fair to the pen, most of the group that is currently in the pen are helping those metrics versus guys who have been sent back to Gwinnett. Neither Shane Carle or Dan Winkler should be counted on to sustain a sub-1.00 ERA, but both have a solid metrics that indicate that further success is forthcoming. A.J. Minter is a wild card because the walk rate is so damn high, driving up his xFIP to 4.90. Sam Freeman has founded into form while Jesse Biddle has looked pretty impressive. Peter Moylan…well, he’s a nice guy. And then, there is Arodys Vizcaino. We’ll get back to him.
Like I said, Carle and Winkler are both rolling. Carle’s xFIP is closer to 4 than it is 3 and his LOB% is a touch too high, but he’s a guy that metrics may not love. That happens when you don’t have a high strikeout rate. Winkler does have that kind of rate and has other elite metrics to support his start. Winkler is the better bet, but both should be counted on moving forward.
It’s taken awhile, but Freeman is finally shaking off the cobwebs and is back on track. After giving up six runs – five earned – and recording just one out over two outings, Freeman got a few days off in late-April. Since then, Freeman has not been scored upon over his last eight games with two walks and ten K’s. His numbers should continue to improve moving forward. As for Biddle, he’s a groundball machine so far. That will regress some, but as will the .345 BABIP hitters have against him. I like Biddle to continue to improve and settle into the low-leverage, multiple-inning guy the Braves had with Cristhian Martinez.
Now…Minter. The strangest thing about Minter to this point is the walks. It’s not that Minter struggled with control in the minors and he certainly didn’t in his 15-inning cameo with the Braves last summer. There are two big problems here. Minter’s stuff is downright sick, but he’s starting a lot of counts with a ball. Last year, he threw a first-pitch strike 63.3% of the time. This year, it’s 10% lower. Subsequently, it’s nearly 7% below the league average. The other thing is that because he was pitching ahead, Minter got a lot of swings outside the strike zone last year. This year, hitters can afford to wait on Minter getting the ball in the zone rather than protect themselves.
His stuff is so good that he’s still not going to give up a lot of hits, but walks will kill you in high-leverage situations. This may be a simple mechanical adjustment. Either way, I think he’ll be fine but perhaps shouldn’t be counted on to be mini-Craig Kimbrel just yet.
As for Vizcaino, the biggest issue with Vizzy is that people still want to see the 100 mph flamethrower with a world of potential. Truth be told, he’s a 27-year-old reliever with a career 1.9 fWAR in 184 games. Since the beginning of 2016, Vizcaino has a 3.74 FIP and a 4.22 xFIP. He’s going to get his K’s, but his inability to consistently hit the strike zone with quality pitches will continue to hamstring Atlanta’s ability to rely on him in high leverage situations. Case in point – his last two games. A Dumpster fire followed by a no-drama inning. You never know what you’re going to get. He’s essentially a poor man’s Fernando Rodney.
Overall, the bullpen needs help. You can expect some regression here and there and I believe Minter will bounce back, but the pen could definitely benefit from at least one established arm. Shameless plug, but Ryan Cothran mentioned a few relievers that could be fits yesterday here at the blog.
Other Things to Consider
Projection systems will still push the Braves down because they factor in conservative projections. For instance, the four projection systems Fangraphs use believe Markakis will have between a 94 and 97 wRC+ for the rest of the year. They are coming to that conclusion based on data from recent years. What these data points don’t consider is radical adjustments. Going from a near 50% groundball hitter to a 40% one in one year is pretty radical.
It’s near impossible to gauge a manager’s effectiveness outside of subjective opinion. I can’t say I am a huge fan of Brian Snitker, though I do believe he has improved. Whatever you do believe about Snitker, the fact is that players love him. Does this matter? Well, we’re talking about staying power and having a manager capable of keeping the team moving in the right direction certainly helps. Does it outweigh any possible mistakes with utilizing the roster and in-game decisions? It’s possible.
With yesterday’s rainout, the Braves have played 17 games at home. They have 17 wins on the road (also, eight losses). As a result, the Braves have only one more three-stop road trip left on the schedule. More home games should benefit the Braves moving into the summer.
That aforementioned road trip, by the way, might be circled in pencil by Alex Anthopoulos as one that might decide just how aggressive he wants to be on the trade market. Atlanta visits St. Louis, the Bronx, and then Milwaukee for four games to close it out. Ten games, ten days, three cities. It might help define just how good the Braves really are. That begins on June 29.
Atlanta leads baseball in players used to this point (40) and pitchers used (23). That’s certainly not ideal, but if you have followed my Transaction Tuesday series, you may see a pattern in which the Braves are making fewer moves now than they did in early-to-mid April. Some of that is health-related as fewer players are hitting the DL. But the bigger takeaway is Atlanta is landing more on a roster of players they feel comfortable with.
To Sum Up…
Are the Braves for real? Obviously, injuries and things we can’t foresee will change things, but it looks increasingly like Atlanta is very much for real. They could use some help – especially on the mound and at third base. Some of that may come from the farm system. Some may come from trades. They aren’t a perfect club, but they are a good one that will compete for the NL East.
Of course, what’s truly amazing about that is the fact that they are ahead of schedule. This was not supposed to be the year. Certainly, the surprising play of Markakis is playing a pivotal role, but Albies wasn’t supposed to flirt with a .900 OPS at the age of 21. While I have been a fan of Newcomb for a few years now, even I have been surprised by his play so far. And Carle and Winkler…nobody saw that coming.
The Braves will be better next year and the year beyond. Guys who are just pups right now will become established players in the majors. More of the farm system will arrive, bringing increased depth. We’re seeing only the early beginnings of what could be a dynasty. The fact that it’s coming at least a year earlier is truly amazing to watch.
Do these Braves have staying power? You better believe it. I can’t tell you the future, but this team is just scratching the surface on how good it can truly be.