Last night was fun, but the Braves pitching must tighten up when it matters

Thursday, August 12, 2021

-Clint Manry

There’s no shame in wanting to simply hold on to Wednesday night’s exciting walk-off win over the Reds, in which the Braves jumped out to a strong lead early, lost said lead, and then proceeded to fight its way back in the 11th inning via a three-run homer off the bat of second baseman Ozzie Albies. In case you missed it, the bomb by Ozzie was absolutely epic…

But you and I both know… this team cannot continue to spoil leads. If a division title and a playoff spot really is in the cards, Atlanta’s pitching must find a way to keep opposing teams from mounting a comeback.

Last night’s game versus the Reds was a perfect example: We had starter Touki Toussaint, who for 98% of his outing pitched wonderfully, allowing a pair of base-hits and walking three through five innings. However, in the sixth, Touki lost his touch and in a matter of minutes – thanks to a homer by Joey Votto — Cincinnati had two runs on the board to make it a 5-2 game. Reliever Jesse Chavez did a nice job of working a mostly-clean sixth, and Chris Martin pitched around some trouble to keep things where they were in the seventh. However, both Luke Jackson and Will Smith completely imploded in the eighth and ninth, and by the end of regulation the Braves five-run advantage was ruined.

As we of course know, though, Atlanta scratched and clawed and ultimately found a way to win that game on Wednesday. And honestly… that’s all that matters. But boy are they skating on thin ice with these types of wins. The back-and-forth victories can be entertaining to watch, but sooner or later the Braves offense will hit a wall. And when that day comes, these fun-to-watch outcomes will come to an end.

High Leverage situations has been hell on the pitching

You can get really deep into Leverage Index, WPA (Win Probability Added) and all kinds of other metrics to try and quantify a team’s ability to swing a game in its favor at its most crucial point. Although, thankfully, FanGraphs has a split that’s easy to use called High Leverage. And for the Braves, its pitchers have been one of the worst in baseball when it comes to performing in “High Leverage” situations.

According to FG, Atlanta pitchers have tallied 98.1 High Leverage innings this season, which is about an average amount so far. However, in terms of run-prevention, the Braves 10.25 ERA in those High Leverage frames is the eighth-worst mark in MLB, behind a bunch of non-contending teams such as the Royals, Nationals and Orioles. I know it’s nothing we didn’t already know, but Atlanta plain stinks when it comes to pitching during critical portions of a game.

Now the good news about all of this is that a lot the Braves High Leverage pitching struggles appear to be a horrible case of bad luck. Atlanta may have one of the ten-worst ERAs during High Leverage situations, but the team’s FIP (4.32) is right around average at 15th in the majors. However, the problem with the “unlucky” theory is that, along with Atlanta, a lot of the other poor High Leverage performers have also dealt with bad luck too, so it’s not as if it’s necessarily a given that Braves pitchers will regress to the mean. In a nutshell, Atlanta has had really bad results in High Leverage situations, and some of that is due to really bad luck… but there’s a very real possibility that that really bad luck just simply continues for the final month in-a-half of the regular season.

The saving grace here, though, is that the Braves offense and starting pitching continues to help lead the team when it matters. While Atlanta’s lineup has been below average this year in terms of overall offense in High Leverage situations, its 15 home runs rank inside the top-five. And we all know just how crucial clutch homers are for teams unable to hold down leads. It also helps that Braves starters are tied for seventh in homer-rate this month, having allowed just 0.92 home runs per nine innings so far in August. Keeping the ball in the park in general is a productive thing to do, but when delivering the long ball late in games is also added by the lineup, there’s a good chance you can sneak away with the win.

So right now this Braves lineup is powerful, and in a way, somewhat clutch on offense, but the exact opposite is true when it comes to pitching and holding down leads. We know this sort of dynamic is unsustainable and will eventually end, which is why it needs to be corrected. I certainly won’t complain about last night’s win, for every single one of them are super important right now. But at some point this team is going to have to become complete. If the Braves want to finish this thing… becoming complete needs to happen real soon.

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