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.

Maybe the Braves should do what the Blue Jays just did

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

-Clint Manry

Almost exactly a month before the 2021 trade deadline, the Blue Jays and Marlins initiated a rather insignificant trade yesterday, although it was a type perhaps the Braves should consider. 

Toronto gets: Adam Cimber (RHP), Corey Dickerson (OF), cash

Miami gets: Joe Panik (INF), Andrew McInvale (RHP)

Like I said, nothing featured here is necessarily earth shattering as the only player part of this deal that’s both healthy AND performing well in the majors this season is Cimber, and other than his unique delivery on the mound, he’s not exactly your traditional headliner. 

However, though they are in a much better position contention-wise at the moment, the Blue Jays’ purpose in this deal lines up pretty well with that of the Braves in a potential 2021 trade. Like Atlanta, Toronto is in the market for outfield help, primarily due to George Springer’s unavailability as he’s dealt with a quad injury this year. And also similar to the Braves (though, again, not nearly as bad), the Blue Jays bullpen has at times caused some problems. 

So to address those two needs, Toronto acquired both Dickerson and Cimber. 

Now admittedly, while Dickerson has had himself a nice nine-year MLB career as an outfielder with a solid bat, it is a bit of a questionable move by the Blue Jays to have traded for a player currently on the injured list and in a walking boot. The 32-year-old Dickerson was placed on the IL back on June 15 for a “foot contusion”, and according to the initial MRI he could very well miss the rest of the regular season. The Marlins are obviously unloading an inactive player in moving Dickerson, which is great for them. But I’m not really sure what the attraction is here for Toronto. But the point still stands: the Jays needed an outfielder, even if it’s a conservative improvement, and they traded for one. And who knows… maybe Dickerson returns in time to make a contribution this season.

Along with Dickerson, as alluded to above, Cimber isn’t a very flashy reliever with gaudy strikeout numbers. In fact, he is the exact opposite, currently sporting a K rate of 6.5 strikeouts per nine in 34 ⅓ innings so far this season. But the value in Cimber, other than of course his funky, side-arm delivery and his incredible pick-off move, is that he keeps his walks down and very rarely allows the home run. For his career, Cimber has walked just 2.58 batters per nine, and his homer-rate is at 0.63 HR/9, both above-average marks. What’s also great about the 30-year-old Cimber is the fact that 2021 is his first season of arbitration and he won’t be a free agent until 2024, so the cost is extremely affordable.

But perhaps what’s most exciting about this deal, at least in the context of this being a type of deal the Braves could potentially execute in the coming weeks, is how little the Blue Jays gave up. 

Joe Panik had a few strong seasons while with the Giants from 2015-17, essentially as a 2.5-WAR player capable of a 115-120 wRC+ at the plate while providing above-average defense up the middle. Well, now at 30, he’s not that guy anymore. In 2021, Panik’s glove is still average at second… but that’s about it. With what little power  he did have with the bat, nearly all of it is gone as well. And as of Wednesday he’s sporting a 75 wRC+ in only 42 games this season as his role with Toronto has dwindled drastically. Surely the Braves have a few Panik-like players to choose from that should garner a similar package? That would be a… YES.

And then there’s McInvale, the young pitcher who was drafted way back in the 37th round in 2019. The 24-year-old isn’t a prospect in the Blue Jays system, and up until this season in Double-A he had mostly struggled during his time in the minors. Although he does rack up strikeouts and occasionally reaches the upper-90s MPH with his fastball. McInvale could be something interesting down the road, but it’s already pretty evident his role is most likely in the bullpen, given he has all of two starts as a pro pitcher… and those came in rookie ball two seasons ago. The Braves and its surplus of pitchers-probably-soon-to-be-MLB-relievers is practically what they are known for at this point (albeit a little unfairly), so surely they could spare one for a trade like this. 

The point is, the Braves need to do something to address its weaknesses if they have any hope of making the postseason in 2021. We know this and have known this for quite some time now, hence the almost daily articles and Twitter threads regarding moves we all think the team should make. Although the unfortunate truth is that very rarely does Atlanta pull off the types of deals we hope for. In fact, it essentially never happens, no matter how much sense they make or how much they would improve the club. The Trevor Story and Kris Bryant trades?… yeah, those probably aren’t going to happen. 

Although I have absolute faith GM Alex Anthopoulos is going to do something to help the Braves at the deadline. We may not think it’s enough (and we may be right), but historically he has at least tried. And if a big blockbuster deal isn’t in the cards, hopefully Anthopoulos can at least pull off something similar to the Blue Jays-Marlins deal from Tuesday. It wasn’t anything spectacular, and in the end, it may not even really help Toronto. But at the bare minimum, the deal addresses some needs for the Blue Jays, while costing very little. And at the end of the day, that’s all we can expect the Braves to do as well.