Is this the best Braves infield of all time?

Thursday, August 26, 2021

-Clint Manry

The Braves have certainly had some great infielders. Chipper Jones, Dale Murphy and Eddie Matthews is a trio that immediately comes to mind as not only three of the best third basemen in franchise history but also among the best players overall. It’s a rather well-known fact that this has always been a franchise built off of superb starting pitching, although the Braves has also featured its share of prolific infielders. But of course, Jones, Murphy and Matthews weren’t stars for the Braves at the same time, which is why we more-easily remember the greatness of pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.

Reciting the best starting rotation in Braves history is a fairly easy task. But doing the same for its infield is a bit more difficult.

… or is it?

The tweet above is a nice conversation-starter, however, according to FanGraphs WAR, so far in 2021 the Braves have compiled an above-average amount of WAR at all non-catcher positions in the infield. And as you can see, most of them aren’t just simply above-average…

2021 Braves Infield FanGraphs WAR Ranks (among MLB)

  • 1B – 3.4 WAR (4th)
  • 2B – 3 WAR (13th)
  • SS – 3.3 WAR (10th)
  • 3B – 3.2 WAR (t-6th)

Now we know how important WAR is, as it’s currently the best stat we have that quantifies a player’s overall contributions. But for Atlanta, it’s on offense that the infield has positively impacted the team the most.

Having every member of your infield tally 25 or more homers is quite the accomplishment, but it’s not just homers for the Braves. Looking at Baseball Reference’s 2021 MLB Team Position Performance by OPS really puts everything in perspective.

  • 1B – .887 OPS (4th)
  • 2B – .811 OPS (5th)
  • SS – .811 (7th)
  • 3B – .910 (1st)

At the plate, essentially every member of the Braves infield is in the midst of a career-best season in 2021, which in turn, has no doubt made it one of the best in baseball. I mean, how rare is it for an entire infield to exceed its pre-season projections? Consider the following performances for the Braves’ infielders below…

1B – Freddie Freeman

2021 stats: 126 G, 27 HR, .296 AVG, 137 wRC+, 3.7 WAR

I’m not so sure you can say Freeman is having a career-best season in 2021, given he did win the NL MVP last season. Although he is once again performing at an elite level, which is exactly what he’s done ever since debuting in the majors roughly a decade ago. At the rate he’s currently going, Freeman will easily surpass his ’21 ZiPS projections, again finishing a campaign with a .300ish AVG, 35ish homers, 100ish RBI and 4.5-5 WAR. That’s not quite what he was on pace to achieve in 2020 but it’s damn good enough to help lead this Braves offense. Freddie ranks fourth in MLB in fWAR and is second in the NL.

2B – Ozzie Albies

2021 stats – 125 G, 24 HR, 10 SB, .274 AVG, 125 wRC+, 3.5 WAR

Ozzie is in the process of possibly putting together the best season of his career as he’s performing near his 2019 levels (4.6 WAR). A jump in walk-rate coupled with a drop in strikeout-rate (along with some adjustments with his stance) has obviously unlocked some more power for the Braves second baseman, and with 30ish games left to play he’s only three homers away from surpassing his single-season best of 24. And it’s not just Ozzie’s counting stats and plate discipline that’s giving him the extra boost in 2021. Per FanGraphs, his 6.5 BsR (Base Running) is the second-best mark in baseball, behind only Whit Merrifield. Ozzie ranks ninth in MLB in WAR and is currently fourth in the NL.

SS – Dansby Swanson

2021 stats: 127 G, 25 HR, 9 SB, .266 AVG, 113 wRC+, 3.3 WAR

Swanson is already at an entirely different level this season, on his way to compiling nearly twice as much WAR as he did in 2020, when he finished that year with a career-high 1.9. Everything is clicking for the shortstop, including a newfound power stroke that’s resulted in a career-best 25 homers and 77 RBI. Also, like Ozzie, Dansby has made some strides with his K rate, which has allowed him to make more contact, further improving his results at the plate. The last two seasons has really changed the narrative surrounding Swanson, and at this point it seems like a given the Braves will eventually lock him up with an extension. Shortstops that can slug 30 homers – which is what Dansby’s on pace to hit in 2021 – don’t grow on trees, and his defense has always been elite. Swanson is tied for sixth in MLB in WAR and is fifth in the NL.

3B – Austin Riley

2021 stats: 126 G, 27 HR, .300 AVG, 140 wRC+, 3.3 WAR

Perhaps the most-improved and most-impactful Braves infielder in 2021, third baseman Austin Riley has officially broke out. And this doesn’t seem like the unsustainable-type breakout from 2019 either, for Riley’s plate discipline is right where it needs to be (9.2 BB% / 24.5 K%). You name it and the kid is doing it, already recording career-bests in homers (27), RBI (77), AVG (.300), wRC+ (140) and WAR (3.3), not to mention Barrel% (12.9%), HardHit% (43.8%) and wOBA (.385). We always hoped Riley would one day become this type of player, and damnit here he is. For a several seasons now the Braves have always had a weakness at the hot corner… but that certainly isn’t the case anymore. Riley currently ranks fifth in MLB in WAR and second in the NL.

Along with an improved starting rotation and bullpen, these four players above have helped turn this season around. Perhaps we’re accustomed to this kind of play from guys like Freeman and maybe even Albies, but the big difference-maker for 2021 is the fact that, along with those two, both Swanson AND Riley appear to have figured things out at the plate. Add it all up, and by the time this season ends, this could be the best Braves infield of all time. Either way, it’s been incredibly exciting to watch and hopefully it continues on into the final month of the regular season.

Dansby Swanson has shown that he deserves an extension

Saturday, August 7, 2021

-Clint Manry

The 2021 season has featured its share of turmoil for the Braves. There’s no questioning that. However, once you get past the unfortunate injuries and the disappointing performance of the team overall, there’s at least one takeaway we should all feel good about: Dansby Swanson is Atlanta’s shortstop… now AND for the future.

For the second season in a row, the 27-year-old Swanson is among the ten-best players at his position, coming off a shortened 2020 campaign in which he finished fifth among MLB shortstops in fWAR. Now into the back-half of his second arbitration season, the Braves should really start considering a contract extension for Swanson.

It’s pretty amazing. If you recall, it wasn’t that long ago that most of us were wishing the team would find itself a new shortstop. Just four years ago, in his first full big league season, Swanson struggled to perform at even a remotely average level with the bat, primarily due to his consistent struggles versus the breaking ball. In 2017 and ’18 combined, the Atlanta shortstop managed just a .203 wOBA against all breaking balls, and overall, his 86 wRC+ for those two seasons was far from ideal. Sure, Swanson was a strong defender at one of the most critical positions on the field; and yes, he had his stretches of good hitting. But there was always this thought that the Braves could do better.

However, during the 2020 campaign, Swanson’s results against non-fastballs, particularly breaking balls, began to improve. Playing in all 60 games last year, the former first-overall pick posted a much more respectable .250 wOBA against breaking pitches and ended the year with an above-average 116 wRC+. Those strides against curveballs and sliders has only continued in 2021, where Swanson’s current wOBA sits at .268 in 2021, to go with a career-high five home runs.

Then there’s his play of over the last month or so. Other than franchise player Freddie Freeman, Swanson is second among Braves position-players in fWAR since July 3, with 1.6 WAR (just 0.1 less than Freeman). In the 30 games the shortstop has played in during that stretch, he’s slashing .325/.372/.600 with seven homers and 25 RBI, good for a 155 wRC+. In his last six games, Swanson is 11 for 25 (.440 AVG). If the last 170-ish games is any indication, it certainly seems that this new type of Swanson is sustainable. Which brings us to the aforementioned extension…

Comparable extensions

Swanson has been good over the last 1 1/2 seasons, but he still isn’t on the same level as some of the top-tier shortstops in the league, featuring guys like Francisco Lindor, Xander Bogaerts and Marcus Semien — nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, on FanGraphs WAR leaderboard from 2017-21. Now over that particular span, Swanson wouldn’t even be included in the second group either. But when you look at the top 15 or so shortstops from 2018-21, that’s where he begins to become part of the discussion.

Since the 2018 campaign, Swanson’s 7.5 fWAR ranks 13th in MLB among shortstops, and though that figure is quite a big difference from… say… tenth-ranked Carlos Correa (9.6 WAR), it’s still the production of a player that’s among some of the best in the game at his position.

So the top side of a potential extension would be in neighborhood of something like what Bogaerts received from Boston back in 2019 — a six-year, $120-million deal. At the time, he was roughly a year younger than Swanson, though, AND he obviously played for a team much more willing to spend. If the Braves have any plans of locking up Freeman long-term… paying Swanson a $20-million salary probably isn’t a realistic option.

However, there is a potential comparison that would make sense for both sides, and it’s an extension the Braves have already handed out to a former shortstop. Back in February of 2014, it appeared Atlanta was locking up Andrelton Simmons when the team gave him — along with reliever Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran and Freeman — a long-term extension. The deal for Simmons was for seven years and $58 million and its AAV was structured to escalate each season, topping out at $15 million in 2020.

Simmons’ 2014 extension

  • 2014 — $1 million
  • 2015 — $3 million
  • 2016 — $6 million
  • 2017 — $8 million
  • 2018 — $11 million
  • 2019 — $13 million
  • 2020 — $15 million

Now Simmons was still making the league-minimum at the time of his extension, where Swanson has somewhat enjoyed the pay-raises that have come with arbitration (he’s earning a $6-million salary this season). But still, even if Atlanta gave Swanson the exact same deal, the shortstop’s AAV would instantly increase by over $2 million, not counting the aforementioned escalators that would more than double his present salary by the time he reached the last couple years of the contract. Swanson is in line to make more money through arbitration, regardless, but like all team-friendly extensions, he would sacrifice a bit of money for the luxury of knowing where he’ll be for the next seven seasons. With the Braves now three years into contention mode, perhaps the guarantee of playing for a competitive team is worth the commitment.

Who knows what Anthopoulos and the Braves decide to do this coming offseason. With one more controlled-season on the books for Swanson, maybe the team waits until the end of 2022 to make sure its shortstop’s strides on offense are real. But from a future payroll standpoint, if Atlanta could persuade Swanson to settle for a Simmons-like contract extension this winter, Anthopoulos would be crazy not to lock him up. With what he’s done with the bat last season and during this one, I think it’s fair to say that Swanson has earned himself a long-term investment from the Braves.

Dansby goes crazy in win over Brewers; Sean Kazmar makes history down on the farm

Sunday, August 1, 2021

­-Clint Manry

We were able to see two of the Braves newest major league additions in its win over the Brewers last night. Also, there was some history made down on the farm. This morning I’ve got you covered on everything that happened within the Braves organization last night.

Here’s a recap of Saturday’s minor league action, with Atlanta’s game also included…

(52-53) Atlanta Braves

W, 8-1 vs. Brewers

  • SP, K. Muller – 5 IP, 4 H, ER, 2 BB, 7 K
  • SS, D. Swanson – 3 for 4, 2 HR, 7 RBI
  • RF, J. Soler – 3 for 4, RBI, R
  • 2B, O. Albies – 2 for 5, 2B, R
  • CF/RF, J. Pederson – 1 for 4, 2B

Last night the Braves showed just how deep its offense can be as the lineup tallied a whopping eight runs from 13 hits in its win over the Brewers. Shortstop Dansby Swanson knocked in a career-high seven RBI, including two home runs for the fifth multi-homer game of his career.

Here’s the two-run dinger in the sixth…

Then the grand slam the very next inning to put Atlanta way out in front…

Also impressive was newly-acquired outfielder Jorge Soler, who finished his first game as a Brave with three hits. Sure, Soler hasn’t been himself in 2021, but as of late he’s scorching-hot. The 29-year-old is 11 for 34 (.324 AVG) during his last 10 games, which includes six homers. Manager Brian Snitker would be smart to keep Soler in the lineup and ride the hot hand.

Kyle Muller made his sixth major league start on Saturday night and was sharp, striking out seven across five innings and allowing just one run from four hits. The 23-year-old lefty has been a absolute boon for the Braves this season, and he currently sports a solid 2.43 ERA in 29.2 big league innings. Opponents are only hitting .184 versus Muller in 2021.

(40-37) Gwinnett Stripers

W, 2-1 vs. Memphis

  • SP, C. Johnstone – 2 IP, H, K
  • 1B, T. Snider – 1 for 4, 2B, 2 RBI
  • LF, D. Waters – 1 for 4, SB

It was a historic night for Gwinnett on Saturday as minor league veteran Sean Kazmar Jr. set the Braves Triple-A all-time record for career hits with a line-drive single in the second inning of the team’s win over Memphis.

That hit was Kazmar’s only knock of the game, but he’ll enter Sunday with 658 career hits as a member of the Braves Triple-A club, a team he has helped lead for going on eight seasons now. The 36-year-old infielder has played in 724 games with Gwinnett as part of a stint that dates back to the 2013 season.

Although it wasn’t just Kazmar that provided offense in this one, shortstop Yolmer Sanchez led the Stripers last night with two hits and first baseman Travis Snider paced the team with a pair of RBI to go with a double.

Gwinnett went with a bullpen game, starting Conner Johnstone before deploying a five-man bullpen. The Stripers held the Redbirds to just three hits altogether.

(44-33) Mississippi Braves

L, 5-0 vs. Pensacola

W, 8-1 vs. Pensacola

  • SP, S. Strider – (L), 5 IP, 5 H, 4 ER, BB, 9 K, 2 HR
  • SP, H. Deal – 4 IP, 3 H, ER, BB, 3 K
  • 1B, D. Lugbauer – 2 for 5, HR, 2 RBI
  • RF/DH, T. Harris – 2 for 5, 2 HR, 2 RBI
  • RF, G. Jenista – 1 for 2, HR, RBI, 2 BB

The M-Braves split its double header against Pensacola on Saturday as the offense couldn’t figure out the Blue Wahoos pitching in Game 1, only tallying three hits overall. Mississippi’s Spencer Strider tried his best to match the opposition’s stinginess on the mound, but Strider’s two runs allowed in the opening frame came back to haunt him and he took the loss despite striking out nine batters. The 22-year-old Strider has continued to punch out opposing batters while in Double-A, but his run prevention has taken quite a hit since moving up from High-A. In 28 innings with the M-Braves, the righty owns a 6.75 ERA, compared to a 2.45 ERA in 14.2 frames with Rome.

Game 2 yesterday featured a more normal M-Braves offense as the lineup produced five homers in the win. All but two batters in the Mississippi lineup finished with at least one hit and outfielder Trey Harris ended his night with his first multi-homer game of the season. Catcher Shea Langeliers was given Game 2 off.

(37-40) Rome Braves

W, 3-0 vs. Asheville

  • SP, D. Vines – (W), 7 IP, 2 BB, 9 K
  • CF, M. Harris – 1 for 4, 3B, R
  • 1B, K. Josephina – 1 for 4, 2B, R
  • 3B, B. Philip – 1 for 4, 2B, R

Rome nearly no-hit Asheville last night as the trio of Darius Vines, Trey Riley and Justin Yeager held the Tourists to only one hit in nine innings while striking out 10 and walking three. For the 23-year-old Vines, that’s two-straight strikeout-filled starts, giving him 17 punch outs in his last 12.1 innings.

There were no homers in this one, but prospect Michael Harris II came inches away from his first long ball at State Mutual Stadium when he belted a triple in the third.

In the fourth, Andrew Moritz extended his hitting streak to 16 consecutive games when he singled in a run to give Rome a 3-0 lead. And then in the sixth, Beau Philip added another XBH by slapping a one-out double.

(33-44) Augusta GreenJackets

L, 6-5 vs. Myrtle Beach

  • SP, C. Bryant – (L), 2.1 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 5 K
  • 1B, L. Stephens – 1 for 4, HR, 3 RBI
  • 2B, V. Grissom – 2 for 3, HR, RBI
  • DH, B. Horne – 1 for 4, RBI, R, SB

Despite nearly coming back in the ninth that featured four runs by the Augusta offense, the GreenJackets couldn’t recover from a 6-1 deficit on Saturday. However, prospect Vaughn Grissom had himself a nice game by finishing 2 for 3 and belting his fifth homer of the season. Grissom is currently leading the offense with a .308 AVG and .866 OPS.

Chad Bryant got the start for the GreenJackets but needed a whopping 64 pitches to get through 2.1 innings, although he did manage to strike out five. Bryant has struggled this season, shown by his 7.17 ERA so far. A three-man bullpen finished the game for Augusta, but Myrtle Beach’s three runs against reliver Benjamin Dum put the Pelicans out of reach for good.

(9-12) FCL Braves

L, 10-5 vs. Rays

  • SP, R. Salinas – (L), 2.2 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 2 HR
  • DH, J. Fernando – 1 for 4, 2 RBI
  • LF, C. Reyes – 1 for 3, HR, RBI
  • SS, C. Paraguate – 2 for 4, 2B, RBI