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.

Braves make strides in post-deadline ZiPS playoff projections

It may surprise you, but the Braves did really well during this year’s MLB trade deadline. According to ZiPS at FanGraphs, Atlanta experienced the second-largest bump in its overall playoff chances, going from 11.4% up to 18.1% immediately following the team’s many trades, a positive difference only bested by the Yankees who went from 36.4% to 45.1%.

Monday, August 2, 2021

-Clint Manry

MLB’s Five Biggest Improvers Post-deadline (ZiPS)

  1. Yankees — +8.7%
  2. Braves — +6.7%
  3. Brewers — +2.0%
  4. Phillies — +1.7%
  5. Blue Jays — +1.6%

Now obviously playoff probabilities vary rather widely among the five teams listed above. For example, the Bombers are now approaching a 50/50 shot according to ZiPS (45.1% to be exact), and Milwaukee is essentially a lock now at 93.8%. On paper, there are still numerous teams that are in a much better place than Atlanta, in terms of playoff odds, but it is comforting to know that the Braves were one of only two teams to experience at least a 5% positive change in its playoff probability. At this rate, any positive is much appreciated!

As Dan Szymborski rightfully expressed in his ZiPS update at FanGraphs on Monday, the Braves didn’t go out and get any superstars on deadline day, and the impact is pretty limited when looking at each of the team’s additions individually. However, as a whole, GM Alex Anthopoulos did a wonderful job at addressing obvious weaknesses in the outfield, and even more importantly, reinforcing a rather thin bullpen.

In regards to the outfield, a part of the roster decimated by Marcell Ozuna’s absence and the season-ending injury to superstar Ronald Acuna Jr., the improvements are staggering. Using each player’s rest-of-season ZiPS projections for 2021, here’s a comparison between the old Braves outfield and the new one. You’ll notice, just the depth alone has drastically improved, hence the seven players now compared to just five.

OLD Braves outfield (pre-All Star)

Ehire Adrianza – 93 PA, 2 HR, 90 wRC+, 0 WAR

Orlando Arcia – 133 PA, 3 HR, 80 wRC+, 0.1 WAR

Guillermo Heredia – 119 PA, 3 HR, 89 wRC+, 0.1 WAR

Ender Inciarte – 129 PA, 2 HR, 82 wRC+, 0.3 WAR

Abraham Almonte – 100 PA, 3 HR, 96 wRC+, -0.1 WAR

Total – 574 PA, 13 HR, 87 wRC+, 0.4 WAR

NEW Braves outfield (post-trade deadline)

Adam Duvall – 174 PA, 10 HR, 98 wRC+, 0.6 WAR

Eddie Rosario – 206 PA, 9 HR, 108 wRC+, 0.7 WAR

Jorge Soler – 182 PA, 10 HR, 111 wRC+, 0.3 WAR

Joc Pederson – 159 PA, 7 HR, 108 wRC+, 0.5 WAR

Guillermo Heredia – 119 PA, 3 HR, 89 wRC+, 0.1 WAR

Abraham Almonte – 100 PA, 3 HR, 96 wRC+, -0.1 WAR

Ehire Adrianza – 93 PA, 2 HR, 90 wRC+, 0 WAR

Total – 1,033 PA, 44 HR, 100 wRC+, 2.1 WAR

Then there’s the bullpen addition in right-hander Richard Rodríguez, who was nearly unhittable while with the Pirates this season. Simply put, Rodríguez should insert himself into the Braves set-up role, and best of all, he’ll essentially move every Atlanta reliever down a notch on the leverage ladder, which all alone should result in better matchups for manager Brian Snitker to exploit. Even more than Rodríguez’s stingy 2.68 ERA and 3.04 FIP, the 31-year-old has allowed just two homers all year in a span of 40.1 innings. Adding one reliever may not seem like much, but it’s less about the actual addition itself and more about the overall impact that one pitcher has on the entire bullpen.

Of course all of these much-needed adds by Anthopoulos is just moot if the Braves fail to get themselves out of this win-loss-win-loss pattern they seem to have gotten stuck in the last several weeks. The team has struggled to get on any type of winning streak all year, but here lately Atlanta literally cannot break the cycle; since July 17, a span that’s lasted 16 games now, the Braves have followed up every single win with a loss, making it extremely frustrating to watch. At 52-54 overall and in third-place in the NL East, somehow Atlanta is still only four games back in the division. Although with roughly 65% of the 2021 regular season already in the books, time is quickly running out for the team to get on some kind of streak. Following Sunday’s loss to the Brewers, on Monday the Braves playoff odds sat at 15.1% (per FG) and it’s odds to win the East were at just 13.6%. Those aren’t exactly great chances, and those percentages will begin shrinking at an even faster rate until Atlanta starts stringing three and four wins together.

Regardless though, the team’s movement within the ZiPS playoff probability table (found here) does help to keep the faith, at least for time being. Given how badly this season has gone so far, there really hasn’t been many positive moments to feel good about, and sadly, if the Braves performance doesn’t change soon, that sentiment will only continue. But heading into the recent trade deadline we all wanted Atlanta to do something to give the team a chance to make an improbable run at the postseason. Even if you don’t think Anthopoulos did enough, you have to agree with at least one thing: the team is better than it was this time last week. And for a fanbase that has been through hell this year, that’s about all we can really ask for right now. The Braves still have a chance.