The Wander Franco extension is another example of just how incredible locking up Acuña and Albies was

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

-Clint Manry

Just a few hours ago, it was announced that Wander Franco and the Rays had agreed to an 11-year, $182 million extension, which includes a $25-million club option for a 12th season. As the latest incredibly young player to become locked up by his team, Franco (20-years-old) should be a Ray on into his early-30s, and at just an AAV of $16.5 million, Tampa Bay gets a future MVP at basically a 50% discount. Even though I’m sure the narrative among national writers will be that Franco was somehow taken advantage of, these types of deals are beneficial to both the player and the team. Franco has a guaranteed salary for much of the rest of his MLB career (which is definitely a valuable thing), while the Rays can relax knowing it has locked up its generational talent.

But just like when Fernando Tatis Jr. signed his massive 14-year, $340 million extension with the Padres this past February, following the announcement regarding Franco, I can’t help but appreciate even more the pair of deals put together by Alex Anthopoulos and the Braves back in April of 2019.

I’m sure I don’t have to break down the math, but at eight years and $100 million for Ronald Acuña Jr., and seven years and $35 million for Ozzie Albies — in terms of average annual salary, the Braves are paying both Acuna and Albies combined what the Rays will pay Franco. And though he’s the type of talent that will most likely go on to appear in several All-Star games and probably even win an MVP, you can’t pretend that 11 years of Franco is a better haul than a decade of Acuña and Albies. Not only is two better than one, but it’s also two of the best players at their respective positions!

Then there’s the timing of the Franco extension, which for the Rays, obviously needed to come as early in his career as possible, hence the team-friendliness of it all. At this juncture, Franco has played in just 70 MLB games, hitting .288 with 30 XBH (7 HR) and 39 RBI, good for a 127 wRC+ and 2.5 fWAR in 2021. Those are some strong numbers for a first-year player, and you could argue that, if he’d received an earlier promotion and hadn’t suffered a hamstring injury late in the year, Franco could’ve posted even better stats in 2021.

But Franco’s impressive rookie campaign still doesn’t come close to how established Acuna and Albies were prior to their extensions. Consider what each player had accomplished leading up to their April of 2019 deals…

Acuña – coming off an NL Rookie of the Year campaign in 2018, which featured a .293 AVG, 26 homers, 64 RBI and 16 stolen bases (142 wRC+) in 111 games – good for 3.7 WAR.

Albies – in the midst of his third year in the majors, having hit .268 with 30 homers and 22 stolen bases over the past seasons spanning 215 games (102 wRC+) – good for 5.5 WAR overall.

Sure, Tampa Bay is extending Franco at just the right time as the sport’s top prospect will enter his age-21 season in 2022. But both Acuña (entering age-24 season) and Albies (age-25) are still in their early-to-mid 20s AND they’re two of the most prolific players in baseball right now.

We probably won’t ever see another extension like the ones given to Acuña and Albies, and I’m beginning to realize that each and every year. But even nearly two years later, it’s still amazing to me. Honestly, if Anthopoulos never makes another savvy deal in his tenure with the Braves, we should all forever appreciate what he was able to do back in April of 2019.

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.

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.