The Atlanta Braves arrived ahead of schedule in 2018. After a 72-90 season, they surprised pretty much everyone by winning the NL East and going 92-70. A surprising winning season requires surprise performances and the Braves were no exception, with Nick Markakis’ best wRC+ since 2012, Mike Foltynewicz putting up ace numbers, and a catching combination of Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki putting up 3.5 wins. Then there was the arrival of Ronald Acuña Jr. and the first full seasons of Ozzie Albies and Sean Newcomb.
A surprise season usually has a hangover, but the 2019 Braves have avoided that fate. Markakis returned to his old self, barely being above replacement level; Folty not only regressed, but pitched worse than he did before 2018; Johan Camargo went from a 116 wRC+ player to a 67 wRC+ with severely reduced playing time; Newcomb moved to the bullpen. The signs were there. So how did they avoid the hangover when its surprise performers didn’t?
Despite Folty being a full 3 runs worse as a pitcher in 2019, the Braves pitching hasn’t suffered. The main reason is the new arrivals. Mike Soroka isn’t quite as good as his 2.68 ERA, but he’s replaced Folty as the ace. He had a successful short stint in 2018, but this year he’s started 29 games, pitched 174.2 IP, and been worth 4 fWAR. Max Fried also saw some time in the majors last year, also a successful stretch of pitching, and has started 30 games of his own for 3 fWAR. So that’s two starters at a combined age of 47 with 7 fWAR. Cool.
Braves rotation staple Julio Tehran is still around and still wildly beating his FIP (career ERA: 3.67; career FIP: 4.23) . Throw in underwhelming, but competent Folty and a mid-season signing of Dallas Keuchel and you have the starting five. Three of the five starters are already announced as starters: Keuchel for Game 1, Folty for Game 2, and Soroka for Game 3. Game 4 does not currently have a starter, but it is probably similar to the position Dakota Hudson is in right now, so I expect Fried to start.
It should be interesting to see how Soroka and Fried hold up in the playoffs. Soroka spent much of 2018 on the disabled list, only throwing 56 1⁄3 innings. His career high in innings is 153.2, which he threw in 2017 in AA. He’s already at 174.2. Fried is in even more uncharted territory. He threw 111 1⁄3 innings last season with a professional career high of 118 innings, also in 2017. I’ll throw out more optimism: In Keuchel’s last three starts, he’s given up 11 ER in 16 IP. We’ll see how the Braves’ arms can hold up.
Mark Melancon is apparently still around, still good, and still getting saves. I would have sworn he was toast a few years ago. He was acquired midseason from the Giants and has been insanely good with them. He was last great in 2016, and has since been just another arm in the bullpen, so I’m kind of hoping he hasn’t unlocked something with the Braves, and was just on a good run. Before him, the closer was Luke Jackson and he sure came out of nowhere. He has a 33.7 K% and 1.2 fWAR. He is an extreme groundball pitcher, but if you can get the ball in the air, odds are good you can hit a homer, since he has a 25 HR/FB% on the year.
Another midseason acquisition, Chris Martin, has had similar home run problems this year, with a 20.5 HR/FB%. He has, uh, a 30.1 K% and a 2.3 BB%, which is videogame-like. Formerly in the rotation, Newcomb has to be seen as a disappointment this year. After posting 2 WAR in the rotation last year, he’s posting a worse FIP in the bullpen. The Braves clearly had bullpen issues in the first half, because another midseason bullpen acquisition was Shane Greene, who was much less good with the Braves than the Tigers. He posted a 1.18 ERA with the Tigers, 4.01 with the Braves. For what it’s worth, the FIP didnt change much, so believe the Braves numbers. Utterly hittable Josh Tomlin will also make the roster, though I doubt he’s pitching in close games if the Braves can help it. The last spot in the bullpen will probably be either Anthony Swarzak (4.85 FIP) or Darren O’Day (pitched 5.1 total innings this year)
Potentially the biggest X factor is Freddie Freeman’s health. Freeman has been dealing with bone spurs, which appears to have affected his performance. In his last 12 regular season games, which involved a break of five days towards the end of the year, he has a 14 wRC+ with a .028 ISO. After his five day break, he returned for the last series of the year. He had 11 plate appearances four strikes and two singles. If the 4 WAR, 138 wRC+ hitting 1B isn’t himself, that’s going to make a huge difference.
The 21-year-old Acuña is a scary threat, and while 41 homers isn’t as impressive as it used to be, he’s stil a 126 wRC+ hitter, better than anyone on the Cards. 22-year-old Ozzie Albies got better offensively, and had a 117 wRC+ to complement his defense to have a career high 4.6 fWAR. Then there’s 33-year-old Josh Donaldson, who as it turns out, still had the old Donaldson in him, producing a 132 wRC+ and 4.9 fWAR. Rounding out the infield is 25-year-old Danbsy Swanson, below average player still.
At catcher, they can either go with 88 wRC+ Tyler Flowers, 89 wRC+ Brian McCann or Steamer rest of season projected 91 wRC+ Francisco Cervelli. So it really doesn’t make a whole lot of difference who is catching. Outside of Acuña, Ender Inciarte is out for the NLDS, which leaves Nick Markakis and Matt Joyce as the probable starting outfielders. Joyce is platoon only, but he did have a 128 wRC+ in 238 PAs. There’s no real reason to think he’s that good though, but still he can hit righties.
Acuña replaces Ender Inciarte in CF, which really hurts their defense. There’s not a huge sample to work with, but he’s probably below average in CF. Markakis and Joyce play defense like they’re 35, so outfield defense is not a huge strength in this series. Infield defense is though. Freeman has a negative UZR blip in 2019, but otherwise has a history of being a good defender, we all know how good Donaldson is at defense, and Albies’ career UZR numbers are similar to Kolten Wong’s career. The ever disappointing Swanson however is the weak link with below average defense at SS. And where the catching does matter is that Tyler Flowers appears to be excellent defender/framer, which is why he’s worth a full win more than McCann, who has a bit of a reputation as a good framer himself.
As mentioned above, the Braves are carrying three catchers and I’m personally curious if one will primarily start or if it will be split. Cervelli is a known pest to the Cards, McCann is famous for Bumgarner syndrome, and I still remember Tyler Flowers hitting a 9th inning home run with the White Sox against the Cards, so all three annoy me. Adeiny Hechavarria appears to be the fifth infielder according to MLBTR. He’s with his sixth organization in three years so that tells you what you need to know about him. Billy Hamilton is there to pinch-run (and possibly be a defensive replacement), Adam Duvall is there to hit Andrew Miller probably, and Rafael Ortega is there because they couldn’t find a better 25th man I guess.
Well, that’s all I have for you. Baseball is an uncaring, unpredictable sport so almost none of what I said above matters. The Braves seem banged up and a worse team than their record indicates to start the series, so I think this is a pretty even matchup actually. This should be a good series and I for one am ready to feel my body crumble into itself while my nerves reach their breaking point.