Contender Or Pretender? Making Sense Of The 2021 Atlanta Braves

The 2019 Atlanta Braves were one of the most fun teams in all of the majors to watch; the offense was elite, the pitching staff was always coming up with timely outs, and they rolled to a 97-65 record and an NL East Title before losing to the St Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. The 2020 season, though massively shortened by COVID-19, saw the Braves continue to build on that momentum, going 35-25 in the 60 game season, again winning the NL East, this time making the NLCS before losing to the LA Dodgers, though you were starting to see some cracks in the foundation.

The injury to up and coming ace Mike Soroka exposed some of the younger arms to major league bats before they were ready, and caused the Braves to lean heavily on a veteran-filled bullpen. That was a near full run below league average ERA by bullpens in the 2020 season, coming in at 3.50. That pen was headlined by guys like Mark Melancon, Will Smith, Shane Greene, and A.J. Minter, all of whom have had time closing games at the major league level.

Fast forward to 2021; the Braves are a middling 19-22 and are constantly taking one step forward to turn around and take two steps back. The pitching woes from 2020 are still there, exacerbated by Max Fried’s stint on the IL, and up-and-coming power pitcher Huascar Ynoa inexplicably breaking his hand after a shaky outing in Milwaukee over the weekend. That bullpen that was a strength in 2020 seems to be blowing leads left and right after losing well-regarded big-league arms like Melancon and Greene, though it doesn’t help that the Braves starting staff seems to have a vendetta against going more than five innings.

The offense is seemingly in a slump, seeming to have lost that knack for the timely hit to start a rally. So to figure out if my observations watching the games this season were correct, and to figure out if the 2021 Braves are the same contenders they were in 2019 and 2020, I took a dive into the numbers, and the numbers are leaving me with one answer; it’s complicated.

The 2020 Braves’ collective team ERA was 4.41, good for 7th in the NL, which was lower than I expected it to be. Comparing that to the 2021 staff’s ERA, it has regressed slightly, up to 4.61 which ranks 12th in the NL. While that doesn’t seem like a large jump, strikeouts across the league are on pace for record highs, and the Braves staff is headed the opposite way of the league trend which is very concerning.

If you’re one for the more analytical numbers, comparing 2020 and 2021 staff by WAR (Wins Above Replacement), you start to see where the team is regressing. For info, WAR is an advanced analytical stat that takes in a wide range of stats, situations, as well as the supporting players around them to assign them a single, quantifiable number to easily compare players, teams, etc. The 2020 Braves pitcher’s collective WAR came in at an elite level, 9.7, compared to the 2021 staff coming in at 3.4 WAR. While 3.4 is still considered a starting-caliber staff, it’s a far cry from the 9.7 of the prior year.

Digging into the batting numbers, they’re very similar. Going by traditional stats, the offense is still a very good unit. The 2021 unit is still in the upper echelon of the NL as far as HRs, batting average, and OPS goes; so on paper, there hasn’t been a regression. It’s when you start digging into the advanced stats, specifically WAR, that you see that again, the Braves offense has regressed compared to their 2020 counterparts. In 2020, team batting WAR was a RIDICULOUS 10.7. The 2021 offense, while still great on paper, comes in at a pedestrian 2.4 WAR.

So what does that regression in a stat that shows how well your team is playing situational baseball tell you? Just that, the Braves aren’t playing good situational baseball on offense or defense. The rallies of seasons past aren’t coming to fruition with the regularity. The bullpen is blowing saves at a 10% higher clip than 2020, the offense isn’t walking or getting extra-base hits as often, and it’s impacting them early this season. Those are often correctable issues, but time is ticking to figure them out before they become a season-long trend.

That was a lot of negative. Now, into some positivity. One of the main reasons I think the Braves have a chance to turn this season around is none other than reigning MVP Freddie Freeman. While Freeman is having a below-average start to the year, hitting .218/.463/.809, but if you dig into some of his deeper batting stats, you see a reason for optimism.

His HR percentage is up, his hard-hit rate is right in line with his career average, and he’s still getting walked at a very good rate. He’s simply having a bad case of not being able to “hit them where they ain’t.” That isn’t going to last the full season, and chances are by the time we’re in the dog days, Freeman’s going to be batting .310 and the lynchpin he’s been for a decade.

You also still have NL MVP favorite Ronald Acuna doing his thing, well-regarded bat Marcell Ozuna starting to heat up, and Austin Riley’s been getting on base at an astounding clip, and the power that comes with that big frame is finally starting to show itself.

Another reason for some positivity; the thought of their pitching staff getting to full strength Ynoa’s boneheaded bench punch aside, Max Fried is starting to round into form, the bullpen has some reinforcements on the way, with Shane Greene getting up to speed in AAA, and GM Alex Anthopoulos has shown multiple times he’s active in the trade market as far as finding bullpen help goes.

So there was a lot of negative, some positive, and a good bit of speculation. One would think that the offense is going to get back to the timely hitting, great situational baseball that’s had them so well regarded the past few years. The pitching staff may not get to the level it was in 2019-2020, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel with the eventual return of ace Mike Soroka, Greene, and whatever reinforcement the front office brings in.

In all fairness to the question I posed to at the beginning, “are the 2021 Braves legitimate contenders,” I would have to answer; they have too many questions to be considered a legitimate contender right now. But they’re very close, and I wouldn’t be at all shocked to be eating those words come September.