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Series Preview: The Braves were not a fluke

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Their rebuild worked. Their young talent is here to stay.

Milwaukee Brewers v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

A little over a year ago, the Giants were 16-15 and just starting to sort out their pitching when they traveled into Atlanta to face a young, fresh-faced Braves team that the industry had declared to be done with its rebuild and ready to compete.

Kenny’s first article for the site was the series preview. He wrote of the emergent Braves:

One of the major reasons the Braves are on the rise is that their pitching-centric rebuild has netted them two of the most exciting hitting prospects in the majors. That’s not how that’s supposed to work, but these are the Braves. The governing principles of the universe don’t apply to them.

His prediction was that the Giants would lose two out of three and wind up at .500 by series’ end. That... did not happen. Somehow — miraculously — the Giants swept the Braves in Atlanta and moved to a season-high 19-15. They would never be that good again.

So, the first Atlanta series of last year was an eye opener and a turning point until it wasn’t. In that one, the Giants came into it having won four straight series, a rare feat for the current iteration of the franchise. The 2019 Giants have won just four series all year.

The Braves were off to a hot start (115 wRC+) but ended the year middle of the pack (97 wRC+). The 2019 edition is at 106 wRC+ (9th in MLB), but they’re just 2.5 games out of first place in the NL East at 25-22.

What I want to say is that after last year’s quick playoff exit despite a solid season, stellar pitching, and freaky-good young talent, this year’s Braves are heeding negative regression, entering a sophomore slump, or just flat out not looking all that great because it’s just unfair they have so much young talent. Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Johan Camargo are all players we’d weep tears of joy over were any one of them on the Giants.

There’s also the problem of Freddie Freeman, still just 29 years old. He’s, uh... he’s perhaps still one of the most underrated players in baseball. We live in a nightmarish hellscape where Cody Bellinger rules the batting leaderboard with a tyrannical 233 wRC+ and .513 wOBA, but Freeman is hanging in there with a 161 and .415, both good enough to make him the 10th-best hitter in baseball.

But the Braves haven’t really fallen off from what they wound up being over the course of their breakout 2018. Yes, we can absolutely slap a “slump” or “negative regression” label on the starting pitching — Mike Foltynewicz had a 3.37 FIP in 183 innings last year but a 7.60 in 27.1 this season — which is 20th in fWAR at just 2.4 wins (the Giants, are, uh, last with -0.5. Worse than the Orioles). And their bullpen?

There’s a solid grouping of ERAs on staff (collectively, 4.54), specifically, these four:

Luke Jackson, closer — 2.31 ERA
Wes Parsons — 3.77 ERA
Jacob Webb — 2.08
Dan Winkler — 1.46

But check out their Fielding Independent Pitching numbers:

Luke Jackson, closer — 2.80 FIP
Wes Parsons — 5.54 FIP
Jacob Webb — 4.10
Dan Winkler — 4.64

Collectively, they’re a 4.94 FIP bunch. They also have one of the lowest strikeout rates (23.5%, 21st) and highest walk rates (12.3%, 27th).

But bullpens can be fixed on the fly, and given the high rate of volatility, they can be good in a three-game series, meaning it’s no guarantee the Giants can get to them to overcome another deficit.

It’s not perfect, but the house has good bones. The Braves have built something to last.

Pitcher to watch

Mike Soroka’s ERA in 36.2 IP this year is 0.98. His FIP is 2.88. The Braves’ top pitching prospect pitched all of 25.2 innings last year in a very short stint from May to June. He’s just 21 years old and already looks like an ace.

He faced the Giants in his second major league start in that series in Atlanta last year, giving up four runs and seven hits in four innings. This year, he hasn’t had a start last shorter than five innings and in three May starts, he’s allowed just one earned run (two overall).

He’s a power sinker guy, averaging 92.3 mph on the pitch, but t’s his slider that really does damage. A 33.8% Whiff rate (swing and miss) and 41.7% strikeout rate. Have a look:

He’ll start tonight. Marvel at the young pitching. He’s also Canadian, which might mean something.

Hitter to watch

Just when it looked like Josh Donaldson’s career had been marooned in Toronto, the Blue Jays traded him to Cleveland and in 16 games (60 plate appearances) he managed to post a .920 OPS and parlay it into a 1-year $23 million deal with the Braves.

He’s hitting with an .860 OPS in 180 plate appearances so far and playing average defense at third base. He’s basically back, injury-free, and helping to deepen the Braves’ lineup. Expect him to be a huge headache, especially against Andrew Suarez.

Prediction

The Braves are 11-10 on the road so far and have allowed as many runs as they’ve scored away from SunTrust (101-101), but since a four-game losing streak (three against the Dodgers, one against the Diamondbacks), they’re 7-2. They did endure a cross country flight last night, but they’re also putting up their best starter to open the series.

The Giants played admirably in Arizona, but the power of youth and freaky talent will probably be too much for them to handle. They’ll get a win in this series, but that’s probably about it.