When the Atlanta Braves chose Brian Snitker as interim manager after the firing of Fredi Gonzalez last May, Braves fans gasped a sigh of relief that maybe some form of decent lineup construction would be in place. Instead, Snitker has formed into a doppelgänger of Gonzalez when it comes to the lineup.
Atlanta Braves Lineup Construction Has To Change
A Strong Lineup on Paper
On paper, the lineup Snitker drew up to begin the season makes sense. Ender Inciarte established himself as the Braves lead-off hitter in the second half of the 2016 season. Dansby Swanson is the prototypical two-hitter, and Atlanta expects him to be there for the long future. Freddie Freeman and Matt Kemp are the power guys. Nick Markakis and Brandon Phillips are in the middle routinely getting on base. Adonis Garcia and whoever catches rounds out the bottom. That’s a simple, constructive lineup. The Braves boasted one of the best offenses in baseball since last August with that lineup, and added Phillips to make it better.
The problem with that lineup this season has been the production. Apart from a five-game surge where he went 9-19 with four home runs, Inciarte hasn’t produced quality stats for lead-off hitters. Swanson has been an abyss at the plate so far, producing only eight hits in 64 at-bats. He’s struggled mightily against breaking pitches, particularly sliders. When the top-two hitters in the lineup combine for a .212 on-base percentage, the offense isn’t going to score runs, which is evident in RBI stats.
Everything But Scoring Runs
Freeman has been an absolute monster at the plate so far this season. He’s in the top-three in the National League in batting average, hits, home runs, on-base and slugging. Yet, he ranks 27th in one outstanding category: runs batted in. With all the bases he has accumulated across sixteen games, Freeman has only four at-bats with runners in scoring position. All nine of his RBI are results of his seven home runs.
The best in the lineup at getting on-base besides Freeman are Markakis and Phillips, who hit fifth and sixth respectfully. They’ve combined for a .366 OBP, Markakis is second behind Freeman in walks and Phillips leads the team in stolen bases. These are the numbers expected from top-of-the-lineup hitters. Atlanta’s 6-10 record has definitely been indicative of not hitting with runners in scoring position. However, the results also rely heavily on the top of the order not getting on-base for Freeman to drive them in.
Snitker finally made a switch to shake up the lineup, giving Swanson the day off for the series finale against Washington, then moving him to the eighth slot for the series opener at Philadelphia. The obvious choice to take the second slot in the lineup would’ve been either Markakis or Phillips. Both have experience of hitting there in their careers, especially Phillips, who during his Silver Slugger years was placed there. However, Snitker went with power hitting third baseman Garcia for the second spot.
Snitker’s explanation for the move is reasonable. Garcia was hitting .170 with one home run at the time and Snitker believed placing him in front of Freeman and Kemp would allow him to see more fastballs. The plan is working for Garcia, who is 3-8 with a home run and two RBI in the two games he’s played there. But Garcia is solely a power hitter that struggles mightily against right-handed pitching. Placing him second in the lineup should help Garcia with his numbers, but not the Braves.
A Probable Solution
The most probable solution for the Atlanta lineup is to place either Markakis or Phillips in the second slot. Inciarte is having trouble so far in the lead-off spot, but he was one of the best hitters in the second half of 2016 and should get on-base at a better clip as the season progresses. Getting players on-base for Freeman and Kemp could be the difference between winning and losing. With the resilient pitching staff combined with the early troubles from the bullpen, scoring runs becomes even more evident. When the Braves offense is clicking, they’ve proven to be one of the better teams in the National League, pushing the team to qualify for a playoff spot. With that said, creating opportunities to score has just as much to do with the lineup construction as it does with players producing when the opportunity comes.