The 2021 Atlanta Braves have had a rocky start to their season. Offensively and defensively, everything has been rather mediocre so far. There have been flashes of brilliance and occasional leaps into the realm of hope. However, these have quickly been trampled underneath various losing streaks. It seems that whenever the team’s machinery awakens, it is immediately shut down. There are a few contributing factors to this, which we will examine further. That being said, the team is nowhere near the worst in the league. In fact, they have all the tools to become one of the very best. It’s simply a matter of putting everything together. So, let’s dive into the team’s first seven weeks and see the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Strikeouts and Offensive Woes
Offensively, the team’s numbers are severely lacking. In 2019, the last full season, the group was hitting .262 at this point. They had also posted a .337 on-base percentage and a .443 slugging percentage. By comparison, so far this year, they are hitting .225. Their OBP has dropped to .308 and their slugging percentage has fallen to .413. It’s true that they lead the league in home runs. However, they have become overly reliant on this strategy. Small ball seems to have been shoved aside in favor of wild hacking. This has caused them to accelerate their swings and decelerate their patience.
Altogether, the team is striking out nearly 25% of the time. This is especially true in the case of shortstop Dansby Swanson. His past woes at the plate have been well-documented. However, a rather sharp 2020 campaign saw him hit .274 with a 2.7 WAR. Unfortunately, his strikeout rate has soared to 31.6% this season. A disturbing contribution to this has been his inability to lay off of breaking pitches outside the zone. According to FanGraphs, he has seen sliders 24.2% of the time this season. He’s also seen sinkers 20.2% of the time. On average, he has swung at 30% of pitches outside the zone in his career. This offers opposing pitchers a great deal of leverage when dealing with him. In order to rekindle his success, it is imperative that he returns to being more selective at the plate.
A Struggling MVP
Another problem has been with the league’s reigning MVP, Freddie Freeman. The first baseman is near the top of the league in homers, if nothing else. He’s hitting .227 with a 0.7 WAR through the first six weeks. His 12 homers show that the power is still there. However, an 0-22 start to the month of May was the longest hitless streak of his career. Fortunately for the team, he is only striking out 15.2% of the time and is walking at about the same clip. He’s also hitting the ball very hard, with an average exit velocity of 92.4. He has hit into some bad luck, but he’s also hit the ball on the ground over 40% of the time. That’s his highest rate since 2011. If he can find a way to return to getting the ball over the infield, the hits should fall where they need to.
Positives For The Offense
On the positive side of things, Ronald Acuna Jr. has had an excellent season so far. His 13 homers lead the National League. He’s backing that up with a .286 average and a whopping .629 slugging percentage. His OPS+ of 167 is tied with Bryce Harper for third. That being said, even Acuna is not free from the 2021 Atlanta Braves’ offensive woes. In fact, he’s hitting a mere .192 in the month of May. However, a recent walk-off home run to defeat the New York Mets might put him back on track. Another pleasant surprise has been Austin Riley. His average has jumped to .299 and his OPS+ to 130. His walk rate is up as well, from 7.8% last season to 12.2% this year. These two bats have carried the team so far. Hopefully, the rest of them can catch up.
Pitching Problems for The 2021 Atlanta Braves
Pitching-wise, it has been no picnic either. Injuries abound, especially to young hurler Mike Soroka. A recent downturn in his health seems to spell another few months on the injured list. Newcomers Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly have yet to live up to their contracts. Smyly, in particular, struggled out of the gate. However, he has had a recent string of successful starts–lowering his ERA by nearly three points. Morton has been unable to regain his All-Star form from two years ago. He’s also given up 42 hits in 45 innings of work and walked batters at a 36% clip. That being said, his last start against the Mets provided some hope. He struck out eight while allowing one earned run and scattering two hits. If he can pitch this way for the rest of the season, he could become very reliable.
The team’s major rotation surprise so far has been Huascar Ynoa. For a stretch, he was often drawing comparisons to Los Angeles Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani. Namely, Ynoa was pitching and hitting very well. He was 4-2 with a 3.08 ERA and a whopping 144 ERA+. His offensive work was just as terrific (.353 avg, 2 HR, 6 RBI). Part of that included the first grand slam by a Braves pitcher since Jaime Garcia in 2017. Sadly, his previous start proved to be his last for at least two months. After a rare underperformance against the Milwaukee Brewers, Ynoa accidentally broke his hand in frustration. This is a major loss for a team that is already experiencing so many pitching woes. With Ynoa and Soroka both out, the Braves are desperately seeking any kind of help. Thankfully, the return of Max Fried could offer a little more stability.
Finally, there’s the bullpen. As rocky as the offense and rotation have been, this is the team’s true Achilles heel. Only Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek, and Chris Martin have ERAs below three. Everyone else is either in the mid-fours or above. The team has tried to plug holes with many different players with little success. The normally reliable Josh Tomlin has struggled (6.86 ERA, 64 ERA+ in 21 innings). Even closer Will Smith has had his share of troubles, though he is perfect in save opportunities. In short, if there is a problem with the 2021 Atlanta Braves, it’s the bullpen. However, with the recent signing of Shane Greene, the relief corps might get the help they need. If so, then it could seriously impact the team’s future fortunes.
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Shane Greene, Will Smith, Josh Tomlin, Chris Martin, Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson, Max Fried, Jaime Garcia, Shohei Ohtani, Huascar Ynoa, Charlie Morton, Mike Soroka, Drew Smyly, Austin Riley, Bryce Harper, Ronald Acuna Jr, Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson,