The Atlanta Braves: Three Key Positives

So far this season, the Atlanta Braves have not quite been as advertised. Before the year began, they were painted as a divisional powerhouse. They were given a solid chance of making the postseason. Last season, they came one win shy of the World Series. They brought most of that team back for this season. So, it would be an understatement to say that hopes were very high. The National League Championship Series was not a good enough goal. This year’s Atlanta Braves wanted to win the franchise’s first world title since 1995. Sadly, a lot has gone awry. Many roadblocks have been thrown up to damper the team’s spirit.

Defending League MVP Freddie Freeman has not been himself. Marcell Ozuna struggled and then was arrested for domestic violence. Dansby Swanson seems to have returned to his offensive woes. The pitching has been mediocre at best. Drew Smyly doesn’t seem to be living up to his $11 million contract. The bullpen has multiple holes. Normally reliable relievers like A.J. Minter and Chris Martin have had their issues. However, even amidst all this turmoil and negativity, there are some amazing positives. These have helped keep the team afloat and within reach of the division-leading New York Mets. So, let’s dive in and examine three key positive factors that have been an encouragement to Atlanta Braves fans this year.

The Braves Positive #1: Ronald Acuna Jr.

Factor number one is obvious: Ronald Acuna Jr. His fiery bat, incredible glove, and fun-loving attitude have been amazing to watch. Let’s start with his offense. So far, he’s hitting .285 with 20 homers and 45 RBI. He also leads the league with 58 runs scored. Considering he hits out of the leadoff spot, this is rather remarkable. His OPS rests at a staggering .996 with an OPS+ of 160. He ranks third in offensive WAR (2.9) and eighth in overall WAR (2.8) among position players. In his quest for a second 30/30 season, he’s already racked up 15 stolen bases. All things considered, he has been the complete offensive leader this team needs.

His bat is not the only thing spectacular here. As far as team fielding goes, the Atlanta Braves have been middling. However, Acuna has, once again, been nothing short of fantastic. He has made a grand total of one error in 109 chances this season. His fielding percentage is .991. Taking into account games played, this ranks just behind Freddie Freeman on the team. In other words, Acuna’s doing everything he’s been asked to do, and more. His bat is the equivalent of hot coals and his glove work has been very reliable. Freeman might be the reigning MVP, but Acuna is definitely making his case for this year’s award.

Positive #2: The Bench

The second positive comes courtesy of the bench. Before the season, this was considered a massive achilles heel for the team. Fans everywhere were left questioning its state. Thankfully, their questions have been answered with massive success. Pablo Sandoval has come through in many clutch moments with his bat and his team spirit. His four pinch hit homers have pulled the team out of some tight spots. Ehire Adrianza and Abraham Almonte have been solid as well. Their stat lines may not show it, but they’ve both had excellent moments. Almonte has been solid in particular, especially in regards to plate discipline. He’s walking at a 23.1% clip, which is solid for a bench player. His OPS+ is also fantastic (119). With all the injuries the team has dealt with, he won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

Another positive surprise this season has been Guillermo Heredia. Early on, he was riding the bench and playing backup to Ozuna. However, as he’s been thrust into duty, he’s done so terrifically. Currently, he’s hitting .264 with a 113 OPS+. This may not seem like a whole lot, but it was his performance in April that surprised people. It began in a game at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs. Heredia went 3 for 4 that night with two homers, including a grand slam. From there, he became one of the most reliable hitters in the club. He wound up hitting .364 for the month with an OPS of 1.159. Since then, he has cooled off considerably. Nevertheless, these Atlanta Braves would not have had nearly as much success without him.

 Positive #3: Austin Riley

The third and final positive is the improvement of Austin Riley. Last week, we discussed how his progression at the plate has contributed to this. Since then, sadly, his average has taken a nosedive. In spite of this, he continues to hold to his new approach. His walks are still climbing, and he’s kept his swing rate below half (48.2%). Due to this, his swing rate at pitches outside of the zone has dropped to around 32%. Showing more patience and selectivity at the plate has produced wonders for Riley. Since he’s cut down on his swing rate, the ability of opposing pitchers to fool him with breaking pitches has dropped. He’s seeing far fewer changeups (9.1%) and far more fastballs (52.6%). Since his wFB is 8.2, this is terrific news for him.

Unfortunately, Riley’s upside has taken a bit of a hit in recent games. After going 7-for-17 over a stretch, he hit a skid where he went 0-for-16. His streakiness seems to have returned, and his average has suffered because of it. It’s fallen from .313 on June 8 to .276 as of June 25. That being said, however, he is still taking his walks and trying to help the team. His OPS rests at an okay .828 and his OPS+ is still a solid 118. In short, he’s finding ways to get on base, which is something he’s been struggling with. If he keeps to this new patient approach, he will build his average back up. The logic of hitting streaks demands such a conclusion.

The Braves Overall Conclusion

All in all, while armchair general managers might complain, there’s really a lot to like about this Atlanta Braves squad. They seem to play the game with the same spirit and moxie that they’ve shown in the past. Unfortunately, some bad luck and bad baseball has gone against them. Thankfully for fans, there’s still a whole half of a season left to play. With the team only five-and-a-half games back, hope is still alive. The question is whether or not the team is able to grasp it and ride it back into the postseason.

“Main Photo”
Embed from Getty Images

Players Mentioned:

Austin Riley, Guillermo Heredia, Ehire Adrianza, Abraham Almonte, Pablo Sandoval, Ronald Acuna Jr., Chris Martin, A.J. Minter, Drew Smyly, Dansby Swanson, Marcell Ozuna, Freddie Freeman