This season started out better than we could have imagined. No one would have expected us to be in the division lead as deep into the season, but the recent trends have not been encouraging. In the time since the first half ended and this first half recap is being posted, the Braves went from being in sole possession of first place to a tie of the division lead. One mustn’t make too much of a simple 1-2 game swing in the standings, but you can’t help feel like we’re a different team than the team that went 16-11 in March/April and 17-12 in May. Since, we are 14-11 in June and 3-6 in July. You can blame a lack of days off, you can blame the quality of the schedule, but at the end of the day, the Atlanta Braves are not playing well at the moment.
It’d be nice to point to one specific area as the smoking gun for the recent woes, but that’s not possible. Every single unit has digressed slightly or significantly. The offense, the defense, the bench, the rotation, and the pen have all seen dips in their performance. The only question is which is the outlier: the March/April/May team, or the June/July team. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but if that’s the case, then you’re a little better than a .500 team. And if that’s the case, then you’re not a playoff team. And if you’re on the bubble, you’re going to want to win the division instead of taking your chances beating the other wild card contenders and then winning the one-game playoff.
The bubble gum stats tell you all you need to know: the team batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, ERA, and WHIP have all digressed. It’s not just the lineup or the bench or the rotation or the pen. There’s no situational issues where a LOOGY or another righty hitter in the lineup will fix a vulnerability. The roster is just short players, and some players just have to play better.
I’ll start with Ender Inciarte. He’s playing great defense, but he has not been the offensive player we were expecting. After 3 straight years with an OPS in the mid-700’s, he’s taken a big step back offensively this year. Since he was relied upon to be a catalyst at the top of the order, his struggle forces this lineup to need a potential shuffling to have enough on base ability at the top of the order. Sadly, though, there’s no clear hitter to put at the top of the order without weakening another part of the order. Simply put, he needs to play better. He’s being paid $4.7M this year, and he’s not owed 700 PAs. If he can’t hit lefties like his .642 OPS in 716 PAs suggests, then they’re going to need to get someone to hit lefties for him.
Ronald Acuna was considered a favorite to win the Rookie of the Year, but his .795 OPS and two injuries has left LF as a patently average position on the diamond. His absence created a void on the bench as Charlie Culberson has had to fill the LF spot, which has weakened the rest of the roster. And speaking of Culberson, the bench has struggled beyond Suzuki (when he’s not in the lineup) and Culberson, who has started somewhere in over 1/3 of the team’s games. The outfielder spot on the bench has gone to Peter Bourjos and Danny Santana recently who have combined to contribute a .580 OPS. The team must really like their Veteran Leadership to justify that abysmal of performance. And while Ryan Flaherty was a revelation in April, he has 3-23 since the beginning of June with one extra base-hit. That’s just not going to cut it.
The rotation is slumping as well, but the four healthy starters — Newcomb, Folty, Teheran, and Anibal — have overall been fantastic. And considering they’re making less combined than we are paying Scott Kazmir to not pitch for us, you have to count that as a blessing. The 5th spot has been the problem whenever Mike Soroka hasn’t occupied it. It’s sporting an ERA of around 5, so the Braves can scratch a couple more wins out in the second half if they can shore up that spot. But overall, the starters are not going deep into games, which is putting a heavy strain on the bullpen. Put it this way: the SPs are 6th in ERA but only 16 in WAR due in large part to the lack of innings pitched.
The bullpen. The top four performers at any one time have been quite good. The problem is the bullpen includes eight members. So while they can win any one game by going through Carle, Winkler, Minter, and Vizcaino, the pen is just too thin, too inexperienced, too susceptible to injury, and just not good enough. It’s not like they haven’t thrown enough bodies at the problem; the Braves have used 19 different pitchers in relief so far this year. But the Braves have no choice but to increase both the quality and depth of the bullpen if they have any shot at winning in the second half. Forget winning a short series in the postseason; they need a better bullpen just to see October. They could trade for 3 relievers, and with the inexperience and possibility of a slowdown by the main 4, it may not be enough.
That is probably the most morbid synopsis of a team tied for 3rd-best record in the NL. But you’ve probably read enough about how this team has exceeded expectations, is Ahead of Schedule (TM), and playing over their heads. But a season is 162 games long, and this roster may not have enough firepower to last all 12 rounds. Look for the Braves to dink and dunk their way down the field in the trade market to shore up the vulnerabilities in the roster, and we might see a lot of it shored up without killing our prospect capital. AA has his work cut out for him.