Well, we’ve got a half season in the books. The Braves sit six games up on the Nationals and six and a half up on the Phillies. Austin Riley has hit 16 home runs and is playing a solid left field, Dansby Swanson is on pace for over 30 home runs, and Mike Soroka has the most wins, WAR, and the lowest ERA. Oh, and Mike Foltynewicz is in AAA. So we’ve been given an interesting and unpredictable season to enjoy.
I’m going to hand out grades to each unit, and give you some thoughts about what to expect in the second half.
Nothing really to be unhappy about here. Just about everybody has taken the next step. As mentioned, Dansby has turned into almost a middle-of-the-order bat. Ozzie Albies is on pace for almost a 4.5 fWAR season. Austin Riley came on strong in his big league debut. Ronald Acuna, Freddie Freeman, and Josh Donaldson have been 3 of the big lineup-leaders in the league. For very little money and no prospects given up, the catching unit has been more than enough (5th in the NL in fWAR). It’s deep, it’s powerful, it’s got speed, and the bench has been stellar too. If they find a way to figure out Johan Camargo‘s usage, and they find a solution to the Ender Inciarte situation, this team could get even better at the plate.
The defense has taken a step back from last year. With less of an offensive presence, a big part of the Braves’ success last year was their defense. They were 4th in MLB in defensive runs saved last year, which undoubtedly helped the young pitching staff and helped fuel the team to a division title. This year, they’ve traded a little bit of defense for a lot of offense. For the bulk of the year, Ender Inciarte has been replaced by Austin Riley. Johan Camargo has been replaced by Josh Donaldson. As a result, the Braves sit 12th in MLB in defensive runs saved. Do you need great defense to win a championship? Yes, so this is why I think the Braves will find a spot for Ender Inciarte to get a few more plays made in the outfield, and as the season drags on, I think Camargo spells Donaldson in the field a little more often.
It’s fair to say that the starting pitching has been both a disappointment and a source of optimism for the future. And that’s what happens when you acquire Dallas Keuchel a third of the way through the season. But the starting pitching started out as a huge disappointment to start the year. The unit’s ERA approached 5 in the first month of the year, and the team has gotten nothing from Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman. If you had told me that those guys would both have ERAs over 6 at the All-Star break, I would think this season had gone off the rails. Thanks, offense.
But a rotation core of Mike Soroka, Dallas Keuchel, Max Fried, and Julio Teheran has kept the team’s head above water. They’ll continue to try to figure out the 5th member of the rotation, as they’ve used 6 other starters this year to try to figure this out.
Yeah, a B. The bullpen has provided lots of frustration and gnashing of teeth, but this has been the best bullpen in baseball per ERA since the beginning of June. In the past month and change, the Braves have rid Anthony Swarzak, Luke Jackson, Jacob Webb, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins, and Josh Tomlin pretty hard, and it’s resulted in unexpectedly great work. Brian Snitker deserves a lot of credit for what he’s gotten out of the pen with how seemingly little talent there has been.
I would have given them an even higher grade if not for two issues: the team still lacks a true closer, and they were pretty terrible in the first month and a half of the season. The first issue can be solved in the trade market, and the Braves have plenty to trade to fill the need. The second part is not really an issue going forward. What’s done is done. The Braves clearly did not feel like there was a 105-game winner in this division. They did not feel like losing 4-5 additional games in April and May while they figured out their roster was going to end the season before it really began. Give the front office a lot of credit for being willing to mix and match and figure out what to do here by properly projecting that the division would not be as good as the talkers were saying. By doing so, they have found — at least for now — a bullpen unit that has become a strength for the team.
What to Expect in the Second Half
First off, I know a lot of people are printing playoff tickets, but I’m not quite there on that. We were told all offseason that Philly was the team to beat, and that has proven to not be true. But there was also the expectation that Washington would be a formidable foe, and early on, that did not prove to be true. But in the last month, their team has started to resemble what they were hoping it would be. Their #1 in MLB in starter ERA, and more importantly, their starters are leading the league in innings pitched. That’s significant since their bullpen has been a dumpster fire, and that’s given them a much-needed break. A return to health has also helped their pen. So after having an ERA over 6 in the first two months of the season, their bullpen ERA has gone down a full two runs a game in the last month and a half. Still not a great pen, but when you are losing games simply because your bullpen can’t get anybody out, the better starting pitching performance coupled with serviceable relief work has them winning a lot of games. For me, they are the team in the second half to watch out for.
And like I said, I think the rotation going forward will continue to be better than in the beginning of the year. I expect there to be a push to acquire a starter before the deadline, but I don’t know if I expect there to actually be an acquisition, which I think will disappoint a lot of fans. But I think you’ll be hearing about Gausman and Folty progressing nicely, you’ll see some decent starts from Bryse Wilson, and you might see one of Touki Toussaint, Kyle Wright, or Kolby Allard establish themselves as a rotation option. So I think they will use that 5th spot to continue to audition guys that will earn a right to audition.
And then as we get into August, I think we’ll see some form of a 6-man rotation so that Soroka and Fried can limit their innings down the stretch. For me, the ideal world would be for Soroka and Fried to leave some games early, have some starts skipped, and they work towards a situation where they end the regular season around the 160-170 IP mark, leaving them with plenty of room for a postseason run. I expect the Braves to actively limit their innings and keep them below 200 IP, including the postseason.
Also, I expect the Braves to add at least one reliever, and that’s an expectation I think every Braves fan shares. As it gets deep into the season, I think one more even more significant move will occur: someone who has not appeared in a big league game this year will have a big impact on the pen. That could be Ian Anderson. That could the big lefty Kyle Muller coming in and being a force. That could be Patrick Weigel or Luiz Gohara seeing health and showing up strong in the pen. Jasseel De La Cruz absolutely factors in here.
Regardless of what exactly occurs, this team will be getting a lot of buzz as a team that should be gearing up to win the first playoff series since the beginning of the century.