Thus far in 2018, the Braves have far outperformed their consensus preseason projections, which had them hovering somewhere around 75-80 wins. Atlanta currently sits atop the National League East, and despite a tough finish to their most recent road trip, have plenty of reason for optimism for the remainder of the season. One issue however, especially in recent days against quality opponents, has been a lack of production from the top of the lineup. The Braves have gotten very little from leadoff man Ender Inciarte, second place hitter Ozzie Albies has been hit or miss, and Freddie Freeman has been mired in his most significant slump of the season. These developments, and the longer track records of each player, call into question the viability of the current lineup down the stretch. What would an ideal Braves lineup look like, without accounting for any personnel changes at the trade deadline?
The main focus of this piece will be the leadoff hitter, and how the Braves can best ration their most frequently utilized lineup slot. In selecting a leadoff hitter, three necessary qualities come to mind: high walk rate, high pitches seen per plate appearance, and high zone contact rate. Ideally, a leadoff hitter can reach base via walk on a regular basis, force the opposing pitcher to work diligently through an at-bat, and make consistent contact when swinging at pitches in the strike zone. I have chosen three current Braves in Ender Inciarte, Ozzie Albies, and Nick Markakis as candidates, with Inciarte receiving consideration because he currently occupies the leadoff spot on a regular basis, Albies because the Braves offense was at its best with him on top, and Markakis because he appears to be the best option according to every statistic.
The first criteria named above, high walk rate, applies to Markakis (10.3%) but to neither of the other two candidates (Albies: 4.6%, Inciarte: 8.4%, Lg Avg: 8.6%). The second criteria, high pitches seen per plate appearance, again applies to Markakis (3.92) but to neither of the other two (Albies: 3.45, Inciarte: 3.67, Lg Avg: 3.91). The third criteria, high zone contact rate, once again applies solely to Markakis (92.9%), while the other two trail significantly (Albies: 85.9%, Inciarte: 89.9%, Lg Avg: 85.8%). Using these three criteria, which were simply my preferences in selecting a leadoff hitter, Nick Markakis is clearly the best option for the Braves atop the order. His lack of speed may give some pause with regards to batting leadoff, but his approach and contact ability make him the ideal candidate among current Braves.
Inciarte has been somewhat of an enigma at the plate thus far, with his .247 batting average and .318 on-base percentage each falling well below his career norms. Looking deeper into the batted ball data, Inciarte has become more pull-oriented this season while raising his fly-ball rate considerably. Those two factors could certainly be be identified as the culprits fueling his struggles, while his .275 batting average on balls in play would suggest that bad luck has also factored in significantly, as his career mark is nearly 50 points higher. Inciarte has been bad to this point, and his splits indicate that very little improvement should be expected against left-handed pitching, so batting him leadoff is hardly ideal going forward.
Albies, who will represent the Braves at the All-Star Game next week, has enjoyed an excellent season thus far. His 50 extra-base hits are currently tied for second-best in baseball and his 69 runs scored rank third. Those numbers make him a viable option to bat lower in the order, and when taking into account his walk rate and aggressiveness, he would seem an ideal candidate to bat in the second spot, where he currently resides every day. Albies being a switch-hitter also fits well between Markakis and the third-place hitter, Freddie Freeman, whose merits for batting third need no perusing.
With Markakis moving to the leadoff spot in this scenario, the Braves are left with no cleanup hitter behind Freeman, and thus we should identify an ideal candidate among those remaining. The most obvious choice going forward, in my eyes, has to be Ronald Acuña. While his numbers may not yet reflect those of a typical cleanup hitter, the batted ball data and consistently high exit velocities back up the hype that surrounded the 20-year-old prior to his promotion. A healthy Acuña provides the lineup with a deadly power-speed combination that would play well behind Freeman, even if his high strikeout rate and overall lack of experience may be disconcerting for some.
Beyond the top four, the combination of Tyler Flowers/Kurt Suzuki should continue batting fifth, followed by the current regulars in Camargo, Inciarte, and Swanson. In addition to structuring the lineup in this way, Braves manager Brian Snitker could also benefit from employing some semblance of a platoon for Inciarte, whose well-documented struggles versus left-handed pitching could be countered by allowing Charlie Culberson to start in left field while Acuña slides over to center field. The other alternative may be to place Inciarte in the ninth spot, behind the pitcher, as this would allow him to act as a leadoff hitter without receiving the most at-bats atop the order.
Brian Snitker is flush with options, as the Braves have several highly-talented players, but utilizing players like Inciarte in the leadoff spot is not supported by any statistical measure. Markakis may be the ideal cleanup hitter among the current options, but his bat could play even more of a defining role at the top of the order. Personnel changes may render this entire exercise futile, but taking a little deeper look at potential lineup constructions for the Braves going forward raises some interesting questions as to how the Atlanta can best utilize the assets it has on hand. Times are great right now for the Braves, but allowing an inferior hitter to set the table atop the order is a disservice to the club, and may very well cost them if improvements are not made soon. Once Acuña returns at full strength, the Braves can finally field the lineup that will define the remainder of this pleasantly surprising season.