We are 11 games into the 2019 season for the Atlanta Braves and here are some early observations as Atlanta has now won its third straight series and seven of its last eight games.
The MLB Regular season is a marathon not a sprint
The hot takes were flying after Atlanta’s season-opening sweep at the hands of the Phillies in Philadelphia. Since then the Braves have lost one game while taking care of business against the Cubs, Marlins and Rockies. I am not suggesting that many of the concerns we saw in that first series against the Phillies aren’t actually concerns, but we have seen firsthand how much great starting pitching and pounding the ball offensively can gloss over other deficiencies. The bullpen is still suspect, even if it has pitched better recently, but the truth is we won’t really have a good read on this Braves team for several more weeks so it is best to just enjoy the ride and stop looking for a definitive statement from any series or game.
Has Dansby Swanson turned the corner?
Swanson has been a catalyst for the Braves in the early going as the adjustments he has made this offseason have helped get him off to the best start of his career. Swanson is using the entire field without sacrificing his ability to turn on an inside fastball. Small sample size rules apply but he is barreling pitches at a 20 percent clip which is simply absurd and his hard hit percentage is at 56 percent. His .453 xwOBA puts him in the top six percent of the league. We have never seen Swanson hit the ball with this much authority. No doubt he will have to make more adjustments as pitchers adjust, but his progress is one of the early feel good stories of the season.
Stop worrying about Josh Donaldson
The Braves signed Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million contract this offseason in hopes he would provide another right-handed power bat to the lineup. So far Donaldson is hitting .184/.326/.237 with two doubles. Don’t pay attention to those numbers for now though. Donaldson has a .259 BABIP but currently ranks 10th in the majors in average exit velocity at 94.7 MPH.
His hard hit percentage is at 56.5 percent which is higher than Swanson’s and in the top six percent of the league. He’s walking regularly and as an added bonus has made some tremendous plays in the field. All of Donaldson’s advanced numbers suggest that good things are coming and look eerily similar to Ronald Acuña Jr.’s numbers before he broke out with a pair of home runs in Colorado. As soon as he elevates a little more, the Braves could have a terrifying middle of the order for opposing pitchers.
What about that bullpen though?
Fine. If you want to be concerned about anything then it should be the bullpen. It was a complete disaster in Philadelphia but has been marginally better of late. Two scoreless games by the bullpen in Colorado of all places has shaved over a run off the bullpen’s ERA but they still rank 22nd in that department. (They also have the league’s 3rd-worst FIP and 13th-worst xFIP, which become a similar 4th- and 16th-worst, respectively, when adjusting for park and league.) While it won’t ever be classified as a strength without some significant additions, it however probably wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked during the first three games of the season. A.J. Minter is back and seems to be settling in. Some stability can go a long way and we could potentially see some of the team’s young arms transition into relief roles at some point to further solidify this unit.
While we are on the subject of the bullpen, Luke Jackson will probably never elicit confidence from the fan base but it is worth noting that since allowing a grand slam on Opening Day, he has made five straight scoreless appearances. His numbers over that span: 5 2/3 innings, five hits, one walk and 10 strikeouts. Amazingly, so far in 2019, no reliever has pitched as many innings as Luke Jackson with a lower xFIP (1.98). The closest is Josh Hader at 2.00.
Max Fried is the rotation’s biggest surprise
That might be a bit of a stretch seeing as how Kyle Wright began the season in the rotation and remains a part of it still as of this writing. However, you can’t gloss over what Fried has done so far this season. Fried has yet to allow an earned run in four appearances (two starts) this season. He has struck out nine and walked just three in 13 2/3 innings. Two of those walks came in one relief appearance, so he’s actually walked just one batter across two starts. Opponents have a .157 wOBA against him, which is in the top six percent of the league. He is limiting opponents to soft contact and keeping the ball on the ground, with a nice .223 xwOBA allowed -- that’s a mark only the league’s best relievers can manage over a full season. Fried has never been bad in his career but has battled injuries that have derailed his arrival. He looks healthy and confident and as I mentioned earlier, good starting pitching can gloss over a lot of weaknesses.
Per FanGraphs, Braves starters have been worth 1.0 fWAR through the first 11 games of the season. That ranks them 14th in the league. They are eighth with a 3.22 ERA despite walks (4.14 BB/9) still being an issue. However, you must also factor in that Julio Teheran was the only Atlanta starter to work at least five innings in the first five games of the season. This is a unit that has pitched much better the second time through with the additions of Fried and Kevin Gausman and could potentially get Mike Foltynewicz back as soon as Sunday.