clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Quick Hits: The Suddenly-Patient Braves?

A weird turnaround in a tiny sample

Miami Marlins v Atlanta Braves - Game Two Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In 2018, the Atlanta Braves rode a top-ten offense (105 wRC+) to a division title. The Braves got there by making solid (rather than weak contact), mostly on a line, but with some pop. One way in which they definitely did not get there: patience and grinding out plate appearances. As a team, the Braves were 19th in MLB in walk rate, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Instead, consider:

  • The Braves finished 2018 fifth in offensive chase rate (swinging at pitches outside of the zone).
  • The Braves finished 2018 first in rate of swinging at pitches inside the zone. (This is good, by the way. You want to swing at those pitches.)
  • The Braves finished 2018 first in total swing rate.

The 2018 Braves also finished third in the majors in making contact when chasing, which is kind of okay (you avoid strikeouts and therefore continue the plate appearance) but also kind of not (because putting non-strikes in play leads to relatively weak contact). Part of the issue, though, was that their team rank at making contact inside the zone was only average (12th). That’s the sort of stat combination that helps you avoid strikeouts (and indeed, the Braves were second to only Cleveland last season in that regard), but isn’t exactly a recipe for success.

Now, we’re only four games into the 2019 season, so pretty much all of this can be ascribed to “wacky tiny-sample stats.” (After all, have you seen what the Jerry DiPoto Enters the Konami Code into the Master Baseball Console has done to the Seattle Mariners?) But, there’s been a turnaround in Braves-land that’s worth commenting on, even if it doesn’t really mean much.

  • That o-swing rate that was fifth in 2018? Yeah, the Braves are, as a team, 29th in MLB in that now.
  • That z-swing rate? From first in 2018 to 20th in 2019.
  • Overall swing rate? First to 29th.

What’s going on? Is this deliberate? Or just the baseball equivalent of the planets aligning? We can look at some player-level differences.

Last year’s team featured two guys who pretty much swung at everything. Freddie Freeman led all players with 200 or more PAs in z-swing rate; Ozzie Albies finished fifth. Albies also finished in the top 50 in o-swing rate. Fast-forward to 2019, and while Freeman’s z-swing rate is still as high as before, he’s dropped his o-swing rate by a third (from over 34 percent to just 23 percent). The result is dramatic in terms of overall approach, as he’s gone (in these four games, anyway) from a 96th-percentile swinger to a 51st-percentile one. Albies has changed (again, in four games, for whatever that’s worth), even more dramatically. His o-swing rate has fallen from 38 percent to 26 percent. His z-swing rate has fallen from 82 percent to 70 percent. For o-swing, that’s an 88th-percentile-to-24th-percentile change. For z-swing, it’s 99th to 66th. Overall, Albies has gone from a guy just barely outside the top ten in terms of swinging at everything to a guy threatening to fall into the bottom 50 (assuming this holds and swing patterns overall don’t change dramatically.)

It’s not just Albies and Freeman driving this particular Patience Bus, however.

  • Ender Inciarte’s o-swing rate hasn’t changed much, but he’s slashed 20 percent off his z-swing rate. While he won’t keep this up, his current swing rate would have been the lowest among anyone with 355 PAs last year, driven entirely by swinging at pitches in the zone only half the time (lowest last year was 51 percent, by Joe Mauer).
  • Dansby Swanson, meanwhile, has only slightly dropped his z-swing rate, but his o-swing rate has also decreased by over a third, from over 36 percent to below 23 percent. Again, we’re talking going from top 60ish in chasing to bottom 30ish. Neat.
  • Ronald Acuña Jr. has dropped both of swing rates, though fairly modestly in both cases. Still, that’s the difference between an average swing rate and one in the lowest 10 percent.
  • And then we come to Nick Markakis. Each of the other five players mentioned so far has dropped both their o-swing and z-swing rates. Markakis, however, has not. Not that that’s a problem, mind: his o-swing, which was already low, has dwindled to a hilarity-inducing 15 percent, while his z-swing rate has increased a bit. What’s more, his o-contact, which has always been high (he and Inciarte are among the masters of that particularly kinda-skill), currently sits at 100 percent by one measure. In any case, of these six holdovers, Markakis is the only one to increase his swing rate overall.

These six regulars didn’t achieve this whiplash-level swing in swing rate (yes, I said “swing in swing rate,” deal with it) themselves, however. The new arrivals helped, a lot. Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann are both currently in the bottom 20 in swing rate for any player with 10 PAs on the young season overall, with lower swing rates than any of the six returning regulars. Donaldson has always been cagey about chasing, but he’s dropped both his o-swing and z-swing rates by about six percent anyway. McCann was nearly in the top 10 for lowest z-swing last year, and while that rate has actually slightly increased for him, his o-swing has dropped.

So, what’s the big idea? Well, pretty much nothing, really. Four games is four games. But, the Braves are fourth in walk rate, third in offensive BB/K rate, and fourth in OBP right now. They’re even eighth in slugging and tenth in ISO. Sounds great, right? Well, there’s one red flag that comes with all this — the Braves’ z-contact has tanked. Last year, they swung at everything in the zone, and made contact on it at an average rate. So far, they’re taking those pitches at an elevated rate, but also missing them when they do swing. Is that part of this new approach, or something orthogonal? It’s too soon to tell, but it’s something to watch.

For what it’s worth, though, this approach appears to be paying off so far. Even including their pitchers, the Braves have the fifth-highest team xwOBA in baseball. Even before walloping the Cubs, they were 13th, with a .332 mark that’s above-average. So, why the 1-3 start? Well... that has to do with how bad the pitching has been. After the season’s first series, they had the second-highest xwOBA allowed; that didn’t change after last night’s game (poor Diamondbacks pitching staff). So, while things definitely do not have to go the way they’re expected to in a tiny sample, that’s happened anyway so far: the bats were going to be fine, and they have been — perhaps even moreso with this strange, newfound patience. The pitching’s been the question mark and the potential problem, and so it has been. Will any of this continue? Who knows.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Battery Power Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Atlanta Braves news from Battery Power