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Atlanta Braves Roundtable: Recapping the first half of the season

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Talking Chop’s writers look back over an eventful first half for the Atlanta Braves

2019 MLB All-Star Game, presented by Mastercard Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It has been an interesting first half for the Atlanta Braves who currently hold a six-game lead over the Washington Nationals in NL East standings. Before the second half resumes with the Braves visiting San Diego on Friday, we wanted to take a look back at some notable performances from the first half.

Who is your hitter MVP of the first half?

Ivan: On purely a hitting basis, it has to be Freddie Freeman. He has a pretty wide lead in team wRC+, offensive runs above average, and xwOBA, as well as WPA and RE24. His offensive production now looks to be directly in tandem with the ostensible juiced properties of the baseball, and since the baseball is apparently re-juiced, Freddie Freeman is re-rampaging.

MLB: All Star Game-National League at American League Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Kris: It is pretty much a toss up between Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna but I will go with Freeman who is on pace for a career year. The Braves have a lot of offensive firepower in the lineup but Freeman remains the one constant they can’t do without.

Scott: This lineup is so ridiculously deep, and it’s Freddie Freeman who leads the way. As stated above, he leads the team in just about every offensive category that matters, and that’s saying something given the impressive first halves from Acuña, Donaldson and others. It’s a bummer that Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger are having such incredible seasons because Freddie would be in the MVP discussion most other years.

Eric: It is hard to argue with Freddie Freeman as the pick. The guy has posted a 149 wRC+ in the first half and would be getting a lot more MVP type talk if not for the seasons that Bellinger and Yelich are having right now. However, I am going to go a little off message here and say that Ronald Acuña Jr. is the guy. He leads the team in fWAR so it is a defensible position from a production standpoint for me especially when you factor in baserunning and position in the field. Plus, everything changed for this team when he was put back at leadoff where he belonged all along and getting the most at-bats on the team. His game-changing bat and how much havoc he can cause when he is on base has been a big deal for the Braves.

Anthony: While I agree with Eric’s case for Acuña, I have to go with Freddie Freeman. He is one of the best pure hitters in the game to the point that we expect him to make something happen every time he steps to the plate. He can hit homeruns or play small ball. He can hit against the shift or without it. He is the foundation in the heart of the order that everything else is built around, and he is on pace for perhaps his best offensive season in his career.

Absincewayback: It’s Freeman for me as well. Even with the way this lineup is stacked now, he stands out. The shift, handedness of pitchers, pitch type, or lunar phase mean nothing to him when he is rolling. Freddie Freeman does it year after year. He’s not just the midseason hitting MVP. He is the Braves hitter of the decade.

Dillon: Freddie Freeman gets a slight edge over Acuna. As noted above, Freeman has the advantage in nearly every offensive category. The season he is putting together is special, even by his own standards, which netted him a fourth-place finish in the NL MVP Award race last season. He is driving the ball with much more authority in 2019, and on offensive merits alone it is tough to rank anyone ahead of Freeman right now despite the brilliance of Acuna.

Demetrius: While it’s been exciting to watch Acuña set the tone for each game in such a dynamic manner, Freddie Freeman is the obvious choice for me. He’s on track for a career year, which is saying something considering the numbers that he’s put up in the past. This probably still won’t be good enough for him to get the NL MVP since there have been a handful of players who have been going on a tear since the season started. Still, Freddie’s been fantastic this season. After he basically had to carry the load on a handful of bad teams over the years, I’m glad that he’s able to do all of this while the rest of the lineup is able to mash as well.

Aaron: Freddie is having a career year, but the team took off again once Acuña was inserted as the leadoff man. He’s so dynamic and a big spark plug, so I’m going with Acuña.

Shawn: It has to be Freddie Freeman. And the reason more than anything is consistency. He helped carry the team along May along with Austin Riley. While others have been streaky at times or have emerged over the past month, Freddie has been producing all year. Furthermore, the Braves tend to go as Freddie goes. They are 27-6 when he has multiple hits in a game, but only 9-12 when he goes without getting a hit.

Who is your pitching MVP of the first half?

Ivan: I feel like there was no way this wasn’t going to be Soroka if and when he took the mound consistently, and given that him taking the mound consistently was indeed a thing that happened for the last two-plus months, here we are. Top 25 xwOBA-against, a better FIP- on the staff than anyone but the two best relievers, a better xFIP- on the staff than anyone but those two relievers and Max Fried, and a WPA that’s higher than every other Braves pitcher but one.

Kris: We came into the season worried whether or not Mike Soroka’s shoulder would allow him to make an impact. He has put to rest all of those concerns and has emerged as the clear cut best starter for a Braves team that is back on top of the NL East standings.

Scott: It’s Soroka and it’s not really a contest. For a rotation that has been pretty mediocre, Soroka remains the one consistent bright spot. Two-thirds of his starts have resulted in one earned run or less. His 2.42 ERA ranks 5th in MLB as we enter the break.

Eric: If anyone thought that me of all people was going to say anyone other than Soroka, they are very wrong. Alonso and Tatis Jr. are the talk of the rookie class (and rightly so), but Mike is firmly in the top 3 rookies in the National League right now and if the team and he continue performing at this rate, he could be in store for some Cy Young love as well. No one else on the Braves’ staff has been close to him in the first half.

MLB: All Star Game-National League at American League Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony: Mike Soroka is the answer. It’s hard to imagine where this rotation would be without him. Even during the few starts he hasn’t had his best stuff, he battles and gives the team a chance to win. And when he’s on, he’s dominant. It’s unfair to all other pitching prospects that Soroka can pitch like he does with such poise while barely being old enough to legally purchase a Labatt’s Blue.

Absincewayback: Soroka for me. He makes so few mistakes, and the ones that he does make he very often cleans them up.

Dillon: Luke Jackson. An awful haircut and enough command issues to make every appearance an adventure have not stopped Jackson from taking over as Braves closer and thriving despite bouts with awful luck for much of the season. Soroka is the obvious answer, and he would be my answer if not for every other TC writer above me taking Maple Maddux, but there is some merit to taking Jackson if you squint hard enough. Luke is scary and goofy and wild, but he somewhat solidified a Braves bullpen in the midst of utter chaos at the beginning of the season, and for that we should be eternally grateful.

Demetrius: Yeah, it’s Mike Soroka. He’s 21-years-old and made it to the All-Star Game on merit. Like Anthony said, he gives the Braves a chance to win even if he doesn’t have his best stuff. When he’s on his game, it’s borderline boring because it seems as if he’ll just casually mow through the opposing lineup as they send a bunch of wormburners across the infield. He’s been a huge boon to the rotation and a stabilizing force to a part of the team that could very well have been in some serious flux.

Aaron: I would love to say Fried, but he’s been so uneven after such a hot start. I still believe in Fried a lot and think he has the stuff to be great. However, the clear answer is Mike Soroka. His streak of giving up one or no runs was pretty incredible.

Shawn: I will also go with Luke Jackson. Yes, Mike Soroka emerging as the ace of the staff is more valuable than Jackson emerging as the closer. However, the transformation of the Braves bullpen from what it was to what it is now is a miracle. Beyond his decent work as a closer, he also helped the Braves escaped many potentially game changing situations with the lead in tact. Jackson’s unexpected development into one of the best relievers in the game has been invaluable to this Braves staff.

Who is your biggest surprise?

Ivan: Max Fried’s lowest walk rate at any level in any season or partial season before the first half of 2019 was 8.3 percent, which he managed pre-Tommy John Surgery in 2012 (Rookie ball) and then again in 2014 (A-ball). Post-TJS, his best walk rate was 9.8 percent, achieved in Double-A last year over only two starts. Yet, 2019 Max Fried has managed a walk rate 20 percent better than league average, pitching like a #2 starter with a delicious 78 xFIP- that portends potentially better things to come, just as soon as the HR/FB settles down a bit.

Kris: I really wanted to go with Dansby Swanson here but the answer simply has to be Luke Jackson. It seemed as if Jackson would have a hard time simply making the 25-man roster but here we are in July and he is serving as the team’s closer. I’m still a long way from being comfortable with him in that role, but you can’t ignore the progress he has made and the season he has put up so far.

Scott: Dansby Swanson’s offensive emergence seems like the real deal. For years, his hot streaks were often fueled by a lucky stretch at the plate and he would come crashing back down to earth. That hasn’t been the case in the first half as he’s finally hitting for power (.226 ISO) and has set a career high with 17 home runs. Add in a much improved approach at the plate and we’re finally seeing the Dansby breakout we’ve hoped for since his 2016 debut.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Eric: Swanson’s performance is definitely up there, but for me it is a tie between how mediocre the starting rotation has performed as well as just how good Austin Riley has been in 2019. Soroka and Teheran (for the most part) aside, there has been a lot of inconsistency or worse in the rotation that has been derailed by injury to boot. As for Riley, I have long been a fan of his, but he has historically taken a while to adjust to any level he was playing at so I expected him to have some fairly significant growing pains in the majors. Instead, he has turned into one of the scarier power threats on the team right now and when you factor in that he is still figuring some things out at the plate...his future is looking more and more exciting.

Anthony: My biggest surprise has been Luke Jackson. It’s often easy to forget that Luke was DFA’ed three times last season, and no other team claimed him. Most Braves fans (myself included) couldn’t believe that he made the Opening Day roster. And yet, he has been arguably the Braves’ best reliever. (He easily has the highest fWAR of any Braves reliever.) If I would’ve told you at the beginning of the season that Jackson was the Braves’ best reliever at the All-Star Break, how would you guess the team was performing? Second-best record and best bullpen ERA in the NL? I don’t think so.

Absincewayback: My biggest surprise is that not only is Julio Teheran is on the roster, he was the Opening Day starter and had a sub-3.00 ERA during the first two and a half months. He made a full-time change to the stretch and his fastball and slider are better. The other peripherals are horrific but I think he is getting the very most out of what he has. He maintains that hitters will hit his pitch and nothing else. Julio will walk the ballpark to get that point across.

Dillon: My biggest surprise is Dallas Keuchel, for two reasons: 1. I never thought the Braves would actually spend the money to sign the veteran left-hander; 2. I never thought Keuchel would actually be effective against good lineups within a month of signing. He has been a revelation, even with the small sample size, and his track record suggests that he can be trusted to sustain the success he has had thus far. This is certainly a pleasant surprise, both for the future of organizational spending, and for the 2019 Braves.

Demetrius: Luke Jackson. It’s the All-Star break and he’s only 0.2 points of fWAR away from outperforming his 2018 production by one full point of fWAR. His K/9 has gone up by nearly two points. His BB/9 has taken a precipitous fall. His Ground Ball Rate is up nearly 20 percent. He’s improved all across the board and done so in impressive fashion. There’s still plenty of questions as to whether or not he’s really a closer or if he’s just a short-term solution to a problem with the bullpen. Still, there’s no question that he’s taken huge strides between 2018 and today and the bullpen is a lot better with him in it for high-leverage situations.

Aaron: A tie between Dansby Swanson and Luke Jackson. I had major concerns about Swanson and he’s been phenomenal. His wrist injuries were absolutely no joke. Luke Jackson was a guy I didn’t think would make the roster.

Shawn: It absolutely has been Dansby Swanson. His power surge has certainly been a pleasant surprise. However, it is also the fact that several of his home runs have been the game changing event that put a win in the Braves favor. He has been a solid addition to the top of the order that helped the lineup become one of the best in the majors. Everyone knew Dansby had the talent to become a significant producer, but his All-Star level of production in the first half has been a big reason for the Braves reaching the top of the NL East.

Who is your biggest disappointment?

Ivan: The Braves have suffered quite a few disappointments in what’s been an ultimately blazingly-successful half-season, with two of the big ones standing out as 2018 unlikely heroes that haven’t done anything useful so far 2019. Mike Foltynewicz went from putting up #1 starter-type numbers to being devastated by his inability to throw a consistently-breaking slider. Everyone knew Johan Camargo was getting lucky last year to some extent (.310 xwOBA, .346 wOBA, below-average barrel rate) but his quality of contact has cratered to the point of uselessness so far this season, in part because he’s swung at nearly everything in his limited playing time without actually going up there trying to put everything in the seats. But these guys aside, given track records without sustained success, the biggest disappointment to me has to be Ender Inciarte. Sure, he only had about a fourth of a season in which to fall flat on his face, but his slow-starting offensive profile added some new horrific attributes (exit velocity below 80 mph, high and never-before-seen strikeout rate, average launch angle around half of what he’s managed previously) and his defense, albeit in the same small sample, failed to materialize and was made far worse than it had to be by a propensity for wild, pointless throws. I have no idea what the plan is going to be for Ender Inciarte going forward given that the team took off once Austin Riley came and helped his teammates slug opposing pitchers into oblivion, but a perennial 3-win player starting out as anything but is brutal.

Kris: While Mike Foltynewicz is the easy answer, I am going to go with Kevin Gausman. The Braves picked up Gausman at the deadline last season and he helped them down the stretch to secure the NL East title. His peripheral numbers suggest he has been a tad unlucky but he was so bad over his last three outings before going on the injured list that a spot on the roster, much less the rotation, appears to be in question.

Scott: It’s amazing the Braves have the NL’s second-best record (and by a considerable margin, too) with zero contributions from Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman. If I had told you three months ago that Folty and Gausman would have a combined 6.29 ERA through 121 innings, we would’ve probably figured the team was closer to 4th place in the division than fighting for home field advantage in the playoffs. Injuries have played their part on both player’s struggles, of course, but the Braves really need more out of both guys in the second half.

Eric: It is hard to be THAT disappointed with anything, but I honestly thought that Folty had turned a corner last year and was going to be a reliable source of production this season and he has been anything but that. I have been saying for a while that I don’t think he is completely healthy and that comes from how poor his slider has looked this season. Maybe it is just a mental or mechanical thing and he will get it fixed down in Gwinnett...and if he does, it is easier to dream about a deep playoff run for this team.

Anthony: The rotation outside of Soroka and Fried. After going from receiving Cy Young votes in 2018 to being demoted to Triple-A with an ERA north of six, Foltynewicz has to be the biggest singular disappointment. But he hasn’t been alone. Soroka and Fried are the only starters with an fWAR of 1.0 or above. Gausman has been dreadful, and Teheran’s wizardry has apparently come to an end. With so much young pitching talent, I thought that Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Sean Newcomb, or Kyle Wright would step up and run away with one of the rotation spots, but that just hasn’t happened. Even after adding Keuchel, the Braves find themselves in need of yet another starting pitcher at the trade deadline.

Absincewayback: I say year after year the pitching will come along. We are disappointed once again. Garrett cataloged it pretty well last week. They spent practically the first 18 months of this rebuild focusing on pitching. Low ceiling. High ceiling. 97+ MPH fastballs. Tommy John surgery. They tried everything. Now it’s Trackman. I don’t know the exact answer of why it failed. But if Braves fans have a problem after leading the East by 6 games, this is it.

Dillon: Mike Foltynewicz. He dealt with shoulder soreness in Spring Training, which abbreviated his preparation time before stepping onto a major league mound, then lost all control of his vaunted slider upon returning. These two developments rendered Foltynewicz a hittable headcase with below-average command prior to his recent demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett. 2019 has been a lost season for Foltynewicz to this point, but the Braves have to hope that a trip to Gwinnett will be therapeutic for the right-hander as he looks to rebound in time for the stretch run. Here’s hoping that plan works, because the Braves could really use the good version of Foltynewicz if they hope to advance beyond the NLDS this season.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Demetrius: It’s gotta be Folty. He was at the top of the rotation last season, and now here we are in 2019 and he’s hanging out in Gwinnett. Even though he struggled with injury during spring training, I don’t think that anybody could have possibly seen Foltynewicz falling off this hard. The good news is that I don’t think that he’s falling off for good. Triple-A could be the extended spring training that he needed and he’ll come back to the bigs in full force. I sure hope that happens, because as Dillon said, the Braves could very well need Folty to return to form if they’re actually going to make a deep postseason run this year.

Aaron: This is a tough one. Johan Camargo hasn’t been near as good as he has the past 2 years, but is he a victim of not being able to adjust to less playing time? Then you have the young pitching studs in Touki, Wright and Wilson. The way that Touki has progressed over the past 2 years, he’s taken a step back. Wright and Wilson both started off on the wrong foot, but at least they have pitched better lately. There’s also Kevin Gausman and while he’s been really bad, it’s not like I had high expectations for him. However, there’s no bigger disappointment than Mike Foltynewicz. He’s been abysmal, and once again his bad body language is on full display. The Braves did him no favors in rushing him back. If he really has bone spurs in his elbow, they should have just shut him down and got him surgery.

Shawn: I also will say Mike Foltynewicz. He breakout 2018 season was a big reason why the Braves surprised many last year. However, injury concerns delayed his 2019 debut, and he has not been right since. Whether he is still injured or he never was able to get his routine down, he simply is not an option the Braves can rely upon this year. As a result, the rotation has become the biggest area of need for the Braves at the trade deadline. Whether it be as a starter as a reliever, the hope is that Folty can end the year on a positive note. However, it simply seems as if this will be a lost year for Folty neither he nor the Braves expected.