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Starting Nine: Defining the Braves in 2020

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The successes, the heartbreak and many, many awards that the Braves delivered in an unprecedented year

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League Championship - Los Angeles Dodgers v Atlanta Braves - Game Five
In winning NL MVP, Freddie Freeman had career highs across a .341/.462/.640 slash line and had the sixth-highest OPS (1.468) with runners in scoring position in history.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

By almost any measure, 2020 was a year unlike any other. Nearly every aspect of our lives was turned upside down amid the pandemic, and sports — so often our escape when everything else has gone to pot — was a point-blank, sound-piped in, socially-distanced reminder that nothing was normal.

Add in Mike Foltynewicz flaming out, Mike Soroka’s season-ending Achilles injury, and getting one start out of Cole Hamels, and the play on the field had its disaster movie feels, too — but it wasn’t all bad.

The 2020 season had more than a few moments for the Braves, and before we set fire to this year and enter what we collectively hope is a better 2021, the Starting Nine is counting down the moments, trends and revelations for the year that was.

9. D’Arnaud Does D’amage

Ahead of the National League Championship Series, general manager Alex Anthopoulos discussed bringing in Travis d’Arnaud, a catcher he’d had his sights on since 2007 when d’Arnaud was a high schooler in California and Anthopoulos was with the Blue Jays. That long-gestating crush paid off with a two-year, $16 million deal for d’Arnaud and a 145 wRC+ and .321/.386/.533 — all career highs — in Year 1 in Atlanta in which he won a Silver Slugger. He also supplied an .856 OPS in the postseason, including a 6-for-10, seven-RBI performance vs. the Marlins in the Division Series that tied the likes of Hall of Famer Gary Carter for the most RBI for any catcher in that round. D’Arnaud gives the Braves flexibility as they can help to develop William Contreras or add another defense-first veteran to supplement him, but there’s no other way to look at this than the positives of the most production the Braves have gotten out of the catching position since Javy Lopez’s 170 wRC+ in 2003.

8. Third Time’s The Charm, Part I

Marcell Ozuna made history on Sept. 1, becoming the first National League player to ever hit three home runs in a game in Fenway Park. A day later, Adam Duvall equaled him with a pair of two-run shots over the Green Monster and a solo blast, making the Braves the first teammates to ever complete the feat in consecutive games. They aren’t the only players from the same team to do it in back-to-back days, though, as icons Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had three-homer games in 1930 as parts of double-headers. Duvall, in “aw-shucks mode” as he so often is, said when informed of the feat after the game. “I didn’t know that. I thought it was (three homers) here (at Fenway). That’s pretty neat. That’s pretty cool.”

7. Third Time’s The Charm, Part II

The NL East had positioned itself to be a gauntlet. The division was the only one with four teams projected to have 85 1/2 or more wins, and when COVID-19 and the owners/players bickering and commissioner stepping in limited the season to a mere 60 games, the newfangled schedule had the Braves playing 21 games before they faced a team forecasted with fewer than 27 1/2 victories. Of course, it wasn’t the Nationals (33 over/under win total in preseason), Mets (31 1/2) or Phillies (31 1/2) that created the biggest headache, it was the Marlins, they of the MLB-worst 24 1/2 win projection who finished four games back and reached the NLDS. But the Braves navigated the upside-down state of the rest of the division — including pummeling Miami in an NL-record 29-run outburst — with three straight crowns for the first time since the run of 14 straight ended in 2005.

6. On An Award Tour

They’re going to need more trophy cases in Truist Park after a season that saw the Braves looking like Michael Jackson at the Grammys in 1984 (that’s a plethora of awards, folks). It was of course topped by Freddie Freeman’s MVP (much more on that later), and his winning the Hank Aaron Award, along with Max Fried claiming the first Gold Glove by a pitcher since Mike Hampton in 2003 and a franchise-record four Silver Sluggers with d’Arnaud, Freeman, Ozuna and Ronald Acuña Jr. Add in Brian Snitker claiming Baseball America’s Manager of the Year, three All-MLB First-Team selections in Freeman, Fried and Ozuna and Ozuna also taking the Edgar Martinez Outstanding Designated Hitter Award and the Braves were hoarding individual hardware like no other team in 2020.

5. Swanson Comes Alive

In a golden age of shortstops, we had waited to see if the Braves were ever going to get consistent production out of Dansby Swanson, who had never hit at or above league average or stayed healthy in any full season. Abbreviated year or not, Swanson came through with 116 wRC+, a career-best .809 OPS and 10 home runs, while playing all 60 games and leading the NL with 237 at-bats. He was also a Gold Glove finalist with 10 Defensive Runs Saved and 1.4 dWAR, better than Javier Baez, who won the award. The 26-year-old Swanson ranked sixth among all shortstops with 1.9 fWAR, equal to Xander Bogaerts and Corey Seager and just ahead of Francisco Lindor. This was the definition of a breakout season.

4. Fried Make The Leap and Anderson Arrives

Soroka’s season-ending injury Aug. 3 could have been a veritable death knell for the Braves rotation but losing an All-Star and Cy Young candidate gave way to the best run of Max Fried’s career. In six starts that month after Soroka went down, Fried had a 1.35 ERA with 31 strikeouts to 11 walks, ended the season with a 2.25 ERA and a 7-0 record and didn’t give up a home run until his final start of the year. The last month of the regular season could have gone better as back spasms put the left-hander on the 10-day injured list but Fried came back to post a 3.04 ERA in the postseason. Meanwhile, Ian Anderson arrived in on Aug. 26 blew away every expectation that followed the 2016 No. 3 overall pick. The 21-year-old right-hander had a 1.95 ERA in six regular-season starts, then joined the legendary Christy Mathewson as the only players with four scoreless innings in their first three playoff starts. With Fried and Anderson’s 2020s, Soroka’s return and the additions of Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, the Braves are poised to have a dominant rotation in 2021.

3. Ozuna’s Gamble Pays Off

As of this writing, the designated hitter isn’t in the plans for the NL in 2021, though there’s still a chance — and a strong one as far as this scribe is concerned — that it is back next season. No one did it better than Marcell Ozuna, who led the circuit in home runs (18) and RBI (56) — becoming the first Braves player to do so since Andruw Jones in 2005 — he finished third in average at .338 and made Mix It Up a rallying cry. It was a wise gamble for Ozuna, who took a one-year, $18 million deal increased his value as he hit the free-agent market again this winter as one of the most sought-after bats. Whether or not Atlanta can bring him back — and how much the continued use of the DH this season will impact his destination — remains to be seen, but the Braves and Ozuna both made out in the first year of the designated hitter in the NL.

2. One Win Away

Whoever said “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened” clearly wasn’t a sports fan. Nonetheless, after 19 years of waiting, the Braves ended their drought of postseason series losses and made it to the Champions Series for the first time since 2001. Yes, they finished one win away from the World Series. Yes, they blew a 3-1 series lead and gave outsiders another reason to scoff “Atlanta” amid another playoff meltdown that had shades of the Falcons and 28-3. There’s no guarantee the Braves can get back to that stage, even with a healthy Soroka and so many pieces of their lineup still in the fold, so this isn’t an ask to find a silver lining amid that hurt. But after nearly two decades of waiting and three straight 90-loss seasons, all those maneuvers and the stockpiling of talent, what’s undeniable is the Braves are elite again.

1. Freeman Has His Moment

#MVFree went from a catchy hashtag to a reality as Freddie Freeman gave the Braves their first MVP since Chipper Jones in 1999. It was a coronation for the four-time All-Star first baseman, who had carried the label of underappreciated/underrated for far too long and had four top-10 finishes on his resume before obliterating the rest of the field and beating the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts by claiming 28 of the 30 first-place votes and winning by 142 points. After battling COVID-19 and arriving just days before Opening Day, Freeman would go on to post career highs across a .341/.462/.640 slash line and had the sixth-highest OPS (1.468) with runners in scoring position in history. It comes at a key time, as Freeman has just one year remaining on his contract and getting a new deal done has to be a priority ahead of camp opening to avoid that kind of spotlight on the reigning NL MVP. Here’s thinking that deal gets done for this franchise cornerstone, as after years of being in the conversation as one of the best players in the game, Freeman now has the hardware to back it up.