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Starting Nine: NL East has been anything but a beast; lowest of lows for Inciarte

Plus, offenses feasting whenever Braves are involved, rotation’s struggles and some love for Nick Markakis

New York Mets v Atlanta Braves
August is traditionally one of Ender Inciarte’s most productive months, but he’s had just two hits in his last 14 plate appearances and is now sitting at 50 wRC+ this month, that after a 45 in July.
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

In any season, injuries are going to jump to the forefront of concerns, and in this shortened one, they’re only heightened as the Braves are dealing with them in a decimated rotation and two of their most dynamic hitters in Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies. As manager Brian Snitker said after Wednesday’s loss to the Yankees, Atlanta’s fourth in six games on this road trip, “With the injuries and everything like that, we’re doing pretty good to be 11-9, really. At some point in time, we’re going to get healthy again and get on a run.”

But the division lead currently belongs to the most unlikely of opponents, and even Mr. Consistent Freddie Freeman has been anything but, with three extra-base hits in his last 50 plate appearances.

Atlanta remains a World Series contender, with the fourth best odds of winning a title per and just completed what figured to be a gauntlet of 20 games to start this 60-game season. The National League East, though, hasn’t been what we expected and that’s where we’ll start out with this week’s Starting Nine.

1. NL East hasn’t lived up to the hype

A third of the season in — for at least one team in the division — seems an appropriate time to quantify just how crazy things have become in the National League East (maybe not as bat$#!* crazy as the Central, where the Cardinals have played just five games, but unexpectedly insane nonetheless). The Marlins, they of the 18 positive COVID-19 cases from players and two with coaches, became the first team to win at least six of its first seven after having 105 losses the previous year since 1899, have a one-game lead on the Braves ahead of a three-game series that begins Friday ... and will include Miami’s home opener. Meanwhile, due to the Phillies’ own coronavirus scare, they’ve finally played six games in a row after taking the field just four times in 17 days; the defending champion Nationals are below .500, the offense is a disaster (27th in fWAR at 0.3), and Stephen Strasburg is dealing with an injury and their grounds crew can’t figure out how to unroll a tarp; and the struggling Mets saw Yoenis Cespedes go AWOL before ejecting on 2020 and their rotation issues get even worse with Marcus Stroman opting out of the season and now entering free agency this winter. The Braves’ drama has been high with Nick Markakis’ leaving and returning, Mike Foltynewicz’s leaving and returning, Mike Soroka’s season-ending injury and, now, having both Acuña and Albies out of the lineup with wrist issues. What looked like the deepest division in all of baseball has descended into a war of attrition with a league-tying three teams with winning percentage of .429 or worse. The Braves still have the most talent on paper to win it, but that supposed East beast has been anything but.

2. We’ve reached the lowest of lows for Ender

This time of the season has traditionally been the stage for Peak Ender Inciarte, with the center fielder averaging 125 wRC+ in August, including 139 last season. He’s had just two hits in his last 14 plate appearances and is now sitting at 50 wRC+ this month, that after a 45 in July that, yes, was a shortened month, stands as the second worst month since he put on a Braves uniform in 2016 (topped by only a 27 last April). But maybe most surprising from the three-time Gold Glove winner is how out of charter he’s been on the defensive side. While he did rob J.D. Davis of a home run back on Opening Day, his Defensive Runs Above Average (minus-0.4) and UZR (minus-0.6) are at negatives for the first time in his career. That glove work has always kept Inciarte on the field, even if the offense hasn’t always been there, but depending how long Acuña is out, and with today marking the deadline ensuring the Braves won’t lose a year of control of Cristian Pache, the calls for change are only going to grow louder.

3. When Braves are at the table, someone’s getting full

Forget feast or famine. With these Braves, someone is feasting, every game. Through 20 games, they’ve played in 16 in which one or either side has had five or more runs and it’s happened in each of the past six games, including Tuesday’s loss to the Yankees in which both teams did it. Only the Rockies (13) and Padres (12) have more games with at least five runs than Atlanta and the Braves are tied for fourth, giving up eight or more runs four times. Since losing Soroka for the season Aug. 4, the rotation has allowed a total of 26 earned runs, that despite two scoreless outings from Max Fried. They Braves aren’t alone in scoring and allowing runs in bunches, as they’re one of five teams in the top 10 of games with five or more runs and games allowing seven plus, joined by the Angels, Giants, Orioles and Padres. Baltimore has been a surprise with a .563 winning percentage and the Padres are a game behind the Dodgers for second in the NL West, but the repeated highs and lows wouldn’t seem to be a sustainable path in a postseason push.

4. No marathon men in this rotation

With Touki Toussaint lasting just four innings and giving up six runs Tuesday against the Yankees, Braves starters have failed to make it through six innings in 15 of 20 games (and two of the times they did were via Fried, and another from Soroka). The 4 1/3 innings the rotation is averaging is the third worst in the NL, ahead of only the Marlins and Pirates and the number of times a starter has failed to complete six frames shouldn’t be surprising; it’s been a trend for this team. In each of the last five years, the Braves had season totals for games in which the starter failed to get 18 outs that rank in the top 11 in franchise history, with 67 in 2015, a record 88 in 2016, 68 in ‘17, 85 in ‘18 and 79 in ‘19. If 2020 were a full 162-game season, they’d be on pace to obliterate that ‘16 mark with 121 such games, but in this 60-game schedule are still headed for 45.

5. RISPy business

Overall with runners in scoring position, the Braves have been the most effective teams, hitting .276 (eighth) with a .842 OPS (also eighth), and no one had plated more runs in those situations (70) than any NL squad. Those total figures are great, but the reality of August has been something else entirely. This month, the Braves are 23rd in those situations with 82 wRC+ and 22nd in average (.220), hampered by three everyday players hitting below .200 in Dansby Swanson (.182), Marcell Ozuna (.167) and Freddie Freeman (.100), while their most effective bat (Ronald Acuña Jr. at .667) is out. In the last two games against the Yankees, the Braves were a collective 4-for-25 with men on second and third and struck out six times, extending a month that has seen them lead the NL with 27 Ks with RISP.

6. Nick Markakis appreciation post

Almost literally rolling out of bed and hitting a walk-off home run, followed by his 500th career double — he did, to be clear, say that after leaving the Braves on July 5 he didn’t pick up a bat again until returning to the team 24 later — Nick Markakis has already joined exclusive company, and it figures to get even more velvet-rope crowd-esque. The fourth active player with 500 doubles (along with Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano) stands 41 hits away from becoming the 34th player since the start of the Divisional Era with that many two-base hits and at least 2,400 hits in all. There’s fewer players on the current list (13) that are in the Hall of Fame than are now (20), and includes an extended number of names that have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs, and Markakis’ 189 home runs would be the lowest of the bunch, but the 36-year-old is about to put himself on a list of the most accomplished hitters in the last 50-plus years. If this last week, in which Markakis hit the game-winning bomb, then followed it with the milestone double after the layoff, did anything, it helped to put that in perspective despite the lightning rod he’s become in a debate between purists and more sabermetrics-inclined fans.

7. Tyler Flowers, the perfect partner

If you’re lucky enough to be in a relationship where your partner elevates you in every way possible, you might just be able to relate to what it’s like sharing the catching duties in Atlanta with Tyler Flowers. Since 2017, Flowers’ second season with the Braves, they’re tied with the fourth-best wRC+ at the position (105) and are third in the NL in that span. That included Kurt Suzuki going from hitting 14 percent below-league average in 2016 with the Twins to his two best seasons alongside Flowers (127 wRC+ in ‘17 and 108 in ‘18), Brian McCann turning back the clock last season with the highest first-half OPS (.785) he’d had in three years, and now it’s Travis d’Arnaud turn. In 10 games he’s slashing .350/.357/.600 with a completely unsustainable 154 wRC+ and .480 BABIP. Here’s hoping every catcher that shares the job with Flowers judges all future professional relationships against their time together.

8. Sean Newcomb’s future looks a lot like his past

While he once flirted with a no-hitter back in 2018, Sean Newcomb has never been better from a consistency standpoint than he was when he came back from his banishment to Triple-A last season and transformed into a weapon out of the bullpen. He was upset and he was vocal about it and an upset Newcomb was a valuable one as he held opponents to a .215 average and .661 OPS (down from opponents hitting .305 against him with a .790 OPS as a starter). Now, with Newcomb cast off to Gwinnett after being roughed up to the tune of eight runs (all earned) in just 1 1/3 innings against the Phillies on Monday, the Braves have to hope Newcomb returns mad and as a relief option again. But with another Newcomb setback comes the realization that, while he’s long been a part of the discussion around future rotations since being acquired for Andrelton Simmons, the stuff isn’t playing that way. His vaunted curveball has delivered a positive wCB in just five of the last 13 times he’s started a game and in 2020, opponents hit .333 vs. the pitch, but last year being used primarily out of the bullpen it resulted in a .093 average against and he put batters away 28.8 percent of the time with it. Newcomb’s role is defined, it’s just time everyone involved accepts it.

9. Shane Green expands his arsenal and it’s paying off

After the July 2019 trade that brought him over from Detroit, Shane Greene the All-Star become Shane Greene the Former Closer, a fall that included the Braves debuting and then scrapping a slick ballpark-shaking introduction on the jumbotron that included Young Jeezy’’s I Put On For My City. He posted a 3.86 ERA in the ninth with the Braves after a 0.55 ERA before the deal and struggled mightily in August with a 4.72 ERA in 13 1/3 innings. But the 2020 version of Greene has yet to allow a run in 7 2/3 innings, fanning six and walking one and the right-hander has done it by adjusting his arsenal, scaling back on the use of the cutter he threw 31.1 percent of the time last season and has offered 24 percent or more times in five of his six seasons and added what’s proven an effective changeup. While it’s a small sample size, after throwing the pitch just five times last season (0.5 percent rate) Greene had already thrown it eight times in his six appearances and has yet to give up a hit. It’s subsequently helped make the cutter that much better, and of the 18 of those he’s thrown, opponents have yet to get a hit.

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