In doing these monthly recaps for a few years, I’ve tried to do variations on the “Braves [verb] [preposition] [month]” theme where possible. That just really doesn’t seem to fit anymore. How best to describe April 2021 for the Braves? What comes to mind is the very apocryphally-attributed aphorism: “May you live in interesting times.”
Interesting times they were, indeed. To wit: through the first half of the month, the Braves had the highest-leverage offensive PAs in the league, while their pitching PAs were seventh-highest by the same measure. The Braves were only 5-8 through that date, but those 13 games included three extra-inning contests, two other games settled by walkoffs, eight one-run games, and just three games settled by more than two runs. The Braves didn’t have a blowout win until their home opener in Game 7, they didn’t have a blowout loss until Game 11. Then, the worm turned. On April 17-18, the Braves and Cubs exchanged 13-4 games. The following weekend, they were manhandled by Zac Gallen and Madison Bumgarner in a doubleheader, getting just one hit through 14 innings. They then blew out the Cubs in a couple of games, and ended the month by being on the receiving end of two blowouts. For anyone that complained about the potential cardiac arrest induced by all those close games during the season’s first two weeks, your reward was some pretty unengaging baseball for much of the latter half of April, with eight of 13 games being mostly foregone conclusions from the early innings on.
In the end, though, what’s past is past, and all of those games are, at this point, just entries in the seasonal ledger. As April ends, the Braves sit 12-14, a game behind the 13-13 Phillies, who lead the division. The NL East has been anything but beastly, with no team over .500, and just 1.5 games separating the attic from the cellar. While no one’s really run away in the standings, what’s less comforting is that only the Twins have shed more playoff odds than the Braves thus far in 2021. While the Braves’ 50/50 shot of making the playoffs at this point is still a better place than they were to start either the 2018 and 2019 seasons (and look how those turned out!), I doubt anyone’s particularly jazzed about a 12-14 start. Preseason, the Braves could feel pretty good that all they had to do to get a playoff spot was to beat out whichever team in the NL’s maybe-kinda-sorta-contender class (Nationals, Phillies, maybe the Giants?) — even if the Mets and Padres were great, pending nothing wild in the weak in NL Central, that was a viable and fairly easy playoff path. One month in, though, you might be squinting a bit and wondering if the Cardinals or Giants or someone might pose an annoying challenge down the line. It’s all just wait and see at this point, though.
So, how did the Braves get to 12-14, in terms of team performance? Well, after a 2020 season where a Hulked-out offense covered for the patchwork-iest of rotations, and an offseason where the Braves dumped much of their resources into trying to prevent that from happening again... things did not go according to plan. Not in the least.
- Offensively, this has been a good team. Maybe not a great team, but the Braves finished April 8th in wRC+. They’re tied for the MLB lead in homers, have a top five walk rate, a bottom six strikeout rate, and oh yeah, have the best team xwOBA in baseball despite pitchers hitting being factored in for NL teams. While the team was underperforming its xwOBA to an extreme degree in the early going, this is no longer the case.
- Defensively, this has been an okay team. They’re average-y by both UZR and DRS so far, and below-average by OAA, but not by too much.
- The issue has been, well, the thing the Braves tried to “fix” in the offseason in the first place. The rotation is 28th in baseball by fWAR and 26th by RA9-WAR. Walks and homers have loomed large — the rotation’s walk rate is just outside of being 10th-worst and the starters have allowed four more homers than the next closest team. (By comparison, that four-homer gap takes you from second to tenth, as well as 11th to 19th.) A saving grace is that despite being bottom-five in both ERA- and FIP-, the rotation actually has an above-average xFIP- and SIERA — every starter except Charlie Morton has a sizable FIP > xFIP thing going on. While nice to know, it’ll need to pay dividends in the future to matter, as April was tanked in large part by, once again, by far the highest HR/FB rate in baseball. (Why do the Giants and Red Sox have great April records? Their rotations allowing HR/FB rates well below 10 percent could have a lot to do with it!)
- There’s been a lot of complaining about the bullpen, but really, it’s been okay: 16th by fWAR, 17th by WPA, 21st by RA9-WAR. Where the rotation has been damned by the longball, the bullpen has benefited from the ball staying in the yard, with an FIP below its xFIP collectively. The rotation should improve even if nothing really changes, but the bullpen should get worse under those circumstances.
- A brief note about the much-maligned bench: third-string center fielder Guillermo Heredia is second on the team in fWAR among position players, while Pablo Sandoval is sixth and Ehire Adrianza is seventh. Sandoval is second in WPA among position players, while Heredia is fourth. The Braves have had many issues in April; the bench was not anywhere near one of them.
So, what did all of that add up to? This:
The Braves arguably should have gone 14-12 or 15-11 given these percentages. They were favored, however slightly, in 19 of the 26 games so far. April 14th’s 10-inning loss to the Marlins (Charlie Morton vs. Nick Neidert) stands out as a particular stinger; while the Braves did win a Huascar Ynoa-Stephen Strasburg matchup 2-0, they let a lot of on-paper semi-gimmes get away in April. This was the result:
Anyway, on to individual player performance!
Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for April 2021 Performance - Position Players
The reason why the Braves are where they are right now and not somewhere far worse is basically one guy: Ronald Acuña Jr. Despite missing a couple of games with an abdominal strain, he leads the NL (and is third in MLB) in fWAR, with 1.8. He’s one of only 14 players with 10+ PAs to finish the month with a wRC+ above 200. He’s tied for second in MLB (leads the NL) in homers with eight, has more walks than strikeouts, and has the second-highest xwOBA in baseball. He’s in the top 10 in basically every quality of contact category, and top 25 when he isn’t top 10. He’s been monstrous. He leads all of baseball, including pitchers, in WPA, and it isn’t even really that close.
If there has to be a downside, it’s that his off-the-charts production scaled down just as the team entered the blowout phase of the month. When the games were mostly close (through April 15), Acuña had a 285 wRC+ and 1.72 WPA. He’s managed just one homer and a 100 wRC+ in the games since, along with a basically-neutral WPA. The first half of the month was exciting because of Acuña and other reasons; the second half of the month has somewhat dragged because of a lack of exciting Acuña stuff and other reasons. So it goes.
Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for April 2021 Performance - Starting Pitchers
In a month where the rotation was awful, it’s not surprising that the guy taking home this non-award wasn’t even supposed to be in the rotation: Huascar Ynoa. Coming out of Spring Training, the plan was to carry Ynoa as a long man or first-guy-out-the-chute in a bullpen game until (presumably, though the team implicitly indicated this) Bryse Wilson would take regular turns in the rotation. Ynoa, though, laughed this plan all the way into the ground. He threw one relief inning in the opening series, and then “opened” a bullpen game four days later with five scoreless innings. That bought him another turn, where he struck out ten in six frames, allowing just a run on a solo homer. The Cubs trounced him at Wrigley, but he bounced back to stifle the Diamondbacks, and then avenge himself with nine strikeouts in 5 1⁄3 against the Cubs.
While Ynoa trails both Morton and Ian Anderson in fWAR and has a bit of an inflated FIP due to the Cubs destroying him in one of his outings, he has the best xFIP on the team (including all relievers). Oh, and he’s 4-for-10 with a dinger at the plate. While it’s only been a month, Ynoa, his changed arm slot, and the subsequent performance have been an unequivocally satisfying story for the Braves, in a month that didn’t have too many of those.
Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for April 2021 Performance - Relief Pitchers
Will Smith was really bad in 2020. So, so bad. He was bad by ERA. He was bad by other pitching metrics. He was bad if you only care about the regular season. He was bad in the postseason. He had an okay xFIP for a reliever, I guess, is about the best thing you can say about his 2020.
Fast-forward to 2021, and Smith’s been better. A lot better! The 90 ERA- is not the best mark ever, but the 61 FIP- is nice and the 87 xFIP- is pretty good too. Smith has melted down twice, leading to a Braves loss each time, but those his only two outings in 11 tries where he’s hurt the team’s win expectancy. Considering that he’s had six outings with a WPA exceeding 0.10 in those 11 tries, that’s pretty good. If nothing else, it’s been better than the track records of his bullpen mates in April, each of whom have had fewer lockdown frames or more relief disasters (or both).
Well, that was semi-depressing. But hey, there were some pretty great moments in April, nonetheless.
Best Offensive Play - Panda for the Win
Pablo Sandoval’s presence on the Opening Day roster was either amusing or concerning. Pablo Sandoval’s presence on this team has been delightful, because the dude has delivered pinch-hit dingers. Probably the biggest play for this team in April was this bit of insanity: the only run-scoring play in a 2-0 win to give the Braves a doubleheader sweep over the Nationals.
All hail Panda Power. There have been 23 pinch-hit homers so far in 2021. Sandoval has three of them. Only one player has two. The rest are all singletons.
Best Run-Stopping Play - Smith, Double Play End Game
The reason why Sandoval’s dinger was able to give the Braves a doubleheader sweep was because of this play, which ended the prior game. The Braves had a one-run lead heading into the
ninth seventh, which they doubled with a Freddie Freeman RBI single in the top half of the inning. The Braves were 0-4 at this point, and all Will Smith had to do was preserve a two-run lead to get them into the win column.
Unfortunately, that proved somewhat difficult. Juan Soto drew a leadoff walk, and after Smith struck out Ryan Zimmerman, Starlin Castro hit an RBI double. Things got even worse after, as Smith walked Luis Garcia on five pitches to put the winning run on base. But, no worries, as Smith got a double play off Andrew Stevenson’s bat to end the game:
Most Dominant Single-Game Offensive Performance
Aw hell, just give it to Sandoval. Hard to get more dominant than that game-winning pinch-hit homer in what was otherwise a 0-0 game.
Most Dominant Starting Pitching Performance
After a stellar start to his big league career in 2020, Ian Anderson’s first forays into 2021 were kind of a step back. His first two outings were fine from a K/BB perspective, but he allowed three homers in those two starts. His next two starts featured zero homers, but had a combined 10/8 K/BB ratio, which, blech. The result was that his pitching triple-slash coming into April 27 was 82/107/85 — perfectly fine for the long run, but disappointing given that his 2020 was 43/58/78 (even if he was never going to really keep up anything like those numbers over a longer stretch). There were some command issues, there were some potential mechanical concerns, and as you know, it’s not like the Braves were rolling along anyway.
So, it was with elation that we witnessed Anderson dominate the Cubs for seven frames, allowing just one hit and one walk to go with eight strikeouts. It was the second-best start of his career so far by FIP, and the best by xFIP. In 11 career tries, he already has two efforts of seven innings and zero runs. one with an 8/1 K/BB ratio and the other with a 9/3 mark.
This one-minute clip doesn’t quite do the outing justice, but it’s still something.
Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance
Think back to that game that the Braves won when Smith coaxed a double play ball from Stevenson. The beginning of that game was also crazy. Max Fried allowed four runs in the first, and after the Braves scored five times in the top of the second, he allowed another run right after. Fried last only two frames, retiring just six of the 15 batters he faced.
So who came on but Josh Tomlin, to throw two scoreless innings with a one-run lead? Tomlin allowed zero hits and one two-out walk, while striking out two. That’s about as good as you can get short of bailing someone out, so cheers, Tomlin.
Most Crushed Dinger
Ronald Acuña Jr. has the second-furthest homer hit in April. He has the 21st-hardest homer hit in April. But, for my money, I like this one: the combination of exit velocity (110 mph) and launch angle (32 degrees) makes it one of the five most obvious goners of the season so far.
Oh, but there was plenty of bad to go around, too.
Worst Offensive Result
The Braves got this one out of the way early. The season opener with the Phillies was a taut affair, and headed to extra innings, where we were once again subject to the “really stupid rules in baseball for some reason” revue. Ozzie Albies started the inning on second, moved to third on a groundout, and tried to score when Marcell Ozuna hit a fly ball to center. He did not score.
The Braves lost in the bottom of the inning. C’est la vie, but the dumb rule just makes every loss associated with it feel even worse.
Worst “Pitching” Result
Yeah, it’s just the thing that goes right along with the lack of success above. Nate Jones has been dreadful as a Brave thus far, but Jean Segura’s game-winning bouncer had a hit probability of below 15 percent. What a stupid rule. Two groundouts and a single in an inning should not result in a game loss.
Worst Single-Game Offensive Performance
We’re sticking with April 1, here. Marcell Ozuna, fresh off dominating pitchers for whatever duration had baseball in 2020, had a game to forget.
His first PA was a leadoff single in the second, but he was stranded. He struck out in the fourth. In the sixth, down 2-0, with the tying runs in scoring position and one out, he obliterated a ball at over 107 mph... but it was caught at third base. In the eighth, with the game now tied (thanks Pablo Sandoval’s first pinch-hit homer of the season!), he struck out with Freeman on first and none out. And then, in the tenth, the coup de grace off a shallow fly ball. It wasn’t all his fault. The worst things really weren’t. But it was one of the most painful, even if it came in the first game of the season. I mean seriously, ugh:
Worst Starting Pitching Performance
I could’ve left the heading for this one as “The Aristrocrats,” because that’s about what it was. Max Fried was not having a good time on April 13. He got a three-run lead thanks to two homers, and immediately gave it back to the Marlins. Then he gave up a go-ahead homer to Adam Duvall. The Braves tied the game, but Fried was left in to start the fourth. He got the first two outs, then hit a batter. Then allowed a single. Then hit another batter. He was not pulled at any point in this sequence. Duvall came to the plate. Duvall ripped a double. The next batter, also a righty, came up. Fried was still in there. A single put the Braves in a four-run hole. Fried hit for himself in the bottom of the inning. He doubled, and then hurt his hamstring.
Fried was bad. The Braves made everything worse by leaving him in to pitch. They let him hit for himself, and he hurt himself running the bases. That was his last in-game activity in April. This is very difficult, if not impossible, to top as a “worst thing having to do with a starting pitcher in game action.” It was also one of the worst starts of Fried’s career.
Worst Relief Pitching Performance
Here is a thing A.J. Minter “did” on April 15. He came in for the ninth in a one-run game. He walked the leadoff batter. Adam Duvall then doubled to tie the game. He got two outs, but then gave up a go-ahead single to Garrett Cooper. He mercifully struck out the last batter. The Braves bailed him out by staging a comeback, walkoff victory. By WPA, somehow, it wasn’t even the worst outing for Minter’s career.
Most Crushed Ball Allowed
The Braves gave up a lot of homers in April. This one had the highest xwOBA.
It wasn’t the hardest-hit (Bryce Harper) or the deepest (Willson Contreras), but still. A no-doubter, and the Braves ended up losing the game.
See you next month, which hopefully goes better than this one!