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Braves mostly tread water in May

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It was better than April in some ways, but things don’t look too sanguine with a third of the season in the books

Pittsburgh Pirates v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

After going 12-14 in April, the Braves followed that up with a 13-12 May. 13-12 is considerably better than 12-14, but it was far from a satisfying month? Why? In brief: the Braves entered May with playoff odds of nearly 45 percent, a substantial decline from where they started the season (64 percent), but still something to feel reasonably good about. They will enter June with those nearly halved, now at just 24 percent. The reality is that the Braves spent May pretty much treading water, while a bunch of other teams won a bunch of games. As a result, the Braves will need to actually do that thing we were all expecting them to do before the season started: actually win a bunch of games, too. If they don’t, well, it’s gonna be a pretty lame summer.

In May, the Braves did the following, team performance-wise:

  • Ranked 15th in position player fWAR, including 12th in team wRC+.
  • Ranked 16th in rotation fWAR, with team ERA-/FIP-/xFIP- ranks of sixth, 15th, and 10th, respectively.
  • Ranked 11th in bullpen fWAR, with team ERA-/FIP-/xFIP-/WPA ranks of 19th, 15th, 17th, and 22nd, respectively.

Compared to April, the team’s offense took a step back, but the rotation took a step forward from horrible. Still, this team hasn’t exactly been killing it anywhere, which is why their record is what it is. But, guess what? In May, the team still had the fourth-best xwOBA in baseball. It’s just that it had the fifth-biggest xwOBA underperformance, so you know, same ol’ story for a second month. It might balance out one day, but the underperformance was worse in May than April, so... it’s just not a fun time.

Schedule-wise, the Braves really kind of blew it in May when you think about matchups. I mean, really, look at this:

You add up those percentages and you get a 14-11 record... but if you look at the individual odds, the Braves were favored to win in 20 of the 25 games they played this month. Losing that one game to the Pirates was a big blow; beating the Brewers in a Drew Smyly-Adrian Houser matchup didn’t quite make up for it. This is the second month in a row where the Braves underperformed both their aggregate odds and their favored-in-game odds. But then again, you knew this! You knew the Braves were supposed to be good, and they just haven’t been. So it goes.

The bad news is that the Braves are just eighth in the NL in winning percentage right now. The good news is that they’re projected to be fifth going forward, even after accounting for all of their injuries, current performance declines, and other problems. The real bad news is that the season’s far enough along, and some other teams are far enough ahead, that even if every team plays to expectations from here on out, the Braves will finish with the eighth-best record in the NL. They’ve got so much work to do.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for May 2021 Performance - Position Players

After a ridiculous April, Ronald Acuña Jr. looked downright human in May, with a 123 wRC+ (and, unsurprisingly, a sizable xwOBA underperformance). But, fortunately for the Braves, May was the month of the re-ascension of Austin Riley, who pounded out a 168 wRC+ and seven homers, tallying 1.0 fWAR in the month. He barely missed a top-30 fWAR placement for the month, but was 11th in wRC+ among players with 78 or more PAs in May. He did outperform his xwOBA by a sizable degree, but hey, someone on the Braves has to!

The peak of his month was a two-homer game, where those two bombs accounted for five of the Braves’ seven runs against the Pirates. After a season where his initial struggles transformed into OBP with no pop before shifting into a more complete batting line, Riley (re-?)arrived in May. The Braves will hope it keeps up, because they’re running out of other places to find offense.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for May 2021 Performance - Starting Pitchers

Max Fried’s April was a small disaster, with one decent start, two bad starts, and then a baserunning injury sustained in a game he should have been removed from well before he hit for himself. But, he returned in May to throw four far more Fried-esque starts: 37 ERA-, 78 FIP-, 107 xFIP-.

Fried continues to befuddle, vacillating between “strikeout man with good peripherals” and “soft contact man hated by xFIP.” He had a .287 xwOBA-against in May, and amusingly, if you rank his four starts by xFIP, their xwOBA ranks are exactly the opposite. Basically, we’re really seeing some kind of Manichean Fried dichotomy, where sometimes he tries to (and gets) weak contact, strikeouts be damned, and sometimes he pitches more like your standard 2021 hurler. That’s a bit confusing to watch, but it’s worked out so far.

What’s more problematic is that while Fried had that sparkly ERA- and FIP- in May, the Braves didn’t really take advantage. He allowed one run in each of his four May starts, but the Braves lost two of them, as the bullpen coughed up tack-on tallies and the bats disappeared.

Bonus: Fried somehow put up the exact same Game Score (v2) in three consecutive starts, despite some dramatically different FIPs/xFIPs/xwOBAs in them. Can he make it four in a row tonight?

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for May 2021 Performance - Relief Pitchers

This one is actually kind of difficult. There are two contenders. Honorable mention goes to Tyler Matzek, who had a pretty bananas month: nine innings, zero runs, three walks, 12 strikeouts, four hits, a pitching triple-slash of 0/35/59. The only blemish on Matzek was not even one of his own doing, but rather that the Braves threw him in mop-up, low-leverage duty in six of those nine innings.

That means that, though he was used considerably less frequently, Chris Martin gets the nod here. Martin only made six appearances in May, as he was on the shelf for the first half of the month. But, he was almost perfect, retiring every batter he faced but one across six innings of work. That one batter reached base on a 69 mph bloop into center. Amazingly, even Martin had three of his six outings come in garbage time, but at least he handily locked down the other three.

Despite everything being kind of blah, the Braves did play some real good (and real bad) games in May. Let’s refresh our memories.

Best Offensive Play - More Panda More Panda More Panda

The legend of Pablo Sandoval in Atlanta only grows, it seems. May 8 was probably the most insane game the Braves have played so far, including tying the game with two outs in the ninth, tying it again in the 11th, and then walking off in the 12th after allowing three runs in the top half of the inning. All of those extra-inning shenanigans were fairly surreal, but the biggest play in this game was Pablo Sandoval’s mammoth homer off Hector Neris to knot the game up in the first place.

I’m not even sure what more there is to say at this point. Sandoval already has three games this season with a WPA above 0.400; this homer alone was worth 0.490. He is 13th in MLB in hitting WPA so far this year, and has all of 54 PAs on the season, when regulars have about four times as many.

Best Run-Stopping Play - Smith’s Key Strikeout

On May 6, the Braves found themselves walking a tightrope. They had a slim lead in Washington after Drew Smyly outdueled Jon Lester, but turned the eighth inning over to Edgar Santana, who nearly gave up the lead in its entirety. Grant Dayton (yes, Grant Dayton) somehow bailed the Braves out with back-to-back strikeouts to end the eighth, with both the tying and go-ahead runs on base.

When Will Smith came on for the game’s final three outs, pinch-hitter Ryan Zimmerman greeted him with a double, and, well, here we go again, folks. A flyout moved Zimmerman to third, and Smith had to contend with Yadiel Hernandez with the tying run on third. But contend he did, getting a really ugly 2-2 swing on a slider in the zone.

A 2-0 flyout ended the game.

Most Dominant Single-Game Offensive Performance

I said it last month, but yeah, Sandoval’s getting all of ‘em when he hits insane dingers like he did to tie up that game against the Phillies.

Most Dominant Starting Pitching Performance

The game against the Red Sox on May 25 did not start auspiciously for Charlie Morton. A single, a walk, and an error loaded the bases with none out. Morton pulled a changeup out of his magician’s hat to strike out Xander Bogaerts, but then plunked Rafael Devers to fall behind 1-0. He was only able to escape the inning because of a line-into-double-play by the next batter. The second was almost as dicey, as Danny Santana (!) hit a leadoff triple. But, another strikeout and double play saved Morton and the Braves from a further deficit.

The Braves took the lead in the third, and Morton went into full annihilation mode. Over the next five innings, he allowed one single. For a pitcher that’s gotten torched the third time through the order here and there, he allowed literally nothing to the Red Sox under those conditions. It was not only arguably his best start of 2021, but perhaps his best start since 2019. Watch his dominance below:

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

Just for a change of pace, consider this performance from that crazy May 8 game. Pablo Sandoval had just tied the game. Will Smith came on, not to lock it down, but to give the Braves a chance to win it, stupid extra innings rule and all, in the tenth. After he walked the leadoff batter, things seemed grim. But against a pretty scary meat of the Phillies order (Rhys Hoskins, Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto), Smith went strikeout-flyout-foulout. It didn’t immediately set up a win, but it was a rare moment of respite in an all-too-dramatic set of late innings this year.

Most Crushed Dinger

This ball went so far. So, so, so far.

16th-longest homer of the year so far by estimated distance, second-longest by a Brave. Cool stuff.

And now for the bad stuff...

Worst Offensive Result

May 18 was a horrendous game for the Braves for basically every reason. I’m not sure whether it was exactly the low point of the season, but hopefully it never gets lower than that again. It’s not surprising that multiple of the worst plays of the month happened in this game.

The Braves entered the bottom of the eighth trailing the Mets by a run. Aaron Loup, who had thrown a scoreless seventh, stayed in to face pinch-hitter Ehire Adrianza. Adrianza lined a ball into center and stretched it into a double — he would’ve been thrown out at second if not for a nifty headfirst slide that avoided the tag. That was it for Loup, on came Jeurys Familia, who walked Acuña. Next was Freddie Freeman, 2020 NL MVP, Mets tormentor, guy who had already homered in this game, guy who-has-been-hitting-way-better-than-his-results-indicate. In this key moment... Freeman... ugh.

Yes, the Braves did tie the game anyway. But that didn’t really help because...

Worst Pitching Result

This was probably the low point of the season. Please don’t let things get any lower, Braves.

Tomas Nido, despite his 124 wRC+ in 60 or so PAs this year, still has a career 60 wRC+. You just can’t do this, not if you want to do anything other than tread water and eventually drown.

Worst Single-Game Offensive Performance

Freddie Freeman did not really have a good May. He had a 111 wRC+ for the month, though it wasn’t really his fault. The guy managed a .390 xwOBA in May, but a gigantic underperformance yielded just a .336 wOBA. Deserved or not, he struggled through certain games in May, really hurting the Braves in the process. On May 20, in a game the Braves would drop to the Pirates (of all teams), Freeman really came up short again.

To his credit, he did get two hits in this game. But, with the Braves having a 3-2 lead and the Pirates basically handing them the game by leaving Wil Crowe out there with two outs and the bases loaded against Freeman a third time... Freeman struck out. In the tenth, after Jacob Webb and Grant Dayton combined to give the Pirates a 6-4 lead, Freeman led off the inning and... flew out weakly on the first pitch.

Worst “Starting Pitching” Performance

I can’t really go on about this one at length because it gets me too steamed, but you should probably know what this is even without reading anything below.

On May 26, the Braves had opened up a 3-0 lead on the Red Sox after two innings. Drew Smyly gave up a homer to Hunter Renfroe, making it a two-run game. Two innings later, a two-out walk was followed by a Rafael Devers homer, and Smyly, who has allowed an obscene amount of taters to date, had given up the lead. Austin Riley’s homer in the next half-inning resurrected the advantage, and Smyly threw a scoreless frame. In the bottom of the sixth, still with that one-run lead, he would be facing the Boston lineup a third time.

He was left in the game. With one out, this happened: single, single, fielder’s choice non-out to tie the game, RBI double (to Devers). At no point in that sequence did the Braves actually replace him. They waited for Smyly to both blow the lead, and for the Braves to fall behind, before pulling him from the game. Just like giving up the homer to Nido, you just can’t make unforced errors like this and hope to do anything other than tread water all season, not with this roster.

Worst Relief Pitching Performance

A.J. Minter for a second consecutive month, folks! May 11, one-run lead for the Braves in the eighth. Minter comes on.

Leadoff double. Ball hit back to Minter that he fails to get an out on due to indecision and a late throw back to second. Single to left, bases loaded. Single to left, tie game.

Minter departed, Jacob Webb melted down by allowing two more runs, and the Braves lost by those two runs. Minter’s been pretty good on the season, but he’s already had six meltdowns to date, including three with a WPA loss of over 0.200.

Most Crushed Ball Allowed

This came on a 3-0 pitch that wasn’t even in the zone. My lord. It was estimated to travel even further than Contreras’ bomb. Oh yeah, the Braves lost this game too.

See you next month!