It’s July 2. The Braves still don’t have a 7-3 stretch. But, good news! They’re 6-4 in their last 10 games,
with that 11th game being a loss, so... if they win tonight, if they sweep this series, they can actually have one! Winning tonight would also give them a three-game winning streak, and put them just one game below .500. They might even gain a game on the Mets, meaning they’d only be 2.5 games back the division. But, you know, first things first: they need to actually win this game, and the pitching matchup is not particularly favorable... or is it? (No, it probably isn’t.)
Starting for the Braves will be Drew Smyly, who has been on a results-only roll of late. Smyly led Braves pitchers in WPA in June, and the team went 4-1 in his starts. He’s allowed no homers in his last three outings, as his HR/FB rate has (hopefully) begun to finally normalize after hovering around the 20 percent mark for way too long. It’s very tough to say that Smyly has turned the corner: his 121 xFIP- in June is both bad and identical to his 121 xFIP- pre-June; his SIERA actually got worse in June, though his xwOBA (which is less predictive) got considerably better. In addition, Smyly’s pitch mix still shows the same struggles and issues as earlier in the season. In June, Smyly had two of five starts where he didn’t quite have his cutter and threw it below 10 percent of the time, compared to six of eight starts before June. Starts with a curveball usage rate below 40 percent were three of five in June, and five of eight before June. And, of course, Smyly still hasn’t had a game where he’s been allowed to avoid facing the top of the order a third time.
Overall, Smyly’s line now features a 118 ERA-, 134 FIP-, and 121 xFIP-. That’s actually good enough for replacement-level starting work, and Smyly is no longer one of the very worst starters in baseball by fWAR, as he’s escaped the bottom 10.
If you’re looking for some good news: Smyly’s best start of the season (arguably, best FIP and xFIP, not the best Game Score) came against the Marlins back on June 13. Smyly had a 6/1 K/BB ratio, and the game started his homerless streak. The two runs he gave up, unsurprisingly, came in in the fifth, when he was facing the Miami order a third time — a Starling Marte RBI single and a run-scoring wild pitch were the damage. Fortunately the Braves were up 6-0 at the time, and Smyly didn’t come back out for the sixth.
So, in Smyly, we have a not-so-good starter, good-start-against-opposing-team-earlier-in-season as a motif for this game. In scheduled Miami starter Pablo Lopez, we have quite the opposite. Lopez took a huge step forward in last year’s shortened season, posting 1.6 fWAR in just 57 1⁄3 innings. This year, he’s kept it up, rocking a 76/82/83 line and already amassing 1.9 fWAR on the year. He’s been a top 30 starter regardless of how you slice it, has a 2.62 xFIP in June (same 3.27 FIP as pre-June), and that makes him somewhat less than an ideal matchup for a Braves team seeking its seventh win in 10 games for the first time this season.
Yet, for his great work in 2021 so far, Lopez has been knocked around by the Braves. In his third start of the year, the Braves got him for six runs in four innings, including two homers, despite a 6/1 K/BB ratio. That start continues to feature his lowest Game Score of the season. Months later, in that same game where the Braves game Smyly a 6-0 lead, that lead came largely at Lopez’ expense: he lasted just three frames, giving up a homer and collecting just a 2/2 K/BB ratio. That outing was his third-lowest Game Score of the season, and his worst FIP and xFIP in a game. The Braves also won the game.
So, that’s where we are coming into this game. The Braves will hope for a repeat of the June 13 Smyly-Lopez matchup, Smyly will hope to keep his homerless streak rolling, Lopez will hope that the Braves don’t thrash (or trash) him once again, and we’ll all hope for a Braves victory (and a Mets loss, and a Nats loss).
By the way, keep in mind that the Marlins still have the most fWAR among NL East teams. The Braves are just 2-5 against them so far this year, but in some ways, that isn’t surprising — the Braves are way worse than they’ve been expected to be, and the Marlins are much better. It’s just that Miami’s record has been totally discombobulated from their performance so far, though that hasn’t held true when they’ve played the Braves.
Friday, July 2, 2021
7:20 pm EDT
Truist Park, Atlanta, GA
TV: Bally Sports Southeast
Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, WNNX 100.5, Braves Radio Network, La Mejor 1600/1460/1130 AM
XM Radio: Ch. 187