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Braves have a(nother) absurdly annoying opening series

This is a weird thing that keeps happening

Cincinnati Reds v Atlanta Braves
This is Matt Olson before he realizes he’s going to hold the record for best-hit-ball-that-was-an-outin-2022-so-far.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Braves have been awesome since 2018, but their opening series have not necessarily followed that script. It’s small potatoes in the smorgasbord that is the entire season, but it’s nonetheless memorable (and memorably annoying) precisely because it happens first.

While the Braves won their season-opening series against the Phillies in 2018 (thanks, in part, to a Nick Markakis walkoff on Opening Day), they were swept by the Phightins in 2019, allowing 23 runs in three games. The Braves beat the Mets in the July series that started 2020, but the season started with a 1-0, Jacob deGrom-informed shutdown. Last year, the campaign that ended with a trophy and some very bling-y rings started with four straight losses, including another sweep in Philadephia where the Braves scored just thrice in three games.

To start 2022, the Braves split a four-game set with the Reds. That isn’t that bad — a bit disappointing, to be sure, but not horrendous. (It’s not, for example, the Dodgers losing a series to the Rockies, which is also a thing that will happen in baseball with some regularity.) I initially wanted to type in this paragraph that the mode expectation for a four-game series is generally a split, because baseball team quality doesn’t vary that much, but I was surprised to learn that when actually calculating this for the 2022 iterations of the Braves and the Reds, the mode expectation should’ve been the Braves winning three games. Why? Well, you might be surprised to learn that Fangraphs projections currently have the Braves as having the best winning percentage in MLB (see here: The Reds, meanwhile, are not awful, but still bottom 10. If you take these two teams, use the Log5 (odds ratio) method, you get the following outcomes:

  • Braves sweep: 14 percent chance
  • Braves win three of four: 35 percent chance
  • Braves split: 34 percent chance
  • Braves lose three of four: 14 percent chance
  • Braves get swept: two percent chance

Someone could definitely squabble with this spurious precision by pointing out that said rest-of-season win percentage assumes the return of the one and only Ronald Acuña Jr., who was not playing in this series, so maybe the split is the mode outcome after all — but the Reds were also without Luis Castillo and Mike Minor, so who knows. The point is, going 2-2 in any four-game stretch is the opposite of a big deal, but it still wasn’t super-fun, and compounds the recent history of some very underwhelming season-opening series performances.

But what I want to talk about is not just the fact that the Braves only won two of four. It’s how it happened, because seriously, the manner in which they split straight-up sucked.

At a box score level, there’s nothing too amiss — the Braves lost 6-3 twice, and won by a run twice. But if you look just a little deeper, it gets grimly wackier.

In the season opener, the Braves out-xwOBAed the Reds by over .050, yet finished with a wOBA .075 lower. They lost 6-3. (For comparison, league wOBA and xwOBA last year hovered below .320, so the Reds scored six runs while not even getting their wOBA that high.)

In Game 2, they out-xwOBAed and out-wOBAed the Reds by nearly .100, which amounted to... a one-run win.

In Game 3, the Reds had a pathetic .162 xwOBA / .132 wOBA and scored a run, while the Braves had a fine-to-above-average wOBA and xwOBA and scored... two runs.

The kicker came in Game 4, where the Braves again lost by three runs despite out-xwOBAing the Reds by nearly .100 — their xwOBA underperformance and the Reds’ overperformance meant that despite the Braves out-xwOBAing the Reds in every game, they still lost two of them, where the Reds outperformed their xwOBA to the extent that they topped the Braves’ wOBA.

If you just roll things up for the season-to-date as a whole, now that every team has finished its opening series:

  • The Braves have the 10th-best xwOBA in MLB at .360. (For comparison, they finished last year at .333, fifth in MLB and best in the NL-less DH, even with missing Acuña for the second half.)
  • The Braves have the 17th-best wOBA in MLB at .306. That’s quite a large gap. Last year, they finished ninth in MLB in wOBA, with fourth-biggest xwOBA underperformance in MLB, driven in large part by early-season luck tiger shenanigans in that regard.
  • The Reds are tied with the Athletics for the worst xwOBA-to-date in MLB at .264. Good job, Braves pitching and contact management! They also have MLB’s fourth-worst wOBA, and actually underperformed their xwOBA in the series. Yet, two wins.

When you talk about a perfect storm of ball-in-play, HR/FB, sequencing, etc. nonsense afflicting you, it definitely happened in this series.

The Braves finished the weekend with 14 outs on balls in play marked “barrels” or “solid contact,” by far the most in MLB. (The White Sox, second with 11, have the most barreled outs with eight, compared to the Braves’ four.)

This out by Matt Olson had a 1.931 xwOBA, which is presently the highest xwOBA-for-an-out of the season:

In all of 2021, there were only eight balls with a similar or higher xwOBA that went for outs (Matt Olson had one of those too); none happened with the Braves involved or at Truist Park. Olson, by the way, has a .641 xwOBA and .664 wOBA through four games, so uh... run for your lives or something. He and Marcell Ozuna are the only two Braves that finished this series with wOBA exceeding xwOBA.

Anyway, at this point you’ve gotten the gist. I just want to leave you with one more thing. I took all games played at Truist Park last year, and modeled the wOBA against the actual runs scored. There’s a few different ways to do this, so I have both a linear fit and a quadratic fit, though it doesn’t super-matter how you think of it. In short, more wOBA, more runs (duh).

We can take these and apply them to the Braves’ and Reds wOBAs:

On a game-to-game basis, the wOBAs don’t indicate the Braves should have won the series — the split makes sense. But in aggregate, the Braves, due to sequencing and its annoying friends, lost three or four runs in the series; the Reds, meanwhile, gained about seven by the same token.

Of course, if we do this with xwOBA, it looks really aggravating.

Not only “should the Braves have won every game” (if xwOBA were the only thing that mattered), but they underperformed said calculation by 10-11 runs. The Reds, meanwhile, got five or six extra runs as they “should have.” Fun.

One last note: until now, we’ve ignored defense. Defense doesn’t explain all of this, as some was just sequencing. But we already have 2022 defensive data from Baseball Savant, and the Braves have, as a team, -2 OAA and 0 OAA runs above average, while the Reds have -2 OAA and -1 OAA runs above average. So, the Braves played similar-to-better defense than the Reds, too. I don’t know, man. Woof.

In sum, you have my permission to throw stuff. This series sucked. The underlying reasons — more tinkering with the ball, humidors, weather, etc., don’t change that all of this already happened, and we had to watch it. In any case, the calendar doesn’t care, and the Braves are off to yet another series starting tonight. Hopefully it won’t take them basically half a season to shrug off these baseball deity-related doldrums this time around, because it’s more fun when you hit the ball hard and good things happen, than when you do everything right and get stomped (or edged, or whatever) anyway.

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