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Braves Mailbag: Spencer Strider’s role, rotation questions and more

Also, has Major League Baseball been messing with the baseball again?

MLB: Spring Training-Atlanta Braves at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Thank you to everyone who took time to send in questions for this week’s mailbag. We will do it again soon. Let’s get to it.

Please report more on the balls MLB is using this year, specifically their storage in humidors in all stadiums.

I think it is important to note that it is still a very small sample size, but it did feel like a large number of fly balls died at the warning track during the first seven games of the season. The weather also wasn’t great for a couple of those games with cold temperatures. Still, it is an interesting question as to what kind of effect that having humidors in all stadiums will have.

Another factor to consider is a potential change to the baseballs themselves. David O’Brien discussed a conversation that he had with Travis d’Arnaud about the baseball during the homestand on the latest episode of 755 is Real. d’Arnaud mentioned that the seams on the baseballs were higher this season which could produce more drag. It wouldn’t be the first time that Major League Baseball has made unannounced changes to the baseball, so that is going to be something that is interesting to follow as we get more games under our belt.

Stats-wise, something to consider is that right now, the league has a .338 xwOBA and a .308 wOBA. In 2020, when both leagues had the DH, both of those numbers synced to .320; last year, they were around .315. This suggests two things, irrespective of the causes: the ball is “reacting” to being hit better, but the results are far worse than expected. While the Baseball Savant data will calibrate and sync wOBA and xwOBA to one another eventually (it’s happened in June in past full seasons), right now it looks like the ball is “bouncier” off the bat (resulting in harder exit velocities), but has more drag. That’s the exact combination that’s been talked about during prior changes to the ball we’ve seen over the last few years, so it seems intuitive that a further change like this might be occurring again, though it’s hard to tell given the sample size.

Noting that these numbers use pre-calibrated 2022 values, through April 14, 2021, there were 8,532 balls hit towards the field of play, of which 705 were barrels and 402 were homers, for a barrel rate of around eight percent (per ball hit towards play) and a rate of about 0.57 homers per barrel. Through that same date in 2022, there were 4,877 balls hit towards the field of play, of which 419 were barrels and 204 were homers — the barrel rate has gone up a bit, closer to nine percent, but the homer-per-barrel rate has fallen to around 0.49. The change isn’t dramatic, but it’s definitely noticeable — a ball hit towards the field of play had a 11 percent (not 11 percentage points) higher likelihood of clearing the fence. This is perhaps even more notable when using barreled balls as the denominator: we’ve seen about 43 percent of barreled balls go for homers this year, compared to about 50 percent last year. If MLB is continuing its attempted campaign against the longball, this shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s not clear whether it makes for a better viewing experience.

Is there cause for concern with Ian Anderson following the last start, or is this just expected variation based on his lack of command that shows up in some starts?

I don’t think there is a reason to be concerned. Anderson has a solid track record and insists that he is healthy. Both Anderson and Brian Snitker pointed to the shortened spring and a lack of innings as part of Anderson’s struggles. His last spring training start was cut short due to a blister on his toe. He said that didn’t affect him in his debut start, but thought that he might have subconsciously altered his delivery. It will be good to see him get back out there over the weekend, but I think this is just a situation that a lot of pitchers are currently working through... just not a lot of the ones that have faced the Braves so far.

Will AA attempt to negotiate an extension with Max Fried or Austin Riley, or is it his practice not to do anything during the season? I’m more concerned about those guys than Dansby Swanson.

Another wrinkle to this is that the guys that are arbitration-eligible, like Fried, Riley, and even Swanson, still haven’t had their hearing to set their salaries. You would think that the Braves would be interested in locking guys like Max Fried and Austin Riley up long-term, but the players need to be willing as well, and they need to take deals that give the team some savings in exchange for not going year-to-year, or it doesn’t make sense. Atlanta has typically been a file and trial team so it would be a little surprising to see an extension announced before the arbitration hearing, though extensions for multiple years do fall outside the “file-and-trial” restriction.

I’m not expecting an extension announcement during the season. Fried is under team control through 2024 and Riley is locked up until 2025 so there is still plenty of time. Fried seems to have a more certain performance level, and Riley is in a weird place where given his breakout last year, his future forecasts are going to be heavily driven by whether he can replicate it in 2022 or whether he regresses to something a little less exciting.

Will they look to stretch Spencer Strider out as a starter or as a dominant multi-inning reliever going forward?

Spencer Strider’s performance was one of the most interesting storylines to come out of the opening homestand. Strider struck out five of the six batters he faced in two innings against Cincinnati and then allowed one run over 3 1/3 innings of relief against the Nationals.

After his second appearance, Brian Snitker talked about Strider and how he could help mitigate the loss of Luke Jackson. He also mentioned that Strider is fully stretched out so I don’t think they have a clearly defined role for him at the moment. It is possible that had Bryce Elder struggled, that Strider might have figured into the rotation picture. I think a role in the bullpen, perhaps a late inning option, is probably where he ends up for at least this season. If Braves pitchers had walked the tightrope a little better in the early going rather than getting blown out by bloops and bad sequencing, Strider could’ve already had some interesting outings as a dominant multi-inning bulk relief arm, so hopefully that’s something that gets more of a chance to occur — the Braves, as a team, have had the worst results as a result of opposing hitters’ sequencing in MLB so far, and have been (at least by one measure), in the top 10 among pitching staffs most victimized by ball-in-play stuff as well.

What’s the most likely future for Ynoa with the Braves? How long do you think the Braves will/should allow Ynoa to start before trying other options?

Huascar Ynoa struggled in his debut performance, allowing five runs while needing 72 pitches to get through three innings. I think some of the same things that I said about Ian Anderson above also apply to Ynoa. However, he does have somewhat of a harder tightrope to walk with a two-pitch mix and a really spotty track record control-and-command-wise before his breakout last year. I viewed him as a potential backend reliever last season and that really hasn’t changed for me, and given that his command needs to be workable for him to be worthy of rostering, and that single-season improvements in this regard often don’t stick, there’s reason to be skeptical of his contributions going forward. I don’t think that the Braves will move quickly on him, especially because the upside he showed in 2021 is too high to just write off immediately, but wouldn’t be surprised if he was the pitcher with the loosest hold on a rotation spot.

Why is Alex Dickerson on the team? Seriously, why?

This has been a popular topic on social media throughout the first week. It is easy to look at the box score and see that Dickerson is 1-for-13 at the plate and wonder why he has a roster spot. However, if you are watching the games or paying attention to the underlying numbers, you know that Dickerson has an average exit velocity of 91.3 mph and that number went down when he recorded his first hit of the season Thursday night with a bloop single that was 70.6 mph off the bat.

Dickerson has a .153 wOBA and a .414 xwOBA in 15 plate appearances. That is a terribly small sample and something that will probably even out. Literally no player in baseball with as many or more PAs as Dickerson has underperformed their xwOBA by as much as he has; he also has the fourth-highest xwOBA on the team. He will likely be transitioning into a bench role once Ronald Acuña Jr. returns and could be a valuable asset off the bench, provided that the same garbage non-relationship between inputs and outputs that’s afflicted much of the team ceases.

Why has Braden Shewmake not played since 4/7? He was in the starting lineup, then did not come out for field, and was pinch hit for by Ryan Goins. There has been no discussion of this anywhere. For a player of his caliber and promise, it’s surprising there has been no news regarding his absence.

Something I have been wondering as well and perhaps this is the answer.

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