The Atlanta Braves will continue their homestand Tuesday night when they begin a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs. Atlanta is 7-10 on the season and currently in third place in the NL East standings behind the New York Mets and Miami Marlins. Atlanta just completed a 3-4 West Coast road trip and returned home where they dropped two out of three to the Marlins.
Despite their early struggles, the Braves aren’t panicking. Rather they are taking a big picture look at the season rather than focusing on recent results.
“If you don’t, you’ll drive yourself crazy,” Brian Snitker said when asked about the importance of staying on an even keel through their struggles. “It’s a six month grind and you have to take each day as a separate entity. And if you get caught up in that whole thing, you will drive yourself nuts.”
Atlanta is currently leading the National League in home runs and are third in the majors with 20. Yet, they enter Monday’s off day just 12th in the league in runs scored. They were 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position before rallying for three runs in the ninth inning of Sunday’s 5-4 loss to the Marlins. It isn’t just any one thing that is plaguing the Braves, but a failure to put it all together, which is eerily similar to what they dealt with for most of the 2021 season. In many cases, it’s not even “them” failing to put it all together, but balls just not finding grass, dirt, or the space behind the outfield fence, as they’re third in the league in xwOBA, but ninth in wOBA, with the ninth biggest underperformance among teams.
“It seems eerily the same in a lot of respects,” Snitker said. “I hate to say last year, but there’s a lot of similarities. I think it’s part of a good team trying to find itself.”
The Cubs got off to a good start this season, but have since dropped five of their last six games and will come into the series with a 7-9 record. They dropped three of four at home to the Pirates in their last series despite out scoring them 29-12 in the series. That is because in their lone victory, they scored 21 runs. They are one of only two teams not underperforming their xwOBA so far this season (at least until the xStats are recalibrated), ranking 12th in xwOBA but first in wOBA. Of their 10 “regulars,” seven are outperforming their xwOBA; there are only 104 players total doing the same (the Cubs have over double the rate you’d expect on average). Where they’ve faltered has been on the run prevention end, as they’re in the bottom 10 in both defensive value and pitching fWAR so far. While the Cubs currently lead the majors with 84 runs scored although that number is skewed somewhat by the big performance against the Pirates. They are 21st in team ERA (4.11) and 18th in FIP (3.81).
Seiya Suzuki was one of the prize free agent additions of the offseason and has lived up to the hype. He is hitting .354/.492/.688 with four home runs and a 227 wRC+. While he’s running one of the biggest xwOBA overperformances in baseball right now, his xwOBA is a still-great .416, so a near-.500 wOBA is just a bonus on top of fantastic inputs for Suzuki and the Cubs. Ian Happ, Nico Hoerner, and Willson Contreras have also been great for the Cubs so far, with Contreras worth 0.5 fWAR so far despite being one of the Cubs underperforming his xwOBA.
Tuesday, April 26, 7:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports South)
Marcus Stroman (3 GS, 13.1 IP, 22.6 K%, 9.7 BB%, 8.78 ERA, 5.26 FIP, 3.31 xFIP)
Veteran right-hander Marcus Stroman will get the start for Chicago in the opener. Stroman began the season with a solid outing where he allowed one run over five innings against the Brewers. He has struggled since then, allowing 14 hits and 12 earned runs over his next 8 1/3 frames. He allowed eight hits and seven earned runs in 4 1/3 innings in his last start against the Rays. Stroman faced the Braves twice in 2021 while with the Mets and allowed eight hits, three walks and two runs over six innings. Don’t sleep on him, though, as his xFIP is still phenomenal and he’s basically just been stung by a 30 percent HR/FB rate so far.
Max Fried (3 GS, 18.0 IP, 23.9 K%, 1.4 BB%, 3.50 ERA, 1.53 FIP, 2.40 xFIP)
After a pair of uneven outings to begin the season, Max Fried turned in a gem during Atlanta’s West Coast trip, allowing just two hits while striking out a season-best eight hitters over seven scoreless innings against the Dodgers. Fried was plagued by soft contact and struggled somewhat with his command in his first two starts, but put it all together last time out. Fried has faced the Cubs three times in his career, allowing seven hits and three runs in 17 innings.
Wednesday, April 27, 7:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports South)
Mark Leiter Jr. (2 GS, 7.1 IP, 20.0 K%, 17.1 BB%, 11.05 ERA, 7.18 FIP, 4.87 xFIP)
The Cubs will go with 31-year old right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. in Wednesday’s game. Leiter returned to the major leagues for the first time since 2018 and will be making his third start of the season for Chicago. He was hit hard in his first outing, allowing five hits, four walks and seven runs in just 3 1/3 innings at Coors Field. He pitched somewhat better in his last outing, allowing three hits, two walks and two runs in four innings against the Pirates. Still, there’s not too much to get excited for there, as he’s walked the world and allowed hard contact when he’s not issuing free passes. One fun thing about Leiter is that he’s already thrown six different pitches this season, and all of his breaking pitches have interesting qualities... but they’ve all been creamed anyway so far this year except his eephus-like curve.
Charlie Morton (3 GS, 15.2 IP, 19.4 K%, 9.7 BB%, 6.32 ERA, 5.51 FIP, 4.84 xFIP)
Charlie Morton will get the nod for the Braves in Wednesday’s game and will be looking to bounce back after a tough road trip. Morton pitched well out of the gate, allowing two runs over 5 1/3 innings against the Reds in the opening series. In two starts on the road trip, he allowed 15 hits and nine earned runs over 10 1/3 innings against the Padres and the Dodgers. Morton walked three in each of those starts and surrendered three home runs. Morton faced the Cubs once in 2021 and allowed four hits, three walks and five runs in 5 1/3 innings. Pitch-wise, everything for Morton is just a bit worse than last year, and it’s added up to a small disaster so far. There’s not really any one thing to fix, so the Braves will have to hope he gets the feel for pitching back quickly.
Thursday, April 28, 7:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports Southeast, MLB Network)
Drew Smyly (3 GS, 14.2 IP, 15.5 K%, 3.4 BB%, 2.45 ERA, 4.04 FIP, 4.04 xFIP)
Former Braves lefty Drew Smyly will get the start for the Cubs in the series finale. Smyly signed a one-year deal with Chicago in late March and has pitched pretty well in the early going. Smyly will be making his fourth start of the season. He allowed seven hits and a walk and didn’t allow a run over his first two starts combined (9 2/3 innings). He allowed six hits and four runs, including his first two homers of the season, in his last outing against the Pirates. So far, the Cubs have gotten Smyly to do what the Braves really couldn’t: throw his magnificent curveball more than his fastball. He’s lost velocity and movement in the early going relative to 2021, but the command of his curve and cutter is improved, and he seems to actually be able to throw the cutter rather than being essentially a two-pitch pitcher, a problem that plagued him through much of his Braves tenure.
Kyle Wright (3 GS, 17.0 IP, 39.4 K%, 3.0 BB%, 1.06 ERA, 0.73 FIP, 1.65 xFIP)
Perhaps the best story of the young season for Atlanta, Kyle Wright will be looking to build off of his strong start in the series finale Thursday. Wright changed up his pitch mix coming into the season and has added velocity while adopting a more aggressive approach. The results have been promising, as he has walked just two batters and struck out 26 over his first 17 innings. He set a new career-high with 11 strikeouts in his last start where allowed just four hits over six scoreless innings against the Marlins. Wright is currently third in MLB in pitching fWAR and ranks towards the top in a ton of pitching categories, so it’s very exciting to tune in and see whether he can keep it up.