On Saturday, May 29, 2021, the Atlanta Braves lost their 26th game of the season. It was an ugly 13-2 loss on the road to the Mets where seemingly nothing went right for the Braves. Defensive miscues played a factor. They fell to two games under .500. On Monday, May 30, 2022, the Atlanta Braves lost their 26th game of the season. It was an ugly 6-2 loss on the road to the Diamondbacks where seemingly nothing went right for the Braves. Defensive miscues played a factor. They fell to three games under .500.
If this all feels like déjà vu, then I’m with you on that note. Those two games were so similar that they even included a recently-called up obscure pitcher making his Braves debut in the middle innings. Jesús Cruz played the role of Jay Flaa in the 2022 sequel to the 2021 debacle. Granted, the 26th loss of 2021 was a lot nastier than the 26th loss of 2022 was, but the aftermath had a similar feeling. If anything, the aftermath this time around is actually causing a little more frustration since I’d imagine that Braves fans across the country are probably thinking “Really? They’re doing this again?”
Yep. They are, in fact, doing this again. Memorial Day has come and gone and the Braves are once again looking up at other teams in the NL East and struggling to gather any momentum going forward. While I still believe that the Braves are too talented to be playing as badly as they have been and should be able to get it together at some point, that’s just the thing — they shouldn’t be in this mess once again. You would think this team would’ve learned after last season that spending large portions of the season driving in the Struggle Lane is no way to go through baseball life.
Yet here they are. While I’m certain that nobody involved with this team set out to deliver a sequel to last year’s rollercoaster ride, it really does feel like the team is banking on waking up at some point instead of simply coming out of the gates looking like a real contender. Again, that could very well happen and this team could be a force to be reckoned with at some point in the near future but for not, they’ve found themselves in yet another hole. Last night’s game was a microcosm of what’s been wrong with the Braves this season.
For starters, Spencer Strider was making the start. While it’s good that Strider is finally getting his shot at starting after doing a fine job in the bullpen and spending his minor league career as a capable starter, he’s basically been thrust into a position where he’s got to be the savior of the lower part of the rotation. I’d honestly say that the lack of a capable fifth starter has been one of the main things holding the Braves back this season. Scott Coleman pointed this out in a Tweet on Saturday as the Braves were busy losing to the Marlins:
The Braves are a few outs away from having a 2-9 record in starts made by guys not named Fried, Morton, Wright or Anderson this year— Scott Coleman (@scottcoleman55) May 28, 2022
You can make that 2-10 after last night’s loss in Phoenix. Scott went on to mention that the Braves were 20-16 (now 21-16 after Max Fried’s start on Sunday) when the starters he mentioned in his Tweet made starts. Simply put, the Braves absolutely have to start getting something from their fifth starter since these games have been dragging the team down like an anchor. Seriously, if the Braves even had just a so-so record in those games, they’d at least be floating at or over .500 and the introductory paragraph to this article would’ve been a lot tougher to figure out. The obvious hope right now is that where Huascar Ynoa, Bryce Elder, Kyle Muller and Tucker Davidson stumbled, Spencer Strider can succeed. Otherwise, it might be time to start looking outside the organization in order to find someone who can give you something at the end of the rotation.
With that being said, Spencer Strider’s first career big league start was actually encouraging — it was just the fact that his defense let him down big time. That’s been a theme for the Braves this season: This team has been pretty prone to making mistakes in the field that have usually led to other teams having big innings shortly afterwards. No matter what defensive metric you look at, it’s a little disappointing to see.
Going into Monday, the Braves were 23rd as a team in Outs Above Average — for comparison’s sake, they finished 2021 in 12th place in all of baseball. The metric of Defensive Runs Saved has been much kinder to the Braves, as DRS sees the Braves as being a perfectly average team when it comes to defense. Ultimate Zone Rating has saved up all of its ire and disgust for Atlanta, however. The Braves are currently rated as the worst defensive team in baseball when it comes to UZR/150 and there’s a decent-sized gap between them and the 29th-best team. While I don’t think this is a terrible defensive team (we just saw one come to town in the most recent homestand), they’re definitely not living up to their standards so far.
The defense needs to step up and fortunately it seems like this is a problem that can be solved. Atlanta’s infield defense just needs to get it together and focus on a consistent basis. Dansby Swanson is already on Gold Glove pace (and really, he’s been pacing the team in terms of production in general. Good to see he’s bounced back from that slump that had us all annoyed early on!), Matt Olson himself has won a Gold Glove in the past and is definitely better than how he’s done so far, Ozzie Albies has been a plus-defender for his entire career so far, and Austin Riley is capable of making some solid plays when called upon. The infield has proven that it can be depended on and you don’t have to look too far in the past to see it in practice for all of these guys.
The outfield’s defense is the main issue. While we haven’t reached the DEFCON 1 level of desperation in the outfield like what we saw at some points during the first half of 2021, it’s still pretty concerning that Marcell Ozuna has had to play as much left field as he has considering his defensive shortcomings — especially when they were on full display during last night’s contest. Yeah, they may be easing Ronald Acuña Jr. back into things by utilizing him as the DH, but as we’ve seen with Ozuna’s issues with both his glove and his arm, playing Ozuna consistently in the outfield is a huge mistake. I’m sure that’ll change once Acuña is fully healthy but for now, the Braves have to get some sort of consistency and reliability from their outfield defense if the ship is going to be righted.
Then there’s the offense and situational hitting. Last year during medium-to-high leverage situations, the Braves finished with a wRC+ of 102 in those situations. That was good for the 12th-best number in all of baseball and a lot of that was skewed with the team hitting at a clip of 116 wRC+ in those situations from August until the end of the season. Here in 2022, the Braves are currently one of the worst teams in the National League when it comes to hitting in medium-to-high leverage.
For comparison’s sake, they were slightly below average in that category up until August of last season. The Braves have rarely been getting timely hits and once again, last night’s game in Arizona perfectly encapsulated the problem. Atlanta had seven runners in scoring position last night and only one of them scored and it was on a wild pitch. They finished the game 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position and that’s just not going to cut it.
Atlanta struck out eight times last night and four of those came with a runner in scoring position. While strikeouts are overblown when it comes to measuring offensive futility (i.e., I’d much rather see a guy strike out than hit into a double play), it’s still a bit concerning to just see so many chances go by the wayside via non-or-barely competitive at-bats. Some of this could be bad luck but it also doesn’t help when three hitters who are supposed to be forming the heart of your order are winding up near the bottom of FanGraphs’ clutch metric. The lack of situational hitting is a big reason why the Braves are currently spinning their wheels in the mud again and that’s another thing that will need to get better soon or else disaster is imminent.
With all of this being said, perhaps the most important factor that makes this year’s slow start even more concerning than last year’s slow start is the fact that the Mets have gotten off to an extremely good start. The saving grace for Atlanta last season was that while New York spent the majority of 2021 in first place, they never really put a huge gap between them and their divisional rivals before they eventually collapsed. That has changed here in 2022, as the Braves are currently closer to the last-place Nationals (five-and-a-half games up) than they are to the Mets (nine-and-a-half games back).
While I am still extremely skeptical that the Mets can keep up this pace on offense (seriously, go look at their hitting metrics on StatCast and tell me that what they’re doing is sustainable over 162 games), the point is that they’ve already built a pretty solid foundation to build upon going forward. Bar another historic collapse, Atlanta’s potential road back to the top of the NL East (and even just the Postseason in general) already figures to be much tougher this year.
It’s been very frustrating to watch Atlanta get off to yet another slow start — even more so now that it appears that it’s just the Braves pulling a Sideshow Bob and stepping on as many rakes as they possibly can. I still believe that this team is going to eventually get out of its way and start making a positive push forward. We’ve seen small signs of the offense being able to score when needed, the starting rotation is just one stable starter away from getting things under control and this defense has shown that it can be better than what they’re doing now, so it’s only a matter of on-field focus and execution.
There’s still a good team here, but it’s just frustrating to watch the Braves spend two straight seasons wandering in the wilderness while trying to realize that they are a good team. Hopefully they’ll be able to figure this thing out much sooner rather than later. I’m just going to be honest with y’all: My nerves can’t handle another year of waiting until kids go back to school before seeing this team get good again.