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May is just more pain for torpid Braves

Month number two of the season brought no turnaround to Atlanta’s fortunes in 2022

Miami Marlins v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

There was a point, shortly before the month of May ended on the East Coast, where the Braves led the Diamondbacks by a few runs. Securing that win would’ve given the Braves a .500 record for May — not exactly the improvement the Braves saw in 2021 when they 12-14 in April and 13-12 in May — but still better than April. But, the remainder of May’s final game, like most of the month, mostly sought to remind everyone that, apparently, life and/or Braves baseball is pain.

So, the Braves went 13-15 in May, after going 10-12 in April. With about a third of the season in the books, the scuffling’s effects on the full-season outlook are somewhat magnified. Before the season started, the Braves were projected to win 93ish games with playoff odds of 88 percent. Through April, those had fallen to 90 wins and 74 percent. Through May, they’re at 86-87, and playoff odds of 60.5 percent. Only four teams have done more to harm their expected end-of-season record; only the Phillies and Red Sox have done more to damage their playoff odds.

Where the Braves falter, they continue to do so in spite of the talent on their roster. Odds-wise, they were favored to win all but seven of their games in May, with an expected sum of game-by-game odds of 15 wins and 13 losses. Of the 21 games in which they were favored, they won just 11. That’s been the story of the season in one way or another all spring — either they don’t win enough of the games they’re supposed to, or they lose too many of the minority in which they’re not favored. On the season, they’ve won 21 of 27 when out-xwOBAing the opponent, which is basically the expected rate if not a little better for 2022. (They went 11-1 in such games in May, which is way better than the expected rate.) But they’ve won just 2 of 23 when out-xwOBAed (both came in May), which is just not a high enough rate of stealing games. 27-23 looks a lot better than 23-27, which is where they “should be” based on in-game xwOBA results; they “should be” 28-22 if games were played only on paper.

But, alas, they’re not, and looking at xwOBA obscures the fact that the defense has been a detriment so far. Through May, the Braves are a bottom-six defensive team; May’s middling defense was actually an improvement over the Braves fielding the league’s second-worst defensive unit in April. That’s a big reason why the team’s WAR-wins total to date is pretty similar to its actual record. In other words:

  • The Braves are currently 18th in team wRC+, 22nd in team defense, and therefore, 21st in team position player fWAR. In May, they were 22nd in wRC+, 16th in defense, and 21st in fWAR.
  • The offense, on the season, has the seventh-best xwOBA but only the 12th-best wOBA. Their ninth-biggest wOBA-xwOBA gap is better than it was, but is still a drag on the team. In May, though, the team actually had a bottom-10 xwOBA, a middling wOBA, and no real wOBA-xwOBA gap (I’m inferring calibration to come here). Their “luck evened out,” but mostly just because they started to hit poorly. It still doesn’t really help given that they banked some losses from April’s big gap, which was the third-largest among MLB teams.
  • Pitching-wise, the Braves are seventh in MLB in fWAR on the year, including 15th rotation-wise and first in terms of the relief corps. However, it doesn’t feel good at all, because the Braves’ relievers are actually 24th in MLB in relief WPA — the bullpen has done a good job of both racking up stats and melting down (often due to defense) while doing so. Only one bullpen in baseball has been victimized by sequencing worse than Atlanta’s so far. May was just this same pattern — sixth-best MLB pitching staff by fWAR, 17th rotation-wise and first bullpen-wise, 25th in WPA, one of the biggest ERA-FIP gaps for a bullpen, etc.

All of this sums up to a team that’s basically been stuck in a quagmire for various reasons. Before the heartbreaking walkoff loss in Arizona, the Braves were 5-5 in their last 10, 10-10 in their last 20, and 15-15 in their last 30. They are one of only three teams not to have lost three in a row, but one of only two teams not to have won three in a row. There’s a whole different post that names and quantifies all the different things that have led to the Braves being where they are — the Braves being top 10 in xwOBA but right around bottom 10 in RE24 and WPA offensively is a big part of it — and in the end, there are few overarching solutions, because everything boils down to “just win games.” Being more proactive about better decision-making would help, of course, but not doing so is just one of a dozen impediments the Braves are facing. Maybe things will improve. Anyway, on to individual performances and video clips and stuff.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for May 2022 Performance - Position Players

Matt Olson had a big game on May’s final day, but despite jogging out of the box and in the field while missing games here and there, it was a pretty great return for Ronald Acuña Jr. The phenom, despite taking the DH penalty a bunch, has 0.8 fWAR in 99 PAs so far, pretty much a 5 WAR pace that’s come with not being able to play the field, and with a bunch of launch angle problems that still haven’t been resolved. He’s just so good (and the rest of the team scuffling enough) that he finished second on the team in fWAR in May, and is just a bit behind everyone that isn’t Dansby Swanson.

The real kicker, though, is that while the team hasn’t gone anywhere, it hasn’t been for Acuña’s lack of trying. He has 1.36 WPA on the season, which is 17th in MLB, even though he’s only played in fewer than half his team’s games to date. Nor is this gaudy mark the result of a few big hits — instead, the kid’s had five games in May with a WPA above 0.1, another seven with it above 0.05, and perhaps most importantly, never had a game where he really hurt the team (with a WPA below -0.1, say). At least the Braves haven’t squandered his contributions too badly — they’re 4-1 in games where he WPAed above 0.1.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for May 2022 Performance - Starting Pitchers

There are many reasons why the Braves are struggling. Max Fried is not one of them. He’s tied for seventh in MLB among starters with 1.5 fWAR, and while May wasn’t as good as April for him, he still finished as a top-40 fWAR arm for the month. The Braves went 4-2 in his starts, and the two losses they suffered featured some of the gnarliest bullpen implosions we’ve seen this year. His pitching triple-slash for the month: 76/88/78; he only had negative WPA in one start, and while he was as victimized by the times-through-the-order-penalty as much as any Braves starter in May (5.14 FIP in nine innings spanning 47 batters over six starts), at least his xFIP in that duty was a sparkly 3.19. (On the season, no Braves starter has managed an FIP below 3.9 or an xFIP below 4.4 the third time through but for Fried, which when combined with the fact that the Braves have the sixth-most batters faced in those situations and are tied for the second-most games in which a starter has faced at least one batter in that situation should tell you a lot.) Anyway, Max Fried is cool, especially when he did something like outduel-ish Corbin Burnes on May 7. Yay.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for May 2022 Performance - Relief Pitchers

Did you know that A.J. Minter didn’t allow a run in May? (Well, not one charged to him.) He didn’t even have an outing where he decreased the team’s chance of winning. Minter is currently third in MLB in relief fWAR, and if you exclude Michael King, who is more of a bulk guy, he’s second behind Josh Hader. He’s also tied for second in May.

Just to be clear, A.J. Minter has 1.15 WPA this year. The rest of the bullpen has -2.15. Kenley Jansen and Tyler Matzek are very negative. Will Smith is bottom 40 in MLB. A.J. Minter had six shutdowns and zero meltdowns in May; the rest of the relief corps combined for 21 shutdowns and 21 meltdowns. Thanks, A.J. Minter. You are cool.

Best Offensive Play - Swanson’s huge homer (but the Braves lost later anyway)

This was a huge homer in a game it looked like was going to run away from the Braves, turning a 4-3 deficit into a 6-4 lead.

It didn’t help that the Padres did the same thing to the Braves in the very next frame, but this was nonetheless a cool moment for Swanson, who led the team in fWAR for May, and whose 1.4 mark in that metric was 10th in MLB for the month. Swanson is top 20 in fWAR on the season, too. Still, the Braves ended up losing this game by five runs.

Best Run-Stopping Play - Jansen ends it (in a good way)

Kenley Jansen is probably a big reason why the Braves are maddening right now. In May, he had a 71 FIP- and 73 xFIP-, but a 102 ERA- and had four meltdowns to five shutdowns, finishing with a ghastly -0.67 WPA for the month due to three huge implosions. What could’ve been an implosion, but wasn’t, was his outing on May 21.

Jansen got two quick outs, but then a two-out walk, an infield single, and a double by apparent Braves archnemesis Garrett Cooper brought up Jorge Soler with the winning run on second base. Jansen, though, survived. He threw two called strikes, and then whiffed Soler away on a cutter down the middle.

Most Dominant Single Game Offensive Performance

It’s that same Swanson game from above. The one the Braves lost. Swanson tallied .463 WPA in the game, as he had an RBI single before the homer. It was the third-highest WPA game of his career, and his highest since 2020.

Most Dominant Single Game Starting Pitching Performance

This was mentioned a little earlier, but Fried on May 7 was just a treat. He allowed just a solo homer with an 8/1 K/BB ratio in a game that saw the Braves top the Brewers 3-2 behind his seven strong innings. Corbin Burnes faced off against him, but only made it through six frames, allowing a homer and another run.

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

Okay, this wasn’t dominant at all. But it’s fitting that to get positive WPA out of non-Minter relievers, apparently this is what has to happen. On May 20, the Braves carried a 5-1 lead into the sixth, but Charlie Morton (third time through, oy) allowed a two-run homer, and later a single and a double to put the tying runs in scoring position. That was it for Morton, and out came McHugh. The first out McHugh got was nearly a game-tying single on a liner:

That liner had an xBA of about .750.

McHugh got out of the inning by allowing a 380-foot fly ball that wasn’t hit quite as well as it looked (.644 xwOBA though) and was still nearly a go-ahead three-run homer. “Dominant.”

Most Crushed Dinger

Very obliterated.

Alright, alright, let’s roll through the bad stuff and get on to June already, because what choice do we have?

Worst Offensive Result - Just the worst, in every way

This is probably going to be my worst play of the season for the Braves offensively. Just everything about it is so dumb and bad that I can’t even really talk about it without going on for way too long. If you know, you know. If not, well, I don’t know what to tell you without turning this whole section into a rant.

Worst Pitching Result - An implosion that actually didn’t lead to a loss for once

Up above, the best pitching result was Jansen almost-imploding but then striking out Soler. Here, it’s Jansen actually imploding, but the Braves came back and won this game in absurd fashion.

I’m not going to say stuff like, “This crappy season would be worth it if the Braves never signed a big-money reliever again,” because no, I don’t want a crappy season to be worth it, ever. But I hope the lesson gets learned sooner rather than later (if at all) anyway.

Worst Single-Game Offensive Performance

That same game where Swanson had nearly .500 WPA? One of the big reasons the Braves lost that game was because of Austin Riley absolutely eating it. Riley flew out with a man on in the first. He struck out to end the third with a man on. In the fifth, with the Braves down a run and men at the corners, he flew out to end the inning. In the sixth, after Swanson homered and the Braves got two more men on, he struck out again to end the inning. In the eighth, now down by a run, he came up with two on and flew out to center, once again ending the inning.

Riley has a .398 xwOBA, a .362 wOBA, -0.06 RE24, and -0.09 WPA. That line right there is alone a sizable reason as to why the Braves are where they are.

Worst Single-Game Starting Pitching Performance

At least the Braves got this one out of the way early. Kyle Muller was called up from the minors to make a spot start on May 1. Everything about it was ugly. from the 3/6 K/BB ratio, to the seven runs allowed, to the fact that even amidst all this, Muller was still asked to turn the lineup over twice and even pitch to Marcus Semien a third time. What made it even worse was that the Braves actually scored a couple of runs at one point to make it a one-run game, but Muller was sent back out there to further implode. I don’t think you want a video of this.

Worst Single-Game Relief Pitching Performance

Yeah it was still when Jansen gave up that homer to Harper. Woof.

Most Crushed Dinger Allowed

There’s Garrett Cooper again. There’s a Braves pitcher getting victimized the third time through again. Not great.

See you next month, if we’re all still gung-ho about baseball then.

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