After a 4-2 win on Friday night, the Braves matched their longest win streak of the 2021 season by reeling off nine victories in a row. On Saturday afternoon, they’ll continue their series with Pittsburgh and vie for a tenth straight win.
The Braves have won nine in a row a few times in recent history (2021, 2019, 2014), but you have to go back to 2013 to find a longer streak. That was the year that the Braves reeled off 14 wins in a row between July 26 and August 9. They’re not quite at that gaudy number yet, but taking it one day at a time and winning their third straight against the Pirates would move them closer than any other winning streak since.
The streak itself has reflected a substantial turnaround in the team’s production, though of course they’ve been facing some underwhelming competition. In June (the streak started when the month did), the Braves are fourth in position player fWAR, including sixth in wRC+ and third in defensive value. The pitching is second in fWAR (and on the season, it’s worked itself all the way up to fourth as a result of the streak). Essentially the entire lineup sans Ozzie Albies, Matt Olson, and Marcell Ozuna has raked during the streak, and almost every pitcher has been great... except, well, as has been going on pretty much the whole season, Charlie Morton.
To say that it’s been a brutal two months for Morton so far is probably understating things a bit. He has a 134 ERA-, 116 FIP-, 114 xFIP-, and an xERA above 5.00 (that’s probably around 125ish). The ERA- and FIP- are his worst in a season since his below-replacement “Ground Chuck” 2010 days; his xFIP- is his worst since his 2008 rookie season. About a month ago, Morton had a start against the Padres where he looked like his pre-2022 dominant self. Since then, though, he’s reverted to underwhelming, if not plain bad. In four starts since, he has a 22/7 K/BB ratio but has allowed a homer in each — 163 ERA-, 128 FIP-, 97 xFIP-; the latter number is driven by a nice 60 xFIP- in his most recent start, which came at Coors Field.
Morton’s issues from a results perspective aren’t unusual. His ability to get whiffs is down, which forces him further out of the zone, which leads to falling behind and more walks (or, in the rare case he tries to force it, more homers). His pitches have lost horizontal movement, which is the partly the cause of the drop in whiffs, as he used an arm-side four-seamer to set up a sweeping glove-side curveball. There’s also been some mechanical inconsistency with his fastball — he’s started releasing it slightly higher relative to his other pitches in a way that wasn’t true previously, and whether for that reason or another, the horizontal movement on it is far more inconsistent pitch-to-pitch than previously. Curveball command has also been a challenge. Is it the seams of the new baseball? Subconscious habits picked up after coming back from surgery? Morton hasn’t pointed to either of those as the source of his struggles. But, he’s still in the process of figuring it out. The Pirates aren’t exactly threatening competition, but it’s clear that his issues are his own and not something driven by a matchup or opposing approach.
Whether Morton falters or not, the Braves will have to do something offensively against Pittsburgh starter Zach Thompson, which is probably not too tall of an order. Acquired from the Marlins in the Jacob Stallings trade, Thompson pitched very well (1.3 fWAR in 75 innings) in 2021 by running a teeny HR/FB rate. As that and his numbers have regressed to his xFIP, he’s become a lot less valuable — so far he has compiled just 0.2 fWAR in 45 innings for the Pirates, with a 113/121/109 line (his xFIP in 2021 was 110; it hasn’t budged while the ERA and FIP have wheeled up to meet it).
To that end, Thompson is pretty much out there eating innings. He’s had four or fewer strikeouts in all but two of his 10 starts, and exceed two walks just twice as well. He’s given up around a homer every other start, and has only had a multihomer game once so far. Still, the Pirates have won his last three starts — his most recent outing led to a shutout, the one before that featured late-inning dramatics, and against the Rockies on May 25, he allowed four runs in three innings, but the offense put up a 10-spot.
The Braves should also be plenty familiar with Thompson, as they faced him three times (two starts, one relief appearance) last year. He made his second career start against them last June and threw five scoreless innings with a 6/0 K/BB ratio as the Braves lost. A few weeks later, he was Miami’s starter in the famous Max Fried walkoff July 4 game, and pitched fine in that game (three runs in six innings, 6/1 K/BB ratio, a homer).
So, the stage is set to see if the Braves can win 10 in a row. Morton could rebound, the Braves could tee off on Thompson, or something else could happen. Also, really random fact: Morton has never faced the Pirates since departing Pittsburgh after 2015.
Pittsburgh Pirates @ Atlanta Braves
Saturday, June 11, 2022
4:10 pm EDT
Truist Park, Atlanta, GA
TV: Bally Sports Southeast
Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan
XM Radio: Ch. 181