The hard-to-stop Atlanta Braves freight train barreled through its first St. Louis station on Friday night, unleashing multiple big frames on a Cardinals pitching staff that had done very well in August, while Spencer Strider quieted their highly-effective bats. On Saturday night, the Braves will take aim at a second consecutive Redbirds southpaw, while hoping that Charlie Morton doesn’t have one of his 2022 gopherball-laden outings. Some stuff to think about as you get ready for the 7:15 pm EDT start...
Montgomery’s newly-useful four-seamer
The Jordan Montgomery-Harrison Bader swap at the Trade Deadline was never the most straightforward of trades to explain, and the need for explanation has probably increased given the Yankees’ second-half slide and the fact that Montgomery has been the most valuable Trade Deadline pickup in baseball. As Ben Clemens touches on in the piece linked, a big change for Montgomery since coming over to St. Louis has been an increased emphasis on his four-seamer, a pitch that he didn’t really rely on particularly heavily in New York prior to the trade:
One development worth monitoring: with the Cardinals, Montgomery has used his four-seam fastball more often as a counter to his normal sinker. It’s below average movement-wise and doesn’t miss many bats, so I’m curious to see whether that trend will continue, but it’s worked well so far, generating plenty of weak contact as batters sit on sinkers and adjust poorly to the four-seamer.
There’s not too much more, on the surface, than this. Montgomery’s arsenal, in general, isn’t particularly great, and he’s largely been a command-and-low-walks guy who’s gotten by having a sinker that’s less terrible than most sinkers. The four-seamer was previously almost an afterthought, and it’s getting a lot more play now despite not having much velocity or “rising” action. It really does seem to be surprising batters into popping it up because it isn’t the sinker, moreso than anything innately useful about it.
One thing that has changed about it, though, has been its location since the trade:
It’s hard to say whether this change is the result of something mechanical or just an alteration in approach, but it’s hard to say that throwing the four-seamer belt-high with a secondary location at the letters is unequivocally better than moving each of those two targets up some number of inches. Could that be what’s surprising batters?
If so, then I guess I’d just watch to see whether or not the Braves are surprised. There’s no real reason to be stunned at a mediocre four-seamer in the zone, and the Braves are:
- The majors’ best four-seamer-hitting team overall;
- Third in MLB in hitting lefty four-seamers;
- Fourth in MLB in hitting two-seamers overall; and
- Third in MLB in hitting lefty two-seamers.
Whether Montgomery goes with more sinkers or more four-seamers, the Braves’ bats should be just fine, so long as they don’t outsmart themselves.
William Contreras appreciation
Contreras managed his first-ever four-hit game last night, which seems like a good time to call out his superlative performance, even if there’s nothing specific to watch for. Originally not even in the Braves’ roster plans for 2022 given the signing of Manny Pina, Contreras now has 2.0 fWAR in 275 PAs. His offense has been, in many ways, the Braves in microcosm: he swings hard and he doesn’t care if he misses a lot, because the damage on contact is immense.
Contreras’ .356 xwOBA is just barely outside the top 30 among all hitters with 250 or more PAs. His .449 xwOBA is 14th in MLB. His barrel rate is over twice the league average and 14th in MLB. He can’t hit sliders or curves, or at least hasn’t, but has punished basically everything else to an xwOBA of .350 or higher.
In what ways is Contreras not a microcosm of the Braves? Easy: his groundball rate. The Braves are either 10th or 11th in lowest grounder rate as a team, depending on how one defines grounders, and is even lower (seventh) when considering Statcast’s “topped” category, which includes only poorly-hit grounders highly likely to be outs. Contreras, though, has the second-highest grounder rate and second-highest “topped” rate on the team (behind Michael Harris II in both cases).
Rather than be discouraged or annoyed by this, consider it a positive thing, because it’s a clear area for improvement, fixes for which players are routinely able to implement. Can you imagine what would happen if the same William Contreras already terrorizing pitchers turns some of his weak grounders into flares? Room to grow in the offensive profile of a guy already putting up a .350+ xwOBA is a great thing to see.