The 2022 Braves have made a ton of hay out of favorable matchups this year, and the present is no different: after two late-game meltdowns resulted in a series loss to the Cardinals, they’ve gone 7-1 against a spate of inferior opposition, pushing themselves closer and closer to the lead in the NL East. (No team has a better record against sub-.500 clubs than Atlanta’s 59-21.) However, they’ll face a tougher, and rarer test this weekend, as they head to Seattle for a three-game set against the Mariners.
This will be only the sixth-ever series between the two teams, and the Braves’ fourth-ever visit to the Pacific Northwest. The Braves are 7-9 against the Mariners overall, but 4-4 at Safeco Field/T-Mobile Park (this will be the first series the Braves play under the park’s new name). The Braves dropped a series to the Mariners at home in 2017, and were swept by them twice (home-and-home) across four games in 2014. They last won a series against them when sweeping them in Seattle in 2011.
This Mariners team (and this Braves team!) has little in common with that comparatively ancient history, though. After an insane bout of overperforming their talent level in 2021 (74 WAR-wins, 90 actual wins) and barely missing the playoffs, the Mariners are much better (albeit still overperforming their production by quite a lot) this time around. They have a top-10 position player unit (ninth in offense, seventh in defense), led by rookie phenom Julio Rodriguez (4.2 fWAR), a resurgent Eugenio Suarez (4.0 fWAR), and sophomore slugging catcher Cal Raleigh (3.5 fWAR in 353 PAs). It’s not the deepest team in the world, but they’re getting decent production from nearly everywhere (second base has been an issue).
It’s the pitching where the Mariners could use some improvement. The bullpen’s been pretty good, with breakout righties Erik Swanson and fireballing Andres Munoz providing a ton of relief value. The rotation’s been just okay — bolstered substantially by call-up George Kirby and trade acquisition Luis Castillo, but hampered by Chris Flexen being unable to repeat anything close to his 2021 and Marco Gonzales repeating his 2021 too well.
Friday, September 9, 9:40 pm EDT
Charlie Morton (26 GS, 146 IP, 96 ERA-, 101 FIP-, 88 xFIP-, 95ish xERA-)
Though inconsistent from start to start, Morton’s been pretty solid for about half the season now, with an aggregate 78/93/72 line since the start of June. He remains homer-prone in bunches, as 14 of his 21 homers allowed on the year have been yielded in six total multi-homer games, but has only had four games with K/BB woes in three months. He held the Marlins to a solo homer with a 7/2 K/BB ratio in his most recent start.
Morton has 10 career starts against the Mariners, but hasn’t faced them since 2019.
Robbie Ray (27 GS, 161 2⁄3 IP, 94 ERA-, 101 FIP-, 87 xFIP-, 93ish xERA-)
It’s actually creepy-slash-impressive just how similar Morton and Ray have been this year on the top line, with nearly-identical park-adjusted stats. (Both are right at 2.5 fWAR/200, too, unsurprisingly.) Signed to a $115 million, five-year deal in the offseason, Ray has provided some overall stability but not too much else, as he’s gone substantially backwards in both the strikeout and walk departments from his 2021 career year in Toronto. Like Morton, he’s hard some start-to-start issues, sometimes with walks, sometimes with homers. He had a 24/4 K/BB ratio in three starts coming into his last outing, in which he did pitch six frames without a run charged, but only managed a 3/0 K/BB ratio.
One wonders if Ray would be much better this season if he simply stopped throwing a sinker he didn’t really use at all last year — it isn’t good in any sense, while his fastball and cutter/slider remain fantastic. He didn’t start throwing it until partway through this year and is de-emphasizing it after it didn’t do much for him, but it sticks out like a sore thumb in his otherwise-really nice pitching profile.
The Braves faced Ray twice last year and tagged him for a combined three homers despite him putting up a 15/1 K/BB ratio; they lost both games, including both a blowout and a late-inning meltdown.
Saturday, September 10, 9:10 pm EDT
Max Fried (26 GS, 163 1⁄3 IP, 59 ERA-, 64 FIP-, 76 xFIP-, 67ish xERA-)
After rain washed away his most recent start of five hitless innings (6/1 K/BB), Max Fried will continue his attempt to trek up the fWAR leaderboard against the Mariners. Fried is currently third in the NL with 4.9, behind Aaron Nola’s 5.3 and Carlos Rodon’s 5.2; both Nola and Rodon have 27 starts to Fried’s 26.
The ace is once again on a great run overall. In his past eight starts, he hasn’t had an in-start ERA, FIP, or xFIP exceed 4.50, and the only thing exceeding 3.86 in those outings was one ERA mark in a game against the Phillies. Fried has had pretty much one unequivocably bad outing all year (the 5/5 K/BB ratio game against the Mets) and has ascended to one of the top pitchers in the game.
George Kirby (20 GS, 105 2⁄3 IP, 86 ERA-, 79 FIP-, 81 xFIP-, 86ish xERA-)
Seattle’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, George Kirby has been a huge boost to their rotation since coming up in May. After some struggles with the longball in June, he’s been close to flat-out dominant since: he has a 60/7 K/BB ratio over his last 10 starts, with a 60/35/70 line.
Kirby doesn’t walk anyone: he hasn’t had more than a single walk in a start this year. He hasn’t allowed a homer since the Orioles hit four off of him on June 27. He generally strikes out an above-average number of batters. Like Fried, he has just one game with an ERA, FIP, or xFIP exceeding 4.50 in his last 10 starts; in 11 of his 20 career starts so far he’s posted each of an ERA, FIP, and xFIP below 4.00. He somehow has an above-average strikeout rate despite a well-below-average whiff rate; in other words, he knows when to put guys away but isn’t going for whiff after whiff, instead living off the fact that batters can’t seem to square up his fastball early in the count.
Arsenal-wise, Kirby is somewhat of a unicorn, especially for a young call-up. He throws a hard four-seamer over half the time, but complements that with another five pitches, though primarily a curveball and cutter. The Braves’ best bet may be to sit on the curve or cutter and hope they get it, but the fastball is thrown so much that that’s a risky proposition.
Sunday, September 11, 4:10 pm EDT
TBA but probably Jake Odorizzi?
It seems fairly likely that the Braves will give the ball to Odorizzi here, but they could use another option if needed. Odorizzi’s last start, on August 28, was a bizarre affair in which he threw 75 percent four-seamers and no-hit the Cardinals for 18 batters before unspooling as soon as the third time through the order came up. Odorizzi’s performance as a Brave is still below-replacement in total, but he’s been better since some kind of mechanical tweak was made during a rain delay in a game against the Mets three starts ago.
Marco Gonzales (27 GS, 153 2⁄3 IP, 108 ERA-, 131 FIP-, 126 xFIP-, 127ish xERA-)
Gonzales has outperformed his FIP and xFIP consistently since the start of his second full season, and while 2022 is no different, he’s no longer on the hill while runs are prevented at an above-average rate for the first time in his career. Peripherals-wise, it’s been a struggle for the left-hander, as his strikeout rate has plunged to a very low 12.6 percent.
Gonzales allowed two homers with a 3/1 K/BB ratio to the White Sox in his last outing. The Braves should see this as a favorable matchup, unless somehow they get sequenced and BABIPed into offensive futility, which is always a possibility.