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Starting Nine: Who gets squeezed out of postseason rotation?

Piecing together a playoff rotation will come down to a tough decision. Plus, the Braves and Ronald Acuña Jr. are benefitting from universal DH and more

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Oakland Athletics
Since moving into the rotation May 30, Spencer Strider has 146 strikeouts, tied with the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole for the MLB lead.
D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s like getting atop the National League East last season after not getting over .500 until Aug. 4 wasn’t hard enough, so the Atlanta Braves went into the MLB game settings and turned the difficulty settings from Expert to Ludicrous Mode.

Trailing since Opening Day, the Braves moved into a tie atop the division Tuesday, and after the New York Mets’ swept a Wednesday double header with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the deficit sits at a mere half game.

This is the latest in franchise history in which the Braves have either moved into a tie or taken the division lead for the first time, surpassing the 1916 and 1883 teams, which did so on Sept. 4.

It’s been a remarkable climb for the Braves, and arguably more impressive than a year ago, because this hasn’t been the byproduct of a Mets collapse. Since June 1, New York is 53-24 — a 98-win pace — while Atlanta has played at a 117-win pace with a 63-24 record.

The strength of schedule remains a factor, with the Mets benefitting from the easiest slate of any team with a .432 opponent winning percentage. Outside of the sliding Milwaukee Brewers, the Braves are the only winning team New York faces the rest of the way (though that schedule didn’t exactly play in its favor in allowing a combined 22 runs in three straight losses to the Washington Nationals and Pirates).

The Mets will face the Miami Marlins this weekend, and after taking two games vs. the Oakland A’s, those difficulty settings are being tweaked again for the Braves, who will face the Seattle Mariners, who are in position to make the postseason.

There’s no margin of error for either side as the East race continues, with the potential that Sept. 30-Oct. 2 series between the Braves and Mets at Truist Park will loom large.

Just remember as the defending champions keep breathing down the Mets’ necks: someone had the audacity to call this race back in May.

1. Who gets squeezed out of the postseason rotation?

Spencer Strider is electric. There’s no other way to put it. He’ll either finish first or second in the National League Rookie of the Year race, is bound to get votes for the Cy Young Award and is on his way to making rookie history with 13.7 strikeouts per nine, which would break Kerry Wood’s 1998 record of 12.6.

But if the Braves follow traditional thinking and shrink down to three starter — specifically over the best-of-three Wild Card Series, if they have to play it, and the best-of-five Division Series — is he automatically in the rotation?

Grant McAuley and I got into this last weekend on From the Diamond on 92.9 The Game, but to dig a little deeper ...

Max Fried’s name is set in stone as the staff’s unquestioned ace, but if manager Brian Snitker has two pick from Strider, Charlie Morton and Kyle Wright, who is potentially out of a rotation spot until the League Championship Series?

Wright, the MLB wins leader, is in the midst of the best season of his career with a 3.23 ERA and 2.4 fWAR, but his last six outings have included getting tagged for six earned runs by the Mets (Aug. 4) and Tuesday, when he yielded a season-high eight to the lowly A’s. Morton has a 2.70 ERA with 34 punch outs and eight walks.

Strider, though, has been on another level with a 1.45 ERA with 45 strikeouts and seven walks in his last four starts, has a 4.5 fWAR that trails only Fried (4.9) among Braves starters, and his 13.65 K/9 is the best in baseball with a minimum of 96 innings.

Not starting the rookie would seem insane, right?

Wednesday was a testament to his ability to make adjustments in-game, as Strider threw 34 pitches over that first frame, struggling to find the strike zone as he walked three and gave up a double in allowing two runs. He rebounded in impressive fashion, retiring 16 of the last 17 he faced and finished with nine strikeouts, but in a postseason setting, does he even get the chance to get back on track when everything’s heightened?

Then there’s the potential that each time Strider toes the rubber he completely overmatches a lineup, like that 16-strikeout outing vs. the Rockies. But does he become that much more dangerous in the playoffs if you could throw him multiple times when it comes to the five- and seven-game series?

Strider’s emergence helped answer how the Braves were going to solidify the backend of the rotation. That same emergence is going to create some handwringing when it comes to figuring out how all the pieces fit together in the postseason.

2. Acuña and the Braves’ stroke of luck

With Wednesday’s win in Oakland, the Braves improved to 11-0 in the last 11 games in which Ronald Acuña Jr. was in the lineup. The last seven of those Acuña has been at designated hitter as he nurses a sore knee stemming from his offseason surgery. While there’s the chance he plays right field occasionally over the coming weeks, the hopes are that playing it safe now will allow the two-time All-Star to be back in the field in the postseason.

It’s a luxury, and it’s a luxury that underscores that the defending champs are among the teams making the most out of the DH coming to the NL full time.

Acuña is hitting 35 percent above league average at DH with a 0.7 fWAR that’s higher than the DH split of every other player the Braves have used in that spot (minus-2.0) combined. That 135 wRC+ is the fourth highest among NL DHs with a minimum of 90 PAs, a list headed by Bryce Harper (167 wRC+), whose Phillies are another team that’s taken full advantage of pitchers no longer hitting.

If there was no DH, baseball would potentially be without two of its biggest stars. Maybe the Braves would push the issue with Acuña, who is basically managing pain after his recovery, but Harper was DHing because he can’t throw the ball, with Tommy John surgery potentially in his future.

Are those purists that hated the universal DH still loathing it?

3. Jansen rebounded, but should Iglesias be getting more save opportunities?

After blowing his second save in four appearances, Kenley Jansen was back at it in a one-run game Tuesday night, slamming the door on the A’s in a 10-9 win for his 32nd save of the season.

Jansen was back at his Jansen best, with the cutter generating a 75 percent whiff rate (it was at 33 percent or lower in five of his six previous appearances), and nine of the 12 pitches he threw were strikes.

The veteran may have corrected the mechanical issues that haunted him amid a 15.00 ERA over a four-game stretch, but it also feels like a missed opportunity to have taken advantage of the depth of the bullpen. Shutting down the league’s 27th-ranked offense is a step forward, but it may not prove a solution.

Raisel Iglesias has allowed one run over 14 2/3 innings (0.61 ERA) with a .143 batting average against since being acquired ahead of the Aug. 2 deadline, with just one save. He’s pitched in the seventh inning three times in six appearances since Aug. 26, the eighth once and the ninth twice in that span.

Manager Brian Snitker has reiterated that he won’t pitch Jansen unless the Braves have a lead or in a tie game, and certainly utilizing Iglesias the way they are figures to make him a daunting weapon in the postseason. But Iglesias also gives the Braves the option to put Jansen in lower stress innings.

It was surprising, but not unexpected to see Jansen come out in the ninth in his first chance after a blown save. It worked, but if ever there was a time to break out of the traps of bullpen arms having their “roles” this would have been it.

4. Who ordered more damage vs. lefty starters?

The Braves just keep feasting on left-handed pitching, with the game’s second-best wRC+ (124), OPS (.807) and wOBA (.351) and third-best average (.272). They kept that going vs. the A’s, getting to Cole Irvin for nine runs on Tuesday and Ken Waldichuk for three more Wednesday.

That success figures to be key as Atlanta keeps chasing another East title.

The Mariners will roll out two southpaws in this weekend’s series, with Robbie Ray — whose August included 11.18 K/9 — on Friday and Marco Gonzales (3.98 ERA over 27 starts) on Sunday.

Should current rotation turns hold, the Braves are in line to face 10 left-handers over the final 25 games, including two within the seventh highest ERAs by lefty starters in the Nationals’ Patrick Corbin (5.68) and Marlins’ Trevor Rogers (5.19).

5. Braves and Mariners serving up youth

Young talent. Everywhere.

It’s been a key element for the Braves and Mariners in their runs to the postseason, as the only teams in the majors with a rookie position player and pitcher in the top five in fWAR.

Strider leads all rookies (4.5), while Seattle matches his impact with a right-hander of their own in George Kirby, who tops American League rookie pitchers (2.4 fWAR), and the Braves’ Michael Harris II and Julio Rodriguez are tied for the position player lead at 4.2 fWAR. Atlanta is also getting 1.2 worth of WAR out of Vaughn Grissom, who is also hitting 64 percent above league average hitting through 103 plate appearances.

If Strider hadn’t made his rotation turn in Oakland, each one would be in action in this series, as Kirby will start Saturday’s game opposite Max Fried. But it will be a showcase nonetheless for two teams that have made securing youth a priority, as within the last month both the Braves (Harris) and Mariners (Rodriguez) inked young stars with less than a year service time to extensions.

6. Grissom on yet another tear

Speaking of those rookies, just when it looked like Vaughn Grissom was slowing down, he’s caught fire again, with some help from Austin Riley.

Hitting .420 on Aug. 23, the rookie second baseman’s average dropped to .311 on Aug. 31 as he went 2-for-25 over a six-game stretch. Since then, though, he’s 10 for 21 with two home runs, two doubles and six RBI, pushing his season average up to .347. Grissom torched A’s pitching for six hits in the two-game series, including four on Tuesday.

The secret? A new bat courtesy of the Braves’ All-Star third baseman.

“I went a lot of cold for a little while. I was just missing pitches that I was given,” he said Wednesday. “Honestly, Austin Riley gave me his bat. I was a little cold and he told me to switch bats and he thought it was the wood was a little wet, a little soggy. So, I got a different bat and doing well with it.”

Since Grissom debuted on Aug. 10, his 164 wRC+ is sixth best in the majors among players with at least 100 plate appearances in that span, trailing only the New York Yankees’ Matt Carpenter (218) and Aaron Judge (202), St. Louis Cardinals’ Paul Goldschmidt (188), Houston Astros’ Yordan Alvarez (176) and Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout (170).

7. Huascar Ynoa’s season (and probably next season) surprisingly comes to an end

Raise your hand if you didn’t even know Huascar Ynoa was injured? Surprise seemed to be collective reaction to the Braves’ tweet Wednesday that the right-hander had undergone successful Tommy John surgery.

Given the timing, and the typical recovery time, it’s likely that the 24-year-old Ynoa will miss all of next season as well, further derailing what looked to be a promising young arm in the rotation.

He posted a 3.09 ERA over eight promising starts last season with 50 strikeouts to 11 walks, but that progress, and to this point his career, were derailed when he punched a dugout bench after a May 16 outing in Milwaukee in which he allowed five runs on nine hits.

Ynoa hasn’t been the same since, returning to post a 5.05 ERA in nine games over the balance of 2021 and started two games this season, pitching to a 13.50 ERA in 6 2/3 innings. He was recalled in in August, but never pitched over his three before being optioned back to Gwinnett and hadn’t appeared in a game in two weeks before the surgery announcement.

Ynoa is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, and given the inconsistencies, there’s the chance that the Braves don’t extend him a contract. Regardless, it’s going to be a while before we see Ynoa again, whether that’s on the mound for Atlanta or another club.

8. The odds are growing ever in their favor

FanGraphs still says the Mets are the favorite to win the division, with a 63.9 percent chance to the Braves’ 36.1 percent, as of Thursday. Of course, that’s a dramatic change from June 1, when Atlanta had a mere 16 percent chance to claim the East, and things have also improved on the betting side.

Per SportsBetting.ag, the Braves have gone from +450 two weeks ago, +575 three weeks ago, and as high as +700 on Aug. 9 in the division, all the way down to +125. Their World Series odds, which were +1800 the first week of June, have been cut down to +800, and they are +375 to represent the NL in the Fall Classic.

9. On this day in Braves history, Cesar Cedeno went into the stands

In 1981, Cesar Cedeno gave all hecklers something to think about. The Astros’ first baseman was taking his position at Atlanta Stadium in the first half of an eventual 3-2 Braves’ win, when he said he was being berated by fans.

“I have my family along on the trip,’ Cedeno said. “I do not enjoy anybody calling me anything that I’m not. Just for the fact that somebody paid six dollars I don’t have to be insulted up to the point where they called my name and I turn around and they’re gonna point at me and curse me out. I would not go for that.”

Cedeno jumped into the stands and fought with fans, and several of his teammates had to go into the stands to separate Cedeno from the fans.

The stadium operations’ director said the fans were calling Cedeno, who had pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the 1973 death of a girl who he shot as they wrestled for a gun in a motel, “killer.”

Cedeno was initially suspended, though that was lifted for what NL president Charles Feeney called “mitigating circumstances,” including remarks that “went beyond the realm of decency.” The Astro was fined $5,000 and Cedeno sent a letter of apology to the fan.

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