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2023: The year the Braves achieved offensive apotheosis?

The Braves’ sacrilegious-to-some style of hitting may have reached its apotheosis in 2023, with an unexpected twist

Chicago Cubs v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I want to start this by saying that I don’t have any firsthand insight regarding the workings of the Atlanta Braves organization. I’ve never talked with, much less been in the same vicinity as Kevin Seitzer. Sure, Kris is down at the ballpark for most home games, and there’s some good information that comes out of that, but it’s never anything about hitting strategy. Why would a team freely divulge that, just to satisfy observers’ curiosity, anyway?

I also don’t have any special insight regarding just how good the Braves have been in 2023, especially offensively. The good news is that no one needs any special insight to appreciate it. They finished with a 125 wRC+, tying the fabled 1927 New York Yankees for the highest team batting mark ever. (Those Bombers did have to deal with pitchers hitting... so it’s not quite apples to apples. The Braves have the 11th-best hitting line all-time for non-pitcher batting among all teams that played 100 or more games in a season.) They are only the fourth team in history to have their non-pitchers slug .500 or above, the first since 1936 to do so, and the first non-Yankees team to do so. In the Statcast era, that is, the period from 2015-on when high-speed cameras have substantially enhanced our understanding of how baseball stuff works, no team has exceeded their .365 xwOBA — not teams that only had to do so for 60 games in 2020 during the summer months, not the team that went on wild homer binges due to a very bouncy ball in 2019, no team at all. (In fact, the Braves’ .365 xwOBA is so far ahead of the next-closest team’s full-season mark that the difference between the 2023 Braves and 2019 Twins is the same as the difference between those 2019 Bomba Squad Twins and the 40th-ranked team xwOBA.) And, oh yeah, they tied the major league record for team homers in a season, despite: 1) the HR/FB rate for the league being about 20 percent lower in 2023 than 2019, when those Twins did it; and, 2) the overall homer rate in baseball being about 10 percent lower in 2023 compared to 2019.

So, again, no special, for-my-eyes-only knowledge. But I have watched, and followed, and parsed these Braves (as well as the Braves for years and years before them) as they’ve ascended to baseball’s juggernauts, and I have an idea. More than an idea, it’s a story, about how the Braves took the germ of something perhaps radical, and cultivated it into an imposing jungle thicket with succulent fruit. The idea is obvious to us now, and is probably obvious to much of the league in retrospect: swing to hit the ball really hard. Forget the other concerns: whether you make contact, whether you should make contact, whether you need to make contact. Just swing hard, hit the ball hard, and if you can’t — don’t swing. That’s the idea, and this is a story that I think I can tell about this idea.

2018 was the first year of the Braves’ new regime, ensconced after the self-inflicted flameout and banning-from-baseball by John Coppolella and Company. The Braves treated (or rewarded?) Alex Anthopoulos and their other new honchos with a magical year that flipped its prior-year record (70-92) into a 90-win runaway division champ that no one saw coming. 2018, though, was not the first year this idea took root — and the Braves’ offense, in all fairness, was just mediocre that year. Things really got going in 2019... but I’m not going to lean too heavily on words to convey the story here. Some graphs will do just fine, and I’ll refer back to them a bunch.

First, let’s talk about what the Braves did when they connected. The charts below are all z-scores — a z-score is a measure of how many standard deviations above the mean a value is. Though it depends on the dataset and what you’re measuring, having a z-score above 2 (or below -2) tends to be very difficult to achieve because it’s essentially saying the value is not just one “spread” away from the average, but two full spreads or more. I bring this up, because these numbers continue to floor me even though I’ve been aware of them for quite a while:

Trying to put some of these numbers in context can cause some degree of brain pain. The Braves’ average exit velocity was 91.0 mph, as a team, this past year. (It goes without saying, perhaps, that this is by far the highest in the Statcast era, as no team even comes within 0.5 mph.) In all of baseball this year, there were 366 batters with 130 or more batted balls... and only 68 of them had a higher average exit velocity. The Braves, as a team, tied Manny Machado, and hit it harder than Jazz Chisholm Jr., an injured Carlos Correa, and Kyle Tucker in this metric.

Barrel rate is similarly nutty: 11.9 percent of batted balls being barrels has a one percentage point lead on... the 2022 Braves. It has 1.6 percentage point lead on the highest-ever non-Braves team. The 2023 Braves had the same barrel rate as 2023 Julio Rodriguez (again, ranking right around the top 70 players, as a team). Hard-hit rate is similar.

But this is only part of the story. The above charts show that the Braves steadily marched upwards towards contact quality dominance... but not how. So, we go to the swing-level data for our next chapter, and here’s where things get really interesting.

Were you expecting a pattern? Sorry, the story is a bit less straightforward than that.

There’s a reason I included 2018 in the charts above, and it’s not just because that’s when this current run of awesome Braves baseball started. In 2018, the Braves were a good hitting team outputs-wise, but we can tell from the charts above that they largely slapped at the ball. They swung a ton, the most in baseball, especially at strikes, but also at balls. Their contact rate on pitches in the zone was average, but oh boy, did they love slapping away non-strikes.

And then, everything changed. The 2019 Braves, among the other Braves teams shown here, were relatively reticent to swing. They still swung at a ton of strikes, but did a decent job avoiding offering at non-strikes. They still made contact on a lot of strikes, though. The defining feature of the team’s approach was pretty clear, though: the team had by far the lowest contact on in-zone pitches in baseball... because they were swinging to crush (see first set of charts — the Braves’ xwOBA in 2019 was tops in the NL and above all but five AL teams despite not having the DH).

In 2021, the Braves were relatively more swing-happy, especially on strikes, but there was some hemming and hawing about bailing and whaling on hittable pitches. This is probably less of an approach thing than the fact that the team was so badly banged up for so long that they had to start guys like Abraham Almonte, who were definitely not all in on The Approach. It was still a top-five-in-baseball-by-xwOBA unit, though. And then came 2022, where everything was laid bare: no contact? No problem. The 2022 Braves had the league’s third-highest strikeout rate, a below-average walk rate, the league’s lowest contact rate, and despite a relatively de-juiced ball, finished top three in wOBA, tops in xwOBA, and wrested the division from the Mets by bashing bombs off their vaunted starting arms.

All of that brings us to 2023, which looks a little, well, weird. Do the Braves still chase? Yeah. Do they still swing at a ton of strikes? Yep. Their aggregate swing rate isn’t really all that different from the prior two years. But somehow, they’ve done something I wouldn’t have even thought was possible, except for the fact that they went ahead and did it: they kept their prodigious power production alive while just... not whiffing. Their contact rate, overall? Average-y. Their whiff rate on strikes? A somewhat-unremarkable eighth-highest, after being fourth or higher in all of the other full seasons from 2019-2022.

So, here’s the story to date, then: a team that was perfectly content swinging away and even missing strikes because doing so generally gave them another pitch to swing at and crush, and because doing so didn’t affect their ability to reach top-of-the-line, best-in-class production wasn’t content to just sit at the top. Instead, they reached even greater heights by... not missing, even though that was pretty much the whole point.

The walk rate for the 2023 Braves was still below average-y. The strikeout rate, though? It plummeted down to fifth-lowest. Yes, most of that was the unrivaled force of nature that is Ronald Acuña Jr., but Michael Harris II also had a giant drop in strikeout rate. More to the point, though, no regular had their strikeout rate increase between 2022 and 2023. Was this all an attempt to forge an even better middle path, a retreat from fantasy barbarian-esque tactics in favor of something that blended new hitting data with yesterdecade’s aversion to strikeouts? Well... naaaaaaaah. Nor was it an obvious case of just making more contact earlier in the count, to prevent strikeouts and walks from happening. You can take Baseball Savant and try to play with swing rates or whiff rates by count, filtering for in-zone pitches or not — there’s nothing new or different here.

Rather, the change really appears to be something that doesn’t even make sense: more contact, but also better contact, even though the prior type of contact was already pretty much the best.

  • Swing rate on pitches in the “heart” of the zone: essentially between all the other years, most similar to the 2018 slappy team (around 77 percent; the range for recent Braves teams is 76-79 percent).
  • Whiff rate on pitches in the “heart” of the zone: lower than all other non-2018 years, but not by much (13 percent; all years are similar except 2020 at 14 percent and 2018 at 11 percent).
  • Swing rate on borderline pitches: 56 percent, essentially the same as both 2022 and 2018 (range runs from 54 percent to 56 percent).
  • Whiff rate on borderline pitches: lower than all other non-2018 years, but not by much (14 percent; other years range from 15-16 percent).
  • Swing rate on definite non-strike pitches: somewhat higher than most years, that is, 20 percent in a range of 17 to 21 percent for other Braves teams.
  • Whiff rate on definite non-strike pitches: unremarkable, middle-of-the-pack 11 percent, in a range from nine to 12 percent.

It’s not when they swung and/or whiffed. It’s not where they swung and/or whiffed. You could go pitch-by-pitch and see that the whiff rate reduction was profound for sliders and changeups... but not for fastballs or curves or cutters. That’s probably the best you’ll get as a singular explanation: they simply got better at guessing on/identifying/adjusting to specifically sliders and changeups, two of the most commonly-used secondaries, and replaced some whiffs with extra damage. But that arguably belies the overall point: that the Braves, as a team, somehow hit the ball even harder while also doing it more consistently than before. In the end, you get this, which is just silly:

Note: For dramatic effect, but more importantly because I can’t filter it appropriately on Baseball Savant, this chart does not omit pitchers batting for 2018-2021, whereas the prior charts above all do so appropriately.

And there you go. In 2023, the Braves continued to swing, swing, swing. They didn’t walk much. They still “missed” a bunch of hittable strikes. But not only did they take their ball-murdering ways to new heights, they did it by tamping down the swing-and-miss a bit. Is 2023 a unicorn? Is lowering a team’s whiff and strikeout rates while propping up their contact quality even further the sort of thing that can’t be repeated? First, don’t tell Ronald Acuña Jr. what he can’t do. Second, stay tuned, because I doubt this team and this approach are going anywhere. After the season they’ve had, why would they?

Still not convinced? To be fair, I wasn’t trying to convince you, at least not with any gusto. But check this out, about 2023 newcomber-to-the-Braves Sean Murphy:

Nothing much there, right? Some less chasing, but that’s about it. And then you get this:

And this:

Matt Olson didn’t just post a career-high barrel rate; he cleared his previous career high in Oakland by 2.2 percentage points (after nearly matching it last year), both with much less juicy balls. Eddie Rosario, in his first full season with the Braves that didn’t get derailed by eye troubles, put up the first .390+ xwOBA of his career, de-transitioning from the slap hitter he was by adding a ton of strikeouts and oomph (to little net effect). Even Nicky Lopez, who was not brought on board to hit, increased his exit velocity by about 3 mph, got his xwOBA to .300 (previous career high in a season: .287), and did all of this while just swinging more, across the board.

If there’s another offensive gear for the Braves beyond this one, I don’t really know what it looks like. It was hard to look at something like 2022 and figure that they could simply have even more PAs where they crush the ball, but that’s what they pulled off. Can there be a stopgap version of apotheosis, like ascending to a minor deity first, and then flexing one’s divine muscles to gain dominion over all of creation? I don’t know the answer, but with The Approach and the ability to further improve on it already demonstrated, we might find out next year.

No matter what happens in the future, though, we as Braves fans witnessed something incredible this year. For various non-Braves reasons, I’ve found this season somewhat annoying relative to those in the past, but the sheer awe and wonderment I’ve felt at this team turning a surprising pitch when behind in the count into a game-winning blow has done a lot to make up for it. I hope you’ve enjoyed it even more than I have.

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