Orlando Arcia turned in an impressive, yet surprising 2023 for the Atlanta Braves. Back when he was acquired in 2021, it didn’t seem like he was going to be the franchise shortstop. But, after grabbing the starting spot and turning in a fine season, it looks like he’ll be the franchise’s choice to grab an Opening Day shortstop start for at least one more season.
The Braves acquired a few days into the 2021 season, when they sent Chad Sobotka and Patrick Weigel for the one-time top prospect. Prior to the trade, Arcia had spent his entire career-to-date with the Brewers.
Arcia spent most of 2021 playing at Triple-A Gwinnett, but made a few cameos for the big league Braves, who went on to win the World Series. Following the championship, Arcia and the Braves connected on a two-year, $2 million deal that had a club option for 2023. In 2022, Arcia played a backup role and got a fair bit of playing time thanks to Ozzie Albies’ multiple-injury season; he transformed his 0.7 fWAR in 234 PAs that year into another extension, this time paying him $7.3 million over three years with a club option for a fourth campaign.
What were the expectations?
When the Braves acquired Arcia in 2021, it didn’t look like he was going to be the starting shortstop. The Braves already had Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, and Austin Riley penciled in around the infield, and Arcia played left field (terribly) more than the infield after being acquired. In 2022, Arcia appeared at six different positions for Atlanta (including pitching an inning), and did okay as a fill-in for the injured Albies; his line that year would’ve looked better if not for some truly awful defense in a teeny-tiny sample in left field.
None of this made it easy to project what he was going to do in 2023, either before he had been handed the starting job, or after that news came out but before the season began in earnest. A negative outlook could have looked at Arcia’s career to date and concluded that he was essentially just a backup, a below average bat without enough defensive upside to provide starter-quality production. The flip side involved considering that Arcia had substantially changed his approach after the Braves acquiring him, leading to him both raking in Triple-A and in 2021 and posting an average-to-above xwOBA in 2022. The projection systems saw him as a somewhat below-average but not disastrous regular.
On a personal basis, Arcia turned in the best season of his career in 2023, while also making the All-Star Team for the first time. All of those things probably felt pretty nice for him, given his career path before the season. He set a career-high in homers and managed a 99 wRC+ as a result of outhitting his .309 xwOBA by a fair bit. He also managed +3 OAA-based runs above average over the course of the season, which was especially impressive given that he was well into the negatives just a few plays into the season due to some dropped pop-ups.
In total, Arcia put up 2.3 fWAR in 533 PAs. He would’ve accumulated more had he not gotten hurt and missed about three weeks with a wrist fracture, but also benefited from the ball-in-play results propping up his batting line.
What went right?
Arcia’s season contained multitudes — some good, some bad. Perhaps the most obvious: he pounded lefties to an extreme degree — a 168 wRC+ (.424 wOBA, .396 xwOBA), overall. His numbers also looked excellent before his wrist injury (.394 wOBA on a .355 xwOBA) as well as through July (.344 wOBA on a .321 xwOBA). He destroyed four-seamers (.389 xwOBA), and hit well against them consistently until a late-season swoon (more on that below).
He had no shortage of great moments. Particularly memorable were:
(1) his game-tying homer against the Mets that eventually led to a 13-10, extra-inning win; and
(2) his three-run extra-winning homer that gave the Braves a series win at Chavez Ravine:
Those two clips really show 2023 Orlando Arcia at his best: guessing right on an elevated fastball, taking a huge rip, and blasting it into left-center for a big fly.
What went wrong?
Arcia ended up struggling at times, and the patterns were somewhat strange. After getting off to a great start and even hitting just fine once he returned from his wrist problem, Arcia’s performance took a nosedive in June, potentially related to the fact that pitchers figured out he was sitting on four-seamers and threw him more sliders instead, leading to more wrong guesses and bad whiffs, and prompting an adjustment period that Arcia took a while to get through.
Arcia actually rebounded in July, posting his best calendar month xwOBA by switching up his game plan to hunt the now-more-numerous sliders. He then obliterated four-seamers again in August as pitchers caught on to the rope-a-dope (.531 xwOBA!!!)... but then the bottom kind of fell through on him. From a quick glance, it appears that the problem with Arcia’s horrid September was that he figured pitchers were going to throw him more sliders again, but instead they didn’t, leading to a lot of lateness and weak contact on fastballs, and a general sense of confusion. In any case, the big question for 2024 is whether the adjustments, or lack thereof, that plagued Arcia in June and September can occur in a more seamless way going forward. Arcia has clearly shown the ability to punish both four-seamers and sliders when he’s goading pitchers into offering them, so it’s just a matter of working out the strategy to get him to see the things he can mash.
It’s not surprising that Arcia’s most disappointing moment of the season came in September. Check out this brutal foulout in a walkoff situation, courtesy of the same late-on-the-type-of-fastball-he-would-have-crushed-earlier:
Arcia also didn’t have a good time in the postseason, as he had a couple of singles and a walk in four games, but that was largely par for the course for the team in that short series.
There doesn’t seem to be much of a question that Arcia will be the team’s starting shortstop in 2024, though the team has surprised us before. At least, it doesn’t look like anyone else in the organization is going to supplant him at the moment.
Steamer projects him for 1.4 WAR in 500 PAs; ZiPS has his central estimate at 1.5 WAR in 466 PAs, both of which are really in the same “below average-ish regular” range. It’s possible that Arcia can avoid his slumps in 2024 and exceed that, but right now, he heads into the season as a fine but not particularly high-upside option for the back end of Atlanta’s lineup.