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Braves sow seeds for strong season with successful April

The Braves were supposed to be the cream of the crop, and they pretty much played like it in April

Cincinnati Reds v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves/Getty Images

The Braves came into 2023 as the on-paper Best Team in Baseball, the culmination of a not-too-fast but steady ascent up the league’s implicit power rankings. In both 2021 and 2022, fairly lofty expectations foundered aground the rocks of reality as the theoretically-good Braves scuffled for months, but there was no such whiplash this April. Instead, the 2023 Braves went 18-9 to end the month (with two rainouts in New York to close out the calendar page), giving them a superb foundation from which to chase record highs over the remainder of the season.

Coming into the season’s final day, on which they won’t be able to play, the Braves’ 18-9 record ties them for third-best in MLB with three other teams. Their start wasn’t as bonkers as what the Rays managed (23-5) and, as weird as this feels to type this, they have a worse record than the Pirates. Still, they’ve got a three-game lead on the division, and really outdid any array of reasonable expectations.

Based on midpoint projections, the Braves have added roughly four wins to their expected total based on where they were at the start of the season. They survived a schedule that was rougher and tougher on them than what they expect to face for the rest of the year (though not by much), as they wrapped up their slate with the Padres. They started the year as slight favorites (57 percent-ish) to win the division, and are now much heavier favorites (77 percent); their odds of earning one of the National League’s two first-round playoff byes have similarly improved. Their reach-the-playoff odds were already sky-high given the expanded postseason field (90 percent) and have approached near-certainty status (now up to 97 percent). They’ve added 5.5 percent in World Series odds, up to an MLB-best 19.5 percent, in April, too. All-in-all, only five teams added more wins, only nine teams added more playoff odds, and only the Rays added more playoff odds to their ledger relative to preseason expectation. It was the team’s best start since 2000, when they went 18-6 through April. There have been a few recent 17-9 starts, but alas, they’ll have to take second fiddle to the 2000 team, that finished April by winning 13 straight games (a streak that would end at 15 eventually) for now. Not bad, Braves.

Critically, this April has not had any signs of a good team playing poorly but winning nonetheless. Both Pythagorean Expectation and BaseRuns have the Braves with an 18-9 record that matches the standings. Their WAR-win based record is 17-10. They have the third-most team fWAR in MLB, and the third-best record, so things check out there. For the Braves, April was a case of a very good team playing very good baseball, and that’s why they are where they are. In terms of a bit more detail...

  • The Braves finished April seventh in MLB in wRC+ (111), but perhaps unsurprisingly, second in xwOBA and first in xwOBACON, thanks to being first in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. While it didn’t ding them record-wise this year, the Braves are again towards the bottom of the league in terms of underperforming their offensive inputs — only seven teams are underhitting their xwOBA by more than the Braves’ .012.
  • The biggest weakness exhibited by the team has been its defense. Purely in terms of range, the Braves ranked fourth-to-last in OAA and the runs metric based on it. If you take all other aspects of defense into account, they improve, but just to 22nd in MLB. The infield sans Matt Olson has been horribly defensively, including, surprisingly, Ozzie Albies.
  • But, the defensive issues haven’t mattered so much, because the pitching has been excellent, ranking third in MLB in fWAR. They’re barely outside the top spot as it is, and both the rotation (seventh in MLB) and bullpen (fourth) are in the top ten among teams. The Braves have been good at all the component pieces except walks, and perhaps oddly, they’ve avoided being stung by their poor defense. The pitching staff ranks second-best in ERA- (77), best in FIP- (81), and fifth-best in xFIP- (90). They also have the league’s sixth-best SIERA.

Game-by-game, the season has looked like this so far:

The Braves were favored in 23 of their 27 games and went 16-7; they also went 2-2 in the four games where they weren’t the favorite (both of these wins came in St. Louis). Overall, with these matchups, the Braves should’ve gone 15-14 or 16-13, and performed a few games better. Anyway, typing some variation of “this team good and probably even better than expected” is getting tiresome, so let’s get onto our totally fake awards.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for April 2023 Performance - Position Players

Ronald Acuña Jr. has a good chance to finish April tied for second in MLB in fWAR, despite suffering a severe case of grounderitis so far. But, we’re gonna talk about someone else here, whose grounderitis wasn’t anywhere near as pronounced, and who also had an awesome April: Sean Murphy. Murphy finished the month with 1.2 fWAR and a 159 wRC+ that is both A) phenomenal and B) still the result of substantially underhitting his xwOBA. In fact, Murphy finished April third in MLB in xwOBA (.453) and in the top ten in xwOBACON. Walks and homer-type contact is pretty much the Braves’ gameplan, and Murphy integrated himself incredibly well in his first month in that regard, even as many of his teammates struggled with swing decisions and making weak contact. Of special note here was a crazy eight-game stretch between April 10 and April 18, where Murphy had four of his six homers, hit .355/.459/.935 (not a typo) overall (255 wRC+), and had three games with a WPA exceeding 0.1.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for April 2023 Performance - Starting Pitchers

Max Fried had a short April, because a hamstring injury on Opening Day had him miss a few starts and leave his first one after just ten outs. But, nonetheless, he was so good — better than advertised. How good? So good that despite being about two-and-a-half starts behind most starters at this point, he’s still top-30 in pitcher fWAR right now. His raw stats (10/50/71) are nowhere near as good teammate Spencer Strider’s (41/39/59), but he also didn’t suffer any temporary lapses in pitching approach that led pitching coach Rick Kranitz to yell at him.

Overall, in Fried’s four starts, he had one xFIP above 4.00, and that was his injury-shortened start, which was the only outing in which another team scored while he was on the mound. Since returning from the Injured List, he has a 16/4 K/BB ratio in 16 23 innings, and all of those games were close.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for April 2023 Performance - Relief Pitchers

Dylan Lee had a great 2022. He’s picking up where he left off so far — his 0.5 fWAR led all Braves relievers in April and is a top-15 mark among relievers in MLB. He’s basically the same as last year (52/68/78) but with no homers allowed so far (32/39/76). He’s also rocking a 4/1 shutdown/meltdown ratio, and has fewer negative WPA games (two) than key outings where he severely dented the other team’s win expectancy.

Alright, let’s get to the clips.

Best Offensive Play - One Pitch and We’re Done

There’s a specific reason I love this sequence, and it’s because, in the top of the tenth on April 10 against the Reds, the Reds scored the freebie runner with a single to start the frame, and then tried to score another with a bunt, though Dylan Lee ultimately kept that non-freebie runner from scoring. Then, up came Sean Murphy, and ended the game on the very first pitch.

Best Run-Stopping Play - Thanks, Xander

Xander Bogaerts is tied with Acuña for the most fWAR in the NL. In the top of the ninth on April 6, A.J. Minter found himself in some hot water, but was able to cool down thanks to this grounder up the middle.

This video is probably a pretty good example of why the current shift restrictions aren’t doing much: so long as you can still hit a ball like this and have it be an easy double play, the paradigm probably won’t change too much.

The Braves walked it off in the bottom of the ninth after this twin killing.

Most Dominant Single Game Offensive Performance

Murphy’s whole day on April 10 qualifies as this. You saw the walkoff homer above, but that was only the final part of his rampage. Earlier in the game, he had a leadoff double in the fourth (and didn’t score in an 0-0 game), then a one-out, go-ahead RBI double in the sixth (breaking the scoreless tie), and then his walkoff homer.

Most Dominant Single Game Starting Pitching Performance

There was a lot of great starting pitching for the Braves this month, but Max Fried darting his way past the Astros (in a game the Braves would eventually lose) gets my nod here. Not only did Fried outduel Cristian Javier, departing with a 2-0 lead, but he did so while having to navigate guys like Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez three times. There was even a pickoff in there!

Unfortunately, the Braves gave up five unanswered runs and lost the game.

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

April 16. The Braves are going for a sweep of the Royals, and have scored a run to take the lead in the top of the ninth. On comes A.J. Minter. It takes him just ten pitches to slam the door: a foul popout on the first pitch, then a groundout, and then a five-pitch strikeout of Bobby Witt Jr.

Most Crushed Dinger

Austin Riley isn’t really having the April he wanted, which has been more pedestrian (114 wRC+ while outhitting his xwOBA) than he should be producing at this point, but nonetheless, he walloped this ball for his first homer of the year.

This homer traveled an estimated 473 feet, which is the longest hit at Busch Stadium in the Statcast era, as well as of Riley’s career.

And now, onto the forgettable stuff.

Worst Offensive Result - Marcell Ozuna Appears

Yeah, I mean, these recaps don’t touch on every player, but somehow Marcell Ozuna is appearing in this one. With the Braves down a run in the eighth, Orlando Arcia reached on an infield error to start the frame. Ozuna, who had homered earlier in the contest, came up and wiped out the Braves’ best scoring chance for the remainder of the game.

The Braves got a single right after, so yeah, this was a bummer of an outcome — and of course, they lost by that same 5-4 score in the end.

Worst Pitching Result - Meltdown Complete

There were a lot of outcomes Jesse Chavez could’ve had when coming into this game to face Garrett Cooper with just one out standing between the Braves and a victory... but what actually happened was an outcome where the Braves not only didn’t win, they actually turned a lead into a deficit.

Aside from the obvious, there were a lot of horrible things about this. The ball wasn’t very well-hit, and would’ve been a game-ending out if hit slightly closer to any fielder. Acuña took a strange route — while it was only a five percent catch probability ball, he tried to convert that probability into a catch, only to give up after it turned out he had no shot and also make it so he no longer had the angle to cut the ball off and keep the game tied. Ah, well. All in a season.

Worst Single-Game Offensive Performance

On that same day that Ozuna hit into the double play above, Ozzie Albies had a dreadful game. Down two in the first, he flied out with a man on base to end that frame. After the Braves tied it, with the go-ahead run on third and one out, he grounded out. Down by a run in the fifth, he came up with the bases loaded and one out... and struck out. Down a run in the seventh, with both the tying and go-ahead runs on base, he tapped back to the pitcher to keep the Braves trailing. And, lastly, with the tying run on base and one out in the ninth against Josh Hader, he once again struck out.

It was by far the worst WPA game of his career, and the only time he’s ever cleared -.300 in WPA, earning -.336 in the process.

Here’s Hader setting him down, 0-2, on the fourth pitch of the at-bat.

Worst Single-Game Starting Pitching Performance

This one is simple: Dylan Dodd was either tipping his pitches or something else in his April 9 start against the Padres, and as a result, he got hammered. He gave up two homers and managed just a 3/1 K/BB ratio in 4 13 frames. He was then sent packing to Gwinnett, where he also hasn’t shown the pinpoint command and overall effectiveness that flashed throughout Spring Training and gleamed in his lone good major league start.

Worst Single-Game Relief Pitching Performance

If we had to tag a player with this, we can tag Chavez with that single-PA result against Garrett Cooper, above. But the reality was that in that game, through little fault of their own and mostly just the fact that the Marlins didn’t record an out on a ball in play in the inning, Minter and Chavez were on the mound as the Marlins turned a 4-0 deficit into a 5-4 loss. Hopefully, the Braves have used up all of their “other team BABIPs 1.000 in an inning to stage an improbable comeback” pratfalls already this year.

Most Crushed Dinger Allowed

What makes this one worse is that Wright really shouldn’t have been out there in the first place.

See you next month!

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