Do y’all remember the 2020 season? I know that season had a depressing ending in the massive shed in Arlington, Texas that’s masquerading as a baseball stadium, but it was still good to even be watching baseball at the time considering the circumstances. It was an especially interesting year for the Atlanta Braves, who took a pretty weird path to the Postseason despite winning what was their third NL East title in a row.
Atlanta ended up finishing that truncated season with a 35-25 record and they did so mostly due to the fact that they finished the season tied with the Dodgers for second place in Major League Baseball when it came to team wRC+ and were also in second place behind those same Dodgers when it came to team Isolated Power. The Braves crushed the ball all over the place — as a matter of fact, Ronald Acuña Jr.'s 470 foot bomb against the Red Sox last night reminded me of his other moonshot that came against Boston. He hit one 495 feet and it's really a shame that it happened during the COVID season because it would've been a real treat to see a full stadium react to that one leaving the yard.
Before I digress any further, let's talk about how 2020 is also similar for the Braves. Similarly to that unique season, Atlanta is also looking at a bit of an injury crisis when it comes to their starting pitching rotation. Atlanta managing to finish that 60-game sprint 10 games over .500 was even more impressive when you at the state of their rotation throughout the season. Max Fried pitched wonderfully and had an ERA- of 46 and a FIP- of 71 over 11 starts. Ian Anderson also had a really good debut season, as his 32.1 innings of work produced 1.1 fWAR which was only behind Fried's 1.5 fWAR. Those two starters and the bullpen ended up basically carrying the rotation to the Postseason, as calamity struck the rest of the rotation.
2020 was the beginning of Michael Soroka's injury woes and his absence left some huge and empty shoes that were unable to be filled. A revolving door of Touki Toussaint, Sean Newcomb, Huascar Ynoa, Robbie Erlin, Josh Tomlin and even Tommy Milone were brought in to help shore things up in the rotation and outside of maybe Tomlin on his best day, none of them came even close to filling the void and it was mostly up to the bullpen to pick up the slack throughout the vast majority of that season.
Fortunately, the 2020 Braves bullpen was up to the task and the 2020 Braves offense mashed at an elite level and Atlanta still managed to get into the playoffs as the divisional winner and finish the year just one win away from winning the National League Pennant. The Braves got dealt a pretty bad hand when it came to their starting rotation that year and they were still able to weather the storm of the regular season and got into the playoffs where the rotation got shorter and the revolving door became smaller. Atlanta didn't have much time to dwell on "Well, how are we going to deal with this situation now,” since the season was so short and the stakes were so high on a night-to-night basis.
Fast-forward to three years later, and we're about to get an idea of what would've happened had that starting pitching crisis in 2020 been extrapolated to a full regular season. It's 2023 and it's possible that we might not see Max Fried and Kyle Wright pitch again until August — and that may be wishful thinking for the latter, as Wright himself isn't exactly encouraged about how his shoulder has been treating him in 2023.
Expectation has been Fried and Wright will both be sidelined for at least two months. With this being his second shoulder ailment of the year, Wright thinks he could be out longer than Fried.— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) May 10, 2023
So instead of having an incredibly impressive rotation on paper all the way back during the offseason, the Braves are now in mid-May and are now going to be relying on Spencer Strider to step up as the ace, Charlie Morton to provide a veteran's level of consistency and for Bryce Elder to continue delving into the dark arts of pitching that have somehow led him to the very top of the NL ERA leaderboards. As far as the rest of the rotation goes, it could very well be a repeat of 2020 where there's going to be a revolving door where the Braves will simply be asking their starters to keep the lineup in the game while they're out there.
More than likely, Dylan Dodd and Jared Shuster will have to fill the void and this also seems like a prime opportunity for Michael Soroka to finally make his return to the bigs. Again, for all three of these guys the Braves aren't looking for them to be dominant — all they would need from Dodd, Shuster, Soroka and anybody else who could get a chance during this extended period is for them to simply just be okay. Atlanta's basically going to be living on "Five Innings and a Dream" while those guys are out there. It would be lovely if either one of these pitchers had a breakout, but as this article from Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs seems to indicate, it's not a likely scenario!
With that being said, the article also indicates that the Braves are just as likely to weather the storm here in 2023 as they were in 2020. Remember when Atlanta's team wRC+ was second place in all of baseball in 2020? As of right now, they're in third place among all MLB teams and currently leading the National League with a team wRC+ of 116. They're also in third place in MLB when it comes to Isolated Power and second place in all of baseball when it comes to wOBA. The Braves also have a top-10 bullpen according to fWAR, and I'd imagine that this will continue to be the case as the season progresses and simply getting Raisel Iglesias back should help a ton. As long as the Braves can keep on hitting and the bullpen continues to take the baton and run with it, then Atlanta should still be A-OK for however long they'll be missing two of their frontline starters.
It also helps that Atlanta's divisional foes have stumbled out of the gate. While we should all be acutely aware that the NL East is never over in May, it really does help that the rest of the division isn't looking anywhere near like world-beaters. The Braves swept the likely-last place finishers Nationals in the season-opening series, they've already taken six out of seven games against the Marlins, the Phillies have started the season in underwhelming fashion and the Braves have also contributed to New York's slow start to their season. Now, there's always a possibility that any of these teams (well, maybe not Miami and definitely not Washington) could heat up at any given moment, but that would also have to coincide with a significant dip in form from the Braves.
That dip could also happen, but the Braves have proven that they can weather this type of storm. They may have to do some significant leaning on their internal options since they don't exactly have the multitude of trade pieces that they used to but at the same time, if any team has already bred confidence in their organizational depth, it's the Braves. They already warded off one injury bug during in the early portion of the season and it still didn't stop them from racing out to the NL's best at this point in the year. You don't want the injury problem to get any worse than it has been but as long as calamity doesn't strike Atlanta's lineup and bullpen, then they should be able to make it through this.
I know that thinking about the weird 2020 season probably won't help too much when it comes to what's going on here in 2023. However, the similarities are there and the Braves as an organization have built their reputation in recent seasons on their resiliency. If any team in baseball is equipped to handle this from both a tangible and intangible standpoint, it's this team in Atlanta.