The Braves have rolled through much of their season so far, and will enter play on Friday with the largest division lead in baseball and the league’s second-best record, behind only the Rays. They’ll take their show on the road this weekend, heading to Toronto and the Rogers Cent
erre for the first time since August 2019. (While the Braves played road games against the Blue Jays as recently as 2021, those games were in Dunedin, FL, the Jays’ Spring Training home as a result of the pandemic.)
While Atlanta’s rotation remains in a state of flux, given that it currently has only three real members with Max Fried and Kyle Wright both shelved, the good news, for tonight at least, is that the Braves get the luxury of sending Spencer Strider to the mound. And oh, what a luxury it is. On the season, Strider is once again putting up, if not quite video game numbers, perhaps the next-best thing. He already has 1.6 fWAR in 40 innings, which is an 8.0 fWAR per 200 innings pace, and while he probably won’t get to 200 innings, he is now projected to slightly exceed his 2022 fWAR total of 4.9, even with regression to the tune of over a run of FIP baked in. Strider’s 61 ERA-, 42 FIP-, and 59 xFIP-. Out of all starters with at least 20 innings pitched this year (137 total starters), only three others have both an FIP- and xFIP- below 60: Jacob deGrom, Zac Gallen, and the Blue Jays’ Kevin Gausman, whom the Braves will not see in this series.
In his last start, Strider lasted just five frames and allowed two runs to the Orioles, but also struck out ten without a walk. He’s tallied at least eight strikeouts, and a strikeout rate of at least every third batter faced, in each start this season. His only hiccup of the year came on May 1 against the Mets in New York, and the Blue Jays will pose a test commensurate to the one he passed last time out against Baltimore.
As for Atlanta’s bats, which have been put into the position of having to carry a bigger load given the rout of the rotation, they’ll spend Friday taking aim at a familiar face in Chris Bassitt. The 34-year-old right-hander, a former teammate of Matt Olson and Sean Murphy, spent last year pitching for the Mets after pitching the prior six years in Oakland. Bassitt’s campaign in New York was successful: 90 ERA-, 94 FIP-, 93 xFIP-, amounting to 2.7 fWAR over 181 2⁄3 innings. Despite his age, Bassitt leveraged that performance, and the feverish state of the starting pitching market as a whole, into a three-year, $63 million deal this offseason.. which hasn’t gone the way he or his employer have hoped.
To date, Bassitt has made seven starts for the Jays, also lasting 40 innings (identical to Strider in this regard). It’s amounted to a 100 ERA-, 122 FIP-, and 120 xFIP-, and just 0.1 fWAR. The ERA seems okay, but there’s little to support it, as even his xERA (5.17, in line with his xFIP) is considerably higher. His strikeouts are down, his walks are way up, the homer rate is way up in a way that’s not really driven solely by HR/FB variation, and really, there’s just not much to recommend here. Even of his “good” starts this season, the lack of damage was driven by a perfect strand rate (hence the low ERA) — he literally has had one start with an xFIP- below 100 this year.
Bassitt is a junkballer, and that hasn’t changed, but what has changed is that he’s lost about a tick and a half of velocity. That actually hasn’t affected the effectiveness of his primary offering, a sinker, too badly — but for various reasons hitters have hit a lot of his other stuff harder this year. The biggest issue, though, is just that his junk is thrown near the zone a lot less often. It’s hard to survive when hitters can basically guess “take” and be rewarded way more than usual, and then force you to throw a strike when your main advantage is unpredictability. On the one hand, that gives Bassitt a relatively straightforward way to rediscovering his past success: just throw more strikes. On the other hand, that’s way easier said than done.
The Braves faced Bassitt thrice last year, winning two of the games. They beat him despite him having a good start in May (8/1 K/BB ratio, seven frames, three runs including a homer), lost to him in June when he allowed just a solo homer with a 6/2 K/BB ratio, and then absolutely trashed him in the game that defined their season, when they swept the Mets to all but sew up the division title in the season’s penultimate series. You never really know what’s going to happen in any given game, but there’s more than one reason why the Braves are relatively heavily favored in this game, despite being underdogs in the next two.
Atlanta Braves @ Toronto Blue Jays
Friday, May 12, 2023
7:07 pm EDT
Rogers Centre, Toronto, ON
TV: Bankruptcy Sports Southeast
Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan
XM Radio: Online, Ch. 180