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Braves start long homestand with three against Mariners

The Atlanta offense has its work cut out for it against MLB’s best pitching staff

Atlanta Braves v Seattle Mariners Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

After a 2-4 road trip and Thursday’s day off, the Braves will return home to start a three-series, ten-game homestand, the longest homestand they’ll have all year and one of just two three-series homestands on their schedule. First down the chute to take a crack at the NL East-leading Braves will be the 21-22 Seattle Mariners, who are not having the season they wanted to have, but are nowhere near a cakewalk-level opponent.

The Mariners won 90 games for a second season in a row in 2022, but made the playoffs for the first time in 21 years as a result. Unfortunately for them, they were swept out of the first round by the eventual title winners, the Houston Astros, in what was a bummer of an ending to a raucous season that saw Julio Rodriguez, Cal Raleigh, and Eugenio Suarez overcome some middling pitching and defense to earn a spot at the October buffet table. Expectations were not sky-high for the Mariners coming into 2023, with the Fangraphs Playoff Odds estimates putting them at 82 wins, but still with a decent chance (around 40 percent) of making the expanded playoff field. Consequently, whether the season-to-date for Seattle has been disappointing is probably a matter of perspective: if you figured they’d keep building and growing, their start has been a bummer.

That said, the Mariners have actually played way better than their record. By straight Pythagorean expectation, they should be 24-19, not 21-22. By BaseRuns, they should be 25-18, the second-largest BaseRuns underperformer in baseball. By fWAR-based WAR-wins, they should arguably be 26-17, but they aren’t. Alas, they’re 4-11 in one-run games, despite the second-best bullpen in MLB, which kind of tells you what you need to know. It sucks when baseball being baseball tanks your record for the first six weeks of the year, but what can you do?

Well, one thing the Mariners and their fans can do is focus on the positives, because you don’t get that BaseRuns and WAR-wins record equivalent by sucking. The Mariners have baseball’s best pitching staff at this point in time, with a top-two rotation and top-two bullpen. Four of their five current starters, three of whom the Braves will see in this series, have been lights out. That foursome has at least 1.0 fWAR each, including Friday’s starter, Bryce Miller, who has only made three starts, putting all four of those guys in the top 35 pitchers in fWAR so far this season. On the relief end, a combination of Trevor Gott, Matt Brash, Paul Sewald, and Justin Topa has been phenomenal, and the Mariners have given relatively few innings to poor performers.

It’s on the position player end where things have been more mixed. Raleigh and a resurgent Jarred Kelenic have led the way offensively, but for various reasons, the Mariners haven’t gotten a lot out of many of their other regulars. The normally-solid Kolten Wong is having an awful start to his Seattle tenure after being acquired in the offseason, and the Mariners have struggled to get useful contributions from a bunch of fill-in pieces they’ve auditioned over the course of the season’s first few weeks. As a result, this series is going to be an interesting contrast: the Mariners will come with pitching superiority against the Braves’ impressive attack, while the ramshackle Atlanta pitching staff will try to do just enough to stifle an inconsistent Seattle offense.

Friday, May 19 (7:20 pm EDT, Apple TV+)

Bryce Miller (3 GS, 19 IP, 11 ERA-, 37 FIP-, 89 xFIP-, 62ish xERA-)

24-year-old right-hander Bryce Miller will make his fourth career start in the series opener in what I will be calling “The Battle of the Bryces.” Miller had been mostly scouting and projection rather than minor league production, but has soared in his first three starts, both figuratively and literally. His lines have been awesome, as he’s dominated the Athletics, Astros, and Tigers, but the balls off him have also literally soared, as he’s rocking a 60 percent fly ball rate and sub-20 percent grounder rate through his first 19 career innings.

Miller has incredible spin and “rise” on his four-seamer, which explains everything about him right now. He’s not even locating it well, just throwing it down the middle, but it’s carrying to the point where batters are swinging just under it and popping it up. His secondaries are a work-in-progress and don’t look to offer any value right now, so this game will be all about whether the Braves can avoid the fate that’s flummoxed the other three teams he’s faced so far.

Bryce Elder (8 GS, 46 13 IP, 44 ERA-, 84 FIP-, 87 xFIP-, 106ish xERA-)

Miller’s opponent in the Bryce-battle, Elder will look to keep trekking through his unorthodox path to success by doing the opposite of his name-sharing nemesis: keep the ball on the ground. Last time out in Toronto, Elder allowed a 3/1 K/BB ratio and was charged with two runs in 5 13 innings while posting a grounder rate below 50 percent for the first time all season. The Braves’ defense will have their work cut out for them as usual, as Elder doesn’t strike many guys out: his strikeout rate is currently eight percent below league average.

Saturday, May 20 (7:15 pm EDT, FOX)

Logan Gilbert (8 GS, 46 IP, 95 ERA-, 63 FIP-, 71 xFIP-, 69ish xERA-)

Things won’t get any easier for the Braves on Saturday, because Logan Gilbert already has 1.5 fWAR this year, despite a low strand marring his ERA. The third-year starter has 6.9 career fWAR in 351 career innings (3.9/200) and does nearly everything you want a starter these days to do. If there’s one pseudo-knock on Gilbert, it’s that his contact management isn’t always straightforward: the fastball and slip get weak flies while the breaking pitches get hard grounders, but that’s not an actual problem so long as his offerings keep working as intended. Unlike rotation-mate Miller, Gilbert has a weirdo low-spin-but-good-”rise” four-seamer and three quality secondaries, so he’s basically a nightmare for hitters because he’s got strikeout stuff, good control (though command of his secondaries has been spotty), and enough variety that it’s hard to wait him out by guessing. Have fun, Braves.

TBD but maybe Charlie Morton (8 GS, 47 13 IP, 65 ERA-, 85 FIP-, 94 xFIP-, 102ish xERA-)

The Braves haven’t announced their rotation plans for the final two games of this series, but Saturday would be Charlie Morton’s spot on regular rest. Morton had a rough first few starts to begin the year, but has reeled off four nice ones since, including a domination of the Rangers (10/1 K/BB ratio) his last time out.

Morton had a strange outing in Seattle last year: he allowed three homers and had a 5/3 K/BB ratio, but the Braves still won the game, 6-4. He has a career 3.49 FIP and 3.61 xFIP in 11 games against the Mariners in his career, compared to an even 3.76 FIP and xFIP for his career as a whole.

Sunday, May 21 (1:35 pm EDT, Bankruptcy Sports Southeast, MLB Network)

George Kirby (8 GS, 51 13 IP, 60 ERA-, 61 FIP-, 84 xFIP-, 69ish xERA-)

You’d think maybe the Mariners would do Atlanta a favor and throw Marco Gonzales or something in this game to give them a break from facing a bunch of live arms, but nope: it’s going to be the ace-like George Kirby for Seattle in the series finale. Kirby was amazing last year, something the Braves saw firsthand when he dominated them for six innings last September (6/0 K/BB ratio). He’s been pretty much the same level of amazing this year, if not better, and is doing it without a gaudy strikeout rate. Instead, Kirby relies on a fantastic slider and not walking anyone, along with grounders, to get it done. Basically, by the time the Braves are sick of hitting weak flies against Miller and Gilbert, they’ll be good and ready to hit weak grounders against Kirby. Fun.

TBD but maybe Jared Shuster (3 GS, 13 23 IP, 165 ERA-, 130 FIP-, 163 xFIP-, 150ish xERA-)

The Braves don’t have to go with Jared Shuster here, but they might as well, given that they don’t have any great alternatives, and Shuster was okay against a powerful Texas lineup his last time out. In that game, Shuster had a 3/2 K/BB ratio and allowed a homer across five innings. It was his first five-inning start, and the first time in his career that he had more strikeouts than walks.

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