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Braves set “meh” as their watchword in May

The Braves sputtered at the end of May, putting a hopefully-temporary damper on what’s been a good season so far

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

A baseball season is long. 162 games is a lot of games! Every team is going to have peaks and valleys, and it’s not particularly bewildering that even good teams will have some pretty unpleasant valleys to slog through. The 101-win Braves of yesteryear had two sub-.500 months. The 101-win Braves of 2003 never had a sub-.500 month, but went 14-12 in September. Even the 111-win Dodgers of 2022 had a brief pseudo-valley of going just 14-12 in June. Sure, the 2001 Mariners won no fewer than two-thirds of their games in any calendar block, but it’s just not that common, even for great teams. So, if the Braves are the best team in baseball, there’s still no shame, and not even much surprise in a 15-14 month. It doesn’t mean it was always fun to watch, but no one said the season was going to be easy, either.

One of the somewhat odd parts of the Braves’ May, though, was that it was less a constant slog, and more like a continuation of April at first, and then a super-slog later. The Braves started the month 7-2, and even after losing four in a row, won back-to-back series against the Rangers and Mariners. They were 11-8 after taking the last game of the Mariners series (in a Jared Shuster-George Kirby matchup, no less). It was only after that game that the month turned semi-sour, as the Braves went 4-6 the rest of the way, dropping two of three in Oakland in one of the more ignominious feats this team has achieved in recent history.

So, the schedule shook out like this:

In terms of aggregate winning percentage, the Braves were supposed to go 16-13 or 17-12 in May, and that’s at least a small reason as to why their actual record feels like a bummer. They were disfavored in only six games during the month, but won four of them. Instead, what grated were losses in some quite favorable matchups at home, like Max Fried-Dean Kremer and Spencer Strider-Bobby Miller.

All in all, though, not much has really changed. The Braves finish May with the seventh-best record in MLB (percentage points behind sixth, and a half-game out of fifth), and their four-game lead in the division is tied for the largest division lead in baseball. No team has higher division, playoff, or World Series odds, and though the Braves’ subpar month ate into their expected end-of-season win total, down by about two wins since the end of April, the month elapsing as it did still boosted the team’s various playoff success likelihoods. Running out the proverbial clock in May doesn’t seem like a thing, but it’s basically what the Braves did while treading water.

Components-wise, the team finished the month seventh in wRC+, 16th in aggregate defensive value, and eighth in position player fWAR. On the season, they’re fourth, 17th, and fifth, respectively. The Braves posted identical .353 xwOBAs and near-identical wOBAs (.341, 338) in April and May; the big difference was that more teams hit better than them in May. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the barreled outs, they find themselves once again towards the bottom of the league in terms of xwOBA underperformance.

Pitching-wise, the Braves finished eighth in overall pitching staff fWAR in May, including sixth in rotation fWAR and 18th in bullpen fWAR, with each of ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP- in the top 10. On the season, they’re fifth, sixth, and eighth (total pitching, rotation, bullpen) in fWAR.

In sum, the Braves posted pretty much the same degree of position player value in May as in April, but slid on the pitching end, going from a staff with run prevention largely in the 10-20 percent better than average range to the five percent better than average range. They played a tiny bit worse than their record, as their aggregate fWAR-wins suggest a 16-13 month. On the season as a whole, they’re underperforming their Pythagorean Expectation and BaseRuns-based record by a game; they have the third-best “record” by each of those systems.

All in all, May was livable and survivable. It was mostly an illustration of, or perhaps a testament to, the fact that being really, really good for month after month is closer to impossible than a reality. When you can have a top-10 position player and pitching month, but still end up just a game over .500, being able to reel off awesome month after awesome month without baseball getting in the way just seems like a bridge too far. Was May meh? Yeah. Should it have been better, for multiple different definitions of “should?” Yeah. That’s alright, though, as the Braves will have four more chances for better months going forward. We’ll hope the meh doesn’t persist into June.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for May 2023 Performance - Position Players

Much like April, the dynamic duo of Ronald Acuña Jr. and Sean Murphy played at an MVP level and paced the team production-wise through May, but someone’s reversal of fortune was so dramatic that there’s no way we can talk about anyone else here. Yes, I’m talking about Marcell Ozuna, who finished the month with a 159 wRC+ and 0.8 fWAR. Ozuna underhit his xwOBA for seven consecutive months as a Brave in 2021 and 2022 until having a nice September last year, but went back to a hilariously big, over-.100-point gap in April. But, in May, he improved both his xwOBA (from .293 to .403) and his output (from .189 to .413).

Even more amazingly, Ozuna managed to turn around not just his input-output relationship, but the fact that for whatever reason, said relationship tended to manifest itself in more important situations. Ozuna posted negative WPA and generally negative clutch scores in every month of 2021 and 2022, again excepting September, as well as April 2023. But, in May, he actually lead the Braves in WPA and had a neutral clutch score. That’s definitely something, and he’s clambered back to replacement level. Maybe one of these days he’ll actually match or outhit his xwOBA on an aggregate season-to-date line.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for May 2023 Performance - Starting Pitchers

In a month that the Braves’ rotation was basically quadruple-decimated, who else could this be but the scintillating Bryce Elder, who actually beat out Spencer Strider (because of homers) for the team pitching fWAR lead in the month? Elder continued to be phenomenal, with a 39 ERA, 70 FIP-, and 84 xFIP-.

Results-wise, Elder has had just one bad start (the three-homer game against the Marlins) all season; peripherals-wise, he had just one bad start in May. This, despite being pushed deep into the third time through in every start (where his peripherals are quite bad), and despite a profile that is anything but a straightforward path to success. With all of this, Elder has had a negative WPA start once so far this season (that same three-homer game), which means it never happened to him in May. The Braves won all but one of those starts.

The fun part is that the longer this goes on, the more likely it becomes that he’ll keep getting away with it. The Braves are gonna need it.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for May 2023 Performance - Relief Pitchers

Jesse Chavez has been a boon to the Braves and their fans — it’s one thing to be a snappy dresser whose persistence makes you into an evolving meme, but it’s quite another to actually melt faces and devour souls with your pitching at the same time.

Chavez made 12 appearances in May, and lost WPA in just one of them. He posted three shutdowns and zero meltdowns, and his “start” as the vanguard of a bullpen game would’ve earned a shutdown too if it were eligible to do so. His line for the month — 15 ERA-, 45 FIP-, 66 xFIP- is the sort of thing you’d expect from a late-inning fireballer, not a guy who hasn’t yet hit 93.0 mph this year. He also led the team’s non-starters in fWAR. He’s in the midst of pretty much by far his best season by xFIP, and I’m excited to see what happens for him going forward. I mean, the usual reliever randomness is probably going to kick in at some point, but this has been quite a ride.

You also wonder whether the Braves will try to ride him a bit more given their rotation challenges and his success. In May, Chavez entered the game in high leverage just three times, which is considerably fewer than his low-leverage-slash-garbage-time outings count for the month (seven). The Braves’ bullpen composition has been awkward so far this year, with way too many guys that can pitch multiple innings but not do so particularly well, and transitioning Chavez to a role where he’s not burned in this capacity could be helpful. Or reliever stuff could happen and it won’t matter, but it’s at least something to try.

Best Offensive Play - Stellar Pillar

On May 6, the Braves trailed the Orioles 4-3 in the eighth. Austin Riley started the inning with a groundball double, but Sean Murphy couldn’t drive him in or advance him. Eddie Rosario was up next, so the Orioles made a pitching change to southpaw Danny Coulombe. The Braves, smartly (and obviously) not deterred by Eddie Rosario’s tiny-sample reverse batting output splits to begin 2023, mashed the “platoon advantage/Kevin Pillar” button in response, and it worked out beautifully.

Of all the plays in a season that turn a game around, few are done by pinch-hitters, but Pillar pulled it off here, and the Braves won by the resulting 5-4 score.

Best Run-Stopping Play - The Acuña Arsenal

May 7. Extra innings, that somehow persisted into the 11th. Michael Tonkin on the mound, Adam Frazier at the plate, the free runner on second, and oh yeah, Ronald Acuña Jr. in right field. A recipe for awesome.

The kid is in the top three in both arm value defensive metrics, and his arm “input,” i.e., how hard he throws, leads MLB. Austin Hays is reasonably fast, but I imagine that after something like this, Acuña is going to rack up even more arm value as teams just stop challenging him altogether.

Most Dominant Single Game Offensive Performance

Yeah, it’s still Pillar and his single plate appearance with a game-winning pinch-hit homer. Hard to top that, really. So let’s use this space to briefly talk about Pillar. At the time he was signed, it wasn’t clear that he was even the best option for a bench spot, as his Spring Training was unremarkable. But, since Eli White had options, Pillar made the roster, and boy, has he taken to the team and its approach like a cat to a sunbeam-lit spot on a hardwood floor.

Pillar has a 110 wRC+ and 0.5 fWAR in 90 PAs. He’s largely been asked to crush lefties and he has, with a 157 wRC+ against them. While his overall xwOBA is pretty meh (below .320), he has a .375 xwOBA against lefties. Wrap that up with neutral defense and he’s basically served the role of “actually useful platoon bat and fourth outfielder,” the sort every good team leans on to provide unexpected production. My favorite part, though, is not that he’s succeeding, but how: a contact-over-power, spray hitter that chased a ton for much of his career, Pillar has transitioned as best he could to the Braves version of himself, one that swings at more strikes and is more than happy to whiff so long as he gets the increased power production that comes from trying to kill the ball every time the bat comes off his shoulders. He currently has career highs in exit velocity, sweet spot rate, xwOBACON, and hard-hit rate, the latter of which has skyrocketed relative to his past. Sure, it’s only 90 PAs, but it’s always fun to watch the Braves target (or just end up with) these guys, tell them to do the thing, and then reap the rewards.

Most Dominant Single Game Starting Pitching Performance

It didn’t take long in the month for this one: Bryce Elder, May 2, seven innings of shutout, 6/0 K/BB ratio ball, protecting a slim but expanding lead. The game ended up a blowout, but Elder left with a 3-0 lead.

There are a lot of cool things about this game (one of them being that Elder didn’t walk anyone). One is that it came right after Elder’s storybook start to 2023 hit a bit of a rough patch as he tried to force strikes after falling behind to these self-same Marlins, and allowed three homers as a result. Against the same team a few days later, he rectified the problem and didn’t even fall behind much. The only runner in this game to even reach second base against him got there because of an Elder balk.

If you like contact management, then this too was the game for you, as Elder allowed just a .214 xwOBA in his seven innings of work. Only two Spencer Strider starts and Dylan Lee’s excellent start to a bullpen game had a lower xwOBA-against in the month.

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

The beneficiary of the Acuña cannonade in that May 7 game against Baltimore was Michael Tonkin, but that out on the basepaths was only part of what Tonkin presided over in that game. He came on for the 11th, and got out of it (in large part thanks to said broadside) without a run scoring, ye olde (new?) Manfredball and all. The Braves didn’t walk it off in the bottom of the inning, so out went Tonkin again, and again he avoided trouble — pop out, groundout, pop out. Not bad, kid. The Braves walked it off in the bottom of the 12th, so that he didn’t have to try to stop the free runner from scoring a third time.

Most Crushed Dinger

We’ll do a couple here. First, you get the one that Acuña hit to start the game in Toronto, which was one of the few good moments from that nightmare of a series.

And then you get this one, which also came in a loss, but just makes you stop and gape at the kid’s ability to obliterate baseballs in this fashion.

In the end, though, May had pretty much the same amount of good as bad, so let’s take a tour through the stuff we wish didn’t happen.

Worst Offensive Result - A Double Play, I Guess

When the Braves struggled in May offensively, it was more in the teamwide futility sense. The best I could come up with was this brutal double play hit into by Matt Olson, an inning before Kevin Pillar saved the Braves. This came in a one-run game with the tying run at second and the go-ahead run on first, with Olson having the platoon advantage, and on a pitch that Olson isn’t super-keen on swinging at. It’s easy to say “don’t change your gameplan because of the game state” but it’s harder (I guess?) to do so in the heat of the moment, and that’s what failed Olson here. It’s not that he had much of a choice but to swing, so credit Bryan Baker here, but still, a brutal play.

Worst Pitching Result - Northern Nightmare Made Manifest

Raisel Iglesias was very good after the Braves acquired him at the Trade Deadline last year. Now in his first full season with the Braves... eh. Typical reliever stuff, but no one actually likes watching or experiencing typical reliever stuff. Iglesias missed the first five weeks of the season with a shoulder issue, which isn’t really a nice thing to hear or know about a pitcher. His first outing of the season was great, the second got the job done, and he’s been really hit or miss since. The biggest miss came in Toronto, where the Braves had a chance to salvage the game, but then this happened:

The funny thing is, the ball wasn’t actually hard-hit (85 mph off the bat). It was just put somewhere that the Braves couldn’t do anything with it... but that doesn’t excuse the fact that Iglesias had an 0/1 K/BB ratio in the inning and nearly allowed a game-tying homer to start the frame. More on Iglesias in a bit.

Worst Single-Game Offensive Performance

You know what people have liked to talk about this season? That Ozzie Albies should stop switch hitting. On May 26, he provided even more fodder for that discussion.

At the end of this game, the Braves ended up losing 6-4, after a combination of leaving Jared Shuster in too long and Joe Jimenez blew the lead, and then the now-DFAed Lucas Luetge bled some more runs afterwards. But Albies didn’t help matters at all on the offensive side of things.

First, he came up with men on second and third and none out in a scoreless game. He hit a grounder to first, which then turned into a super-stupid play where Marcell Ozuna got thrown out at third for reasons unclear to anyone.

Two innings later, with the tying run on second and two out, he grounded out to second. Facing Taijuan Walker for a third time in the seventh, he flew out weakly. Facing Craig Kimbrel to lead off the ninth, down by two, he flew out weakly again. Only one of the four balls was hit with an exit velocity above 95 mph; the four xwOBAs he collected were (avert your eyes): .005, .011, .074, and .108. No Brave with four balls in play in a game so far this season has had a lower xwOBA(CON, since we’re talking about balls in play). In fact, only 29 players so far this season have had games with four or more balls in play and a lower xwOBACON.

Because he hits lefties so well (a hilarious .459 xwOBA against them so far this season), Albies’ problems in aggregate this season have been defensive rather than offensive, but boy, that game sucked for him (and in general). One thing for the Braves to consider, though: if you’re going to play Eddie Rosario, stop putting Albies behind him. No one actually cares enough to grab a lefty to face Rosario if it means facing righty-batting Albies, they’ll just use a righty for both guys. Maybe find a way to wedge Albies in near Michael Harris II and Matt Olson, because teams have loved getting a lefty in to face both of those guys to date.

Worst Single-Game Starting Pitching Performance

As I do these monthly recaps, there’s a good chance that this particular block is caused by the Braves not removing a starter the third time through. Guess what, we’re doing that here, too.

On May 22, the Braves gave Morton a 4-0 lead before he even took the mound. He gave up a run to J.D. Martinez on a homer. Then there were two more runs in the third. Despite the tying run reaching base to start the fourth, putting Morton in a situation where he now had to face Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman a third time with a man on base, none out, and the slimmest of leads... oh, who am I kidding, of the course the Braves left him in. He walked Betts. He gave up a three-run homer to Freeman after throwing him a fourth straight curve. The Braves ended up losing by two runs.

We know that Morton has started to struggle with homers, and against lefties. Those issues are exacerbated the third time through in a way they weren’t prior to 2022, but the main culprit seems to be his fastball. Unfortunately, throwing only curves to lefties is not much of an option, as Freeman demonstrated against his former mate. Will the Braves be more proactive with Morton’s issues in the future? Probably not.

Worst Single-Game Relief Pitching Performance

Yeah, it’s still the Iglesias meltdown in Toronto. Two outs (none on strikeouts), a near homer by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., a walk, and then some ball-in-play shenanigans that doomed him. I guess he didn’t allow a homer? That’s really all you can say here.

Through ten appearances spanning 8 23 innings, Iglesias has a 93 ERA-, 94 FIP-, and 104 xFIP-. Those numbers don’t mean much for the future given the sample size, but they won’t help the resource allocation concerns inherent with having a big-money reliever on your roster until they get much better.

Most Crushed Dinger Allowed

Everyone misses Jorge Soler. Jorge Soler did not miss this baseball.

The Braves somehow won this game by three runs despite Dylan Dodd giving up a homer, with a runner on base, and having a 1/3 K/BB ratio. That makes this clip a cool vestige of “Jorge Soler rules” feelings, instead of more of a, “d’oh, why were the Braves still giving innings to Dylan Dodd?!” sort of thing.

See you next month!

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