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Braves face surging Reds in clash of division leaders

Braves look to cool off the feel-good story that is the currently red-hot Reds

Colorado Rockies v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Jeff Dean/Getty Images

The Braves came into their series against the Phillies riding a six-game winning streak, and immediately snapped their opponents’ six-game streak with a 4-2 win on Tuesday night. After a rainout Wednesday and another win on Thursday, the Braves will bring an eight-game winning streak to bear against the surprisingly sizzling Reds, who are on an 11-game heater of their own, their longest win streak since 1957. It will be up to the Braves to stop baseball’s best current story.

The Reds are 21-8 in their last 29 games, a run that’s included separate five-game and three-game win streaks prior to their current domination of opponents. Over that span, the Reds are fourth in position player fWAR (Braves are first), fifth in wRC+ (Braves are first), 23rd in rotation fWAR (Braves are 28th), and fourth in relief fWAR (Braves are 12th). In other words, similar to the Braves, the winning version of these Reds have been powered by a high powered offense and a lockdown bullpen. With that said, the Reds are 18th in both position player and pitching fWAR on the season, so it’s important to recognize this run for what it is — this roster still has holes. In particular, the rotation has been strained with the absences of Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo, who would be the top two arms on their depth charts if not for their lower body injuries.

The offense has picked up the slack, with multiple Reds having breakout campaigns. They have been powered by rookie sensations Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain and Spencer Steer, and have gotten serious contributions from TJ Friedl, Jonathan India, and Jake Fraley. These young, exciting talents have brought life back to a Reds fanbase that has been suffering for the better part of a decade. Interestingy, Friedl’s offensive inputs are horrible, as are the early returns for de la Cruz in that regard, and a bunch of other Reds are also outhitting their inputs. But, that’s what it takes for a team like this to run the table, and they haven’t let that good fortune go to waste.

The Braves come in to the series with an eight game win streak of their own, and got extremely encouraging starts from Spencer Strider and Bryce Elder in the shortened two game series against the Phillies. With those two guys having just pitched, it means the Braves two big guns, with Fried and Wright out, are not going to pitch in this series. They are going to have to rely on youngsters AJ Smith-Shawver and Jared Shuster, as well as veteran Charlie Morton. Sean Murphy also looks good to go in this series after pinch-hitting late in the finale in Philadelphia.

Friday, June 23, 6:40 p.m. ET (Bally Sports Southeast)

AJ Smith-Shawver (2 GS, 13.1 IP, 21.2 K%, 7.7 BB%, 40.5 GB%, 2.03 ERA, 4.48 FIP)

AJ Smith-Shawver will get the ball for the first game of the series, after being skipped over to let Elder face Aaron Nola in the Braves’ win on Thursday. He was one out away from a quality start last time out, but got pulled with two outs in the sixth. An otherwise-excellent outing was somewhat spoiled by a pair of solo home runs. He still struck out six and only walked one, which is a good indicator of progress for the 20-year-old right-hander. Smith-Shawver has been tinkering with his pitch arsenal lately. In the minors he was primarily a fastball-slider pitcher, but he has been incorporating a curveball and a changeup with solid success thus far in his young big league career. After facing easier matchups, Smith-Shawver will face a tough test against a rolling lineup in a hitters’ park.

Luke Weaver (11 GS, 57 IP, 19.5 K%, 6.6 BB%, 36.9 GB%, 6.47 ERA, 5.49 FIP)

Luke Weaver has struggled mightily this season, and moreso in June. He has an ERA of 10.13 in his three June starts and has given up 21 hits in 13 13 innings. With those numbers, he could be in for a rough ride against a dynamic Braves offense in one of the most hitting-friendly environments in baseball. Weaver has a four pitch mix, with his primary swing and miss weapon being his changeup, with which he generates a 33.3 percent whiff rate. However, when hitters do put the pitch in play they crush it, with batters slugging .625 against the pitch. In his last start against the Astros, Weaver went 5 innings while giving up 10 hits and only striking out one batter, walking two, and giving up a homer. He has a 4.91 ERA against the Braves while striking out 32 in 29 13 innings in five starts and a relief appearance. His most recent start against the Braves, back in September 2021, was odd: he had a 7/0 K/BB ratio but allowed three homers in a 6-1 loss.

Saturday, June 24, 4:10 p.m. ET (Bally Sports Southeast)

Jared Shuster (8 GS, 41.1 IP, 13.1 K%, 12.6 BB%, 34.6 GB%, 4.57 ERA, 4.46 FIP)

Jared Shuster has been solid his last few starts, but how much longer can he get away with these high walk numbers and low strikeout totals? He has not given up the long ball and has had some batted ball luck, which accounts for his recent run of success. However, there are reasons for that. Shuster has been excellent at avoiding barrels, sitting in the 83rd percentile for barrel avoidance. The entire package was on display in his last start against the Rockies where he worked around five hits and three walks to go 5.2 innings while only striking out two batters and walking three. He uses a fastball, slider, changeup combo to keep hitters off balance. While none of his pitches are stellar or maybe eve average, they have been good enough. Shuster has never faced the Reds, and his scary low-grounder, low-strikeout profile is going to be in for quite a test in a small park that punishes allowing fly balls.

Graham Ashcraft (13 GS, 65 IP, 16.8 K%, 10.1 BB%, 47.6 GB%, 6.78 ERA, 5.11 FIP)

There are some Graham Ashcraft clips, where it looks like he is untouchable and impossible to hit with an upper 90s cutter and a nasty slider, yet he has an ERA approaching 7. This is due to him not getting many strikeouts despite his nasty stuff and subpar command. The ERA is a bit inflated by a 10 run blowup against the Brewers, but it still does not account for how bad he has been. Despite how nasty Ashcraft’s cutter, which averages over 96 MPH looks to the naked eye, it gets lit up by big league hitters, with batters hitting .313 against the pitch. It also only generates a 16.7 percent whiff rate, which is very subpar. The issue is entirely command-related, as he can’t control where his cutter goes in any way, and his slider is just a bit too off the plate to prevent hitters from sitting on a grooved cutter.

Ashcraft has faced the Braves once in his career, and actually had a very good outing, going six innings, while allowing two runs and striking out seven. The Braves are hoping that start is an anomaly and they can figure out Ashcraft, who is coming off a short IL stint due to a calf injury.

Sunday, June 25, 1:40 p.m. ET (Bally Sports Southeast)

Charlie Morton (14 GS, 80 IP, 26.2 K%, 10.1 BB%, 46.8 GB%, 3.71 ERA, 3.95 FIP)

Charlie Morton has been a solid middle of the rotation option for the Braves, which has been important for a Braves team working through a bevy of rotation injuries. His control has been regressing a bit as he has aged, with his walk rate going up every year since 2020, and he has not been able to go consistently deep into games, but he still has swing and miss stuff and his curveball is still one of the best pitches in baseball with a 42.3 whiff rate and a .159 batting average against. Despite maintaining mid 90’ velocity, his fastball has been touched up this season, which has led to him relying on his curveball more than ever. Morton has not completed six innings in any of his last three starts, which is a streak that he will look to halt. He has faced the Reds a lot, pitching to a 4.10 ERA in 116 13 IP, a lot of which came before his renaissance during his time in Pittsburgh. Morton’s last outing against the Reds was that amazing two-baserunner, ten-strikeout performance that ended up blown by the bullpen in an eventual 4-3 loss.

Ben Lively (7 GS, 46 IP, 23.1 K%, 6.7 BB%, 38.8 GB%, 4.11 ERA, 5.12 FIP)

Ben Lively has been another good story for the Reds. After a couple cups of in the big leagues in 2017 and 2018, Lively went to Korea from 2019-2021, then came back and rose through the Reds system to battle his way back to the big leagues and become a key part of this Reds rotation. He has been pitching a bit over his head, as the 5.12 FIP indicates, but he has filled a starting pitching need nonetheless. He has developed a nasty low 80s slider with a lot of movement. He gets a 37.7 whiff percent on the pitch, which is an elite number. It makes up for his low 90s heaters that don’t blow anybody away. He has come back down to earth in June, posting a 6.17 ERA in four starts after having a sub-2.00 ERA in May. Lively was lit up in both his career starts against the Braves, posting a 6.75 ERA and taking the loss in both appearances, but those came all the way back in 2017 and this is a new and maybe-improved Ben Lively. There’s probably a decent pitcher somewhere in there, but he needs to be way more consistent and mindful about his fastball usage, as he currently throws a no-sink four-seamer up in, but not above, the zone, leading it to get crushed over and over.

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