It’s a good time to be a Braves fan, in both the macro and micro sense. Not only did the Braves just wrap up their best month in over a century, but they’re still rolling merrily along. After capping that month with a 16-4 bashing of the Marlins, they went on to complete the sweep over the weekend, running their winning streak to eight games, which happens to be the third time already this season they’ve strung eight Ws together.
This week is a weird one for many people, since the Fourth of July falls on a Tuesday, making Monday a weird kinda-holiday-but-not in many workweeks. After sweeping their homestand, the Braves will take their dominance on the road and play three straight night games in Cleveland.
The Guardians have had a strange season so far, because they’re currently half a game out of first place, but are still under .500. They were supposed to be playing the rubber game of a series at Wrigley Field this afternoon, but rain and a waterlogged field are going to be shoving that start time way back. With the Twins losing to the Orioles earlier today, the Guardians are within striking distance of first place provided they are able to play, and win, tonight, which would give them a share of first place for the fifth time all season, even though a chunk of those have come with a sub-.500 record.
After ending May with a 25-30 record, things have gone better for Cleveland since, as they’ve gone 15-12 since the start of June. One thing that’s been weird about their season so far is that they’ve only been party to two sweeps: they were swept by the Mets and swept the Athletics. They’ve also struggled against the National League in general, with a 10-16 record.
On paper, Cleveland is under .500 because they have a weak position player corps without enough quality pitching to make up for it. Their 90 team wRC+ is 25th in MLB, and they’re 24th in overall position player value, without notable defensive or baserunning value. The pitching is average-to-above, but not even close to dominant. Jose Ramirez is having his usual monster season, and the rest of the position player corps is moribund (as usual). To date, the Guardians have more of their 17 position players used to date with negative fWAR than positive fWAR, which probably tells you most of what you need to know. On the pitching end, the Cleveland Pitching Factory continues to churn out positive contributors, but injuries have forced the team to use 11 different starters to date. The troika of Shane Bieber, Tanner Bibee, and Logan Allen has been quite good, and the other fill-ins have generally been adequate. The bullpen has Emmanuel Clase and a bunch of guys who don’t seem to do much either way; erstwhile dominant reliever James Karinchak had the wheels completely fall apart for him this year and is now back in Triple-A.
The Braves last visited Cleveland in 2019, which is the last time these two teams tangled. That series ended with the Braves winning two of three, including a wild comeback win where Touki Toussaint allowed seven runs in the first two innings and the Braves then scored eight unanswered, including a five-run ninth that included five straight batters reaching with the team down to its final out.
Monday, July 3, 7:10 pm ET (Bankruptcy Sports South)
Bryce Elder (16 GS, 96 IP, 55 ERA-, 89 FIP-, 90 xFIP-, 88ish xERA-)
Now over halfway into the 2023 season, Bryce Elder continues to do his thing, throwing together an above-average pitching line by limiting walks and racking up grounders despite a lack of strikeout stuff. Elder tied a season high with four walks in his last outing, which was the worst of his season on an xFIP basis, but did more than enough to enable the Braves to cruise to a 6-2 win. The Braves have won his last three starts.
Gavin Williams (2 GS, 12 2⁄3 IP, 67 ERA-, 92 FIP-, 113 xFIP-, 64ish xERA-)
A highly-rated prospect, 2021 first-round draftee Gavin Williams made his debut two Fridays ago, and has had a mixed bag of results so far against two weak offenses in the Royals and the Athletics. Oakland tagged him for a homer and three walks versus four strikeouts in 5 2⁄3 innings in his debut; he dominated Kansas City by one-hitting them over seven frames with a 6/1 K/BB ratio.
Williams hasn’t gotten the ball on the ground much so far, which could be dangerous against the current fireworks-prone Atlanta attack. He has a very plug-and-play four-seamer/slider/curve mix where each pitch has good-to-great shape (because he comes from the Cleveland Pitching Factory, after all), and his coaches are probably hoping that he starts to miss a few more bats rather than allowing (albeit weak to date) fly balls in bunches.
Tuesday, July 4, 7:10 pm ET (Bankruptcy Sports South)
Kolby Allard (1 GS, 4 2⁄3 IP, 0 ERA-, 12 FIP, 28 xFIP-, 51ish xERA-)
Allard didn’t just surprise us last Wednesday — he made eyes bulge out of their sockets with his ridonkulous eight strikeouts across 18 batters faced. Sure, it came against a Twins team that has been especially bad against lefties, but Allard had essentially never shown the propensity for these kinds of shenanigans before. On the Fourth, he’ll get a chance to further prove he’s a legitimate, if shorter-stint, option for the Braves as they try to piece together a rotation down the stretch. The Guardians have hit lefties about as well as the Twins, so you can see what the Braves are thinking here. The question is: can Allard use the same (fairly obvious) pitch mix improvement to similar effect in a second consecutive start?
Shane Bieber (17 GS, 106 IP, 83 ERA-, 94 FIP-, 94 xFIP-, 111ish xERA-)
A couple of days after beating Sandy Alcantara, the Braves will face off against another pitcher who dominated in 2022 (and earlier) and is now a considerably more diminished version of himself. From his debut in 2018 through last year, Shane Bieber was insanely effective: his worst FIP- was 77 and his worst xFIP- was 78 across those five seasons. His aggregate line was 74/70/70, and after injuries robbed him of about half of a 2021 season, he came back to pitch 200 frames in 2022. His fWAR/200 prior to this season? Over 5.0. Only six pitchers accrued more value between his debut and the end of the 2022 season.
This season, the pendulum hasn’t swung to “bad” for Bieber, but he’s been way, way worse than his lofty standards (currently “just” 3.0/200). There isn’t any one thing to pinpoint, but essentially everything’s gotten worse for the one-time ace, and an adjustment to throw way more cutters, to try and reclaim a cratering strikeout rate that persists across most of his pitches, has blown up in his face. There’s also a meta-level of concern here, as many observers believe that with no extension agreed to yet, Cleveland will trade Bieber and his current 1.5 years of control for offensive assistance. Of course, that’s harder to do when he looks like a merely good pitcher, rather than an elite arm.
With all that said, Bieber has looked more like his old self in three of his last four starts, putting up eight-plus strikeouts to two or fewer walks in each. Unfortunately, the fourth of those starts was a blow-up in Phoenix where he was tagged for three homers, and two of those outings came against the soporific offenses of Milwaukee and Kansas City.
Wednesday, July 5, 7:10 pm ET (Bankruptcy Sports South)
Michael Soroka (3 GS, 15 2⁄3 IP, 155 ERA-, 174 FIP-, 111 xFIP-, 116ish xERA-)
Soroka’s journey back to contributor status at the MLB level continues to meander, though his last start may have been a positive sign. After struggling through two starts earlier in the year, he returned to Triple-A, but then was recalled to start Friday night’s fireworks fiesta against the Marlins. Soroka allowed two homers in that game but didn’t walk anyone and struck out seven Fish, seemingly pitching a lot better once he realized the fastballs were working better than the secondaries on the evening.
Cal Quantrill (12 GS, 62 2⁄3 IP, 147 ERA-, 116 FIP-, 130 xFIP-, 141ish xERA-)
Kind of like Bieber, this Pitching Factory graduate has also seen a huge diminishing of his effectiveness in 2023. Unlike Bieber, though, Quantrill has been awful for most of the year, and missed nearly all of June with a shoulder injury. The rest didn’t seem to help, as the Cubs blasted him in his return on Friday, and Quantrill remains with very little positive to show from his season so far. A sinker-cutter guy whose sinker basically works like a four-seamer, Quantrill’s main issue has been missing down the middle with the sinker over and over and over.