The Atlanta Braves will face off against one of the most special players to ever step foot on a field in Shohei Ohtani when they play host to the Anaheim Angels from Monday through Wednesday. This season, Ohtani has been on another level, performing as one of the best hitters (best outputs, second-best inputs) in baseball as well as an upper-echelon starting pitcher. He is a shoo-in for the AL MVP and is in line to receive the largest contract in baseball history this offseason.
The Angels are looking to make an all-in push for the playoffs in Ohtani’s final year before free agency. They sit four games back of a Wild Card spot and should be getting parts of their injury-ravaged roster back soon. They made a statement trade last week when they acquired Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez in return for prospects, shutting down Ohtani trade speculation in the process.
Thankfully for the Braves, Ohtani will not be on the mound in Atlanta, though they’ll still have to contend with his bat in the lineup. The Japanese sensation is having the best hitting season of his career, with a 186 wRC+ and a league-leading 39 home runs, as well as a 1.083 OPS. However, it’s not like the Angels are just coasting with all the value that Ohtani has given them, because all of Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, Brandon Drury and Taylor Ward are out of the lineup at the moment. Ward, Drury and Trout are all in the top five in fWAR for the Angels. Phillies prospect bust Mickey Moniak has picked up the slack with a 158 wRC+ as he has revived his career with the Angels.
As has been the case often in the last decade, the problem for the Angels has been pitching. Their position player corps is fifth in MLB in fWAR and has really only had a persistent problem at third base, where not even acquiring Eduardo Escobar from the Mets has done anything other than faceplant, but the pitching is 18th in MLB in fWAR, as the bullpen has been ineffective despite some quality starting pitching.
The Braves, meanwhile, responded with a two-game sweep in Boston by sweeping the Brewers in a three-game set at home. They continue to roll merrily along thanks to their prodigious power output despite challenges with their pitching and defense — they allowed 18 runs to the Brewers in three games but won all of them anyway thanks to scoring 29 while bashing 11 homers.
Monday, July 31, 7:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports South)
Charlie Morton (20 GS, 113.1 IP, 24.3 K%, 10.3 BB%, 47.1 GB%, 3.57 ERA, 3.82 FIP)
Charlie Morton had a rough start last time out against the Red Sox, failing to complete four innings while allowing four runs while walking five. It was one of the worst starts of his career, and the first time he had completely foundered since a start against the Cubs in April 2022, where he had a 1/4 K/BB ratio.
After a really nice six-start stretch in from mid-June to mid-July in which he posted a 41 ERA-, 73 FIP-, and 83 xFIP-, Morton has walked eight and struck out just five over his last two starts spanning 9 1⁄3 innings. His seasonal line is still 80/89/94, which is more than fine, but it’ll start to turn sour quickly if he has more outings like what we saw against the Diamondbacks and then the Red Sox.
Morton is relying on his plus-plus curveball more than ever this season, using it at a 44.6 percent clip. Since 2019, he has tended to throw it around 36 percent of the time, so this is a meaningful jump in usage for Morton. It still gets elite results, with the pitch inducing a .175 batting average and 84 strikeouts, to go with a 38.8 whiff rate. The problem is that this approach has made him somewhat predictable and prone to walking guys who don’t offer — his 10.3 percent walk rate is at its highest mark since 2016, when he only made four starts.
Griffin Canning (16 GS, 84.2 IP, 25.5 K%, 7 BB%, 45.1 GB%, 4.46 ERA, 4.62 FIP)
Griffin Canning is a relatively young pitcher with strikeout stuff, but has trouble avoiding hard contact. His hard hit and barrel rates are both well below average, sitting in the 10th and 32nd percentile respectively. However, his last two starts show he can rack up the punchouts, with eight in his last start against the Tigers and an eye popping 12 in the start before that against the Yankees. He does it with a mid 90s fastball, and two secondaries, a slider and changeup, that have been effective this season. He also throws a curveball but that pitch has been a liability for him.
Canning has had trouble with the longball this season, allowing 1.70 HR/9, a problem that is not something you want to have against the Braves lineup. The homers largely result from how often he hits the zone, with all of his pitches seemingly designed to fall in for strikes — his 105 FIP- is way above his 89 xFIP- and the HR/FB he’s experienced this season is a sharp reversal from the rest of his career.
Tuesday, August 1, 7:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports South)
Spencer Strider (21 GS, 123 IP, 39.6 K%, 7.2 BB%, 32.7 GB%, 3.73 ERA, 2.98 FIP)
The last couple starts for Spencer Strider have had a similar tune, dominant through six before getting into trouble in the seventh, largely due to the longball on some poorly-placed pitches when facing guys a third time. This is an issue that Strider will need to solve in order to ascend into the best pitcher in baseball, though it’s hard to say it’s a huge issue because despite the now-”bloated” 3.80 FIP the third time through, his xFIP is still a phenomenal 2.38 in the split. He has the stuff to do it, with his 14.56 K/9 being an unprecedented mark for a starting pitcher... he just needs the fly balls hit off him by batters past number 18 to stop leaving the yard so frequently (24.1 percent HR/FB). Seventh-inning adventures or not, Strider has already compiled 3.4 fWAR on the year, now good for fourth in MLB among pitchers. His slider has an absurd 57.2 percent whiff rate, so continued good luck, opposing batters!
Patrick Sandoval (18 GS, 98 IP, 18.8 K%, 9.5 BB%, 51 GB%, 4.13 ERA, 3.94 FIP)
Patrick Sandoval is a guy who relies on soft contact and limiting home runs. He is very good at both, allowing only 0.64 HR/9 and having an average exit velocity in the 86th percentile. He is also good at keeping the ball on the ground, with a 51 percent grounder rate being well above average. However, after a breakout 3.8 fWAR campaign in 2022, he has struggled with a reduced strikeout rate, which has made his walk issues more prominent. The opposite of Canning, Sandoval has a low HR/FB rate, and his FIP- of 89 is well below his 102 xFIP-. There will come a point where a sub-20 percent strikeout rate and a walk rate nearing 10 percent will obliterate him, but he hasn’t gotten there yet.
Because Sandoval lacks any real stuff to speak of, he works like a crafty lefty, throwing both his slider and changeup more often than his four-seamer. He has the command to put everything but the four-seamer on the edge consistently, which makes the pitches play up despite a lack of natural bite. For opposing hitters, it’s all about waiting out the fastball and creaming it.
Sandoval’s only career outing against the Braves came right about a year ago in Atlanta, and it was a weird one. The Braves won 7-2 and chased Sandoval after charging him with five runs in three innings, but only managed a 4/2 K/BB ratio and didn’t hit a homer. Instead, they basically singled him to death, which is something that can happen given that he’s not much of a strikeout guy and has always had an elevated walk rate.
Wednesday, August 2, 12:20 p.m. ET (Bally Sports South)
Yonny Chirinos (16 G, 5 GS, 66.1 IP, 12.1 K%, 7.5 BB%, 44.1 GB%, 4.34 ERA, 5.35 FIP)
Yonny Chirinos’ Braves debut did not go according to plan, with the right-hander allowing four runs in 3 2⁄3 innings. But, you can hardly blame Chirinos himself, as he had a 3/1 K/BB ratio in that span, and was let down by the usual issues the Braves have encountered lately: bad defense.
With Fried returning from injury, Chirinos will have to pitch well to earn a spot in the rotation. His numbers this season have been ugly, even if his ERA doesn't quite reflect that. His 4.61 K/9 is abysmal and his 5.35 FIP suggests a cloudy future for the right hander who has finally been healthy in 2023 after years of injury set backs. His batted ball data is not much better, with his 13th percentile hard hit% and 38th percentile barrel% not good enough for a contact oriented pitcher. Despite pitching in the American League his entire career before his last start, he has never faced the Angels.
Lucas Giolito (22 GS, 126.1 IP, 25.7 K%, 8.1 BB%, 35.5 GB%, 3.85 ERA, 4.56 FIP)
Lucas Giolito was the Angels’ big Trade Deadline splash, as he came over from the White Sox, along with teammate Reynaldo Lopez, for a pair of prospects. While Giolito has bounced back from a rough 2022, at least on the surface, he has not returned to his 2019-2021 best where he was one of the better pitchers in the American League. He has lost a tick of velocity in the past couple seasons, but he still has strikeout stuff. His fastball still gets a solid amount of whiffs, while his slider and changeup are solid secondary pitches.
One adjustment he has made this year is throwing his slider more than his bugs bunny changeup, which has long been his money pitch. The pitches have been solid but hitters have done some damage on them when they make contact, with the right hander allowing 13 home runs on his slider and changeup. Home runs have been a problem in general, with his 1.57 HR/9 the highest he’s ever put up in a full season. In his first start with the Angels, Giolito went 5 1⁄3 innings while allowing three runs in an unspectacular debut — the 5/1 K/BB ratio was nice but two of the hits he allowed were homers.