For the Atlanta Braves, July 2023 wasn’t anything like June... but then again, how could it be? It was a whirlwind of a month that saw the Braves rumble their way all the way into the All-Star Break the way they did in June, and then stumble afterwards, aside from taking five of six from the Brewers in the span of a couple of weekends. All-in-all, though, it’s hard to be too down, or down at all, on the Braves, even though they’ve gone 7-8 to start the season’s “second half” while dropping series to the White Sox, Diamondbacks, and Red Sox, and losing their first game to the Angels. After all, 13-10 is still a 92-win pace, which is close to what the Braves were projected to do before the season began, and the Braves have clearly taken their foot off the gas, rotating starters to keep guys healthy and letting them pitch too deep into games to avoid having to use a replacement parts (to say nothing of replacement level, for some of its members) bullpen.
In case you forgot, here’s exactly how the month went:
The Braves were favored in all but four games this month and went 11-8 in those contests, while splitting the other four games. Being generally favored isn’t surprising for a team of this caliber; what’s also not surprising is that in terms of game-to-game odds, the Braves were supposed to go 13-10 or 14-9, and that’s pretty much what they did. Probably the biggest bummer of the month in this regard was that they lost the game in which they were most favored, when Eddie Rosario’s attempts at defense torched a Spencer Strider start en route to a 6-5 loss against the White Sox.
This is normally the part where I’d write some stuff about playoff odds, but that seems like a moot point right now. All the Braves did was nudge their division and bye odds ever closer to unity, increasing each from around 98 percent to around 99.5 percent. Even the standings feel like an afterthought: the Braves ended June with a seven-game lead over the Marlins and an 11-game lead over the Phillies; they ended July with the same 11-game lead over the Phillies and an 11.5-game lead over Miami. Even their 7-8 spell since the All-Star Break hasn’t really done anything, as the gap between them and second place actually grew by 2.5 games despite them going under .500 in those 15 games.
Performance-wise, July was a mixed bag like June; the difference was just that the Braves didn’t win a bazillion games while having some pretty iffy performances.
- Hitting-wise, the Braves had the month’s seventh-best wRC+, and seventh-largest position player value. For the season, they’re now the top offensive team by wRC+, and second only to the Rangers in position player value. They had the league’s second-highest xwOBA in July, and are still far and away the best team xwOBA-wise on the season.
- The aggregate pitching in the month was fine — 12th in MLB in fWAR. Despite the team being relatively loath to deploy them due to various injuries (22nd in MLB in innings pitched during the month), the bullpen was actually top-10 value-wise and top-five xFIP-wise (after adjusting for park). The rotation was middling, which is largely where it’s been all season; the Braves’ season-long presence as a top-ten pitching staff has largely been bullpen-driven.
- It seems like I should write something about fielding here, but it’s hard, because July really was cleft by the All-Star Break. The Braves still finished as a top-ten defensive team for the month, but where we really saw a bunch of kicking the ball around was in July’s second half. Further, both Sean Murphy and Travis d’Arnaud have done some serious framing work, which makes it harder to castigate the defense in its entirety.
Anyway, onto a silly version of the individual performances, to correspond to a silly month.
Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for July 2023 Performance - Position Players
Here’s a guy who had fun at the dish in July: Matt Olson. He was a big part of the Braves’ torrid June, with a 159 wRC+, but picked up the pace even further in July, hitting a 186 mark. His .423 xwOBA (which he outhit) narrowly edged that of Austin Riley for July, and while it wasn’t the best for the month because Shohei Ohtani (and some other guys) exist, it was still fantastic. Moreso than just the straight hitting performance, though, was the timing. Olson had three games, including two in a row to end the month, where he added more than 20 percent to the team’s win expectancy; he had another three where he added more than 10 percent.
One of the interesting things about Olson’s season is that he’s clambered up from “above-average guy” towards something more productive at this point. He started out the season well, playing just below a 5 WAR pace, but that had dropped to below a 4 fWAR pace through May as much of the team was mired in a mediocre stretch. His June only put him up in the mid 4-range for the season, but he added over a win alone in July, and is now on pace for a 5+ fWAR season. There may be another slump in there somewhere that knocks off his ultimate numbers, but suffice to say, we’re seeing the Matt Olson the Braves hoped they were extending at this point.
Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for July 2023 Performance - Starting Pitchers
Honestly, for the second month in a row, there are no good choices here. The obvious selection is Spencer Strider, who kinda dominated the month with 1.1 fWAR and a 42 xFIP- across five starts, but Strider was so down on himself after giving up late homers in each of his last two outings that I can’t pick him, because you know he wouldn’t pick himself. So, by default, I guess we’re going with Charlie Morton.
Did Morton pitch well in July? Not really! 0.3 fWAR in six starts is kinda crappy, and he was a beneficiary of defense and sequencing with a 71/108/102 line for the month. The first three starts were part of a continued run of strong performance for him that kind of made it seem like he turned the corner and figured out how to thrive despite an unplayable fastball, only for it all to come crashing down in his last three starts, where he walked too many, struck out too few, and/or got stung by the longball because he threw a bunch of fastballs that tailed back into the zone.
I look forward to Strider beating himself up less so that he can get this award next month.
Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for July 2023 Performance - Relief Pitchers
Does it make sense to give this to a guy who missed most of the month? I don’t care, it’s Nick Anderson. To be clear, Anderson was kinda pants in July, with an xFIP above 5.00. But, he recorded three shutdowns in four outings in July before hitting the shelf, without actually pitching well. Most of the rest of the bullpen didn’t really do anything particularly interesting for the month, so Anderson’s good fortune in somehow having three key outings in just four appearances takes it here.
The more obvious choice would be Joe Jimenez, who had a great month with dominant numbers in 11 outings, but the Braves haven’t cared all season about using him in any kind of leverage until their hand was forced, and even with the bullpen completely destroyed in July, he still never entered the game in high leverage. (Jimenez has only entered the game in high leverage three times, all in June. He had one shutdown and two meltdowns in those outings. I don’t really know why the Braves acquired him given his usage pattern.)
Best Offensive Play - It’s not Magic, it’s Austin Riley being Awesome
The Braves were on the verge of being swept by the Diamondbacks at home. They trailed 3-5, and Miguel Castro, the guy who gave up Eddie Rosario’s epic down-to-last-out-grand-slam back in Phoenix, was back on the mound trying to send the Braves to their doom.
This PA was a weird one, too. Castro landed a perfect slider for strike one, nestled in the low-and-away pocket of the zone, and then got Riley to chase a much worse one that was outside for strike two. Riley then laid off another chase pitch of the same tenor for a ball, and was seemingly set up for anything but the slider.
But for whatever reason, Castro threw a fourth straight slider, and Riley was all over it. I don’t really know his thought process, as I would have never figured “look for a hanging slider on 1-2 after seeing three in a row to the corner” but Riley did, and the Braves were all the better for it. So much better. Blam.
This was Riley’s fourth homer of the series and continued his blistering July. More importantly, it helped the Braves snap a skid, and they went on to win their next series after salvaging this game. I remain in awe of his swing decision/approach to hunt and penalize that terrible slider. I bet Miguel Castro never wants to see the Braves again.
Best Run-Stopping Play - Almost!
Something that’s pretty cool about Riley is that while he spent much of the season fighting his approach a bit, and is still snakebitten by xwOBA underperformance, he’s made some defensive progress this year. After playing something like bad-to-worst-in-class defense through 2022, and really struggling through April defensively as well, Riley has turned it around. He was neutral in May, +2 OAA-runs in June, and led the team with 2 OAA (and +1 OAA-runs) in July. Consequently, if he keeps it up, he’ll have his first-ever season with positive defensive value, which is pretty neat.
Back to the play — this was the crazy 16-13 game against the Diamondbacks, and the Braves had a chance to actually win this one because they had a 13-12 lead in the eighth. Unfortunately, Kirby Yates “decided” to be awful, putting the two guys on with free passes after recording an out, and then not sniffing out or preventing a double steal. That set up Riley to do this to keep the lead intact...
...and he did just that, making a lead that was in large part the result of him driving in seven guys with a pair of homers and a double stand up for a bit longer. This is the sort of play Riley has messed up repeatedly in the past, so it was great to see him get past the bungling.
Unfortunately, a game-tying single followed this, and awful defense on the other side of the infield doomed the Braves in the ninth. But still, a great play here, from a guy who earlier this season let a team walk off on the Braves by being unable to convert a similar opportunity.
Most Dominant Single Game Offensive Performance
Yeah, it’s still Riley. July 18, July 20, how can you pick? July 20, with that three-run homer that snapped a four-game skid, he also had a triple in the prior inning. July 18, he was just a monster in a losing effort, with a game-tying two-run double in the first, a go-ahead three-run homer when down by a run in the fourth, and another go-ahead homer when down a run in the sixth.
Austin Riley: very fun in July.
Most Dominant Single Game Starting Pitching Performance
Again, I’m not allowed to put Spencer Strider starts here because he’s mad at himself. So, instead, Charlie Morton, July 14, before things got problematic for the veteran right-hander in the second half of the month. A ho-hum, no frills, 4/1 K/BB ratio, seven shutout innings effort against the White Sox. If only all his starts could be so relaxing.
This was not a month for pitching, really, unless you like watching Spencer Strider dominate and then put a towel of misery over his head because he gave up a late homer and/or his defense killed him.
Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance
Raisel Iglesias, in a low-scoring game, on the road, against a strong Rays offense? Sure, he gave up a two-out groundball double, but he brought it home. Nothing really stands out, but an avoidance of unnecessary drama in a month that had so much of it, usually due to defensive lapses, is much appreciated.
Most Crushed Dinger
Hey look it’s Austin Riley in this July monthly recap again. Pew pew pew homers.
111 mph off the bat at a 26 degree launch angle looks like that, if you were wondering.
And now, the plentiful bad stuff.
Worst Offensive Result - Murphy’s very bad result
There was a chance that this was going to be yet another “worst offensive result of the month is a guy getting thrown out at home in extra innings for a double play” but instead, it’s this:
This is the sort of stuff that happens in baseball. Maybe that bat doesn’t shatter and the ball is hit hard enough to get through. Maybe the bat shatters so much that it interferes with the play, and the Braves are able to score. Maybe Murphy doesn’t have a bummer of a July (108 wRC+, after being around 150 consistently previously). Ah, well. Tough way to lose a game, though.
Worst Pitching Result - Pierced
So, the actual worst result here is this two-run double by Justin Turner off Pierce Johnson, which turned a lead into a deficit and led a two-game sweep of the Braves in Fenway Park. But what was truly heinous was what set it up — Ozzie Albies botching a likely double play ball on a soft bouncer hit to him two batters earlier. That’s why this one stings, not the double itself. Well, maybe kinda the double itself.
Worst Single-Game Offensive Performance
Yep, it’s that Murphy game where he ended the one-run contest with his double-play ball. It was a real tough game for him, as he struck out twice, had a routine flyout, and hit a flare right to the second baseman instead of almost anywhere else where it would’ve landed for a hit, in addition to his game-ending double play. The flyout was bad because it came with men on the corners and two out in a tie game; the lineout led off an inning with the Braves down one, and one of his strikeouts came after a leadoff double and the Braves down two.
Murphy’s -.657 WPA in the game is his new career-low; he had previously only had one game anywhere near as deadly (to his teammates) as this one.
Worst Single-Game Starting Pitching Performance
But not really a starting pitching performance, if you know what I mean. In that 16-13 game against the Diamondbacks, Bryce Elder “allowed” five “earned” runs in 2 2⁄3 innings. The thing is, the events of this game were insane.
Corbin Carroll hit a .150 xBA triple towards first base. A run later scored because Orlando Arcia booted a routine ball with two outs. In the second, there was another misplayed infield “single,” and Corbin Carroll again “tripling” on a dropped third strike and subsequent throwing error.
Elder didn’t pitch well, but his 3.83 xFIP was actually his best since June 22, basically a month of play. The defense turned the game into a monstrosity, and for that it should be scorned.
Worst Single-Game Relief Pitching Performance
The same game where the defense let down Elder, it also imploded Iglesias. After Jake McCarthy led off the ninth in a tie game with a bloop single, Matt Olson completely bungled a routine bouncer, putting the runners on second and third with none out. Geraldo Perdomo followed with a well-hit ball that was hit not close enough to Michael Harris II to be caught, though it would’ve broken the tie anyway if it went for an out, and there was another single to boot.
This isn’t really on Iglesias, it was just a bad end to a crazy game, and really, this is about Olson bungling what could’ve maybe been a double play ball or at least a force at second. Iglesias didn’t even finish this inning, as the Braves chose to preserve his arm and yanked him after they fell behind by three runs.
Most Crushed Dinger Allowed
One of three Morton allowed to close out the month, this was absolutely crushed by Chad Wallach, and gives you a really good example of the problem with Morton’s fastball.
The pitch ending way higher than intended is one thing, but it tailed way too much, and ended up being dead meat on arrival. Oh well.
See you next month!