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These Braves players are the biggest surprises halfway through the 2023 season

As a team, Atlanta is who we thought they were as the calendar flips from June to July. But these players have surprised us with their performances as the season’s halfway point nears.

Colorado Rockies v Atlanta Braves
Orlando Arcia has exceeded almost everyone’s expectations thus far this season
Photo by Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves/Getty Images

Heading into the last week of June, the Atlanta Braves have 50 wins - best in the National League - and are on pace to exceed 100 wins during the 2023 season.

Nothing about that qualifies as surprising because fans and professional prognosticators alike had the Braves knocking on the door of 100 wins behind a potent and powerful line-up. Almost 80 games in, that’s held up.

The starting pitching is a different story as injuries have significantly impacted the team’s rotation. While the bullpen has had its ups-and-downs, it’s been effective as a whole, despite also dealing with a fair number of injuries.

Those unexpected derivations due to injuries notwithstanding, a few Atlanta Braves players have surprised so far this year, so let’s take a look at those pleasant (and not-so pleasant) performances this season.

Notably, this look is at players who are doing something unexpected. Ronald Acuna, Jr. being an MVP candidate, Matt Olson on pace for a 50-home run season and Ozzie Albies playing like an All-Star are great for the team and their fans, but that’s what was expected of those players.

Likewise, injuries to Max Fried, Kyle Wright and Dylan Lee don’t qualify here because you can’t control injuries.

Here’s a look at some of the eye-opening performances of the season’s (almost) first half.

Colorado Rockies v Atlanta Braves
Michael Tonkin - all 6’ 7” of him - has been excellent in his role out of the Braves bullpen.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Michael Tonkin

When 33-year-old Michael Tonkin made the Opening Day roster, it was assumed by many, that he’d be the first reliever optioned to Triple-A or designated for assignment when a roster move was needed.

The lanky right-hander saw his first MLB action since 2017 this year - and other than a short stint on the IL - has exceeded expectations in 17 games and 36 innings pitched through June 25. He’s posted an ERA+ of 150 with a 0.944 WHIP as one of the team’s long men in the bullpen.

He’s done an excellent job controlling walks and although he is outpitching his expectations slightly (3.00 ERA vs. 3.86 xERA; 4.16 FIP vs. 4.29 xFIP) he has been a quality low-to-mid-leverage arm for the Braves in the first half of the 2023 season.

Kevin Pillar

Pillar signed a non-guaranteed deal and played his way into a reserve outfield position that saw fellow off-season outfield acquisition Jordan Luplow be designated for assignment. That alone was surprising given Luplow was younger and offered more defensive flexibility.

As Spring came to an end, Pillar has solidified his role as the team’s fourth outfielder - and occasionally the right-handed platoon-side left fielder. In 99 at-bats, he’s provided the team with a 108 OPS+ behind a .505 slugging percentage.

His power output off the bench has aided the Braves several times, in the rare occasions they have used a pinch-hitter.

The 34-year-old Pillar’s performance isn’t shocking - he’s basically who he has been throughout his 11-year MLB career, with a bit more power - but for a guy who had to fight just to make the roster, he’s been a nice addition to the team’s depth.

A.J. Minter/Michael Harris II/Kirby Yates

For different reasons, both Minter and Harris II were disappointing for the season’s first two months. Harris II struggled with injuries and Minter went through one of those stretches where the outcomes were not matching the input.

Both have bounced back in June and can hopefully continue the success they had in June through the balance of the season. If they do, then their names won’t show up on an off-season version of this list - and least not in a negative way.

A similar note can be made about Kirby Yates, whose recovery from “Tommy John” surgery led to continued control issues early this season. However, the former National League Saves leader has been outstanding for the past month, and his return to All-Star form would be a boon for a bullpen that has seen closer Rasiel Iglesias struggle since returning from a shoulder strain that saw him spend the first five weeks of the season on the IL.

Seattle Mariners v Atlanta Braves
Jesse Chavez was having a career season before being hit by a comebacker requiring time on the IL.
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Jesse Chavez

Getting hit by a come-backer landed Chavez on the IL at an inopportune time as the 39-year-old reliever was pitching so effectively there were beginning to be rumblings about a possible All-Star selection for the journeyman reliever whose career has blossom during his second, third and fourth tenures with Atlanta in the past several seasons.

Hopefully, what Chavez has been able to do this season can continue when he returns, because he has been phenomenal with percentile rankings on Baseball Savant above average to elite.

Even if he does come back to earth in the season’s latter half, Chavez has become a cult hero with Atlanta fans, beloved for his outcomes on the mound and his haberdashery expertise off the field.

Eddie Rosario/Marcell Ozuna

After about 40 games, finding a Rosario or Ozuna (especially Ozuna) defender was all but impossible. Yet, with four games left in June at the time of this writing, both have hit their way into positives with Rosario providing a 122 OPS+ and Ozuna - who seemed destined to be released by mid-May - rebounding to a 116 OPS+.

Power has been the catalyst for each player’s surge, with Rosario hitting 13 home runs and a .515 slugging percentage and Ozuna powering 15 home runs as part of a .486 slugging percentage.

Both players have been wildly inconsistent with Atlanta, with both capable of carrying a team when in the midst of a hot streak, while also being almost unplayable when they are in the nadir of a slump.

Will both end the regular season with 30 home runs? It's possible - something that seemed unlikely six weeks ago. Neither instill confidence for the long-haul, but for now, they are far from the liabilities they looked to be earlier this season.

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies
Sean Muphy has been elite both at the plate, and behind it, for the Braves this season.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Sean Murphy

The Braves had two All-Star catchers heading into the 2023 season, so when Atlanta traded William Contreras as part of the deal to bring in former Oakland backstop Sean Murphy, it was more than a little shocking.

The trade - and subsequent contact extension - has proved to be a huge positive for the Braves as Murphy has been fantastic this season posting a 3.0 fWAR in only 59 games providing the team with excellent offense and defense in what will surely be a season that sees him named to his first All-Star game.

With a slash line of .290/.388/.531, Murphy has a stout 148 wRC+, although that in buoyed by an unsustainable .343 BABIP. He has absolutely crushed fastballs this season and ranks in the 90th percentile in almost all expected offensive rankings related to contact this season.

Defensively, he’s been as good as advertised, with his pop time to 2nd ranking third in MLB at 1.87 seconds - best of his career, so far. Oddly, his pop time to 3rd - which he led MLB in during the past three seasons has fallen significantly, as he ranks 28th at 1.54 seconds.

The good news? He’s only made one throw to 3rd vs. 27 to 2nd. When you catch them stealing 2nd, not many chances are going to come at 3rd.

Murphy is still blocking pitches as an above average rate and is still stealing strikes with above average framing rates, where he’s especially adept at getting low pitches called strikes.

All-in-all, Murphy has been truly fantastic.

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies
Bryce Elder has helped stabilize the Braves rotation that has been decimated by injuries this season.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Bryce Elder

When the Braves didn’t make a move to add depth to the team’s starting rotation from outside the organization during Spring Training, the presumed assumption was that the team was still eight starting pitchers deep before getting into some of the yet-to-debut prospects. Elder was in that list, but despite being effective in nine starts in 2022, he seemed to be on the depth side of the list, not penciled in for a big-league rotation spot.

Injuries have a way of impacting plans, and with Max Fried, Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson injured, and Michael Soroka still making his way back from three seasons’ worth of time missed, Elder has not only made 15 starts for the Braves but has been the best non-injured starter during that stretch (or at worst, the second-best starter behind Spencer Strider).

Elder’s effectiveness doesn’t jump off the page compared to most modern starters since he’s not a high velocity, strikeout pitcher. What he has done is provide the Braves a team-best 90 innings pitched (through June 25) in his 15 starts with a sterling 186 ERA+.

Although his FIP and xFIP are almost identical, his ERA of 2.40 is quite a bit better than his 3.78 xERA. He does do a good job of limiting walks despite not striking out batters the way most of his rotation mates do.

Elder and Tonkin have been quite similar, actually, in their use of off-speed pitches to prevent runs. But Elder’s slider has been elite, with his other offerings slightly above average while Tonkin’s off-speed pitches aren’t at the same peak level as Elder’s are.

There’s concern about Elder’s ability to sustain his success over the long-haul given that he doesn’t throw hard to begin with and his velocity is down from last season (and the exit velocity against him has increased) but he’s stabilized a rotation that has had to lean on youngsters Jared Shuster, Dylan Dodd and AJ Smith-Shawver for 17 starts.

With Fried slated to return after the All-Star break, and Soroka likely to get another shot in the rotation soon, Elder sliding back to the fourth or fifth spot in the rotation is still excellent output, even if his long-term profile is more of a right-handed Paul Maholm-type starter than what he might be this season: an All-Star selection.

Colorado Rockies v Atlanta Braves
Orlando Arcia has been steady defensively but his offensive output has him in line for an All-Star selection in his first year as the team’s starting shortstop.
Photo by Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves/Getty Images

Orlando Arcia

Here he is his folks, the single biggest surprise of the 2023 Atlanta Braves, shortstop Orlando Arcia.

When Atlanta opted not to pay Danby Swanson to stay in the A this offseason, most of the fanbase thought Vaughn Grissom would begin the season as the team’s shortstop with Arcia - who signed an extension fit for a utility infielder - in a reserve role when no short-term, stop-gap shortstop was brought into the organization during the offseason.

Then, as Spring Training headed toward the regular season, Braden Shewmake was being discussed as the starter in that “catch-the-ball-throw-the-ball” defensive mold.

When the organization named Arcia the starter, after both the aforementioned youngsters were optioned to Triple-A, more than a few eyebrows were raised.

Luckily for the Braves and Arcia, he got off to a blistering start offensively while providing stability defensively. When he missed a few weeks due to injury - and with Grissom struggling with the glove and the bat and Shewmake getting a limited opportunity to play - Arcia’s return was more important, even if his offensive output returned to his career norms.

In the best-case scenario for player and team, Arcia continued hitting like he had prior to his IL trip, to the point where Arcia not being an All-Star would be more surprising than being one.

Funny how things work out sometimes.

In 56 games, Arica’s been good for 2.1 fWAR with a wRC+ of 127 and triple-slash of .318/.374/.458 through June 25. Although he is still average to middling in a lot of expected offensive Percentile Ranking, he has improved in many of those categories from his time as a starter in Milwaukee.

Yes, there’s a high likelihood that he’s going to regress offensively after the break, but for now, he has shocked almost the entire baseball world by being one of the best shortstops in baseball in the first half of 2023.

He’s also been an exceptional value for Atlanta - with Fangraphs projecting that he has been worth $17M this season - almost twice the size of the extension he signed with the team over three seasons.

The Braves have won with solid, dependable shortstops over the years - even when they’ve been slightly below average (Alex Gonzalez, for example) and could do so again this season. Arcia’s positive contributions from the bottom of the line-up qualifies as the biggest on-field surprise to-date.

Arcia’s excellent offensive output has been unexpected but as importantly for those prone to be exposed to the online chatter of Braves fandom, he’s made most of those who chirp about each-and-every at-bat largely forget about Swanson. There’s immense value in that as well.

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