As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Holden takes a look at the Atlanta Braves!
Welcome back, friends. After enduring the weirdest season in baseball history, it’s now time for one that will (hopefully) be a return to some semblance of normalcy. The Atlanta Braves had an excellent 2020 season in which they broke their infamous streak of first-round playoff series losses, but just missed on opportunity to partake in the Fall Classic for the first time since 1999.
2020 Record: 35-25, 1st Place in NL East
Team MVP: Freddie Freeman
Team Cy Young: Max Fried
Key losses from 2020: Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, 3-1 lead in the NLCS
Notable Free Agent Additions: Charlie Morton, Drew Smyly, Jake Lamb
Notable Trades: (Cricket Noises)
After a dominant start to the postseason in which they won eight of their first nine games, the Braves finished the season Atlanta style: with a full meltdown. We won’t beat a dead horse here – that’s over with – and this team should be really good again this year. Adding Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly to an already-talented roster should have the team primed for another postseason run, but this time they’ll have a tougher road to get there with multi-billionaire Steve Cohen already throwing his weight around in New York.
2021 Season Preview
1) Ronald Acuna Jr.
2) Ozzie Albies
3) Freddie Freeman
4) Marcell Ozuna
5) Travis d’Arnaud
6) Dansby Swanson
7) Austin Riley
8) Cristian Pache
9) Pitcher (sigh….)
Projected Bench: John Camargo, Jake Lamb, Ender Inciarte, Alex Jackson
Projected Rotation: Max Fried, Charlie Morton, Ian Anderson, Drew Smyly, Kyle Wright**
Projected Bullpen: Will Smith, Chris Martin, A.J. Minter, Tyler Matzek, Jacob Webb, Grant Dayton, Luke Jackson, Sean Newcomb, Josh Tomlin
**Until Mike Soroka returns from the Injured List
Barring any last-minute player acquisitions, Atlanta’s lineup (and the roster as a whole) will look a lot like what we saw during the 2020 postseason. The most notable change on the position player side is the apparent end of the Nick Markakis era and the beginning of Cristian Pache’s reign in center field. It has been reported that Freddie Freeman may be moved back to the third spot in the lineup with the absence of the designated hitter in the National League, which doesn’t make much sense from a tactical point of view, but also isn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. If Freeman is hitting third, expect to see Albies slide into the two spot and Ozuna and d’Arnaud slide down to the four and five spots, respectively. Don’t expect any surprises at the back end of the lineup; Swanson and Riley are locks for the 6-7 spots if healthy, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Cristian Pache isn’t starting in center field on Opening Day.
Atlanta won’t have Adam Duvall to provide power off the bench this year, but they will have the less-exciting Jake Lamb, who hit well for a couple of seasons back in 2016-2017, though he hasn’t been very good outside of that. It’s possible that we’ll see William Contreras instead of Alex Jackson on the bench to start the season given that Contreras is probably better than Jackson right now, though it’s perhaps more likely that the front office would rather have Contreras get regular playing time down in AAA. Ender Inciarte is owed $8.7 million this year, and that means he’s going to be occupying the fourth outfielder spot unless something unforeseen happens with Cristian Pache. For now, Johan Camargo is the frontrunner to round out the bench, though that may depend on how much the team thinks he can provide passable defense in the middle infield.
Adding Charlie Morton on a 1-year commitment for $15-million is something most teams in baseball should have been happy to do, as I mentioned in Atlanta’s offseason outlook shortly after the completion of the 2020 season. Morton is entering his age-37 season, but projection systems are still buying what he’s selling – expecting him to turn in an ERA in the 3.7-ish range.
Max Fried was one of the best pitchers in baseball during the abbreviated 2020 season, though there has been some concern that his strikeout rate dropped a bit and his walk rate crept up. Projection systems have varying degrees of faith in the young lefty, but there are plenty of reasons to believe he’s quite good. Fried’s ability to manipulate the movement on his fastball coupled with his change in fastball approach (throwing it up in the zone more frequently) led to a vast improvement in results against the pitch – his xwOBA on fastballs dropped by 75 points in our limited 2020 sample. Fried also gave up less hard contact overall last season, most notably against the aforementioned fastball. His average exit velocity dropped by quite a bit, but exit velocities are best described by his distributions rather than point estimates. Thankfully, Baseball Savant comes in extremely handy for this purpose.
Eleven games worth of contact suppression is far from the point where it should be considered credible, but Fried decreasing his fastball usage rate from 53.1% in 2019 to 41.8% in 2020 while also using said fastball more effectively bodes well for those hoping to see this trend continue in the future. Fried has always had an excellent ground ball rate, and if he can continue to limit hard contact, he’s going to put up numbers whether he’s racking up huge strikeout totals or not.
Ian Anderson was absolutely brilliant during his brief 2020 season, pitching to the tune of a 1.95 ERA/2.54 FIP with a strikeout rate of nearly 30%, though he did struggle at times with walks. It would be unfair to expect that level of performance from Anderson in 2021, but chances are, he’s going to be a dude for a long time.
Alex Anthopoulos throwing down $11 million for a year of Drew Smyly’s services was certainly unexpected, but isn’t as crazy as it initially sounded, even though he’s been either injured or just plain bad for the past half-decade. Smyly’s average pitch velocity trends give us a pretty good idea of why the Braves believe at least some of Smyly’s 2020 outcomes were a result.
That big spike in velocity from 2019 to 2020? That’s the root cause of Smyly’s unexpected payday. Keep an eye on that throughout the course of the season, because he’s probably going to live or die based on his ability to maintain that improved velo (and the resulting spike in his strikeout rate). Kyle Wright is probably the frontrunner for the fifth starting spot, but only until Mike Soroka returns from his stint on the Injured List. If health isn’t an issue (which is far from a sure thing – especially for this bunch), this rotation has the upside of being one of baseball’s best. If the injury bug returns, well, you saw what happened last year.
Atlanta’s bullpen is not going to be as deep as it was in 2020, but it should still be fine, at least to the extent that anyone can ever expect to know how a bullpen is going to perform. The back end of the ‘pen should look fairly similar to what it did last year with Will Smith, Chris Martin, A.J. Minter, and Tyler Matzek expected to do most of the late-inning work. Losing Mark Melancon and Shane Greene hurts, but the excess of young starting pitchers can be expected to fill the gaps created by the loss of those two. We won’t spend a ton of time making predictions for the bullpen because, frankly, bullpens are extremely unpredictable.
FanGraphs Projected Record: 88.2-73.8, 2nd place in NL East
(Available here: https://www.fangraphs.com/standings/playoff-odds)
PECOTA Projected Record: 82-80, 4th place in NL East
(Available here: https://www.baseballprospectus.com/standings/)
Personal Projection: 91-71, 2nd place in NL East
Projection systems have not looked favorably on Atlanta relative to their recent success, and Braves Twitter has been, ahem, vocal, about it. Mike Petriello wrote at length about this and we’ll touch on it here as well, which begins with a basic understanding of how projection systems work. At the risk of oversimplifying, projection systems run a number of simulations and select the median outcomes for each individual player on a given roster, then parlay said individual projections into team-level projections. The Braves’ roster is constructed in a way that these systems tend to dislike; the top half of their lineup is absolutely loaded, but they have very little depth behind that. To put it another way, four players account for about 75% of Atlanta’s total projected position player WAR, according to Roster Resource’s Depth Charts at Fangraphs. That’s all fine and well as long as their best players are healthy and producing, but if one of your bacon-bringers is injured or underperforms, well, you get the point. As for the pitching staff, Atlanta’s rotation should be the best they’ve had in quite some time, although they have questions about injuries, age, and effectiveness that leave them with a very wide range of possible outcomes. Yes, projections are low on Atlanta, but in most cases they’re believed to be a playoff team; Fangraphs gave the Braves the fourth-highest playoff odds in the National League behind only the Dodgers, Padres, and Mets. That seems like a pretty fair assessment.
Now, you and I have seen what this team is capable of, and just about everyone agrees that Atlanta is likely to outperform its projections, including the editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus (which houses PECOTA), Craig Goldstein. You might even think Swanson or Riley is ready to break out this season – and maybe they are! However, projection systems rarely predict outlier seasons from any player because that is rarely the most likely outcome. Makes sense, huh? This is all to simply say: don’t be mad at the projection systems – they have their limitations just like anything else, and math doesn’t care if you’re mad at it so don’t waste your energy. The most heavily-cited projection systems are pretty good at what they do, even if they’ve recently struggled to evaluate a team like the Braves. Like most other observers, yours truly believes the Braves are neck-and-neck with the Mets. No one would be shocked to see Atlanta take home a fourth consecutive division title, but gun-to-my-head, I’ll take the Mets by a game or two because more depth means more room for injuries and underperformance.