The National League East is in freefall, but the Atlanta Braves keep rising.
As the Philadelphia Phillies, winners of just six games in June, got swept by the lowly Miami Marlins and the New York Mets' on-field struggles spilled over into clubhouse mayhem, the Braves casually won their fifth consecutive series on Sunday afternoon. Atlanta's 46th win of the season came against the Washington Nationals, catapulting Brian Snitker's club to a 6.5-game division lead despite notable pitching question marks.
The Braves have now won 16 of their past 21 games and feature baseball's deepest lineup. They look like a contender. And after an entire offseason spent setting up a presumed four-team division race, Atlanta looks like the only NL East team worth the hype as the All-Star break nears.
Freddie Freeman is still getting better
Freddie Freeman has never won an MVP award. Freddie Freeman has never won a Silver Slugger. Freddie Freeman made just one All-Star appearance in the previous four seasons and recently collected his first career Gold Glove, which he oddly was forced to share with Cubs star Anthony Rizzo.
The trophy case at the Freeman household sells him short, but make no mistake: The anchor of Atlanta's high-scoring lineup is a bona fide superstar, one of MLB's very best position players. And he's only getting better.
Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel mentioned this league-wide blind spot before Sunday's game: "Very, very underrated when it comes to national publicity. If he were in the L.A. or New York market, he would probably be the most marketable guy in the country." It's what makes a draft prospect's comparison to "Freddie Freeman with power" both comical and telling.
As a general rule, regional complaints about a perceived lack of national attention for certain players or teams ring hollow, but in Freeman's case it genuinely appears as if tales of his feats largely stay hidden behind his division's walls. The Marlins and Phillies know. The Mets and Nationals definitely know. Since 2013, he's been the sixth-best position player in baseball by FanGraphs WAR. The only hitters with more than 4,000 plate appearances to have better offensive numbers over that span are Paul Goldschmidt and some guy named Mike Trout.
(And as for the power comment, the only qualified players with a higher slugging percentage since 2016 are Trout, J.D. Martinez, Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon. You would never hear a "J.D. Martinez with power" player comp, especially for a teenager.)
The scary thing for MLB pitchers is that Freeman is not-so-quietly in the middle of a career year.
Freeman is carrying the league's hottest lineup with 21 home runs — a pace that would smash his previous career high of 34; he finished with 23 total in 2018 — and hitting a career-best 58 percent above league average through 77 games. He's on pace to become the seventh player in franchise history to join the single-season .300/.400/600 Club, an exclusive group featuring Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Chipper Jones, Eddie Mathews, Rogers Hornsby and Hugh Duffy and 500-HR Club member Gary Sheffield. (Hank Aaron hit those marks in two seasons, while Chipper Jones accomplished the feat three times.)
Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich are the deserving NL MVP favorites after jumping out to ridiculous starts, but ever since the first month of the season Freddie Freeman has been their equal (since May 1):
Yelich: 178 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR
Bellinger: 148 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR
Freeman: 167 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR
Freeman's peripheral numbers back up his production, too. In the Statcast Era, the Braves' three-time All-Star has never dipped below the 96th percentile in expected weighted on-base average, which factors in both the quality and amount of a player's contact. His barrel rate, exit velocity, hard-hit percentage and strikeout rate are each sitting at career-best marks for a player who was already established as one of the game's best hitters.
In some ways, Freeman is a victim of his own consistency. He's never led the majors in any single-season statistical category aside from games played. He never challenges the Mike Trouts of the world in WAR. He doesn't have one specific skill tailor-made for social media like, say, Joey Gallo's power. He doesn't play a position renowned for showing up on defensive highlight reels like Javy Baez. He's just an 80-grade hitter — walks, singles, doubles, career-best home run surges, doesn't matter. He's a complete hitter and a complete player now, the exact type of player nearly every contender needs.
Freddie Freeman is in all likelihood heading to his fourth career Midsummer Classic next month, but he's proving once again he's so much more than that. Even if the trophy case doesn't show it.
Where does Atlanta’s rotation stand after optioning Mike Foltynewicz to Triple-A?
Foltynewicz is not going back to the minors on injury rehab. The 2018 All-Star is no longer in the majors due to performance, carrying a 6.37 ERA through 59 1/3 innings pitched this season. After an injury setback in spring training, he’s gone from finishing top-10 in NL Cy Young voting to a sub-replacement level arm in less than a year.
“It’s time to push the reset button,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It wasn’t working here. It’s been a struggle seems like all year. Nothing ever got going for him or he (never) got any flow or rhythm or anything like that. Sometimes you've gotta take a step back."
It’s the latest strange turn for an otherwise surging Braves roster.
Heading into the 2019 season, the idea that Mike Foltynewicz, Kevin Gausman and Sean Newcomb would not be in the rotation on June 23 would’ve sounded fairly disastrous for a presumably tight division race. Couple that with the fact that fifth-starter options Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson and Touki Toussaint have yet to see significant rotation time or production and it would’ve sounded even worse.
Instead, Atlanta appears to be running away with the division.
Even Foltynewicz noted the oddity before the news became official.
“I’ve got a 7 ERA on a first-place team,” Foltynewicz told reporters on Saturday night. “It’s just tough. I’m battling every night. It’s just tough. It’s just the person I am. I’m going to wear that stuff on my sleeve, especially when things aren’t going my way. It’s just tough. It’s all my fault, too.”
So what happens to the rotation in Foltynewicz’s absence?
The Braves need to make their first decision before Thursday’s game against the Chicago Cubs. Newcomb is expected to return this week, but likely fitting back into a relief role where he’s thrived early this season. Gausman is on the injured list dealing with plantar fasciitis. Wright has allowed 45 earned runs in 64 1/3 innings between the majors and Triple-A this season.
Toussaint might be the most likely candidate on the major-league roster to receive an opportunity even with his up-and-down performance in a unique role. He's looked unhittable in one outing and unable to find the strike zone the next. He's still putting up league-average production with tantalizing stuff; the Braves saw just how effective he can be when he finds his rhythm in 2018. The alternatives would be a veteran like Josh Tomlin or turning to Triple-A for Wilson, Kolby Allard or Patrick Weigel. Of that group, Wilson, who started the second game of the season, is the most likely candidate if Atlanta wants to keep Toussaint in a relief role. (With so much uncertainty, the door for Double-A pitchers like Ian Anderson or Kyle Muller could also be opening earlier than expected, though not this early in the season.)
Atlanta will continue to be linked to starters in trade talks even after the Keuchel signing, but for now the organization's depth will be tested as it waits to see if Foltynewicz can get back on track.
Austin Riley’s elevated strikeout rate is acceptable price to pay for elite power
Pete Alonso is stealing Austin Riley’s thunder. The Mets slugger is the talk of the rookie class after belting 27 home runs before the calendar turns to July, overshadowing the fact that his division rival is leaving the yard at a similar pace (12 homers in 36 games). Only eight players in baseball history have finished their rookie seasons slugging over .600 in 200 or more plate appearances — a list that features Ted Williams, Albert Pujols, Willie McCovey and, most recently, Rhys Hoskins — and now two rookies in the same division are hovering around that mark in the same season.
Alonso, who is nearly three years older than Riley, has been the better player and hitter thus far: Only reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich has hit more home runs in the majors this season and he ranks seventh in overall offensive production. The NL Rookie of the Year race isn’t over, especially if Mike Soroka continues to pitch like a No. 1 starter on a contender, but Alonso has made the most of his head start.
The Braves are 25-11 with Austin Riley in the lineup, a midseason promotion that helped tip the scales in the National League East with the All-Star break approaching. At 22 years old and playing a new position, Riley has more than held his own. He’s hitting 32 percent above league average as one of the youngest position players in the majors, nearly matching the pace now-NL MVP favorite Cody Bellinger set during his 2017 Rookie of the Year run.
If there is one notable knock on Riley’s performance, it’s his strikeout rate. He’s walking back to the dugout without putting the ball in play on 32 percent of his plate appearances through his first 36 games. His swinging strike rate (20.6 percent) is the second-worst mark among players with 150 or more plate appearances. Riley is one of baseball’s most swing-happy players — chase rate, first-pitch swing rate, in-zone swing rate, whiff rate, you name it — and the amount of contact he's making isn't ideal, particularly on breaking balls and off-speed pitches. The good news: When he does make contact, it’s loud.
Riley will likely always have some swing-and-miss in his game. His strikeout rate eclipsed 30 percent in rookie ball, jumped up near 26 percent at Double-A Mississippi and sat at 29 percent last year in Triple-A.
“That’s kind of what everyone’s been telling me I need to focus on is cutting the strikeouts down, putting the ball in play more,” Riley said back in spring. “The numbers (show) when I do put the ball in play, I do damage.”
Riley is not alone in the realm of high-power, high-strikeout rookies. Even when dropping both thresholds down a little bit — let’s just say he doesn’t carry a .600 slugging percentage all season — Riley would be in interesting company. Here’s the list of rookies who have slugged .550 or better and struck out at least 28 percent of the time (minimum 300 plate appearances):
At his career peak, Howard was able to cut his strikeouts down to about a quarter of his opportunities, but swing-and-miss was always a part of the 2006 NL MVP’s game. It’s still early in Judge’s career, but he’s yet to shore up that area of his swing. Story, the Rockies star shortstop, might be the most improved of this group, but it's unlikely he ever challenges players like, say, Jose Altuve in the single-digit strikeout category.
Regardless, all three players hit various levels of stardom — and Austin Riley is the youngest rookie of that group by a significant margin. If a player can slug .550 and challenge for 30-40 home runs annually, the strikeouts won’t hurt as much.