Braves turning to organization’s young arms during division race
The Braves have not lost a series since the front office started making moves near the trade deadline, winning nine of their past 13 games. As injuries continue to pile up for a starting rotation with a truckload of starts to cover down the stretch, the Braves continue to rely on young arms to assist in their division push. Here are three observations from the week:
Mark J. Rebilas
Braves adopting all-hands-on-deck strategy with organization’s stockpile of top pitching prospects
When standout pitching prospect Touki Toussaint makes his major-league debut this week, he will become the 12th pitcher to start a game for the Atlanta Braves in 2018. Of the 15 teams within shouting distance of playoff contention, only the Oakland A's have used more starting pitchers (13) this season.
Though Alex Anthopoulos’ organizational depth is the envy of baseball when it comes to quality young starters, this pitching carousel did not arrive by design.
Two rotation spots opened up with veteran Brandon McCarthy (right knee tendinitis) and Mike Soroka (shoulder inflammation) heading to the 60-day disabled list. Max Fried and Anibal Sanchez left starts early due to injuries suffered from baseballs hit right back toward the mound. Luiz Gohara’s injury-riddled year has derailed what some, including myself, expected to be an impressive encore to last year’s debut.
Combine that laundry list of ailments with a struggling Julio Teheran, who just completed one of his best starts of the season against Milwaukee, and some scheduling nightmares for manager Brian Snitker’s staff and you end up with prospects like Toussaint and Kolby Allard being pressed into starting action sooner than expected. It’s probable that both young arms would have forced their way into MLB action at some point this season, but would they be covering starts during a playoff push if Soroka, Fried and Gohara were healthy?
Allard’s introduction to top-level hitting has been rocky — an understandable development for the youngest pitcher in the majors. After dominating at every minor-league level despite being one of the youngest players on the field, the left-hander owns a 10.29 ERA in two appearances. He won his MLB debut behind outstanding run support but when he was forced into his first-ever relief appearance against the Nationals things quickly unraveled. This is not an indictment of a 20-year-old pitcher — a player who has far outpaced his peers to even be considered for his promotion after becoming a 2015 first-round pick — but merely a reflection of Atlanta’s current needs in the NL East race.
Toussaint, 22, owns even better 2018 numbers than Allard and his nasty pitching repertoire is less reliant on pinpoint control. His fastball, curveball and changeup could each top out as 60-grade pitches and his curveball should immediately become one of the nastiest at the highest level. (Translation: The stuff is all there.) After years of flashing better potential than production, the former first-round pick now owns a 2.68 ERA with 139 strikeouts in 117 1/3 innings across two levels.
From this perspective, the deadline addition of Kevin Gausman looks even better.
Setting aside Atlanta’s belief that the former No. 4 overall pick can benefit from a few tweaks, such as pitching exclusively from the stretch in his last start, leaving the scoring-happy American League East or anything that does not resemble the Orioles’ 2018 defense, adding a piece who can log 175-plus innings with mid-rotation production was a welcome sight. Any notion that a pitcher who has put up five consecutive seasons of 1.5 WAR or better could not help this rotation was preposterous from the start.
And if this is the version of Kevin Gausman the Braves just acquired with club control — 2.30 FIP over his first two starts — all the better.
It’s all hands on deck for this organization’s stockpile of starting pitchers.
Toussaint, Allard, Fried, Gohara, (Kyle Wright?) … the Braves could keep turning to their young arms to fill various roles to help the likes of Gausman, Sanchez, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb. (Keep in mind: Only Sanchez and Gausman have pitched in the postseason.)
Starting pitching is the one area the Phillies have held a clear advantage so far, and with only three off days remaining the division race could fall on how much production Atlanta’s young arms can provide in their first taste of meaningful late-summer baseball.
Left-handers employing familiar playbook to attack Dansby Swanson
The light-hitting defensive shortstop is not a unique development in baseball. Since the turn of the millennium alone, 29 qualified shortstops have finished a season hitting at least 25 percent below league average while posting a defensive WAR of 10 or higher — and names like Alcides Escobar, Adam Everett, Elvis Andrus and Julio Lugo prove teams can reach the World Series stage without an overwhelming offensive threat at short.
The last few years have felt like a shift, though.
For the past two Octobers, two-way stars Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa and Corey Seager played for championships and the fourth shortstop of the bunch, Addison Russell, owns 9.2 career wins above replacement (and counting) before his 25th birthday. The current 2018 World Series favorites in Vegas feature Lindor, Correa, Russell, Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts and Didi Gregorius at short.
Dansby Swanson could become the 30th player on that aforementioned list.
The 24-year-old’s offensive numbers have plummeted since his red-hot start. His overall slash line reads like gas prices in various parts of the country. Thirty-two extra-base hits mask his walk and strikeout rates trending in the wrong directions. And if he can not halt this season’s trajectory — he was slashing .217/.279/.353 for 60 weighted runs created plus since May 1, the eighth-lowest mark among qualified players, before a very strong day at the plate in the Brewers series finale — he could end up matching last year’s disappointing performance at the plate.
One cause for Swanson’s struggles? A strength has been completely taken away.
The right-handed former No. 1 overall hit well against left-handers in his first two seasons, posting an OPS over 1.000 against southpaws in 2016 and approaching the league average with a .741 OPS last year. In a limited sample size, that has not been the case this season (per FanGraphs):
2016: 164 wRC+
2017: 90 wRC+
2018: 53 wRC+
If pitch selection in the 87 plate appearances this season offers any hints as to the drop-off it’s that lefties are reading the scouting reports.
Swanson's numbers were better against left-handers every year and at every level prior to this season and there’s plenty of noise in a small sample that small, but there also appears to be a blueprint out there that he has yet to solve, one that’s trickled over from right-handers to left-handers.
Mitigating all of this is the fact that Swanson has improved dramatically with the glove. If he hadn’t, he likely would not be seeing regular playing time given the production of Johan Camargo and Charlie Culberson. Instead, Swanson ranks among the top 10 shortstops in defensive runs saved, defensive WAR and ultimate zone rating. He’s a plus glove at a premium position, which continues to buy him starts for an organization emphasizing defense.
The question will be, if his difficulties continue this month, how this coaching staff and front office evaluates the opportunity cost of not making a waiver deadline move, calling up top position prospect Austin Riley and shifting Camargo to shortstop or simply giving Culberson more at-bats. (More performances like Sunday’s will certainly make the decision easier.) By no means is this suggesting the franchise should “give up” on a 24-year-old former top pick under club control for the extended future, it’s merely a recognition of how priorities can shift during a playoff race.
Luke Jackson, Strikeout Artist?
Luke Jackson recorded the most consequential out of the week for the Atlanta Braves, a bases-loaded strikeout of Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton in a crucial division showdown. Advanced numbers emphasized that point: Though it was the only out Jackson recorded, he led all pitchers in win probability added in that game.
Jackson owns the highest strikeout rate among Braves relievers. If that sounds odd, it should. Despite wielding a quality arsenal that made him a trade candidate for Tyrell Jenkins a couple years ago, Jackson’s strikeout numbers had not followed his minor-league track record.
During his debut season with the Rangers he averaged just under a strikeout per inning, but in the following campaign he fanned just three batters in 11 2/3 frames at the major-league level. The Braves acquired him the following offseason and he responded with just 33 strikeouts in 50 2/3 innings — far below the major-league average rate for relief pitchers.
The 26-year-old’s numbers have climbed noticeably during his second season in Atlanta even when accounting for his so-so outing against the Brewers on Sunday. He’s striking out 12.65 batters per nine — the 15th-best mark among MLB relievers with at least 20 innings — with a 3.04 fielding-independent pitching, outperforming his 4.10 ERA over 26 1/3 innings this season.
As Atlanta’s bullpen attempts to piece together a better second half, Luke Jackson is quietly playing his part.