The Braves return from their three-series road trip in Denver, Washington D.C. and Chicago following the organization's strangest game in recent memory holding onto an 8-6 overall record and the third-highest scoring offense in baseball. Here are three observations from the past week:
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1. Atlanta's middle-infield promise already on display
Dansby Swanson never hid his desire to play alongside Ozzie Albies. Dating back to their minor-league Chipotle trips, the two top prospects were irrevocably linked. They were the organization’s long-term solution up the middle, and they openly embraced that future.
Viewed through this prism, Swanson’s first 507 plate appearances in the majors felt like a false start, or at least only a partial glimpse at the eventual product.
Breaking into the majors at 22 years old, he played well next to Atlanta’s revolving door of second basemen in 2016 then played poorly next to Brandon Phillips, and while none of his past double-play partners can be held accountable for his poor rookie performance at the plate, it’s obvious Swanson is different in 2018. His swing is different. His numbers are different. His body language is different. And Albies fits into this dynamic somewhere.
“He’s tremendous. I love being able to play next to him,” Swanson said just before the season began. “I think the biggest comfort factor is the ability to communicate more and more, just with what we see and what we feel.”
What everyone else has seen since Swanson was recalled back to Atlanta on Aug. 9 is one of the top-performing middle infields in baseball. Over that span, only the Minnesota Twins, San Francisco Giants, Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians have received more offensive production from middle infielders — and Minnesota lost shortstop Jorge Polanco to a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs and Cleveland shifted Jose Ramirez to third base.
So the only remaining middle-infield duos to hit better over the past 500-plus plate appearances? Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik (Giants) and Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa (Astros). Throw in Atlanta’s solid defensive work, particularly this season with an improved Swanson at short, and outstanding base-running ability and we’re looking at nearly three months of evidence that the Braves’ duo is already tapping into its potential.
(Not to be overlooked: Ozzie Albies is the youngest player in the majors and Swanson is the eighth-youngest qualified shortstop in baseball at the moment. They are the youngest everyday second base-shortstop combination in baseball.)
Zooming in on the 2018 season to account for Swanson’s dramatic improvement and Albies’ world-beating start simply enhances the results: Only future Hall of Fame candidate Robinson Cano and Jean Segura in Seattle have matched the Braves’ partnership this season.
Braves middle infielders lead the league in runs created, slugging, OPS and weighted on-base average. Albies is currently tied with Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge and A.J. Pollock for the sixth-best wins above replacement mark, tops among second basemen. Swanson grades out as the top shortstop in the National League with a .357/.390/.571 slash line.
Even as statistics normalize for players in the coming weeks and months, we’re starting to get a decent picture of what Swanson and Albies could become: A two-way force for a competitive team.
2. The bullpen’s walk rate is concerning, but the frozen implosion in Chicago is not worth overanalyzing
The 14-10 score in Chicago on Saturday will be impossible to forget — and the fallout, both statistically and in the standings, will be difficult to ignore. But try.
The game should not have been played. Baseball can not be played at a high level nor safely in 35-degree weather with rain and heavy wind factors. Pitchers could not grip the baseball. Fielders were running to heated bullpens and dugouts during pitching changes. Routine groundballs became blooper reels.
After the game, Braves relievers explained how they warmed up in a heated bullpen and then immediately froze up upon entering the icy conditions. That is not “cold, postseason-style baseball” — it’s more running on ice while trying not to slip and get injured. And if this hints at excuse-making for a losing side, here’s the winning manager: “This is not baseball weather. The elements were horrific to play baseball in. That is the worst elements I ever participated in in a baseball game. Ever.”
In total, 18 walks were issued by both teams. Cubs starter Jose Quintana was chased from the game after recording seven outs. Braves starter Sean Newcomb fared much better, but as both teams turned to their bullpens the baserunners began to mount. Then the wheels fell off in a nine-run eighth inning for Braves relievers Luke Jackson, Jose Ramirez, Sam Freeman and Peter Moylan. Cubs batters logged just three hits in the frame — the rest were either hit by pitches, walked in or scored by a wild pitch and subsequent throwing error. Braves fielders were on the field for 35 straight minutes.
Atlanta relievers have walked 15.2 percent of the batters they’ve faced this season, a mark that is both staggering and (fortunately) destined to improve. Only one team’s relief corps this century (2000 Pirates) has walked more than 13 percent of batters faced. And though it is true that walks were an issue prior to Saturday’s game — the Braves still ranked last in baseball entering the series — the bullpen had kept runs off the board with the best of teams.
Atlanta’s relievers arrived in Chicago leading the league in ERA and had allowed the second-fewest runs in baseball, and even afterwards it’s a top-half group in both adjusted ERA and FIP. They’ve allowed just one home run in 244 plate appearances.
The main issue: Solid bullpen performance will always be overshadowed by the games in which a late lead evaporates, especially when the train runs off the rails in such dramatic fashion.
It’s early, but Atlanta’s relief corps is still on track to continue its year-over-year improvement since the start of the rebuild:
2015: 1,425 1/3 innings, 113 ERA-, 115 FIP-
2016: 1,447 2/3 innings, 109 ERA-, 107 FIP-
2017: 1,441 1/3 innings, 109 ERA-, 105 FIP-
2018: 128 2/3 innings, 89 ERA-, 103 FIP-
3. Anibal Sanchez is soft-tossing his way through lineups
Since the start of the 2014 season, the Braves franchise has ushered overlooked veteran arms into its young rotation on a near-annual basis. Aaron Harang, Eric Stults, Trevor Cahill, Jhoulys Chacin and Bud Norris each logged starts for the franchise with varying results, though Harang was the only pitcher to finish that respective season (2014) with the organization.
Times were supposed to be changing. Rising pitching prospects were expected to push the take-a-flyer spring training veteran to the outskirts of the 25-man roster, but then Luiz Gohara suffered two injury setbacks in spring and the front office sent Max Fried to Double-A to start the campaign and Aaron Blair, Matt Wisler and Lucas Sims — all four pitchers made major-league starts last season — opened the year in Gwinnett.
Enter Sanchez, whose 2018 contract option was declined by the Detroit Tigers and, after spending time in spring camp with the Minnesota Twins on a non-guaranteed deal before that organization signed Lance Lynn, signed a minor-league deal with Atlanta last month. The 34-year-old experienced turbulence in his final three seasons in the Motor City. He posted a league- and park-adjustedERA sitting 25 percent below average and his 2.2 home runs allowed per nine inning last season ranked dead last among pitchers throwing at least 100 frames.
That is not the Anibal Sanchez that arrived in spring training to steal the fifth rotation spot in Gohara’s absence.
Sanchez is making his diminished arsenal work for him. The right-hander is one of 11 qualified pitchers this season with an average fastball velocity sitting below 89.5 miles per hour, and he's occasionally making off-speed pitches in the 60s dance into the zone. He’s keeping opposing hitters off-balance by working backwards and not throwing a single pitch in his arsenal more than 40 percent of the time.
His contact rate and swinging strike percentage are the best they’ve been since he finished fourth in the AL Cy Young voting in 2013.
Through 14 innings he’s allowed only two earned runs against the Nationals, Rockies and Cubs, striking out 14 batters with six walks. Of course, any statistic viewed in the prism of 14 frames can be skewed by one poor outing, but to date Sanchez is providing precisely what Atlanta needed as it waits on young pitching to either get healthy or develop further.
Two remaining questions: How long can Sanchez maintain a high level of productivity and what happens if he does?
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