ATLANTA -- The last two weeks have been monumental ones for the Braves. They've moved atop the National League East for the first time since July 2014 and saw the debuts of 20 year olds Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mike Soroka (not to mention the arrival of six-time All-Star Jose Bautista).
A home sweep at the hands of the Giants, one in which Atlanta was outscored 24-9, hurts. That being said, the Braves continue to be the National League's highest-scoring team and remain in the top 11 in the majors in collective in ERA (3.76).
Positives remain, including the production the Braves are getting out of the elder statesman in the outfield.
1. While young stars take hold, Nick Markakis keeps producing at career rate
Braves fans have every reason to be captivated by the arrivals and successes of the franchise's young stars. After all, a city that suffered through three consecutive seasons of at least 90 losses being gifted the likes of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña Jr., and then seeing them take starring roles in help the team move atop the National League East, can't help but get caught up in it all.
But amid that young love, one of the oldest position players on the team is planting the seeds for a career year.
Nick Markakis, 34, is leading the NL in average at .344 and 45 hits, and just saw a 12-game hitting streak -- his longest in three years -- end Sunday. During that run, he hit .479 with four home runs, eight walks and just one strikeout. It ended with an 0 for 4 day with one strikeout in Sunday's 4-3 loss to San Francisco.
The 13-year veteran has long been a strong starter. Despite never hitting higher than six percent above average in the past four seasons, he's averaged 121 wRC+ in each of the past four March/Aprils, but he's coming off his best first month of the season at 144 since 2009, and is currently sitting fourth in the NL at 169 wRC+ and owns the league's lowest strikeout rate at 8.6 percent.
Ahead of the series with the Giants, manager Brian Snitker noted he'd seen Markakis show up to spring training with more determination. But aside from a mindset, it can't hurt that he's been hitting fourth behind two-time All-Star Freddie Freeman.
Only 26 players have seen more pitches in the zone that Markakis' 45.8 percent (Freeman, meanwhile is at 41 percent, which is among the 38th-lowest in the game and is 21st in walk rate at 14.9). Add that with a top-12 contact rate (87.1) overall, and hitting .400 (6 of 15) on first pitches, and Markakis is being aggressive and feasting on the number of strikes he's seeing.
Markakis hit a career-best 38 percent above league average back in 2008, and producing his best season 10 years later would be a surprising development as he enters free agency after the season. The Braves are developing in in-house options in Dustin Peterson and Christian Pache, and could enter the free-agency market for a class that includes, yes, Bryce Harper, and whether Markakis could come back as a bridge to a young homegrown outfielder is intriguing.
But as for his fast start, this month should be interesting to watch. The last three seasons, Markakis has posted wRC+s of 83, 52 and 80 in May.
Brett DavisBrett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
2. No surprise as Mike Soroka appears here to stay in Braves' rotation
Mike Soroka wasn't nearly as sharp in his SunTrust Park debut Sunday against the Giants as he was in making his major league debut last Tuesday vs. the Mets. Nonetheless, Snitker's postgame comments came with this nugget: the Canadian right-hander is in the rotation going forward.
It's not surprising for the Braves' No. 4 prospect in FOXSportsSouth.com's composite rankings, though given that during Friday's pregame availability the manager wouldn't commit to Soroka in the starting staff beyond Sunday, it was still a key development.
Veteran Anibal Sanchez -- on the disabled list since April 18 with a right hamstring strain -- threw a simulated game ahead of Soroka's debut in Citi Field, tossing four innings with 60 pitches. He had hoped to pitch in the series against the Giants, but now it seems Sanchez is destined for a long-relief role out of the bullpen with Soroka getting a longer chance to join Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, Brandon McCarthy and Sean Newcomb in the rotation.
Soroka was done after four innings against the Giants after yielding four runs on seven hits with three walks to three Ks. It was uncharacteristic as he's allowed that many walks nine times in 63 minor league starts and three times in his last 22 outings before his call-up. He didn't walk a single player in his gem of a first game vs. the Mets, when he allowed just one run on six hits over six innings with five strikeouts.
In his defense, his performance vs. the Giants was a part of a rough series for the entire Braves rotation, which allowed 18 runs, that coming after giving up 38 in the previous 25 games. But it would have been perplexing had that been the end of his current stint and the Braves opted to either send Soroka back to Triple-A or move him to a role in the bullpen.
Before the game, FOX Sports South colleague Brian Jordan suggested the Braves go to a six-man rotation to get Sanchez -- 1.29 ERA and 3.69 FIP in 14 innings -- which could be an option, though it seems unlikely that happens.
Why else would the Braves have called up a arm of Soroka's magnitude if it weren't turning the page on a rotation spot for the time being? If it was just a glimpse, that could have come in September, and there were other options that could have filled spots over a turn or two through the rotation (Max Fried, Lucas Sims, Matt Wisler, etc.)
Snitker said over the weekend that he's open to the Braves using some of their heralded starting prospects out of the bullpen -- which could be the path for the likes of Kolby Allard, Kyle Wright and Luiz Gohara, whenever he's deemed ready to return -- and for now, that looks to be the only way Sanchez makes an impact as Soroka has shown enough poise at 20 to warrant a long look.
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3. Latest edition of 'In Awe of Ronald Acuña Jr.'
Over the past 11 games, there has been plenty to fawn over with Ronald Acuña Jr., including an exit velocity that's average 94.9 mph (eighth in the majors), the hardest-hit ball by any Brave at 114 mph, and a 451-foot blast of a homer off the Mets' Jason Vargas that's only bested by 17 other players.
During Sunday's series finale vs. San Francisco, Acuña put his hyped skills on display again, and the focus was on his legs.
After singling for his first career hit at home in the first inning, Acuña hit a routine grounder to third baseman Pablo Sandoval in the third inning -- only Acuña to have beat the throw after racing down the line in 4.12 seconds. After the Giants got another look at it, manager Bruce Bochy could only signal safe to his players.
Per Statcast's sprint speed standings, only five players are faster than Acuña's 29.8 ft/sec, and Sunday's effort may see that rank increase. So far, he's had just 20 competitive runs that are measured. For those wondering, the two types of plays that are used for the metric are runs of two bases or more on non-homers and traveling from home to first on weakly hit balls.
Acuña is currently the majors' fastest left fielder, just beating out the Astros' Derek Fisher (29.7), and he may end up being the fastest player the team has had in the Statcast era. Mallex Smith, who was eighth in 2016 (29.8), is the only Braves player to finish in the top 10 in the past three seasons.