First Half Summary

This season started out better than we could have imagined. No one would have expected us to be in the division lead as deep into the season, but the recent trends have not been encouraging. In the time since the first half ended and this first half recap is being posted, the Braves went from being in sole possession of first place to a tie of the division lead. One mustn’t make too much of a simple 1-2 game swing in the standings, but you can’t help feel like we’re a different team than the team that went 16-11 in March/April and 17-12 in May. Since, we are 14-11 in June and 3-6 in July. You can blame a lack of days off, you can blame the quality of the schedule, but at the end of the day, the Atlanta Braves are not playing well at the moment.

It’d be nice to point to one specific area as the smoking gun for the recent woes, but that’s not possible. Every single unit has digressed slightly or significantly. The offense, the defense, the bench, the rotation, and the pen have all seen dips in their performance. The only question is which is the outlier: the March/April/May team, or the June/July team. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but if that’s the case, then you’re a little better than a .500 team. And if that’s the case, then you’re not a playoff team. And if you’re on the bubble, you’re going to want to win the division instead of taking your chances beating the other wild card contenders and then winning the one-game playoff.

The bubble gum stats tell you all you need to know: the team batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, ERA, and WHIP have all digressed. It’s not just the lineup or the bench or the rotation or the pen. There’s no situational issues where a LOOGY or another righty hitter in the lineup will fix a vulnerability. The roster is just short players, and some players just have to play better.

I’ll start with Ender Inciarte. He’s playing great defense, but he has not been the offensive player we were expecting. After 3 straight years with an OPS in the mid-700’s, he’s taken a big step back offensively this year. Since he was relied upon to be a catalyst at the top of the order, his struggle forces this lineup to need a potential shuffling to have enough on base ability at the top of the order. Sadly, though, there’s no clear hitter to put at the top of the order without weakening another part of the order. Simply put, he needs to play better. He’s being paid $4.7M this year, and he’s not owed 700 PAs. If he can’t hit lefties like his .642 OPS in 716 PAs suggests, then they’re going to need to get someone to hit lefties for him.

Ronald Acuna was considered a favorite to win the Rookie of the Year, but his .795 OPS and two injuries has left LF as a patently average position on the diamond. His absence created a void on the bench as Charlie Culberson has had to fill the LF spot, which has weakened the rest of the roster. And speaking of Culberson, the bench has struggled beyond Suzuki (when he’s not in the lineup) and Culberson, who has started somewhere in over 1/3 of the team’s games. The outfielder spot on the bench has gone to Peter Bourjos and Danny Santana recently who have combined to contribute a .580 OPS. The team must really like their Veteran Leadership to justify that abysmal of performance. And while Ryan Flaherty was a revelation in April, he has 3-23 since the beginning of June with one extra base-hit. That’s just not going to cut it.

The rotation is slumping as well, but the four healthy starters — Newcomb, Folty, Teheran, and Anibal — have overall been fantastic. And considering they’re making less combined than we are paying Scott Kazmir to not pitch for us, you have to count that as a blessing. The 5th spot has been the problem whenever Mike Soroka hasn’t occupied it. It’s sporting an ERA of around 5, so the Braves can scratch a couple more wins out in the second half if they can shore up that spot. But overall, the starters are not going deep into games, which is putting a heavy strain on the bullpen. Put it this way: the SPs are 6th in ERA but only 16 in WAR due in large part to the lack of innings pitched.

The bullpen. The top four performers at any one time have been quite good. The problem is the bullpen includes eight members. So while they can win any one game by going through Carle, Winkler, Minter, and Vizcaino, the pen is just too thin, too inexperienced, too susceptible to injury, and just not good enough. It’s not like they haven’t thrown enough bodies at the problem; the Braves have used 19 different pitchers in relief so far this year. But the Braves have no choice but to increase both the quality and depth of the bullpen if they have any shot at winning in the second half. Forget winning a short series in the postseason; they need a better bullpen just to see October. They could trade for 3 relievers, and with the inexperience and possibility of a slowdown by the main 4, it may not be enough.

That is probably the most morbid synopsis of a team tied for 3rd-best record in the NL. But you’ve probably read enough about how this team has exceeded expectations, is Ahead of Schedule (TM), and playing over their heads. But a season is 162 games long, and this roster may not have enough firepower to last all 12 rounds. Look for the Braves to dink and dunk their way down the field in the trade market to shore up the vulnerabilities in the roster, and we might see a lot of it shored up without killing our prospect capital. AA has his work cut out for him.

78 thoughts on “First Half Summary”

  1. Biddle seems to be getting more high leverage situations and doing well. He can probably be listed with the 4 guys above.

    But we certainly need another good reliever or 2 with the starters only going 5-6 innings. Those 5 relievers can’t pitch every night, and all of them (except for maybe Carle who I’m not sure of his history without checking) have had major surgery at some point.

    The team seems to be hoping to try in house solutions like Fried and now Gohara for the 5th spot and Evan Phillips for the bullpen before making some deals.

  2. Good analysis. My take is we’ll make a few deals and our bullpen will be above league average and our hitting will be fine as long as Ozzie and Freddie stay effective and healthy(I expect degession from Nick but improvement from Ender, Acuna, and Flowers).

    It will all come down to starting pitching. Specifically, can Newk and Folty match their first half? I would give it a 50-50 chance.

  3. I don’t think being a .500 team the rest of the way is all that bad. That leaves 10 over and a total of 86 wins which is WC competitive. Adding one or two wins from whatever source makes us division competitive. That’s pretty much how the ’83 team won.

    Acuna needs lots of playing time to find his groove. If he can stop getting injured he will eventually come up big. This same negativity about Ender has happened both of the last two years and he tore it up in the second half both times.

    There are so many potentially helpful players in house that someone has to click. I think we have found the edge of the envelope with Minter, Winkler, and Carle; they have just been overused and there should be statistics enough to show when to expect that overuse to have an impact so that the Braves can use them more smartly in the second half. Gohara has the most potential and the best chance to turn it around once all he has to be concerned about is baseball. Fried will be great once he can get past the blisters. But giving chances to guys like Phillips, Reed, Riley, Clouse, Leyva, Touki, Kolby will ultimately produce at least a couple of effective performers.

    Hanging on to guys like Santana and Flaherty and Moylan are just going to weigh us down and prevent additional development on the team. I really liked Rob’s idea of trading for a Dietrich. Every winning team has at least one guy hanging around who could start on a mediocre team but a bench cog on a winning team. His only flaw is he’s a lefty and I think a righty is more of a need (if you want to platoon Ender). I still see Lane Adams as a fish that got away. Michael Reed could rectify that mistake.

  4. I think we have to go for it now. Don’t give away the farm, but don’t be scared to make a big move or two.

  5. I cancelled my subscription to The Athletic for want of Braves content but received notification that Ken Rosenthal authored an article discussing Braves wants, needs and limitations to fulfilling those wishes.

    Has anyone read Ken’s piece? Did he shine light on the murky Braves world? Enquiring cheapskates want to know.

  6. I think I projected high 70’s wins, but don’t remember.

    For now, I will address JUST the pitching. I thought Folty could step forward this much (30%) and expected him to step forward half this much (50%) and figured 20% hurt, continued ineffective, or worse results. What he has done is real.

    Teheran is hard to figure. Down the stretch I figure he is somewhere between a 5 and a 3.

    Newcombe is both unlikely to be better and unlikely to be worse.

    Anibal is a question mark to some extent, but his value to the rest of the staff means that if he is a “good team’s 5” he needs to be in the rotation.

    McCarthy may be able to pull a 4 or 5 role.

    “Others” include: Gohara who has been ineffective and injured, Soroka who has been overall mediocre but is injured (60 day DL tells me they probably don’t want or expect him back this year), Fried who has shown potential to be a 4 or 5 (at least, for this year, maybe more in a year or two), Allard, whom everyone is concerned might turn into a pumpkin at ML level, but might be able to do a 4 or 5 role, Wright, who still looks unready, and Touki Toussaint. I would be inclined to bring up Touki for a bullpen spot post ASB. Let him works some 2 to 3 inning stints every few days and see how his stuff plays and slow his innings progression. If Touki looks hot and capable, throw him at the ML as a starter. He seems like the only internal option (unless Gohara suddenly returns to last season’s form).

    We have the arms to cover the pen. Anybody on the 40 or who is very good and will have to be on the 40 at end of year should be considered.

    With all of the arms in the system, I do not understand what is coming out of AA that we only want a reliever with control. If we can move secondary pieces that are in excess supply for a pretty good lefty specialist, or set up / sometimes closer, or proven long man then we need to do some of that stuff. Royals, Reds, and Orioles have such atrocious pitching situations that Lucas Sims is a worthwhile gamble. If he is 50% chance an ML 4 starter for 5 cost controlled year, he is like a lottery ticket for anybody with that level of pitching staff.

  7. @Coop

    I’m not sure what the ethics really are on copy and pasting stuff, but Ken basically said the same stuff about relief pitching, though he did speculate they may add a right-handed hitting outfielder who can play center. So that’s picking up a little bit of steam in the prognostications.

  8. The initial thread post here and those that have since followed it speak well to the level of intellect and understanding on this board. Thanks to all.

    The naked eye and ear
    the brain that holds their input dear
    interpret as you will
    but, ever, don’t eviscerate the thrill.

  9. I believe I stated in the spring that I thought this team could win 85. I think that was all based on gut feels and knowing what the guys on the roster are capable of.

    This far into the season, I’m a little worried about them. I now think they should win more than 90 games, but they are showing serious signs of attrition — lots of guys in both the bullpen and the lineup are showing fatigue.

    I wish I had more time to add details, but I would say, off the top of my head, that Ender, Kakes, Freeman, and Albies have appeared in every game save for a few — and a couple of those guys have not gotten a day off yet. One of those guys is a void, and the rest make up a majority of our offense.

  10. Where this team goes in the second half is going to depend on our starting rotation a lot. We’ve babied and pampered the starters through the first half, and I’ve wondered if they were doing this with the second half in mind. Because relievers really are fungible mostly, and if we can get a couple of solid fresh arms for the pen it will go a long way. The rotation needs to, and I think they’re planning to, be leaned on more heavily down the stretch.

  11. Isn’t it really funny that the version of Melvin Upton, Jr. we had if added to this roster to platoon with Ender would really boost the offense without hurting the defense much?

  12. @13 no, but I think you might be able to say the same about Lane Adams (assuming Acuna mans CF when Adams is in)

  13. @13 no, but I think you might be able to say the same about Lane Adams (assuming Acuna mans CF when Adams is in) (or Michael Reed)

  14. Got my hair cut at lunch. Here is what my barber is hearing:

    ATL Gets: Joakim Soria, Jace Fry, Yolmer Sánchez and Blake Snell
    Chi Gets: Mallex Smith, Sam Freeman, Flaherty, Wisler and Muller
    Tampa Gets: Sims, Fried and Dustin Peterson

  15. I would think Muller for Snell is a non-starter (I’m ignoring all the chaff).

    Really to get Snell we likely need to give up something like Gohara, Allard, and Pache, and I’m not sure that’s enough.

  16. @ 15,

    If you do the “Acuna to center” there are lots of pretty good right handed hitters (or strong right handed switch hitters) who can field a decent left field. Actually, that makes lots of sense.

    I tried to do a search on ESPN of right handed hitters and they only split by “OF.” So, you don’t know who actually might play a decent centerfield unless you know something about the player.

    But yes, that is an upgrade that would not be costly that would help.

  17. If while hashing out a deal with Rays GM Erik Neander, AA does one of those “says-Blake-Snell’s-name-while-fake-sneezing” things and Neander agrees, it totally counts, right?

  18. Blake Snell is, like, Chris Sale for no money. Blake Snell will not be playing for anyone but the Tampa Bay Rays until he leaves for free agency. It just ain’t happening. Snell is the player you tank to get, not trade to tank.

  19. Maybe if AA’s assistants just type Blake Snell’s name in tiny font size when they send over the formal trade request…

  20. @21

    I know where he’s headed with this, but I’ll bite anyway.

    deGrom has two more arb years remaining after this season. And with his success, he’ll probably make between $35-40M in his last 2 years of arb total. So with the $3.5M remaining this year, you’ll get 2 1/2 years of deGrom @ $38-43M in total commitment. On the high side, I’m going to give him 19 WAR (5 more this year, 7 each in the last two years). I just can’t in good conscience say he’s going to continue the 10 WAR season he’s on pace for this year. Can’t do it. Total: $43M for 19 WAR

    Acuna has 5 more years of control past this season. So he’ll make a total of $1.5M for the next 2 1/2 years. Then let’s take a low side of 3 WAR per year every year until he’s a free agent. So 5 1/2 * 3 = 16.5 WAR. BUT, if you take the low side production, you take the low side salaries: $3M in year 3, $8M in year 4, $12M in year 5, and $15M in year 6. Total: $39.5M for 16.5 WAR. In today’s market.

    Not quite as good of value, but LOTS of noise in the numbers. deGrom is 30 years old. Acuna could be Willie Mays. If Acuna becomes the player we think he will, it’ll probably be more like 30 WAR for $60M. So if those are the numbers to work with, then I’m betting on Acuna. So no. But it’s not because I looooooooove prospects.

  21. I think Acuña has 6 years of control after this one. That’s why they kept him down for a few weeks.

  22. Ah, yes. Key point. So that’s another $7M+ in surplus value. So let’s say, if he is who they think he is, he’d make $30M+ in that 7th year in the free agent market, he’d probably make $23M+ in arbitration in today’s market. Donaldson got the record this past offseason, and his was $23M. If Donaldson had hit free agency this past offseason, what would he have made in the open market for 2018? $30M+ right?

    I probably should be working backwards with the arb numbers, but in order to do so, you have to be willing to say that Acuna will reach his peak, and that’s potentially even higher than Donaldson. Jose Abreu got $17M after 4 years of service time. Is that a better comp? Admittedly, I get kind of tied up mentally with reading the arb time and then figuring out how many more times they will go to arbitration.

    No matter how you slice it, there’s a pretty good chance Acuna, if he reaches close to his peak, will have just an absurd amount of surplus value that it will be almost impossible for deGrom to make that up in his last 2 years of control. Do you trade for deGrom? Sure. Give them 4 pitching prospects, but don’t give them Acuna.

  23. Rob, I accounted for the remaining years of control, and I would still do it in a heart beat. I would rather have the wins that a player like deGrom is likely to contribute versus striving to have a team of “good value for the dollar” players. Getting a deGrom is a lot harder than replacing a corner outfielder.

    Besides, the Mets wouldn’t do a straight trade of deGrom for Acuna, would they? Everything I’ve read suggests it would take a whole lot more to pry deGrom away.

    Let’s change the question up a little, Rob. If the Braves weren’t presumably so budget constrained (compared to other teams), would it change your stance?

  24. @31 I would also make the trade. Acuna is not as good of an athlete as I thought that he was and while he has 80 grade raw power or at least 70-75, IMO his other tools are nowhere near as good as I thought they COULD be. And FWIW, I’m not even talking about now as a 19 year old, but ever.

    I actually do not think that he is all that good of an athlete. He seems kind of stiff to me. His arm is very erratic if not weak, and his baseball instincts just seem to be OK. I do not think that he is a generational talent.

    Would I take the theoretical 13-20 wins over the next 4-5 seasons over what I think that Acuna will bring? Absolutely. Also, this was a thought exercise and it was not an anti prospect rant, etc. I wasn’t going anywhere with this.

  25. @31

    No, I still wouldn’t trade Acuna. I would just trade more players that would produce less performance from each roster spot. It’s not about budget; it’s about how much performance you can get from each seat on the bench. Who could possibly outperform Acuna?

    That’s why one 6 WAR player is worth more than 2 3 WAR players. In this scenario, by having the one 6 WAR player, that leaves you another roster spot to get more production. I’d rather trade 3-4 prospects vs one Acuna.

  26. @31, I asked because I read an article from an unnamed GM that said that he would only trade DeGrom for Acuna, or Guererro Jr. or a player of that magnitude, etc.

  27. Good write up, Rob, but I would not call your synopsis “morbid.” This team, that virtually no one predicted would finish .500, is 11 games over and solidly in the playoff hunt. As noted above, .500 the rest of the way puts you in the WC picture, and this division is probably winnable with 90 wins.

    But it’s especially tough to project the rest of the season. The biggest (positive) surprises have been Ozzie, Kakes, Folty, and Newk. Who knows whether Ozzie can sustain what he’s done, but I’d hate to bet against him.
    As much as I love what Nick has done this year, he’s got to regress, right? And Folty and Newk are especially unpredictable.

    On the other hand, Ender as a Brave has generally been much better in the second half, and maybe Acuña has a ROY caliber second half.

    As most everyone agrees, the bullpen is the most obvious need. Surely AA will add a couple of good bullpen arms. Or perhaps the starters will average 7-8 innings per start and the 3 or 4 decent relievers we have will be enough. (Just kidding, of course)

    As for me and my house, we’re sticking with my preseason prediction of 94 wins.

  28. Y’all wanna give up the farm for Eovaldi, and he’s getting lit up by Minnesota.

  29. Eovaldi, though, has the highest strike % in baseball. That’d be a welcome sight.

  30. I’ve been in time out for unspecified crimes against Braves Journal. Now paroled, I’d first like to thank you, Rob, for the Rosenthal dope. Next, I would keep Acuna despite his lack of athleticism. Chief did warn us about Ozzie, you know.

    I’d love de Grom (or Evoldi) and would trade a bundle for either, but not Ronald.

    Hopefully this comment gets posted. If not, I’m still in BJ limbo.

  31. I should add that Anibal is the biggest surprise of all. He may turn into a pumpkin before too long, but if he does keep this up he’s got to be the comeback player of the year.

  32. I’m no Sam freeman apologist, but that walk should have been a K.

    Winkler fucks it up in two pitches….

  33. Just poking, Chief, but Ronald’s just a baby too. He may wash out. I hope not, I think not, but he may.

  34. I’m wondering if Winkler is getting a tired arm. He needs to be treated more carefully. This is the first time that I can remember where he just doesn’t seem to have anything.

    I can’t imagine why they didn’t let Anibal go another inning. What waste of a great performance and horrible use of relievers.

  35. Let’s continue having the guy who is 7th of 9 players in tonight’s lineup in OBP getting the most plate appearances.

  36. The insistence on continuing to bat Inciarte leadoff is starting to be mind-bogglingly ridiculous.

  37. To everyone – if you check Ender’s OBP in the last 30 days, it’s over .350. I know he looks bad sometimes but he’s getting on base and getting ready for his typical 2nd half push.

    What I’m missing is the reckless abandon they were playing with a month ago. No one seems to be taking the extra base, trying to steal, or generally trying to make things happen. That’s what made this team so fun for a while.

  38. Man, good thing we got 84 whole pitches out of Anibal so we could go to Sam Freeman in a tie ballgame. What the heck are we doing?

  39. Our second place Braves wasted a good start and tolerable relief because our offense was offensive. Our hitting sucked.

    Get ‘m tomorrow, Braves.

  40. It’s hard to say the pitching was at fault (even though going to Sammie was an icky move) when you only score one run against a pitcher with a nearly 5 ERA. UGH

  41. DOB said in February that Acuña could smack 30 homers this year. Lol.

    Can we ever be lucky enough to have a prospect live up to the hype?

  42. Acuna has 7 HR in 40 games, so a pace of ~28 for 162 game season. So clearly 30 is LOL CRAZY TALK.

    What a bust. We might as well cut him.

  43. @53 … Inder, Albies and Freeman dont work the count .. they have to lead the league in least amount of pitches thrown to them ,,I never seen so many swings at 1st pitches … and balls also … pitchers know to work corners and off plate on them and they most likely get a out …

  44. First pitch stats:
    Inciarte:
    .385/.377/.452
    Albies:
    .405/.400/.734
    Freeman:
    .391/.386/.739

    I’d say Ozzie and Freddie at least have earned the right to swing at the first pitch if they like it.

    ETA: Interesting that all three of them have managed a lower OBP than batting average. Aggressive base running!

  45. You also can’t wear down the pitcher. But it’s hard to argue with those statlines as they attack the first pitch.

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