Normally I would start this out with a brief little intro and maybe a quip. I would move on to breaking down the positives and negatives of the game, talk about a former Brave who did something cool in another game, find a famous quote that summarizes the game and finally look ahead to tomorrow.
But that was a particularly brutal loss. The Braves had a four-run lead and a golden opportunity to blow it open with Freddie Freeman at the plate and the bases loaded in the sixth. It also occurred exactly one month after Opening Day, so now is as good a time as any to take some stock in the big picture. Gather around, it’s time or a fan meeting.
The Braves are now 12-15 exactly ⅙ into the season. Obviously that’s not a death knell with 135 games to go, but it’s far from ideal. The run differential is -11, and that matches up with the eye test. They entered play Saturday 28th in baseball in team ERA, and that ticked up again tonight with five more earned runs allowed.
In short, it’s been pretty bad. In fact, you could argue they’re fortunate to only be three games under .500 at this point.
It’s one thing when circumstances out of your control lead to problems. Major injuries to key players, bad umpiring, a freakish bounce of the ball, whatever.
It’s an entirely separate issue when you built something a certain way and the design flaws become obvious.
No, it doesn’t mean it will be true the entire season. No, it doesn’t mean you’re writing off the entire season by admitting it. And yes, there’s a lot of baseball left in front of the 2021 Braves. It’s fine to acknowledge all of those facts while also admitting to the other side of the coin.
This baseball team went into the season with major (intentional) design flaws in its construction, and now you’re seeing that manifest after a month. Tonight’s 6-5 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays felt like a lot of problems all coming to a head at once.
Alex Anthopolous and his staff chose to go into the season with a short bench. That was an intentional plan to load up on bullpen arms. Tonight the Braves ran out of position players in the eighth inning of a tie game because of that decision to play short on position players.
The front office made a conscience. decision to go into the season with an unbalanced bullpen. You can debate the merits of re-signing Mark Melancon, Shane Green or Darren O’Day until the cows come home, but they made the decision to both pass on those players and not replace them. This is how you end up with Edgar Santana and Luke Jackson as the first two right-handed relievers out of the bullpen in a tight game and Nate Jones pitching in extra innings with the outcome hanging in the balance.
They decided replacing Tyler Flowers as the backup catcher wasn’t a priority, and that it was better to have Alex Jackson as the back-up over William Contreras. Again, you can argue it either way. But that’s point A, and point B is a player hitting under .050 coming up to bat twice late in a tie game.
Everyone knew this lineup lacked a lot of depth, and that the offense was prone to cold stretches. Swanson, Albies and d’Arnaud all vastly outperformed their career averages last season, and the front office went into the year expecting that to continue. Well the regression monster is here, and here you are with one run over the final eight innings against Tommy Milone and a parade of relievers.
The injuries to the starting rotation don’t even count as an excuse tonight; Charlie Morton was on the mound, and while mostly effective, he struggled to put away hitters in two-strike counts all night. He issued a walk to Alejandro Kirk from an 0-2 count that came around to score, and the walk he surrendered from an 0-2 count to Teoscar Hernandez also turned into a run.
Speaking of the rotation, they made signing Drew Smyly a big priority early in the off-season. Smyly has an 8.05 ERA and a -0.8 WAR after a month.
Put the whole thing together and you have a team with high end talent, but some very serious structural flaws. Some of it can be fixed by BABIP luck evening out or more health in the starting rotation, but definitely not all of it.
Max Fried getting healthy won’t fix the unbalanced load that is the bullpen. Chris Martin returning from his injury doesn’t do anything about the lack of position player depth. Dansby Swanson getting a few more line drives to find grass doesn’t change the fact that Smyly has been well below even a replacement level pitcher. Nothing covers up the fact that your back-up (and possibly starting depending on d’Arnaud’s injury) catcher has a wrC+ of -9.
109% league average isn’t a coincidence, and neither is the big picture here.
All of this might be a funny blip to look back on at the end of a 90-win division title season, or it might be a precursor to a 90-loss year. It’s far too early to tell. But one way or another, the Braves made this bed themselves. Whether the dreams end up being good, bad or nightmares, they’re going to have to lie in it.
This is a 12-15 baseball team, and not by accident.