There are plenty of culprits arguably responsible for the Braves’ lackluster start to 2021. Is the problem more the offense or the pitching? Lack of depth in the bullpen? Key injuries? Unexpectedly weak starts by most of the hitters?
The problem is too many games against the freaking Blue Jays! Take away the 0-5 record against Toronto and the Braves are 3 games over .500. (I know that’s cherry picking—take away the team’s 19 losses and we are 17-0.)
Wednesday night’s game was an awful lot like Tuesday’s. Another excellent outing by the starting pitcher, but another poor performance by the bullpen. Another night of the offense failing to string hits together to put up any crooked numbers (I used to like that expression, but it’s become a cliché), and failure to mount any kind of rally in the late innings after falling behind.
The best news is that Max Fried appears to be his old self. Varsity went six innings, surrendering only 2 hits. He actually faced the minimum through five, but a leadoff walk in the 6th to Biggio (after getting ahead 0-2) led to an eventual run on a double by Semien. Max left with the game tied 1-1. The Braves’ only run to that point was a long homer to left by Contreras. Unfortunately, that homer was a rally killer, because it was the only run they scored all night. Hyun-Jin Ryu deserves most of the credit. He really is an excellent pitcher, and he was as sharp as he always seems to be against the Braves.
The not so good news (ok, it’s not news at all, but it is a depressing fact) is that the relief corps is a problem. Sliderman gave up a solo home run to Teoscar Hernandez to make it 2-1 in the 7th. One bright spot on the bullpen front is that Newcomb pitched a perfect 8th; he looked like pre-covid Newk, which is awfully good. But then in the ninth, with the score still 2-1 Jays, Snit turned to Tomlin. I noted last week that Josh has been a valuable contributor to the Braves the last couple of years, and he still has a role to play, but high leverage late inning outings is not it. Tomlin surrendered a two run shot to the aforementioned Teoscar, and it was 4-1.
It’s not really fair to blame Snitker for suboptimal bullpen usage when the options have been so weak. But–Chris Martin has been recalled and was available to pitch the 9th. Snit said after the game that he didn’t want to use him when they trailed, and that if he had used him he’d probably be unavailable for Thursday’s game. For that matter, Will Smith was available (hadn’t pitched since Sunday), but he’s never going to be used when they trail.
This is a pet peeve of mine. Trailing by one run in the 8th or 9th can be a more crucial situation than leading by 2 or 3 in the 9th. If you never use your top relievers unless you are tied or leading, you damage your chances of coming back and winning those games. On the other hand, it is a long season, and you do need to resist the urge to overuse your top bullpen arms. I’m just not sure that the rule of never using Martin or Smith when you trail is optimizing their usage.
Of course since this offense never seems to score any runs in the 7th inning or later, holding a team to a one run lead may not matter. The 2018-2020 version of this team was great fun in part because of all the late inning rallies. I don’t for a minute believe that the difference this year is anything other than luck, but it would be good to see that luck turn. I realize that they came from behind three times in the ninth and extra innings in Saturday’s epic win, but that dramatic result only emphasized how rare it’s been for the Braves to win after trailing late.
I haven’t yet mentioned the worst news of the day: the fact that Mike Soroka will undergo exploratory surgery on his repaired Achilles tendon. I won’t speculate about what that means long term, other than the obvious fact he won’t be joining the rotation in June. That blow is a big one, but it is softened by the recent performance of the other starters. The Braves have gotten excellent (not just “quality”) starts in 7 of the last 8 games—two by Fried and Ynoa, and one each by Anderson, Smyly, and Wilson.
During the broadcast, Chip and Jeff were talking about the impact of losing Soroka for a more extended period, and Chip said “As we enter the middle May, the pitching staff is the least of our worries.” I assume he was referring to the starters only. He may be right, in that the offense and the bullpen are even more worrying, but I reserve the right to worry about the rotation as well. I’ll feel better after a few more good starts by Ynoa and Fried. Morton had the one non-quality start in the last 8 games (how’s that for an understatement); he goes this afternoon in a chance to show he’s OK.
For that matter, although the bullpen has been a big problem, the addition of Martin, Greene, and the good Newk may go a long way to stabilizing the group, and help to avoid overuse of the few solid options.
I for one am still not unduly concerned about the offense, but it is time to for them to start coming around.
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Speaking of Chip, a few more gems from the broadcast:
The game was played in very chilly weather. Chip said in his chipper voice: “If anyone knows about pitching in cold weather it’s Max Fried,” referring to the fact that opening day in Philly and his second start in DC were very cold days. What Chip forgot to mention is that Fried didn’t pitch very well in either.
Chip also mentioned several times that Toronto has now hit 600 home runs in interleague play. See, that’s the kind of number (I won’t call it a stat) that tells you nothing. Is that good? How does that compare to other teams? Are the Blue Jays particularly adept at the long ball when they face senior circuit hurlers? I don’t know, but the 2021 Jays are very adept at leaving the yard against the 2021 Braves.
One more Chippism: Although I didn’t hear it, Chip at one point said, “Toronto is the Chicago of Canada, if you will.” I don’t know the context or the significance, but it is true that they are both large cities, are cold much of the year, and sit beside a large lake.
Unlike some on this blog, I have come to almost enjoy Chip. Y’all may have noticed that I prefer a hopeful approach to our team’s fortunes. Chip’s upbeat attitude has become almost soothing to me. I give a lot of credit to Frenchy; Joe used to bring Chip down.
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Wednesday was Felipe Alou’s 86th birthday. He was one of my very favorite Braves when they came to Atlanta (second only to Mr. Aaron). He was a very good player with the Braves, and he was also a good manager later in life. Alou was the first manager from the Dominican Republic; he overcame a lot of bias and misunderstanding, and he was a mentor and hero to many who followed. Happy birthday, Felipe!
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Afternoon game today, Morton against Stripling. Let’s avoid the season sweep.