This will serve as both the recap for Friday’s night’s win, and also a continuation of Ryan’s great “Checkup” series on the Braves heading into the second half(ish) of the season. He previously covered the infield, outfield, and the relievers. I’ll offer some observations below about the starting rotation. But first to the game.
Like many of you, I suspect, Friday’s night’s game was the first time I had seen a Shohei Ohtani start from beginning to end. I’d seen plenty of clips, but I don’t make a habit of watching AL games, and when I do it’s not the lowly Angels. Well, Ohtani was everything he is cracked up to be. He was absolutely dominant, practically perfect through six innings, allowing only one baserunner, striking out 11. Moreover, he had done this efficiently, having tossed only 71 pitches through the first six innings. He looked unhittable.
Until he wasn’t. If Braves’ opponents can have an Episode, Ohtani’s seventh inning was a classic in the genre. The Braves scored six runs off Ohtani in the bottom of the 7th, featuring a tie-breaking two run homer by Olson and a three run blast by Arcia. One of the many keys to Ohtani’s success has been that he doesn’t surrender home runs; no one had left the yard against him in his previous five starts. But this Braves team is gonna homer. Leading off the bottom of the 7th in a scoreless game, Swanson drew the first base on balls Ohtani had delivered. Matt Olson hit the second pitch he saw into the Chop House. Things continued to unravel for Ohtani from there. Three straight singles yielded the third run of the game, and after a fly out for the first out of the inning, Arcia ended Ohtani’s night with a three run shot to left.
After Ohtani was pulled, the Angels pen gave up another run in the 7th on a single, walk, HBP, and wild pitch. Ozuna added one more on a solo shot in the 8th for an 8-0 lead, in what had been a scoreless pitchers’ duel just an inning before.
It was a scoreless duel through six, because Charlie Morton is looking more and more like Charlie Morton. He wasn’t near perfect like Ohtani, but he turned in six scoreless innings, surrendering only two hits. He pitched into and out of trouble, as he also walked three batters and hit two more in the back foot with his breaking ball (it wouldn’t be a Morton start without a couple of those). The curveball looked particularly sharp and he limited hard hit balls. The biggest threat came in the 4th, when the Angels had first and third with no outs. He got a huge strikeout, but then loaded the bases with one out on a base on balls. Charlie kept them off the board, though, when he induced a ground ball to second by Villar, which Arcia, Swanson, and Olson turned into a beautiful double play.
Charlie was not nearly as efficient as Ohtani, having thrown 105 pitches in six innings. So Snit turned to the pen in the seventh. It surprised me that he brought in Dylan Lee rather than Matzek or Minter, but it shows how much confidence they now have in Lee. He’s been terrific on the season. Lee struck out the side, with one hit sandwiched in. After the Braves explosion in the bottom of the seventh, Pepper Sprout Stephens pitched a scoreless eighth with two K’s. With an 8-0 lead, Snit felt secure in giving Will Smith some work. He spoiled the shutout before you could blink, giving up a leadoff homer to Villar, but finished the inning and the game without further trouble.
All in all, a terrific win. You couldn’t ask for a better start to the second half, especially since the Mets lost to the Padres, reducing the deficit to one and a half games. Kyle Wright goes for the Braves in tonight’s game, seeking his 12th (!) win.
Checkup: Starting Rotation
I volunteered to write up the starting rotation as part of the Checkup series. I’ve had a fascination with starting rotations since my earliest days of following baseball. My father, a native Atlantan, was a Braves fan long before they moved to Atlanta. Eddie Mathews had played for the Atlanta Crackers as an 18 year old in 1950, and he led the Southern League with 32 home runs, including the legendary blast that hit the magnolia tree in center field. (If you haven’t heard that story, see Eddie Mathews: Portrait of the Ballplayer as a Young Cracker – Studio Gary C ). Mathews remained his favorite player and the Braves became his team.
So when I started following baseball in the mid-sixties, my dad loved to tell me about the 1957-58 Braves team. That world series team was famous for sluggers Mathews, Henry Aaron, and Joe Adcock. But he always insisted that the key to their success—more than the elite sluggers–was their three excellent starting pitchers: Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Bob Buhl. My dad convinced me that the best teams are characterized by their starting rotations.
The championship teams of my childhood had great rotations: the Dodgers with Koufax and Drysdale, the miracle Mets with Seaver and Koosman, the Orioles with Palmer, McNally, and Cuellar. That confirmed my belief that a strong rotation is the single most important factor if a team is to excel. (Mind you, I’m not sure that is true; there have been plenty of World Series champions without dominant starting staffs. See, e.g., the Big Red Machine of the 1970’s. But the power of that early idea has never left me—I continue to be fascinated by strong rotations.)
The Braves in their first 25 years in ATL never had a good starting rotation. Phil Niekro, of course, was consistently excellent. Otherwise, they had a few guys who turned in good season or two—Ron Reed, Buzz Capra, Carl Morton, Craig McMurtry, Pascual Perez. But from 1966 through 1982, it was pretty much Niekro and pray for snow. The rest of the 80’s, after Niekro left, were even worse.
So when the 90’s happened, I was thrilled. If the Braves didn’t have the best starting rotation of all time, especially from 1993 through 1999, I don’t know who did.
All of which leads up to the current rotation. They just might be the best Braves rotation since those nineties teams.
I recently ran across a great piece in Hardball Times from 2017, written by our own Alex Remington: Ronald Acuna: the Braves’ Last, Best, and Only Hope | The Hardball Times (fangraphs.com) Mostly Alex was writing about how this kid Ronald Acuna just might end the misery that had been the Braves rebuild in 2015-2017. But he also wrote briefly about all the young arms the team was accumulating:
“The Braves still have an impressively pitching-rich system: Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Kyle Wright, Ian Anderson, Luiz Gohara, Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson and more.”
You’ll note that three of the current five starters appear on that list. Moreover, two more may yet contribute: Mike Soroka could make his return before the season is done, and Kyle Muller is having a very good season at Gwinnett and looks poised to fulfill his promise.
The Braves strategy back in the tear down of 2015-17 was to stockpile pitchers. It may be a truism that TINSTAAPP, but the plan was that if you have 10-15 decent prospects, surely a few will turn into quality major leaguers. By my lights, I judge the rebuild a success. Four of Alex’s 2017 list have had success at the big league level.
Of the two in the current rotation who weren’t in the picture in 2017, Spencer Strider wasn’t even a gleam in Alex Anthopoulos’s eye back then. Charlie Morton was someone from the Braves’ past; they had traded him for Nate McLouth (!) almost a decade earlier. He had been a journeyman starter for several years, then dramatically turned things around with the Astros in 2017. It would have been hard to imagine back then that Morton would be a solid contributor for the Braves five years down the line.
But, finally, let’s talk about the individuals who make up the 2023 rotation.
Varsity has become a bona fide Ace, and he has upped his game to the top levels. He’s already accumulated 4.3 in bWAR this season, second only to Alcantara among big league pitchers. He’s 4th in innings pitched, 6th in the league in ERA. How is he doing it? Fried has become a five pitch pitcher—four-seamer and two seamer, the big slow curve in the 70’s that he’s always had, a sharp breaking slider in the upper 80’s that he relies on more and more, and a good changeup. Most importantly, he commands all of them. He’s third in the league in BB/9. He doesn’t strike out as many as some, but he pounds the zone and limits hard contact. He’s 4th in the league in barrels per PA. He had a hiccup in his last start against the Mets, walking five, but that’s an aberration. I expect him to be just as good the rest of the way as he was before the break.
Wright has been a revelation. After mostly struggling in spot starts the last three years, the Braves largely kept him off the Gwinnett shuffle in 2022. Wright plainly figured some things out in AAA, and he has been a different pitcher in 2023. Like Fried, he’s been throwing strikes. His walk rate is not as low as Fried’s, at 2.8/9, but that is dramatically better than his career rate before this season. He has a curve that looks a lot like Morton’s (thanks, Charlie), and his fastballs have enough velocity and movement to get whiffs and limit contact. Wright was the Braves’ best pitcher in April and into May. He’s regressed some since then, but he’s still getting good results; he continues to trust his stuff and throw strikes. And unlike earlier years, when he does get into trouble, he doesn’t panic, trusts his stuff, and more often than not gets out of it.
Morton struggled in April and May, but he has turned the corner and is ready to have a strong second half. His problems did not appear to be a loss of stuff—his breaking ball was moving as much as ever, and his four seamer was just as fast as it’s been. His problem was command. He couldn’t throw the curve for strikes, and when he had to come in with the fastball, it got pounded. Ivan over at Battery Power recently suggested that the horizontal movement on his fastball was off a little, making it easier to hit and leading to more home runs than he has given up in years. But in any event, Morton appears to have righted the ship. He is commanding the curve again (except for that odd phenomenon of regularly hitting left handed batters on the back foot). With Morton, the breaking ball is the key to everything. As long as batters have to worry about that, his fastball will also be effective. Despite his advanced age, he is 4th in the league in K/9. I look for great things from Morton in August, September, and October.
If Wright has been a revelation, I’m not sure what to call Spencer Strider. He’s a phenomenon, a sensation, a marvel, a wonder, and a delight to behold. His fastball is not just very fast, it’s also difficult to hit. You’ve got to read the piece in Fangraphs comparing Strider and Hunter Greene: What Separates Spencer Strider From Hunter Greene | FanGraphs Baseball . I don’t fully understand the physics and the physiology of it, but the arm angle, release point, and ride and movement explain why major league hitters simply can’t get the bat on the ball. His slider is not great, but it’s good enough to get plenty of whiffs as hitters focus on the heater. Strider’s K rate leads the league. Just as importantly, his walk rate, while not great, is in an acceptable range at 3.6/9. I know we should expect some regression as hitters see more of him, but his stuff is so electric that it won’t be easy for them. It will help if he develops his changeup. Strider seems like a kid who really understands pitching and his own mechanics. He’s already accumulated 1.9 bWAR in just 74 innings. The sky is the limit. But speaking of limits, it is clear that season innings count will be an issue. I suspect they may spread his starts out more, or move him to the pen for a stretch, or both. Which means they may need to find someone else to make a few starts in August and September.
Jethro is the problem child of this bunch. His numbers are not good. His ERA is 4.79, and his peripherals show that is not a fluke. His FIP is 4.31. His walks and hits per inning are up (his WHIP is an alarming 1.51), and he isn’t striking out as many (7.7/9). If you watch him pitch, you can see the problem. He falls behind hitters and throws too many pitches. And by the third time through the order, his stats become nightmarish: ERA 12.94/FIP 8.42/xFIP6.13. As many have noted, Ian needs a third pitch. He has one of the best changeups in the game, and it comes from straight over the top just like his four seam fastball. But when hitters can lay off the change, they sit on the fastball and do a lot of damage. He hasn’t used his breaking ball much, but he needs to throw it into the mix. I have a lot of confidence in Anderson. He doesn’t get rattled, and he does seem to be able to get out of trouble. But he can’t succeed if it takes him 100 pitches just to get through five innings. Still, a 24 year old who has already made 8 postseason starts, with a 4-0 record and a 1.26 ERA ought to be given a lot of leeway.
The guys who combined to be the fifth starter before Strider took over the role were pretty dreadful. Huascar Ynoa hasn’t been the same since he punched the wall. Tucker Davidson and Bryce Elder may have bottom of the rotation potential, but they both need more work at AAA. The most promising is Kyle Muller. He’s got the great arm, big fastball and good breaking ball. His issue has always been command and control. Here’s the good news: he’s putting together an excellent season at AAA. In 94 innings, the big left hander’s got an ERA of 2.94 and a WHIP of 1.08. He’s striking out 11.2/9 and only walking 2.5/9. He’s showing that he’s ready. Given the need to limit Strider’s innings, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him called up in August. There will be a need for a 6th starter anyway: there is a doubleheader on each of the first two Saturdays in August. On the other hand, it sure did Kyle Wright a lot of good to leave him alone to work regularly at AAA last year. I can see the argument for letting Muller finish the season at Gwinnett and then compete for the big leagues next Spring. All of which is to say that AA may be in the market for a back end innings eating starter before the deadline.
The other wild card in this is Mike Soroka. He is my favorite pitching prospect of all time, and I’d love to see him return. As a 21 year old rookie in 2019, he was a legitimate Cy Young candidate. His future was as bright as the sun. You know what happened next. There is no way to know if he will ever make it back. He hasn’t yet started a rehab assignment, so if he does make it to Atlanta this year it will likely be September. And they may use him in relief if he does. Still, the guy is as smart a pitcher as we’ve seen, and he has a drive and determination to make it back. I wouldn’t rule him out.
But if not this year, I can get pretty excited about a home grown rotation next year that includes some combination of Fried, Wright, Strider, Anderson, Muller, and Soroka. It’s not the 90’s Braves (that is a rotation for the ages), but it is a damn sight stronger than anything the team put together before 1991.
The Braves are 34-11 since June 1. I’m not predicting they play at a .750 clip the rest of the way, but thee is no reason to believe they won’t continue to be among the best teams the rest of the way. They need to beat up on the Angels the rest of the weekend; there are a bunch of games against the Mets and the Phillies looming.