The Atlanta Braves were finally looking like the meddlers I said they could be. They were turning the corner from the slow start; the offense was clicking, starting pitchers improving and bullpen closing the doors.
This time last week Freddie Freeman was building an impressive MVP resume, leading the league in home runs (averaging a home run just over every nine at-bats) and averaging .341 at the dish with a 1.209 OPS. Freeman has been the best hitter in baseball over the last calendar year.
Braves Country has been well aware of Freeman’s ability for years, but his numbers ballooned high enough for the national sports media to recognize. As ESPN’s David Schoenfield points out, Freeman is the only player on both the top-five in MLB in both extra base hits and wOBA in the last 500 at-bats. Names like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant aren’t on both lists. Freddie is.
MLB.com’s Mike Petriello put together stats moving Freddie from the level of top-25 offensive contributor into the stratosphere of offensive juggernaut. Freeman crashed Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout’s neighborhood under the radar.
|MLB debut – 6/14/16||.282/.365/.463||128|
|6/15/16 – 5/11/17||.334/.439/.668||185|
*wRC+ is Weighted Runs Created Plus, a stat similar to OPS+ that’s park-adjusted and sets 100 as the league average, so 185 is “85 percentage points better than average.”
The 185 weighted runs created plus is more than Trout has ever reached and a number so high that even Miguel Cabrera has only reached once in a season.
There’s no doubt Freeman was on an MVP-pace, so when he was one of the seven batters the Blue Jays plunked in three games it was a costly wrist fracture. The following night, Braves ace Julio Teheran got shelled and the Braves lost 9-0 with a visit from the division leading Nationals on the horizon.
But the Braves show no signs of quitting on 2017 by taking two out of three against the Nationals. After scoring less than five runs in 13 of the first 19 games, with two separate six game losing streaks from April 18-23 and May 3-10 the Atlanta offense has been stroking. Winning seven of their last ten and scoring 53 runs in those ten games, the Braves now find themselves trailing the Nationals in second place by a reasonable seven games. They’re also only six games out of a way-too-early-to-be-taken-serious Wild Card spot.
The diagnosis on Freeman is a fractured wrist, sidelining him for at least 8-12 weeks. A tough break for the 27-year-old capitalizing on the prime of his athletic ability. But an even tougher break for a team that was showing the signs of life to meddle in the National League.
The starting pitching is sustainable for the offense to make up for. R.A. Dickey and Jamie Garcia are throwing like the quality middle of the rotation guys they were signed up to be. Bartolo has been the most disappointing so far, not living up to the “Big Sexy” hype.
Teheran isn’t the same lights-out ace as last season. His ERA is currently at 5.47, and it’s not time to hit the panic button yet because he’s a guy that will turn it around over time. If we’re sitting here in July and it’s not lower, then it’s time to start asking the “What’s wrong with Julio?” questions.
The bullpen has shown signs of major improvement over the last two weeks, if it continues the Braves could maintain their position without Freddie Freeman in the lineup. The bullpen is key because the offensive production seems to be capable of keeping their strides in Freeman’s absence.
Dansby Swanson, who has been extremely underwhelming this season, crawling out of the opening gates with a .154 batting average, is now batting .359 over the last two weeks with two bombs and 10 RBIs. He seems to be comfortable with the bat again after sliding down to the eighth spot in the lineup. Hopefully this increase in confidence will translate to comforting him back into the two-spot in the lineup, because long-term, that’s where he needs to be.
Matt Kemp has been stroking all season, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. The former “MVP” is playing like one once again and seems to be comfortable in the SunTrust Park batters box. His .354 batting average is tied for 4th-best in the Majors.
If the rest of the lineup around him keeps getting on base, which they have with the eighth-best Team OBP in the Bigs, the runs will keep coming.
If there was ever a time to lose Freeman and sustain a spot in the standings, the time was right now. The Braves have an opportunity going forward without a single opponent in the next twenty games with a record above .500 WP. With the Pirates in town this week, a road trip to San Francisco, Anaheim and Cincinnati ahead before hosting the Phillies and Mets, the Braves have an opportunity to keep pace with the Nationals while missing Freeman from the lineup.
Missing Freeman is a tough task, but acquiring Matt Adams from the Cardinals should help ease the pain of losing the stud first basemen. Adams is under team control for the next two seasons, but is certainly in try-out mode for a potential next job once Freddie returns to the everyday lineup. The former Cardinal first baseman lost his spot to Chris Carpenter, but still exhibits great double/homerun power that will come in handy for the Braves over the next few weeks.
So what’s the reasonable expectation for the Braves over the next 20 games?
Most fans will take anything over .500. But in order for the Braves to keep any sort of pace with Washington and within reach of the Wild Card to maintain my “meddler” status, they’ll need to go nothing short of 14-6. While 20-0 is obviously best case scenario, 14-6 is more realistic with a solid win percentage.
If the Braves go below .500 over the next 20 games, it might be time to sell out … once again. That’s something we’ll talk about on Thursday.