As the Atlanta Braves progress past the halfway point of the current MLB season, the postseason playing field looks as interesting as ever. However, the Braves have some adjustments to make.
Sporting an 18-13 record as of Aug. 29, the Braves have maintained their grasp on the National League East from last season by staying in first place by a narrow margin. The lead is slim, though, as virtually all five teams in the division are within reach of the division lead. Even the last place Washington Nationals, a team equipped with red-hot star slugger Juan Soto, are only five games behind the Braves.
Needless to say, a trip to the postseason is very much up for grabs. As a result, the Braves need to keep making adjustments to others if they want to punch their ticket to the playoffs.
Pitching struggling to improve
While the Braves starting pitching didn’t look incredible way back in March, it certainly hasn’t improved since the delayed season has gotten underway. The pitching rotation took a major hit due to ace Mike Soroka’s injury. Soroka went down in a heap while pitching in a game against the Mets on Aug. 3. It was later reported by MLB.com that Soroka had torn his right Achilles and that his season was over.
The injury, along with newly-acquired pitcher Felix Hernandez opting out and veteran addition Cole Hamels’s persistent shoulder problems that have yet to vanish, left the Braves high and dry early on in the season.
That meant that Atlanta’s ace was done. But what about the rest of the rotation?
Former All-Star Mike Foltynewicz seemed like a possible answer, but Foltynewicz fell apart quickly, losing velocity on his fastball and getting pummelled by the Miami Marlins in an early start. Touki Toussaint and Kyle Wright were eventually met with the same fate.
Atlanta’s front office will need to pursue starting pitchers to help stop the bleeding. But if the starting pitching is so bad, how has the team stayed in first place and kept up a winning record?
Offensive prowess keeps the team afloat
The Braves at least partially made up for their lackluster pitching with some stellar offensive performances.
Shortstop Dansby Swanson has accumulated a whopping .306 batting average while notching an On Base Plus Slugging of .887 leading all Braves hitters in WAR with 1.5, according to Baseball Reference. Swanson’s heroics also include his first career walk-off home run, a two-run blast that led the Braves to a 7-6 win over Washington.
New catcher Travis D’arnaud has also proved very valuable, hitting .319 with an OPS of .906. If the Braves want to keep winning in spite of their struggling pitching core, these players will need to keep stepping up at the plate.
The biggest individual story of the year for the Braves so far has easily been the story of pitcher Max Fried. In the midst of the pitching rotation crisis, Fried has been the one constant player on the mound for Atlanta. While Fried did have tremendous upside, the curveball-forward southpaw has definitely filled Soroka’s shoes better than anyone could have hoped.
Fried was a great pitcher in his own right last year, putting up an Earned Run Average of 4.06 and notching 17 wins for the Braves in 2019, according to Baseball Reference. In 2020, though, Fried has transformed into a bonafide ace—he leads the league in ERA with a sparkling 1.35 mark and has not yet lost a game for Atlanta.
One more incredible stat sticks out, though: Fried leads all players in the Majors in WAR this season, having already accumulated a whopping 2.5 WAR, according to Baseball Reference. This puts Fried right in the middle of the Cy Young Award conversation for the season and boosts Atlanta’s struggling pitching in both statistics and morale.
As the Braves try and keep rolling and make their way into the playoffs, pitching is a major concern. The Braves continue the season with important matchups against the Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins to start September.
Micah Johnston ‘22 is a journalism and media studies double major who has written for The Cluster since his freshman year at Mercer. He has written on and reported for Georgia Public Broadcasting, The Macon Telegraph and The Macon Newsroom on a variety of topics. He received the Center for Collaborative Journalism’s Junior Honors Award for the 2020-2021 academic year. Micah’s other interests include obsessively following Braves and Mariners baseball, constantly listening to all kinds of music and probably eating junk food.