On the list of MLB’s biggest disappointments in 2021, the Atlanta Braves have to be near the top of the list.
Atlanta has won three straight NL East titles and was painfully close to reaching the World Series last year. Equally important, they were betting favorites before the season to win the NL East again. Yet, the Braves have rarely been over .500 this season and remain far from first place at the midway point of the season.
Clearly, the Braves are nowhere they expected to be in 2021. But is this a case of a team underachieving or are the Braves just a bad team that’s destined to hover around .500 all season without making a serious playoff push?
One of the biggest indicators of success in baseball is whether or not a team’s stars are delivering true star performances.
With the possible exception of Ronald Acuna, that’s not been the case for Atlanta this season. Acuna is on pace to surpass many of the numbers he posted two seasons ago. Third baseman Austin Riley has also been a pleasant surprise for Atlanta. Despite slowing down in June, Riley is outperforming his career averages and blossoming into the impact player the Braves hoped he would become.
However, Acuna and Riley have been the exceptions for Atlanta. Reigning MVP Freddie Freeman has taken a step back, having his worst season since 2015. He’s run hot and cold all season with his cold spells usually lasting longer than his hot streaks. Before getting hurt, Marcell Ozuna was a massive disappointment, hitting just .213 with an OPS of .645, far below what he gave Atlanta last year.
Even Atlanta’s supporting cast has managed to disappoint. Dansby Swanson’s OPS is 100 points lower than it was during the shortened 2020 season. Ender Inciarte has also struggled to produce, barely hitting over .200 with an OPS under .600, making it difficult for the Braves to keep him in the lineup despite his defensive prowess. This is a player who hit over .290 during his first two seasons in Atlanta but has produced anything offensively in the last two seasons.
On the pitching front, Atlanta’s rotation has held its own, but the bullpen has been a massive issue for the Braves. To a large extent, this falls on the team’s front office. The Braves made little effort to retain Mark Melancon or Darren O’Day this past offseason. The club didn’t even re-sign Shane Greene until May with the late start to the season clearly hindering his performance. It’s inexcusable for a team with playoff aspirations to ignore its bullpen like that, knowing how important relievers can be to postseason success.
The Braves made the mistake of assuming that the relievers who were effective last season would be just as good this year, which is rarely the case with bullpen arms. Outside of Luke Jackson, none of Atlanta’s key relievers have performed up to expectations. Sean Newcomb, Jacob Webb, and Josh Tomlin all have an ERA over 5.00. A.J. Minter has failed to duplicate his 0.83 ERA from last season, which the Braves should have seen coming after his 7.06 ERA in 2019. Tyler Matzek has been solid at times but has struggled with his control.
Even the team’s most reliable late-game relievers like Chris Martin and closer Will Smith have failed to perform up to expectations. Martin remains a viable option late in games but isn’t a lock to get the job done the way he was last year. Meanwhile, Smith has already lost five games in 2021, the most games he’s lost since his rookie season.
The Injury Factor
Not to make excuses, but the Braves have not been immune to the injury bug in 2021. The starting rotation has been hit hard with Mike Soroka not pitching at all this season due to injury. Atlanta’s rotation also lost an important piece when Huascar Ynoa broke his hand punching a bench after impressing with a 3.02 ERA over eight starts and one relief appearance. With Max Fried and Drew Smyly also serving brief stints on the IL, the Braves have already been forced to use 10 different starters during the first half of the season. Most have proved to be unreliable, putting even more strain on the team’s bullpen.
The Atlanta offense has also been hurt by injuries. As mentioned, the Braves lost Ozuna to both an injury and an arrest, taking away any possibility of him turning things around after a slow start to the season. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud was also lost to a long-term injury in early May, taking away his bat from the middle of the order one year after d’Arnaud won the Silver Slugger Award. A recent injury to Alex Jackson has hurt Atlanta’s catching depth even more, putting additional pressure on William Contreras, who is barely hitting over .200.
The Rest of the Class
Perhaps the most frustrating part of Atlanta’s struggles this year is that the NL East has been there for the taking all along. The Mets have floated to the top of the standings, although a slew of injuries has left them vulnerable all season. The Phillies and Nationals have also struggled to find consistency or take advantage of the NL East being up for grabs. If they had played up to their potential, it’s plausible that the Braves could be sitting atop the division right now.
The silver lining is that Atlanta is only a handful of games behind the Mets, even if four of the five teams in the NL East are clustered together. That should give the Braves hope of being able to make the postseason. However, both Wild Card spots in the National League are likely to come out of the West, meaning the only path to the postseason is to win the NL East.
So, are the Braves an underachieving team or just a bad team? As usual, the answer is somewhere in the middle. On paper, the Braves look better than what their record would suggest. Obviously, several key players have failed to perform up to expectations or their career numbers, including a few high-paid stars. Injuries surely haven’t helped the situation, creating more obstacles for Atlanta to overcome.
But when you consider everything, the Braves are exactly where they should be, which is slightly below average and struggling to keep up in a division that’s largely filled with mediocrity. Without Ozuna and d’Arnaud, the Atlanta lineup isn’t as deep as we thought, forcing the Braves to rely on Freeman and Acuna to do most of the heavy lifting. Meanwhile, they have a poor bullpen and a rotation that isn’t deep enough beyond Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson to string wins together.
Add it all up and the Braves are a bad team that will be lucky to finish the season above .500 regardless of the club’s lofty preseason expectations.
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