Is panic over Atlanta Braves warranted? Will Cody Bellinger turn it around? An early verdict on MLB’s biggest disappointments

Is panic over Atlanta Braves warranted? Will Cody Bellinger turn it around? An early verdict on MLB’s biggest disappointments post thumbnail image

Seven weeks into a full 162-game MLB season, some teams have gotten off to hot starts while others have struggled out of the gate.

It might be too soon to write off certain teams, considering the small 43-game sample size — but there also might be cause for panic for a few. Which struggling teams and players are showing signs of season-long problems, and which will still be able to turn things around?

What better place to start than with the defending World Series champions.

The Braves haven’t won more than two games in a row all season. Despite breakout performances from starter Kyle Wright and rookie reliever Spencer Strider, they’ve been mediocre across the board — middle of the pack in offense, middle of the pack in pitching, middle of the pack in defense and 0-3 in extra-inning games.

People talk about a World Series hangover. It’s reasonable to suggest the concept exists because there hasn’t been a repeat World Series champion since the New York Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000. On the surface, it seems logical, right? A World Series champion has to grind for over 200 games, then kick back into gear and do it all over again a few months later. It’s a difficult mental and physical assignment.

But is it really a thing? Because it’s also logical to suggest that it’s baseball’s postseason format that makes it hard to repeat, not a hangover from the previous season.

In reviewing the Braves’ start and if the panic over that losing record is real or not, let’s see what happened to the previous World Series winners since 2000. There are two things to consider: how the 21 teams fared the following season and how they fared over their first 43 games compared to the rest of that season.

1. Only four of the 21 teams had a better winning percentage the following season.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Bill James long ago outlined the Plexiglass Principle, a general indicator showing teams that improve in one season tend to decline the following season (and vice versa). Most World Series champions obviously had a lot go right — career years, good health, maybe a key in-season trade and so on. It makes sense that all those positive factors are going to be difficult to repeat the following season.

Except … the Braves didn’t actually improve in 2021. They were 88-73 — a .547 winning percentage that was below what they had in 2020 (.583), 2019 (.599) and 2018 (.556). On the other hand, their Pythagorean winning percentage (a formula that attempts to determine the number of games the team should have won) in 2021 was .584. They’ve been remarkably consistent in that department since 2018, going .566, .564, .586 and .584.

So the Plexiglass Principle might not apply to the Braves since they didn’t really take a big leap forward in 2021.

(For the record, here are the four teams that improved: the 2000-01 Yankees, the 2001-02 Diamondbacks, the 2008-09 Phillies, and the 2017-18 Astros.)

2. OK, what about slow starts?

The 2017 Chicago Cubs are a great example of the World Series hangover theory. They were 22-21 after 43 games, the result of too many toasts on the town, too many visits to talk shows and too much lethargy — or so everyone said. They eventually got it going, winning 92 games and reaching the National League Championship Series, where they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not as good as 2016, but a fine season.

While the World Series teams weren’t as good the following season, they were actually slightly better over their first 43 games than the rest of the season. Twelve of the 21 teams had a better winning percentage over 43 games than the rest of the way. Collectively, they had a .548 winning percentage through 43 games compared to .545 overall. If a World Series hangover was a thing, we would expect more slow starts, but there is no definitive pattern.

All this is to say don’t blame the Braves’ mediocre start on a World Series hangover. Blame it on mediocrity.

They have legit OBP issues with Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall both struggling. Matt Olson, Austin Riley and Ozzie Albies are all below their 2021 levels of performance, even after adjusting for the mushy baseball. On the pitching side, Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson are both off to slow starts, especially in the control department with both pitchers walking more batters than normal. They’ve had trouble filling the fifth spot in the rotation, with rookies Bryce Elder and now Tucker Davidson both scuffling. They did get Collin McHugh and Kenley Jansen to add depth to the bullpen, which has been pretty solid outside of that extra-inning record.

How concerned should Braves fans be? FanGraphs’ playoff odds still put the Braves at 64.7% to reach the postseason (thank you, extra wild card). Their odds of winning the division, however, have fallen from 53.8% at the start of the season to 23% — a reminder that even with the Mets’ big lead, we have a lot of baseball to play.

Personally, I’d put the concern level a little higher. Only three of those 21 World Series champions were under .500 after 43 games, and all three (2007 Cardinals, 2014 Red Sox, 2020 Nationals) would finish with losing records.

So, the final verdict on the Braves: I’m going The Panic Is Not Real, despite some of the evidence above. There is still too much potential on offense, so I’m not writing the Braves off. They’ve also barely played in the division, including just four games so far against the Mets — so there’s plenty of head-to-head action to make up ground.

In fact, now is the time to make a run: Including the rest of this current series against the Phillies, their next 24 games are against teams currently under .500, until they host the Giants and Dodgers in June.

I don’t know if they can win 90 games, but there is still too much in-their-prime talent here. With how tightly bunched the middle of the National League is right now, the third wild card might need only 84 or 85 wins anyway.

A year ago, the Giants were second in ERA behind only the Dodgers, and the entire organization — from president of baseball ops Farhan Zaidi to manager Gabe Kapler to pitching coordinator Brian Bannister and pitching coach Andrew Bailey — was viewed as some kind of collective savant, turning mincemeat into filet mignon. The bullpen ERA has risen from 2.97 last year (best in the majors) to 4.14 this year (23rd in the majors) … because that’s how bullpens roll, unpredictable from year to year.

Carlos Rodon replaced Kevin Gausman in the rotation, but Alex Wood and Anthony DeSclafani (who is on the 60-day IL) were brought back and haven’t been as good. The defense hasn’t helped, as witnessed in Monday’s blowout loss to the Mets, when Darin Ruf turned a two-out fly ball into a two-run double and Pete Alonso followed with a three-run homer to give the Mets five runs off Alex Cobb — when he should have been out of the inning.

Verdict: The Panic Is Real. The Giants are a prime Plexiglass Principle team. Everything went right last year, beyond even unreasonable expectations. They can still make the playoffs, and Rodon and Logan Webb are a solid 1-2 combo, but the offense will have to carry the load. And even then, they’re relying on the same mix-and-match magic formula to work again.

The White Sox were fourth in the American League in OPS in 2021, despite lengthy injuries to the likes of Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert and Yasmani Grandal. Only two players — Jose Abreu and Yoan Moncada — even played 130 games, so you can imagine the enthusiasm heading into 2022 on what a healthier lineup might do. Instead … ouch. It’s been ugly. Injuries to Jimenez and Moncada have played a factor, but mostly they’ve just been bad. They actually have one of the lower strikeouts rates in the majors, but they’re last in walk rate, second in highest swing rate and second from the bottom in chase rate.

Bottom line: They swing too often and at too many pitches out of the strike zone. That means they need to hit home runs — but they’re 26th in isolated power. On top of that, they’re counting on 33-year-old Grandal and 35-year-old Abreu, both off to slow starts, to be keys in the middle of the lineup.

Verdict: The Panic Is Real. Other than last season, when the White Sox finished second in the AL in walks — mostly thanks to Grandal (87 walks in just 93 games) and Moncada (84 walks) — this hack-tastic style has long been a problem for the White Sox. Other than 2021, the last season they finished in the top 10 in walks in the AL was 2011. The age of some of the key hitters is a concern, and the bench guys (Josh Harrison, Reese McGuire) haven’t contributed.

Remember when the Diamondbacks hit .181 in April? Well, the big, bad, powerful Blue Jays have a lower OPS on the season than the Diamondbacks. The Blue Jays are hitting .232/.301/.379, compared to last year’s .266/.330/.466 line. They’ve declined from 5.22 runs per game (third in the AL) in 2021 to a meager 3.67 per game this season — 12th in the AL. The biggest culprits have been Teoscar Hernandez and Raimel Tapia, but they are down across the board (not to mention missing the 2021 version of Marcus Semien).

Here’s how they rank in OPS this season (entering Tuesday’s game), keeping in mind that the overall AL OPS is down 54 points:

Hernandez: Down 401 points

Matt Chapman: Down 243 points from Semien

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.: Down 227 points

Lourdes Gurriel Jr.: Down 186 points

Tapia: Down 171 points from Randal Grichuk

Bo Bichette: Down 170 points

George Springer: Down 66 points

Santiago Espinal: Down 2 points

Catchers: Up 70 points

Last year’s lineup thrived on big blowout games, scoring 10 or more runs 23 times. This year, the Jays have scored 10 runs just once — on Opening Day. In their first 20 games in May, they hit just .209 and scored 61 runs.

Verdict: The Panic Is Not Real. Is this going to be the 2021 lineup the rest of the way? Probably not, as there are still several holes, even aside from sluggers such as Guerrero and Hernandez underperforming so far. But a key reason to expect more runs moving forward is the Jays have the third-highest number of hard-hit balls (hit at 95 mph or higher) in the majors, but they’re just 25th in the majors in OPS on those hard-hit balls. Luckily the pitching has kept the team afloat, although it has gone from preseason division favorite, according to FanGraphs, to having 19% odds of beating out the Yankees.

I’m on a text chain with some Mariners fans, and, boy, is it depressing. After an encouraging 11-6 start, the Mariners have gone 6-20 in their past 26 games to fall well behind the Angels and Astros in the AL West. Last year’s 90-win season sparked hope that THIS WOULD FINALLY BE THE YEAR — you know, ending the majors’ longest playoff drought. Instead, the Mariners have a below-average offense, below-average rotation, below-average bullpen, a lack of depth, are bad on the bases, and Jarred Kelenic was so lost he had to be sent back to the minors (where he has continued to struggle).

For a team that was outscored by 51 runs last season, it simply didn’t add enough — and it needed the bullpen to again produce spectacular late-game results. But that group has been hurt by injuries to Casey Sadler (out for the season) and Ken Giles (hasn’t pitched), plus Diego Castillo and Drew Steckenrider haven’t pitched well, which has left Paul Sewald as the only reliable reliever. As for the rotation, out of 62 qualified starters in MLB, Chris Flexen and Marco Gonzales rank 59th and 61st in slugging percentage allowed, respectively, while Robbie Ray and Flexen rank 56th and 59th in ERA.

Verdict: The Panic Is Real. Sunday’s Tacoma box score summed up the state of the Mariners. Kelenic went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. Evan White was hitless. Kyle Lewis was there on injury rehab. Justus Sheffield started and pitched well, lowering his ERA to 8.36. Matt Brash, who started the season in the big league rotation, allowed five runs in one inning of relief. At one point or another, these guys were all supposed to be key parts of the 2022 Mariners (and beyond). Instead, they are playing for a terrible Tacoma team.

Now, let’s check in on some individuals …

OK, we’re certainly nitpicking a bit here, as Franco’s OPS+ remains above the major league average — although below his rookie numbers, despite a strong start in which he hit .404 in his first 11 games and .313 in April. But he has been in a deep slump the past couple of weeks and hasn’t homered in May, so he’s dropped to a .255 average with a sub-.300 OBP — well below the preseason hype that included some MVP predictions.

Those predictions were probably a little premature, as Franco’s power is still developing, but is it possible that his contact skills are too good? He rarely strikes out, but perhaps it leads to too much weak contact. It’s a complex thing to evaluate. Franco’s swing rate at the start of the week was 19th highest out of 169 qualified hitters — so he does swing often. His chase rate isn’t in Javier Baez territory, but it is worse than average at 31.6% (the MLB average is 28.2%).

Entering Monday, he had put 32 balls in play on pitches out of the strike zone — tied for 15th highest — but there are some good hitters with more, including Pete Alonso (38), Manny Machado (37), Jose Ramirez (37), Xander Bogaerts (36), Rafael Devers (35) and even the ultra-disciplined Juan Soto (35). Franco has hit .250 with a .438 slugging percentage in those 32 at-bats, which is right around the major league average OPS (.283 average with a .391 slugging). On contact in the zone, he’s hitting .305 with a .766 OPS, which is below the major league averages of .324 and .857. So for somebody with an elite hit tool, he’s not doing as much damage on pitches in the zone as he should.

Verdict: The Panic is Not Real. This is where we remind you that Franco is still just 21. He needs obvious work on his swing decisions, and while his contact skill is a great foundation, he’ll need a more mature approach to maximize his ability and start putting more of those hittable pitches in the gaps and over the fence.

In the second half of 2018, Marquez went 6-3 with a 2.61 ERA and 124 strikeouts in 93 innings — remarkable work for a Rockies pitcher. It looked like Marquez was poised to become one of the majors’ top starters, but that hasn’t quite happened — and now he’s off to a miserable start in 2022 at 1-4 with a 6.14 ERA and major league-worst .315 batting average allowed among qualified starters.

It appears the mushy ball didn’t make its way to Denver. Hitters are pounding both his four-seamer and sinker to the tune of a .402/.438/.639 line. Now in his sixth full season with the Rockies, perhaps years of pitching at altitude have taken their toll — although his fastball velocity remains consistent with years past.

Verdict: The Panic Is Not Real. Hey, just listen to Marquez himself: “I still have the stuff to win the Cy Young,” he said after his most recent start.

Indeed, his struggles are mostly tied to fastball command — and perhaps to throwing his sinker more often this year, even though batters have hit .452 against it. Manager Bud Black basically said Marquez needs to throw hard — I would read that as more four-seamers and less tinker on grips, as Black alluded to. Let’s see if Marquez ramps up usage of the four-seamer and gets into more pitcher’s counts to get to his slider and curveball.

He was one of the biggest questions coming into 2022 after hitting .165 last season, but the hope was that with his shoulder healthy again, he could rediscover his MVP form of 2019. He even won National League Player of the Week honors from April 18-24 after hitting .304 with three home runs and six extra-base hits. Through Tuesday, he has just two other home runs and is hitting .216/.288/.412. That’s not as bad as it looks in this season’s offensive environment — an OPS+ of 96 — but it’s not 2019 dominance.

Verdict: The Panic Is Real. The biggest problem here is his strikeout rate, and that’s usually something that stabilizes pretty early in the season. His strikeout rate in 2019 was just 16.3% and now it’s 31.9% — higher than last season. Check out his strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio since ’19: 1.46, 1.50, 3.24, 3.71. That’s also a bad sign.

Too many swing-and-miss issues, struggles against breaking balls, a complicated swing and his best power output came in the juiced ball seasons of 2017 and 2019. He still helps the Dodgers win because of his defense, baserunning and moderate production by 2022 standards. While you want to bet on Bellinger’s physical skills, the hit tool has just evaporated.

And … yes, the Dodgers still lead the majors in runs scored — by more than half a run a game. Imagine if Bellinger and Muncy get going.

This is a weird one as Muncy is hitting just .154 but has drawn so many walks that he at least has a .329 OBP. Remember, Muncy put up this kind of line in 2020, when he hit .192 with a .331 OBP, except he had more power that season. His approach this year is basically “don’t swing.” Of 170 qualified regulars, only Dan Vogelbach has swung less often. At some point, however, you have to do some damage on contact, and Muncy’s .591 OPS on contact was tied with Trent Grisham for 163rd entering Tuesday’s games.

Verdict: The Panic is Not Real. He is hitting more fly balls and it’s the wrong year to do that, but I have to think eventually he’ll get to more power considering his history, including 36 home runs last season. We should also probably mention Muncy’s defense, as his error at second base on Sunday on a routine grounder lost L.A. the game in the 10th inning. Dodgers fans don’t want to hear about his positive defensive runs saved.

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