Check out Devon Stein’s 2022 Season Preview Article for the Braves here.
Image: Kyle Ross / Icon Sportswire
2022 Record: 101-61 (.623 win%, 1st in Division)
2022 Payroll: $199,013,037 (8th)
1. C Travis d’Arnaud, .268 AVG/.319 OBP/.472 SLG, 3.9 fWAR
2. 1B Matt Olson, .240 AVG/.325 OBP/.477 SLG, 3.2 fWAR
3. 2B Ozzie Albies, .247 AVG/.294 OBP/.409 SLG, 1.2 fWAR
4. 3B Austin Riley, .273 AVG/.349 OBP/.528 SLG, 5.5 fWAR
5. SS Dansby Swanson, .277 AVG/.329 OBP/.447 SLG, 6.4 fWAR
6. LF Eddie Rosario, .212 AVG/.259 OBP/.328 SLG, -1.1 fWAR
7. CF Michael Harris II, .297 AVG/.339 OBP/.514 SLG, 4.8 fWAR
8. RF Ronald Acuña Jr., .266 AVG/.351 OBP/.413 SLG, 2.2 fWAR
9. DH Marcell Ozuna, .226 AVG/.274 OBP/.413 SLG, -0.6 fWAR
10. UTL William Contreras, .278 AVG/.354 OBP/.506 SLG, 2.4 fWAR
1. Charlie Morton, 172.0 IP/4.34 ERA/1.23 WHIP, 1.5 fWAR
2. Max Fried, 185.1 IP/2.48 ERA/1.01 WHIP, 5.0 fWAR
3. Kyle Wright, 180.1 IP/3.19 ERA/1.15 WHIP, 2.9 fWAR
4. Ian Anderson, 111.2 IP/5.00 ERA/1.51 WHIP, 0.9 fWAR
5. Spencer Strider, 131.2 IP/2.67 ERA/0.99 WHIP, 4.9 fWAR
2022 Top 4 Relievers:
1. CL Kenley Jansen, 64.0 IP/3.38 ERA/1.04 WHIP, 1.1 fWAR
2. A.J Minter, 70.0 IP/2.06 ERA/0.91 WHIP, 2.1 fWAR
3. Jackson Stephens, 53.2 IP/3.69 ERA/1.34 WHIP, 0.4 fWAR
4. Colin McHugh, 69.1 IP/2.60 ERA/0.93 WHIP, 1.4 fWAR
Regular Season Recap:
On May 31st, the Braves lost an extra innings slugfest to the Diamondbacks 8-7, mired by mistakes and a blown save by offseason acquisition Kenley Jansen. This loss set the Braves 4 games under .500 and 10.5 games back from the Mets in the NL East division race, seeming to be a guarantee that the Braves would fail in their hopes to be the first repeat World Series champions in over 20 years.
The Braves had entered the season with high expectations after making moves in an effort to stay competitive over the offseason, but stumbled to a 25-26 record through the end of May. Acuña didn’t return from a midseason 2021 ACL tear until the end of April, they dealt with injuries to Eddie Rosario, Mike Soroka (who hasn’t pitched since 2020) and underperformances by many players.
Manager Brian Snitker gathered the team for a meeting the next day, setting off a 14 game winning streak that would spark one of the most dramatic division comebacks in the history of baseball, with the Braves playing at a 77-33 pace in their last 110 games, a pace only matched by the Dodgers.
This comeback would culminate in a series against the Mets late in the year, in which the Braves swept their division rivals and clinched their fifth straight NL East title, along with a first round bye in the new playoff format.
The Braves had lost franchise cornerstone Freddie Freeman the offseason prior, and had to deal with a myriad of injury problems and underperformances in the early months of the season, but as I’ll discuss below, production arose from unexpected sources as the Braves surged in June and onwards.
Easily the most notable acquisition of the Braves offseason was their trade for A’s all-star first baseman Matt Olson, in an effort to recoup the loss of Freddie Freeman over the offseason. Olson was intended to bring a major power threat to the Braves home run oriented offense, and although he didn’t have quite as good of a season as he did in 2021, Olson hit 34 home runs and proved to be a productive middle of the lineup bat for the Braves.
At catcher, a platoon of Travis D’arnaud and William Contreras proved to be one of the most effective catching rooms in baseball. D’Arnaud had the best offensive season of his career, with a 120 wRC+ and ranking in the 76th percentile for framing. The younger Contreras brother got 57 starts at catcher, spending the rest of his time as the DH, and was consistently one of the best bats in the Braves lineup.
Second baseman Ozzie Albies was one of the cornerstones of recent Braves success, being a reliable bat and a constant positive on defense. However, Albies fractured his foot in June, keeping him out until September, at which point he fractured his finger while sliding in his first game back and was once again kept out for a sizable period of time.
The Braves filled this hole with veteran Orlando Arcia, primarily, until he too got hurt in August, prompting the promotion of highly rated prospect Vaughn Grissom, who became a spark plug for the club the instant he got called up, until a slump in September caused Arcia to once again assume large amounts of the role.
Austin Riley followed up his breakout 2021 with a similarly stellar season in 2022, powered by a torrent July in which he hit 11 home runs and had an astounding 269 wRC+, earning him player of the month honors for the National League. Riley was the best hitter in this Braves lineup over the entire season, and could perhaps find himself earning MVP votes once again.
Contract Year Dansby Swanson arrived with a fury. The Braves starting shortstop and former top prospect had always been a solid, albeit middling starting quality player, but Swanson decided to turn all of that on its head by putting up perhaps his best offensive and defensive season of his career, leading all Braves position players with 6.3 fWAR.
He went from an average defensive shortstop who had never recorded more than 7 OAA in a season, to recording 20, ranking 2nd in all of MLB. This elite defense and quality bat made Swanson an indispensable part of the Braves lineup, and they will surely face big questions this offseason as he reaches free agency for the first time in his career.
Left field was perhaps the biggest question mark in the Braves offense, Adam Duvall got the bulk of the starts in the early part of the season, but struggled to perform and sustained a season ending injury in late June.
For the rest of the season, most of the time in left was split between 2021 NLCS hero Eddie Rosario, who struggled, and Marcell Ozuna, whose struggles I will discuss more in a moment. The Braves searched for some sort of stability in left by acquiring underperforming Tiger Robbie Grossman.
In center field, rookie Michael Harris II was a revelation. It is no coincidence that his promotion to the bigs on May 28th correlated closely with the Braves 14 game winning streak. He provided the team with an elite bat and glove in one of the most critical positions in baseball, ending with him not only being one of the best rookies this year, but one of the best center fielders in the entire league, finishing with 4.8 fWAR. While he does strike out at a clip well above average, and walk at a rate even lower than average, his physical tools more than accommodate for this.
Superstar right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr. was back. His injury in 2021 prompted the Braves to make a multitude of moves to acquire outfielders, perhaps leading to their World Series victory. He instantly provided production for the Braves when coming back, having the best month of his season.
However, throughout the season he would struggle to replicate the same production he had prior. The main cause for his slump was a drastic decrease in his slugging percentage, a career low .413 compared to a .596 in 82 games the year before. It is a testament to Acuña’s talent that his 114 wRC+, 2.2 fWAR season is seen as an underperformance, and he is sure to bounce back next year.
The majority of reps at Designated Hitter were taken by Marcell Ozuna, who was, to put things simply, pretty bad. So bad he was perhaps the Braves worst player. He put up a paltry .274 OBP, ending up with -0.6 fWAR. Added on top of this was his second run-in with the law in as many years, not boding well for his future in MLB. The other primary DH was William Contreras, who I spoke on earlier briefly, but proved to be a much more effective option at DH.
Overall, this star-laden Braves lineup proved to be an incredibly formidable unit, ranking 2nd in MLB with 243 home runs and scoring the 3rd most runs. This production came from a mix of expected sources like Riley and Olson to more surprising, emerging players like Harris and Grissom.
Veteran Charlie Morton entered 2022 with high expectations following his career best season in 2021. However, primarily fueled by a huge increase in hard hit rate against him, Morton regressed and failed to meet those expectations. However, Morton kept his whiff rate and K% high in 2022, fueling the Braves hope that he would rebound in 2023 and signing him to a 1 year deal for the season.
Max Fried took his place as the ace of the Braves pitching staff in 2022. He did this by continuing and enhancing a similar approach he always had, limiting solid contact and completely eradicating home runs, posting a 0.58 HR/9, good for 5th best in MLB. Fried had always been a talented pitcher, but this season was a culmination of everything he had accomplished up to this point, becoming one of the best left handed pitchers in baseball.
Former 5th overall pick Kyle Wright had struggled to establish himself in an MLB role up until this season, but finally found some form of stability by being a consistently solid option for the Braves pitching staff. Wright recorded an ERA+ of 123 in 180.1 IP, however, batted ball data showing a hard hit rate in the 23rd percentile could be perhaps a reason to find some regression in the future. In this season alone however, Wright was a stable source of starts for the Braves.
Ian Anderson was excellent in the two rookie campaigns he had due to COVID, posting an astonishing 242 ERA+ in extremely small sample size in 2020 and a 121 ERA+ in a full length 2021 season. However, underlying peripherals indicated a regression that was seen in full effect in the 2022 season, with Anderson repping one of the worst walk rates in the league, and getting demoted to AAA in August.
Spencer Strider had a season for the record books in 2022. The rookie started the season in the bullpen, before being moved to the rotation at the end of May, another move correlating with the Braves hot streak, and would go on to dominate hitters. Strider became the fastest pitcher in MLB history to reach 200 strikeouts, along with posting the highest ever K/9 with a minimum of 100 IP, on top of all of this, he has the best mustache in baseball. With a mainly two pitch arsenal of a fastball and a slider, Strider got whiff after whiff from hitters. Looking ahead, it’s reasonable to expect Strider to not only be the ace of the Braves staff, but to also be amongst the best pitchers in baseball.
The bullpen was led by offseason acquisition Kenley Jansen, who didn’t dominate hitters as he had in some seasons while rocking Dodger blue, but was still a reliable pen arm. A.J Minter became one of the better left handed relievers in baseball this year, with a 2.06 ERA and bullpen-best 2.1 fWAR. Collin McHugh proved to be an excellent free agent signing, having a reliable season. Similarly, Jackson Stephens, Jesse Chavez, and Bryce Elder all rounded out a pretty excellent Braves pen.
They slightly retooled the bullpen at the deadline by acquiring Angels’ Raisel Iglesias, who was excellent in the 2nd half for the Braves, and by swapping struggling closer Will Smith for struggling Astros pitcher Jake Odorizzi, who was not quite as excellent.
As is to be expected from a 101 win team, the Braves pitching staff was excellent as a whole in 2022, with their 3.46 ERA being good for the 5th best mark in baseball. On top of that, their bullpen, which many saw as a big question mark heading into the season, proved to be excellent.
This top tier staff was driven by fantastic performances from the double headed monster of Strider and Fried, and the overall excellent pitching depth of the Braves organization.
M-SABR Predicted Record (80-82) vs. Actual (101-61):
It’s natural to see why someone would have thought the the Braves would be unable to replicate their 2021 postseason success in the 2022 season, as many saw the Braves win in the first place as the result of a chaotic baseball postseason, and in fact, for the first 2 months of the season Devon’s prediction seemed to be spot on, but the Braves surge over the bulk of the season caused the prediction to not reflect the results of the season.
Despite not getting the record 100% correct, the primary reasoning behind Devon’s argument was correct, he argued that the Braves bullpen would be their downfall, leading to a mediocre season. He was also right in being pessimistic about Will Smith, who would underperform during the first half and then get shipped off to Houston.
However, in reality the Braves bullpen ended up being one of the best in baseball this year, with their 3.03 ERA being the 4th best in baseball, and a 3.27 FIP being 3rd best. This incredibly strong bullpen performance was primarily driven by A.J. Minter, who had a career season, veteran offseason acquisition Collin McHugh, and rookie Dylan Lee, who they signed to a minor league contract over the offseason.
So while the bullpen was in fact a vital factor to the success of the Braves this season, it was because it worked to their benefit rather than against them. I think that going forward most will have higher expectations for the Braves, with their young core being locked up for the foreseeable future.
Under a new playoff format, the Braves were the 2 seed in the National League, and were set to face their division rival Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS. The Phillies were the lowest ranked seed, but upset the NL Central champion Cardinals in the Wild Card round through the strength of their pair of aces Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, along with a strong lineup stacked with star talent such as Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto, these factors would prove to be the Braves shocking downfall as well.
Game One was set for Braves ace Max Fried against Phillies lefty Ranger Suarez. The Phillies got to Fried early through uncharacteristic small ball, Nick Castellanos drove in 3 runs, and Bohm drove in, none of which came from home runs. The Phillies surged to a 7-1 lead, which looked as it might be in danger to a late rally and a Matt Olson 3 run home run, but Castellanos, one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball, made a sliding clatch to help stop the Braves comeback and secure a Phillies 7-6 win.
In Game Two, the Braves gave the ball to Kyle Wright, who shut down the Phillies offense in this must win game, allowing no runs and striking out 6 through the same amount of innings. The Braves only needed three runs in the sixth off of Zack Wheeler to even the series at 1-1 before heading to Philadelphia.
In Games Three and Four, the Braves would find a hostile and energetic road crowd awaiting them, and they would meet an unceremonious end to their season. Strider got the ball in Game Three and looked fine in the first two innings before getting absolutely shelled in the third, perhaps a product of his injury or not having pitched in weeks. A pair of Hoskins and Harper home runs put the Braves down by six. This lead would prove too difficult for the Braves to overcome, especially when paired with facing Aaron Nola, and the Braves lost 9-1.
With their backs against the wall in Game Four, Atlanta sent out Charlie Morton to face Noah Syndergaard. Morton gave up a 3 run home run to Brandon Marsh early, and it all seemed to go down from there. Arcia and Olson homered, but the Braves bullpen couldn’t stop the Phillies offense, and the Phillies would take the game 8-3, eliminating the Braves.
After such an incredible run for the entire second half of the season, it’s difficult to not see this end to the Braves season as a blatant disappointment. Blame the pitching or the playoff format for ruining the Braves momentum, either way it’s a shame to see a team with this much talent fall without even more of a fight.
Surprise of the Season: The Rookies
I spoke a lot on Spencer Strider earlier, but it is hard to understate how incredible his rookie season was. With Soroka being injured, and Anderson underperforming, Strider’s emergence as a dominant pitcher ensured that the Braves starting pitching would be one of the better staffs in baseball.
Strider led all starters in baseball with a shockingly dominant 1.92 FIP following his move to the starting rotation on May 30th. An injury at the end of the season and a poor performance in game 3 of the NLDS may somber some people’s expectations, but Strider remains a huge surprise for the Braves and looks to be a key piece going forward, especially with the 6 year, $75 million contract he signed towards the end of the year.
For position players, Michael Harris II also emerged as a rookie superstar. From his call up on May 28th until the end of the season, he had the 9th highest fWAR of ALL position players in baseball and his 136 wRC+ was tied for the 3rd highest amongst all center fielders. His unique combination of pure hitting ability and athleticism prompted the Braves to sign him to a 8 year, $72 million contract, following the Braves trend of locking up their young stars.
Both Strider and Harris were not only individually dominant, but it was also their movement into major roles in late May that strongly correlated with the Braves 14 game winning streak and movement in competition for the division.
Players We Watched:
#1 OF/DH Marcell Ozuna
I spoke on Ozuna briefly, by every standard of both personal and baseball judgment, Ozuna was a failure this season. He already missed the Braves World Series run last year due to a domestic abuse suspension, and got arrested for a DUI in August of this year.
From a baseball perspective, Ozuna was largely a designated hitter for the Braves this year, as he had proven to be a defensive liability in the outfield. He still had a 72nd percentile HardHit% and xWOBA, causing some reason to think he may have been a productive hitter, but with extremely high strikeout rates and extremely low walk rates, he wasn’t able to get on base consistently and was an ineffective hitter.
The Braves are still stuck paying him $32 million over the next two seasons, but I expect his usage to continue to decrease every year from now on.
#2 OF Ronald Acuña Jr.
Acuña Jr returned from injury in late April, and in one of his first games back hit his first home run while swinging so hard he literally fell over, indicative of the energy that Acuña brings to the Braves. While he may not have had quite a season up to the MVP level standards he had played at in the years prior, Acuña was still a valuable player for the Braves lineup.
One cause for concern could be Acuña’s worsened defensive performance this year, but with Harris in center for the foreseeable future, Acuña is able to shift to right, which should ease his defensive burden.
In spite of the slight slump Acuña played through this year, there are few players more talented in baseball than he is, and I expect him to have a bounce back year in 2023.
#3 RP Kenley Jansen
Jansen was the big trial deal of the Braves offseason, getting a 1 year deal to prove if he was still That Guy like he was in LA, and his year gave us a responding, “yeah, kinda” answer. He was definitely a solid option, with a fantastic highpoint being his 3 saves in all 3 games against the Mets during the late year season sweep to win the division. He still struggled with control, and the Braves can easily replace his closer role with Raisel Iglesias.
I wouldn’t be shocked if the Braves bring Jansen back, but would expect them not to, I could see him instead going back to the Dodgers or a different contending team in search of bullpen depth.
It’s hard to find major improvements that the Braves can make in the near future. Acuña, Riley, Olson, Strider, Albies, and Harris are locked up on long term deals, setting the Braves in a key position to compete for the near future.
The most major free agent they will have this season is Dansby Swanson, coming off a career year. The Braves have the financial capacity to re-sign Swanson, but it’s no guarantee he stays. If he doesn’t Grissom played large amounts of short in the minors, and Arcia could also provide serviceable production at the position. Either way, Swanson provides the most intrigue for the Braves offseason.
For the search for potential upgrades, left field is the only position that serves as a major weakness for the Braves, but with Marcell Ozuna being signed through 2024, it could be difficult.
The other main free agents are Kenley Jansen and Jesse Chavez. It’s probably unlikely that the Braves re-sign Jansen following the success of deadline acquisition Raisel Iglesias, and they probably instead focus on shoring up the bullpen with serviceable arms.
All around I see the Braves offseason priorities as re-signing Dansby Swanson and shoring up their depth with solid veteran players. I don’t expect the Braves FO to do something crazy, unless those DeGrom to Atlanta rumors come true in the universe’s quest to maximize Mets’ fans misery.
Something to Watch:
Winning in baseball is hard. The combination of a grueling 162 game season and the most unpredictable playoffs in professional sports means we haven’t seen back to back championships in over 20 years. The Braves saw firsthand what made repeating so difficult this year, but with a World Series win and a 100-win season in the rear window, they should be seeking continued success in the future. Perhaps no team other than the Dodgers has the talent and financial resources to build a dynasty.
The Braves will be interesting to watch as they complement their young core and continue to sign these players to team friendly deals, as Alex Anthopolous hopes to bring about the first true baseball dynasty in decades.