with Grant McAuley

  • Grant McAuley

Braves offense rolling at halfway point

The first place Atlanta Braves reached the statistical halfway point of 81 games on Wednesday. That means there are 81 more to go as the club attempts to plot a course back to October baseball.

Atlanta has seen its offense reach new heights while its pitching staff has been attempting to put things together. As good teams do, the two sides have done a fair job of picking each other up this season. Even if the offense has done most of the heavy lifting.

So, where are the 2019 Braves heading in the numbers department? With the All-Star break ahead, there are plenty of encouraging trends up and down the Braves lineup as we advance into the statistical second half. Here are a few of the highlights, paces and numbers to keep track of over the next 81 contests.

The offense has exploded…

Like the rest of baseball, the Braves are hitting home runs at a record pace. The franchise home run record is under assault. That’s a welcome sight after some of the lean years during the recent rebuild. Back in 2015, the Braves hit a total of 100 home runs across 162 games. They’ve already blitzed past that mark and kept right on going this June, a month in which they've slugged a major-league-leading 50 longballs. Atlanta has 126 home runs through 81 games this season, trailing only the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers among National League clubs.

Remember that franchise record I mentioned? It was 235 home runs set by the 2003 club. This year’s squad is on pace for 252 home runs. The Braves already have six different players in double figures, plus Atlanta catchers have combined for another 15 homers. It’s a well-balanced lineup that can hurt opposing pitchers from top to bottom.

All of those home runs have helped the Braves score 438 runs, their most ever through 81 games in a season since moving to Atlanta in 1966. The modern franchise record of 903 runs scored was also set in 2003. The Braves could challenge that total if the offensive explosion in June is any indication. They’ve averaged 6.8 runs per game this month.

Atlanta seemingly flipped the switch back on May 10. That's when Ronald Acuña Jr. and Dansby Swanson were installed at the top of the order while Josh Donaldson was placed in the clean-up spot. The lineup shuffle has resulted in a 30-13 record and 5.9 RPG. That hot streak helped the Braves go from trailing the Phillies by four games in the NL East standings to opening up a 5.5 game lead during that 43 game stretch. The arrival of slugging prospect Austin Riley on May 15 also played a major part in that success.

Those June exploits have shown the Braves possess one of the deepest lineups in all of baseball. Atlanta leads MLB with 164 runs scored this month and trails only the Colorado Rockies (444) for most runs scored among NL teams. Atlanta’s .797 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) is second to the Dodgers’ .813 mark.

Let's take a look at who has done what, and what it's contributed to Atlanta's success.

The MVP candidate…

Freddie Freeman is putting together the best season of his career. He is playing at or above the level he was prior to suffering a broken wrist in 2017. Will he finally get the recognition he deserves and grab an MVP trophy? It won’t be easy with Cody Bellinger, Christian Yelich and even Pittsburgh’s Josh Bell all blazing a statistical trail of terror this year as well. Freeman’s MVP case is a strong one, though. He is on pace for 42 homers, 44 doubles, 198 hits, 122 RBI, 120 RBI and a .994 OPS. Being the featured bat in such an impressive lineup and on a team with October aspirations should strengthen his MVP bid. Freeman's quiet demeanor and consistent production makes him one of the under the radar stars in the game, but he could shed that distinction with a run through October and a personal accolade or three.

The dynamic duo...

It’s hard to look at the Braves lineup without keeping an eye on its two youngest players. Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies are putting up All-Star caliber production. Can you name a better pair of 22-and-under teammates in MLB? That’s a tall order, even if both men may or may not stand 6 feet tall.

Acuña has picked up where he left off in his sizzling Rookie of the Year season. Back atop the order, he’s once again belting lead-off homers and igniting the offense. Acuña is flirting with 40 homers in his first chance to play the full 162 game schedule. If he keeps up his current rates, Acuña could finish with those 40 home runs, 100 RBI, 100 runs scored and 20 stolen bases. The last Braves player to do all of that in a single season? Chipper Jones in his 1999 MVP campaign.

Meanwhile, Albies has benefited from time toward the bottom of the lineup this season. He’s found more consistency from the left side after a second half slump in 2018 and even a slow month of May this season. If Albies can handle right-handed pitchers at a rate anywhere close to what he does against lefties, then the switch-hitting middle infielder may become the biggest bargain in franchise history with the 7-year, $35 million extension he inked two months ago. He’s on pace to match his career-best with 24 homers while eclipsing the 100 run plateau for a second consecutive year.

The shortstop putting it all together…

Dansby Swanson is already setting career-highs before the month of June is in the books. He belted his 15th home run of the season on Monday in Chicago, a new personal best with half a season still to go. His emerging bat and strong glove work have the Braves excited about the former No. 1 overall pick finally realizing his potential. Following offseason wrist surgery and some time spent retooling his stance, Swanson is on pace for a 30-homer campaign and has a chance for 100 RBI if he keeps it up. All of that production would far exceed even the most heightened expectations for Swanson when he came over from Arizona in a winter 2015 trade.

The rookie slugger…

Austin Riley swatted home runs in record numbers over his first few weeks in the big leagues. It seemed each long ball made him the fastest to reach that total. With a dozen homers in 151 at-bats, Riley is averaging a homer every 12.6 AB, tops on the team. Though he may have some growing pains as he attempts to curtail the rising number of strikeouts, Riley’s torrid pace in Triple-A was hard to ignore. Perhaps most impressive, he's doing all of this while playing out of position. Though Riley is a third baseman by trade, an injury to Ender Inciarte opened a spot in the outfield. Riley has taken to left field despite his limited experience. As with any young player, it’ll take some adjustments to stay on track. Riley has shown throughout his minor league career that he is both willing and able to make those changes.

The former MVP…

Josh Donaldson’s June could be the start of a turn-around and a return to prominence for the former American League MVP. Donaldson swatted seven home runs in the 13 games leading into a relatively quiet series in Chicago. Nonetheless, that power surge signalled that Donaldson is capable of doing his part to provide the power. He’s on pace for a 30-homer season with a chance at 40 doubles and 90 runs scored. The only place Donaldson has yet to see customary production is in the RBI column, where he’s accrued just 37 through 77 games. His strikeouts are occuring at notably higher rate (26.2%) than his career number (19.7%) as well, but those started to normalize as Donaldson’s bat began heating up this month. His presence behind Freddie Freeman is just one of the many things to like about the Braves' starting nine.

A pleasant homecoming...

The return to Atlanta has been good to Brian McCann. Following offseason knee surgery, he is swinging the bat like he was in his first go-around with the Braves. Though he is splitting time with Tyler Flowers behind the plate, the Braves aren’t seeing any drop in production from that platoon. McCann wrapped up his first half slashing .279/.348/.486. That's in line with his best numbers in a decade. With eight home runs in just 140 at-bats, it appears he has plenty left in the tank. The Braves pitching staff is also benefiting from his work behind the plate. With McCann and Flowers combining to give the Braves consistent production, Atlanta boasts one of the deepest lineups in the National League.

The steady veteran…

Nick Markakis tends to let his play on the field do most of his talking, but his steady presence in the lineup has helped break up a swath of righty bats in the middle of the order. Markakis racked up some hardware in 2018, earning his first trip to the All-Star Game, his first Silver Slugger and his third Gold Glove. Returning for a discount in 2019, Markakis is on pace for 100 runs scored and a run at 100 RBI as well. Despite not boasting the same kind of power as some of his counterparts in the Atlanta order, Markakis grinds out professional at-bats and has come through with more than a few clutch hits. While he could benefit from the occasional day off, his name will still be justifiably pencilled into the lineup more days than not.

The best bench in recent memory…

While each member of the starting lineup has contributed to the offensive onslaught, there are several men making their own contributions on a seemingly daily basis. Charlie Culberson has a knack for big hits and has picked up where he left off in his breakout season a year ago. He’s batting .328 with a .978 OPS in limited playing time. Matt Joyce was a late addition to the squad in spring training and owns a .310/.410/.493 slash line across 83 plate appearances. Though he started slowly, Johan Camargo has shown signs of life in June and may finally be on track to recreating the success he found in 2018. That trio, along with whoever isn’t catching on a given day, gives the Braves a potent bench. That is something the club simply has not been able to find in recent years and a hallmark of a well-constructed roster. Atlanta will have an interesting conundrum when center fielder Ender Inciarte is ready to return. His slow start opened the door for Riley, but the value of Inciarte’s glove alone is worth a spot on the roster. Playing time will be a precious commodity, but too much talent is a problem every clubs wants to have.