You could look at the Atlanta Braves’ 17-20 start a couple different ways: either it’s very disappointing coming from a team that was a game away from the World Series last year and again one of the favorites to go deep into the postseason this year, or it’s a sign of how competitive the NL East is this year.
We’ll get to make that determination ourselves this weekend, as the Brewers hope to break out of the funk they’ve been in against teams from the East to this point this year. The Braves come to Milwaukee having lost three straight games after getting swept by the Blue Jays. They’re still just 4 games out of first place in the tightly-packed NL East, but they’re also only a game ahead of last place, and like the Brewers, they’ve struggled to find some consistency on offense — albeit with pitching that’s been much worse than Milwaukee’s.
Atlanta’s pitching staff may be what the Brewers need to break out of their most recent funk, considering the Braves have the 5th-worst team ERA in baseball at 4.63, 5th-worst WHIP at 1.39 and third-worst batting average against at .254.
It’s probably not exaggerating to say Ronald Acuna Jr. is single-handedly keeping Atlanta afloat this year. He’s a legitimate early-season MVP candidate, coming into the weekend hitting .302/.399/.651 with 12 home runs, 7 doubles, 6 stolen bases and a triple on his resume. He did have a bit of a scare Thursday night when he appeared to jam his ankle, but MRIs were clear and he looks to have avoided serious injury. That’s a good thing for the Braves, as he’s the only Atlanta regular with an OPS over .800 at this point, with last year’s MVP Freddie Freeman the closest, hitting .214/.33/.443 through his first 36 games.
Third baseman Austin Riley has hit well comparatively, coming into the weekend hitting .282 with a .388 OBP, but he hasn’t shown much power — something that’s been common among all Braves hitters not named Acuna. Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson and Marcell Ozuna all have hit 5 home runs this year, but have not hit much of anything outside of that. This is an offense that largely prays that someone gets on ahead of Acuna, but even that doesn’t happen too frequently — despite his 12 home runs, he’s only been able to drive in 24 because the opportunities just haven’t been there.
The Probable Pitchers
Drew Smyly gets the ball for Atlanta in the first game of the series tonight, going on three extra days’ rest as the Braves chose to avoid having the struggling lefty face a stacked Toronto lineup. Atlanta’s probably not wrong in thinking he has a better chance at success against the Brewers. Smyly comes into tonight with an ERA north of 6, having allowed 5 earned runs in 3 straight starts before holding the Nationals to 1 run over 6 innings in his most recent start (although Juan Soto got the day off in that game). That was the first Smyly start the Braves had won in 5 tries this year. The Brewers counter with Adrian Houser, who has been on a bit of a hot streak lately — both on the mound and at the plate.
The Brewers will get a look at phenom Ian Anderson in the second game of the series Saturday night, while they start the less-exciting Brett Anderson against him. Ian is a former #3 overall pick in the 2016 draft that burst into the majors during the pandemic season last year, and he’s off to another solid start this year with a 3.46 ERA in 7 starts with 43 strikeouts in 39 innings. He’s good at generating plenty of swings and misses — he’s just outside the top 25% in the league in whiffs — but he is prone to giving up hard contact. He’s carrying a hard-hit rate of 43.7% so far this year, and his expected ERA is more than a full run higher than his actual ERA because of it at 4.59.
Young righty Huascar Ynoa will start the series finale against Freddy Peralta on Sunday. He’s been a bit of a breakout star for Atlanta early this year, striking out 44 in 40.1 innings with a WHIP of just 0.89 in 8 games (7 starts), leading to a 2.23 ERA. He basically only throws two pitches, but he throws them hard — a fastball that averages 97 mph and a slider that averages 85. Despite not walking anyone, he’s still exceled at getting batters to chase out of the zone, ranking in the 78th percentile in chase rate. A low-scoring game with tons of strikeouts on both sides would be a good bet for Sunday.
Statistics courtesy of Statcast