Early struggles at the top of the Atlanta Braves lineup leads to concern

The Atlanta Braves' 19-9 record is the best in baseball thanks to strong outings from the rotation and bullpen, a scorching start by Marcell Ozuna, and the production from the bottom of the lineup. But that can’t last forever.
Atlanta Braves leadoff man Ronald Acuna Jr. scored the winning run Sunday,
Atlanta Braves leadoff man Ronald Acuna Jr. scored the winning run Sunday, / Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

History tells us that teams produce a record-setting season because multiple players have a career year, and that’s exactly what happened for the Atlanta Braves in 2023. 

Ronald Acuña Jr. was on base 41.6% of the time, drove in 106 runs, and, for the first time in his career, finished the season with a .337 average, leading to 170 wRC+ and a 9.0 fWAR season.  

Austin Riley virtually duplicated his 2022 season, batting .281/.345/.516/.861 with 127 wRC+, launching 37 homers, and 5.0 fWAR.

Matt Olson led the league with 54 homers and pushed his average over .267 for the first time to end the year with a .283/.389/.604/.963 line, 160 wRC+ and 5.5 fWAR.  

After beginning the season batting a paltry line of .073/.190/.200 and .390 OPS with an 8 wRC+ in April, Marcell Ozuna bounced back to crush 40 homers and bat .297/.366/.603 with a .969 OPS and 156 wRC+ from May through the end of the year good for 3.1 fWAR from the DH slot.

What goes up must come down; even superstars regress to a degree while continuing to play a notch higher than everyone else.  I expect everyone to end the season with numbers close to the back of their baseball card.  However, the Braves must get more from the top of the lineup soon, or the season could slip away from them rapidly.

"What goes up must come down
Spinnin' wheel got to go 'round
Talkin' 'bout your troubles it's a cryin' sin
Ride a painted pony let the spinnin' wheel spin"

David Clayton

Early struggles at the top of the Atlanta Braves lineup leads to concern

It feels like the top of the Atlanta Braves lineup is experiencing a crash instead of regression. No one is more important to the lineup right now than the igniter known as Ronald Acuña Jr.

Last season, Acuña swung at pitches at virtually the same rate while he dropped his K-rate from an average of 25.3% to 11.4%, cut popups from 8.2% to 4.7%, saw his hard-hit rate jump from 42% to 46%, and his HR/FB rate jump from 21.9% to 24%. 

Today, Acuña has the highest GB rate (54.2%) and popup rate (18.8%) of his career. Simply put, his timing’s off; he’s either ahead or behind the pitch which means he isn’t barreling the ball as often, something confirmed by a 45% drop in barrel rate. He’s striking out at almost his career average and walking slightly more, perhaps because he’s trying to be more selective.

I’ve seen suggestions that he’s tired because he played winter ball. I doubt he’s tired this early in the season, but it’s possible playing against AA-AAA pitching caused an unconscious change in his approach.

Matt and his bat

Matt Olson’s peripherals aren’t that different from last year. He’s seeing slightly more fastballs and cutters and a few more off-speed pitches, but not enough to call a trend yet. He’s swinging at a touch more pitches out of the zone, but not as many (- 4%) in the zone; combined, they add up to the same swing rate as last year.

At first glance, his BABIP looks low, and it is, but it’s also the same as his career average. His K-rate is up a bit but matches his .267/.351/.545.896 line of 2019. Mat’s walking more than his career average but not as much as last year, which, I suspect, is because pitchers wanted nothing to do with him last year.

If you look only at the bars on Statcast, you wouldn’t think Matt was slumping.

Olson’s a couple of line drives away from being his old self; I hope those come soon.

Austin Riley is slumping?

Yes, he is, but once again, Statcast gives good reason to think that could end at any time.

He’s not connecting with fastballs, but it’s the same rate as last year; it’s off-speed pitches including changeups, curveballs, and sliders that are giving him fits so pitchers are using them more often.

When he first came up, his swings at sliders reminded me of Jeff Francoeur. Kevin Seitzer helped him work through that, so I suspect they’re looking at the video to see what’s changed. His late-inning line drive and opposite-field hitting looked like a sign he was – is - close to being back.

If that sounded like I’m more concerned about Acuña than Olson and Riley, you read it correctly. Timing is hard to fix. If your internal clock is a couple of ticks behind, there’s no way to easily sync it up. Mark DeRosa is huge on using the curveball machine to fix it, while others work on their timing mechanisms. 

The Atlanta Braves lineup is almost unstoppable when Ronnie is hot and if he gets on base, he either steals a base or scores a run. Others step in and bridge the gap the best they can when he isn't hitting but the 2021 miracle aside, the World Series is only really likely with Acuña being Acuña.

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