What happened to the Atlanta Braves' defense?
By Chase Owens
Matt Olson has always graded out as an above average defensive first baseman in his MLB career. So the poor first two months in the field in 2023 is a bit puzzling to say the least. Since entering the big leagues in 2016 Olson’s OAA at 1B via baseball savant is as followed: 2016 (1), 2017 (3), 2018 (4), 2019 (9), 2020 (0), 2021 (0), 2022 (3). So to post a -4 OAA through the first couple months is certainly not in line with what we are accustomed to with Olson. As a reminder though, Olson started 2022 pretty roughly in the field as well so I wouldn’t be quick to bet on him finishing with a negative OAA by seasons end.
One of the more surprising entrants on this list is that of Ozzie Albies. Braves fans know Ozzie for being as sure-handed as they come at second base since his major league debut in 2017. Since entering the bigs, Ozzie has posted a positive OAA in every season except 2019. This season the majority of Ozzie’s poor grade has come from ground balls up the middle. Albies has a -4 OAA when moving laterally toward 3B. We know Ozzie has one of the weaker arms in baseball, but it seems this year he is really getting hurt on those long throws from up the middle of the diamond. A few weeks ago our friend Mitchell went through each defensive opportunity Ozzie has had thus far. As he explained Ozzie hasn’t been as bad as the numbers may suggest. I would think as the season progresses that OAA number will creep more towards the positive side.
This is where things get really dicey. If you look at the raw defensive numbers for the Braves at shortstop you would think things have no hope of turning things around. Some fans would be quick to shout the Braves should have retained Dansby Swanson, who ranked second in all of baseball in OAA last season. But this isn’t a missing Dansby thing, this is where Atlanta’s early season battle to stay healthy has hurt them the most. As things stand today Orlando Arcia has given every indication that he can be a trusted everyday shortstop. In fact he currently sports a positive OAA (1) and UZR (1.3). It was the defense the Braves got during Arcia’s wrist injury that has resulted in their poor ranking.
This isn’t a section to pile on Vaughn Grissom at all. The kid is still just 22 years old and has a bright future ahead of him. But from we saw in his call to action in 2023 it’s quite clear the Braves prospect simply isn’t ready yet. We needed no further proof than Grissom’s defense. In just 158 innings in the field, Grissom had a -5 OAA. That is an absurdly high pace and the leading contribution to the Braves current ranking. So with a presumably healthy Orlando Arcia playing everyday going forward Braves fans should see that ranking go up rather quickly.
At this point of his career, Braves fans have to know who Austin Riley is as a baseball player. And that is a guy who is going to hit a lot of mammoth home runs and compete for silver sluggers on a yearly basis. What that isn’t is a guy who’s going to rack up a ton of gold glove awards anytime soon. And I promise Braves fans, that is more than ok. Austin Riley wasn’t given the contract he was given to win gold gloves. The Braves know he is as a player and simply want him to continue to hit the baseball hard.
This year has been more of the same defensively for Riley. Last season had some of the worst marks in baseball in OAA and UZR. Unfortunately, 2023 has been more of the same. Once again his OAA (-3) and UZR (-3.6) is among the worst in baseball. But as I said that is ok. This is what we expected, and as long as Riley doesn’t pile up the errors the Braves will be perfectly fine.
This position has to be among the most interesting observations for the Braves. Ronald Acuña Jr. is having an MVP season. He has been the best player in baseball and looks back to form in 2023. However, Ronald actually ranks as one of the worst defenders in baseball so far this year. In fact his -6 OAA is the worst among right fielders. This comes after a 2022 season with a -7 OAA as well. Before the ACL injury Ronald had always graded as a league average/slightly above average outfielder. So it’s clear this is the last part of his game to work its way back after the injury.
However, I’m sure Braves fans everywhere would sacrifice a little production in the outfield to ensure Acuña Jr. remains healthy. What’s hurting him most now is the jumps he’s getting in the outfield. He already leads all of MLB in fWAR (2.7), so if Acuña Jr. starts making more of those highlight plays with the glove, that we know he can, he might just run away with the MVP award. Mike Petriello puts together some great stuff on Ronald’s defense here below.
After looking at the Braves defense altogether we can come to a few opinions. The first and most obvious is that the health of this team is important. We spoke about it with Arcia, but even having guys like Michael Harris II, who currently ranks in the 88th percentile in OAA, playing everyday will go a long way to shooting the Braves up in the defensive rankings. Secondly, it is important to remember that we are not even 1/3rd of the way through the season. One bad week for a player can really influence these defensive numbers so we shouldn’t jump to any conclusions quite yet.
Even one bad week as a team can do damage. I’m sure we remember the roadtrip to Toronto when every Braves player seemingly forgot how to catch a pop-fly. These things can happen during a long baseball season so don’t freak out just yet. The Braves have taken a step back as a team this season, even after acquiring the league leader in defensive fWAR so far (Murphy). When we look back at seasons end I really expect that the Braves will be much more in the middle of the pack defensively. Our beloved Ron Washington is going to have every player working hard, and so far that has been a formula for a much higher defensive ranking Braves squad.