The defending World Series champions are one of the hottest teams in baseball as the 2022 regular season comes to a close. Coming off a recent 23-5 stretch before dropping four of their last five this week, the Atlanta Braves have been on a tear. They sit just a game behind the New York Mets for first place in the NL East with a record of 88-55. The race for the first wild card in the National League is wrapped up for whichever team finds themselves in second place in the NL East. With a whopping 10.5 game lead for the top wild card spot over the rival Philadelphia Phillies, the Braves can set their attention to catching New York in the division.
Last year it was a few late-season additions that helped jolt Atlanta into the World Series where they wound up trouncing the Houston Astros in a 4-2 series. Similar to 2022, some new faces have helped lead the way for the Braves this year.
Major Strides in the Rotation
Among the breakout years for several young Atlanta stars this season, no one has shown out on the mound quite like Spencer Strider. He has been in the conversation as one of the more dominant arms in the league as the year has progressed while vaulting himself into the National League Rookie of the Year talks as well. With a 2.72 ERA and an even more impressive 1.75 FIP, Strider has been incredibly difficult for opposing hitters to hit. In 125 innings of work he has struck out 192 while only allowing six home runs. According to Baseball Savant, Strider has a whiff percentage, average fastball velocity, strikeout percentage, expected batting average and expected slugging percentage all in the 95th percentile or better among qualified pitchers this season.
The rest of the rotation has been solid for the most part as well. In 27 starts, Max Fried has been fantastic with a 2.50 ERA and a WHIP of 1.010, each the best mark of any Atlanta starting pitcher. His ERA+ of 166 is also tops in the rotation. Finally breaking out in his fifth season, Kyle Wright has had a career year in the rotation in 2022. The 26-year-old has an ERA of 3.18 and has improved just about every facet of his game. The improvements can most likely be attributed to a consistent work flow, as this is his first full season in the big leagues. He made a combined 14 starts in 21 games from 2018 to 2021.
Veteran right-hander Charlie Morton has had a decent season, though he has taken a step back from last year. His 4.17 ERA and 4.11 FIP are each higher than his 2021 marks. Morton’s FIP this season is actually his highest since 2015, in large part because of his failure to limit the home run in 2022. With 24 long balls surrendered so far, he has blown past his previous career high of 18 set back in 2018 with Houston. His consistent ability to strike hitters out has stabilized his numbers and he remains a reliable middle-of-the-rotation pitcher for Atlanta.
One starter who has struggled considerably is Ian Anderson. The 24-year-old is only in his second full season but has shown a decline in strikeouts per nine innings while walking batters at a rate that is unsustainable for success. His ERA has ballooned to five and his WHIP sits above 1.5 on the season.
New Faces in the Bullpen
Some offseason signings and trade deadline additions have led the way for the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen in 2022. A free agent signing this past offseason, long-time Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen has been decent in the same role this season, but has actually had the worst year of his career from an ERA standpoint. His 3.83 ERA and 109 ERA+ are both career worsts. The fact that in his worst season he has been nine percent better than the league average pitcher attests to his dominance since entering the league in 2010. He leads the National League with 33 saves in 40 opportunities.
Also signing in the offseason, Colin McHugh has been terrific for Atlanta this season with a 2.79 ERA in 50 games out of the bullpen with nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings. Jesse Chavez has been dominant with Atlanta this year. He is actually in his fourth stint with the Braves for his career and has been in Atlanta two separate times this season alone. Chavez has a 2.05 ERA and 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings in 36 total games with the club.
Another new addition to the bullpen acquired before the trade deadline this season is Raisel Iglesias. With an ERA that stands at 2.92 on the season and a superb 0.54 with the Braves, he has looked elite on the mound. In just 16 2/3 innings in Atlanta, he has only given up one earned run with 20 strikeouts and four walks.
A dominant left-hander, A.J. Minter has had a phenomenal season. With a 2.10 ERA and an even better sub-two FIP, Minter has pitched lights out for the bullpen in 2022. He has posted career bests in strikeout and walk rates excluding his first season when he only made 16 appearances. He has also limited opposing hitters to just four home runs in 60 innings thus far.
Fellow left-handers Will Smith and Tyler Matzek have also pitched well, to the tune of a 3.82 ERA between the two in 73 innings of work.
In his first full season as a big leaguer, Dylan Lee, also a southpaw, has been very impressive. The 28-year-old has a 2.59 ERA and 2.82 FIP in about 42 innings. He has held opposing hitters in check with a meager .635 OPS against him on the year.
More Budding Stars in Atlanta
Some offseason departures and in-season injuries to the starting lineup have forced the Atlanta Braves’ hand, and they have had the answers to help keep the offense among the best in baseball. Atlanta ranks second among National League teams in runs, slugging percentage and OPS. They also lead the NL in home runs and trail just the Yankees for the most in all of MLB.
One of the NL Rookie of the Year frontrunners along with Strider is 21-year-old Michael Harris. In his first season he has been everything and then some for Atlanta. He has shown out with a .310/.350/.551 slash line and is flirting with a 20/20 season (home runs/stolen bases.) His emergence as a star in the lineup is even more important considering the season Ronald Acuna Jr. has had in 2022. Still just 24 years old, Acuna Jr. has had an uncharacteristic down year offensively, hitting .268/.355/.400 on the year with just 11 home runs.
2020 free agent signing Marcell Ozuna has also had a difficult couple of years both on and off the field. He has battled legal issues that prevented him from staying on the field last year and have been a major distraction to the team for a while now. Ozuna has only mustered OPSs of .645 and .664 in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
Matt Olson, the replacement at first base for perennial all-star Freddie Freeman, has done okay in his first season as a Brave. The Atlanta native signed a massive eight-year, $168 million deal that could keep him in his hometown for the rest of his career. He has a .239/.325./.466 slash line with 69 extra-base hits on the season.
The normal middle-infield tandem of Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies has changed a bit recently. Swanson remains at shortstop and has performed nicely, posting a .282/.336/.445 slash line with 20 homers and 30 doubles on the year. Albies, however, has been sidelined with a foot fracture that has kept him off the field for most of the season.
Rookie infielder Vaughn Grissom has filled the void at second base quite well. The 21-year-old has a .304/.355./.482 slash line with five home runs and 5 stolen bases in his 112 at-bats. His OPS+ of 130 is rather impressive for a player who was thrown into his role unexpectedly and was called on to replace the production of Albies.
The catching duo of William Contreras and Travis d’Arnaud have elicited more production from the catching position than most other teams. They each have an OPS+ above 120 and each has hit 17 home runs. The veteran d’Arnaud has edged 24-year-old Contreras in playing time, but both have hit at a very high level in 2022.
The biggest standout in the Atlanta Braves’ lineup has been none other than third baseman Austin Riley. The 2022 all-star is in the midst of his second consecutive season in which he has put up elite numbers. He has slashed .278/.349/.547 with 36 home runs, 36 doubles and could reach 100 RBI with a strong finish. His hard hit rate is a career-best 52 percent and he leads the club in total bases as well.
Back to Back?
The last time a National League team won back-to-back World Series was in 1975 and 1976 when “The Big Red Machine” accomplished the feat. There have been much stronger rosters than this one that have failed to even win one championship since then, so for the Atlanta Braves to repeat as champions, they may need some more of the magic they pulled from their hat last year.
Outfielders Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall were the heroes in the playoffs last year, but they have both regressed significantly this year. It may take another unexpected hero this postseason for Atlanta to make a second straight trip to the Fall Classic, as plenty of strong competition around the league lurks. Atlanta has passed the regular season test. Now the pressure that comes with entering the postseason as the defending champion looms in the not too far out distance.