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Ronald Acuña Jr. Has Gotten Even Better. So Why Are The Braves Worse?

Though they squandered a 3-1 lead in last year’s National League Championship Series against the eventual champion Los Angeles Dodgers, the Atlanta Braves had reasons to feel good about their chances going forward. They had the reigning NL MVP, first baseman Freddie Freeman, still under contract for 2021, plus lefty ace Max Fried, up-and-coming pitcher Ian Anderson and a host of talented young position players — headlined by electric outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. Coming off three consecutive NL East titles (and having finally won a postseason series for the first time since 2001), the Braves seemed like a good bet to keep building on their recent success.

But things haven’t quite worked out that way for Atlanta so far in 2021. At 31-35, the Braves sit third in the NL East, 6½ games behind the division-leading New York Mets. According to our forecast model, they’re tracking for an 81-81 record — which would be the team’s worst since 2017 — with just a 17 percent chance of returning to the playoffs. While MLB teams have a lot more time to recover from early season stumbles in 2021 than they did during the shortened 2020 schedule, Atlanta needs to start stacking up some wins soon or risk seeing its postseason streak come to an untimely end.

How did such a talented group find itself here? That’s an especially head-scratching question when we consider that Acuña, the Braves’ best player over the past four seasons, is enjoying his best major league season yet. At age 23, Acuña currently has a career-best 163 OPS+, meaning his OPS has been 63 percent better than that of an average hitter. And in fact, Acuña has improved on his previous career marks in practically every offensive rate category, including batting average, isolated power and walk rate:

Acuña Jr. keeps getting better and better

Major offensive rate statistics for Ronald Acuña Jr. over his first three MLB seasons and in 2021

Year(s) AVG OBP SLG Iso. Power HR% SO% BB% Line Drive% OPS+
2018-20 .281 .371 .538 .258 5.8% 26.4% 11.3% 26% 132
2021 .294 .398 .605 .311 6.6 22.3 13.5 27 163

For strikeout rate (SO%), a lower number — meaning fewer strikeouts — is better.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the brightest young talents of his generation would keep improving as he enters his prime. But by the same token, when we dig into underperforming teams, it can often be because their young stars have failed to meet expectations. In Acuña’s case, that’s not true at all: According to Baseball-Reference.com’s wins above replacement, Acuña is on pace for 6.5 WAR per 162 team games, which would also be a new career high — and 1.5 wins better than his number in MLB’s last full season (2019), when Atlanta won 97 games.

So if Acuña is only getting better, why are the Braves not winning more? The trouble is that the rest of his teammates have collectively taken a step backward — for a wide variety of reasons.

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Freeman, for instance, has dipped from that MVP-winning 8.7-WAR pace in 2020 to a 2.0-WAR pace (essentially that of an average starter) in 2021. Fried has battled injuries while seeing his ERA+ fall from a dominant 216 to a below-average 94. Shortstop Dansby Swanson, an underappreciated component of the Braves’ success who ranked third at his position in WAR last year, has slipped defensively and reverted to being a subpar hitter. And a bullpen that was absolutely lights out in 2020 — leading MLB in relief WAR by a comfortable margin — now ranks 19th.

Most of the returning Braves are playing worse in ’21

Change in WAR per 162 team games in 2021 for returning members of the Atlanta Braves who had at least 1.0 WAR/162 in 2020

WAR per 162 team games
Player Pos 2020 season 2021 season Diff.
Freddie Freeman 1B 8.67 2.04 -6.63
Max Fried P 8.24 2.41 -5.83
Dansby Swanson SS 7.40 0.93 -6.47
Marcell Ozuna LF 6.89 -0.22 -7.11
Ronald Acuna Jr. RF 5.99 6.46 +0.46
Ian Anderson P 3.48 5.15 +1.67
Chris Martin P 3.40 0.27 -3.13
A.J. Minter P 3.29 -1.01 -4.30
Shane Greene P 2.89 -0.86 -3.75
Tyler Matzek P 2.43 1.40 -1.03
Travis d’Arnaud C 2.11 -0.29 -2.40
Grant Dayton P 2.08 -0.59 -2.67
Ozzie Albies 2B 1.84 3.58 +1.75
Josh Tomlin P 1.51 0.42 -1.09

Through games of July 17, 2021.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

In a disgraceful story that is bigger than any of Atlanta’s on-field problems, left fielder Marcell Ozuna was accused of assaulting his wife and arrested in late May. Ozuna had been one of the Braves’ best players in 2020, but he may never play for them again after the legal consequences — and what’s likely to be a long suspension from MLB — are sorted out, even if Atlanta probably can’t void his contract.

Not all of the Braves’ holdovers have been letdowns. Third baseman Austin Riley and reliever Luke Jackson are both on pace for more than 3.5 WAR per 162 games this year, for example. But that hasn’t been enough to offset the loss of production by most of Atlanta’s best players from 2020.

With so many key returning contributors performing worse, Atlanta could have used help from newcomers. But few of the Braves’ offseason acquisitions have been rousing success stories, either. While starter Charlie Morton has been solid (108 ERA+), rotation-mate Drew Smyly is having an awful season — he’s on pace for -1.7 WAR per 162 — and Ehire Adrianza has not impressed in an all-purpose role.

With once-promising starter Mike Soroka still shelved with the torn achilles he suffered last August, opening-day starting catcher Travis d’Arnaud out since May with a torn thumb ligament and Huascar Ynoa — who was impressing as both a pitcher and a hitter early this year — sidelined after punching a dugout bench last month, Atlanta’s injuries have piled up as well. Although all three could return in August, the Braves still have to stay within striking distance in the standings until those reinforcements arrive. 

If you’d known before the season that Acuña would continue to blossom into one of the game’s premier players, it wouldn’t have been wrong to expect Atlanta to be leading the NL East as we approach midseason. But in baseball of all sports, one superstar does not a successful team make. Perhaps the season’s second half will bring the Braves better health, better luck and better performances from their other stars. (And maybe even a trade to address some of their weaknesses.) But for now, the 2021 Braves are a case study in what happens when just about everything that can go wrong does, even when your best player holds up his end of the bargain.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

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