Starting Nine: Overreactions/reactions from first week of Braves’ season – Talking Chop

There’s no place quite like Twitter when it comes to overreactions and hyperbole, and no portion of an MLB season more misguided for jumping to conclusions than the first week of a season. It’s a match made in emotionally magnified hell.

With the Braves riding the roller coaster of a sweep in Philadelphia to claiming both ends of a doubleheader against the Nationals within the season’s first seven days, this week’s Starting Nine hands the keys to Braves Twitter. The overreactions were aplenty, and we try our best to add some calm, or when warranted stoke the social media fire.

1. The thrill of victory … the agony of defeat

The Twitter Overreaction, Pt. I

The Twitter Overreaction, Pt. II

Reaction: Despair to elation, all in the span of a day. Nothing speaks to baseball in the first week of the season more succinctly. Not that there wasn’t cause for the former before the Braves swept a doubleheader from the Nationals on Wednesday, with the three-time defending National League East champions off to the worst start since 2016, when they dropped their first nine games en route to a 90-loss season. But on the flip side, they lost three of their first five games last year and opened 0-3 in 2019 before winning and three of the opening four games were all one-run games, so it wasn’t as if they were getting pummeled en route to an unsavory start. For a team that entered this season 62-34 in one-run games since the start of 2018, three of those four losses coming in that fashion came with a level of frustration, as did the top four in the order — Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna — hitting a combined 3-for-44 (.068) in Philadelphia. A series in D.C. later, and that same group was 10-for-35 with four extra-base hits. Ozuna is still a mere 2-for-20 and Albies is struggling too (which we’ll get into later) but totaling 14 runs in three games against the Nationals after posting three vs. the Phillies is a reminder how quickly this offense can turn a series, and in a small sample size, the sentiments surrounding a team on their collective head.

2. Ronald Acuña Jr., the stage is yours

The Twitter Overreaction

Reaction: There’s certainly an argument to be made there. Ronald Acuña Jr. hit two home runs against Max Scherzer on Tuesday — including the 20th of his career to start a game — doubled on Wednesday while putting together three hits on the day and stole two bases. That puts the 40/40 count, for those keeping track of such things at 2/2 after six games and has him on pace for 54 home runs and 53 steals, which would, of course, be unprecedented. Since Acuña entered the league in 2018, only new Blue Jays acquisition George Springer has more leadoff home runs (21) and there’s never been a more prolific HR-hitter at first at his age, with Acuña’s six multi-homer games from that spot topping Mookie Betts for the most for anyone before age 24. Acuña’s doing everything we’ve come to expect, with the hard-hit rates and exit velocity in the league’s top nine percent. He may not be the best player in baseball (yet), but the MVP train has officially left the station.

3. The news no one wanted to hear about Mike Soroka

The Twitter Overreaction

Reaction: None of this is good involving Soroka, who will be shut down for two weeks after dealing with right shoulder discomfort while pitching at the team’s alternate site. He was already dealing with coming back from a torn Achilles, and while there is no structural damage, it’s a concern given that the right-hander’s 2018 was cut short with inflammation in the same shoulder and he was shelved in spring training in 2019 as well with discomfort. None of it may be tied to Soroka trying to push his way back into the rotation after lasting just three starts into 2020, but it clearly means that not only will he not be back in the fold by the end of April, as was hoped, but with another ramp-up period needed, this may stretch into late May. A positive is that Huascar Ynoa was exceptionally sharp in Wednesday’s second game, giving up just two hits over five innings with five strikeouts and two walks, and he’s earned another start or two while the Braves try to fill the fifth spot in the staff until Soroka can make it back.

4. Travis d’Arnaud going for back-to-back Silver Sluggers

The Twitter Overreaction

Reaction: D’Arnaud’s .600 OPS is the second highest of any qualified Braves hitter as he went yard Sunday against the Phillies and drove in two with double in Wednesday’s first game. That OPS would be higher if not for being robbed by Juan Soto on a four-star play with a 45 percent catch probability in the first inning of that 7-6 Braves’ win. The hard-hit rate sits at 66.7 percent, which is in the top nine percent of the league, and comes after a career year in which he was at 57.8 percent (top one percent in MLB). Coupled with a 98.4 mph average exit velocity a year after he averaged 93.4 mph, d’Arnaud is off to a start that only backs up a season in which he had the look of an elite offensive catcher. He continues to hammer fastballs, with a mere 20 percent whiff rate (that was at 25 percent in 2020) and while this scribe was among those who doubted the validity of the numbers from his 60-game season, d’Arnaud is showing no signs of slowing down. About the only thing that’s a concern right now is whether the expected workload is going to be what wears him down after having caught no more than 93 games since 2014.

5. Ozzie Albies is in a bad way/peripherals matter

The Twitter Overreaction

Reaction: At 2-for-22 in the first week, the calls to drop Ozzie Albies in the lineup only figure to grow unless he can string some hits together, but this has been a completely out of character start for Albies and undermine the peripherals of what he’s doing at the plate. It’s difficult to take too much from a derailed 2020 — he didn’t play a full month and Albies hit 58 percent below league average in July, then posted a minus-34 wRC+ in 13 August plate appearances before hitting the injured list — but Albies has traditionally been a fast-starter, with 117 wRC+ in the first month in 2019 and 158 the year before. It’s not that Albies isn’t making solid contact, with his average exit velocity (91.3 mph) sitting in the 65th percentile, above where it was during Albies’ 2019 breakout (41st percent) and the expected batting average (.327, 84th percentile) is right there with ‘19 as well (90th percentile). Those numbers make it difficult to buy into any struggles, especially early on.

6. The ace status of Max Fried

The Twitter Overreaction

Reaction: The most consistent member of last year’s rotation, Max Fried Max Fried is sporting a 9.00 ERA in his first two starts and his last five regular season starts going back to last year he has a 6.50 ERA. His Opening Day start against the Phillies included plenty of bad luck, but Wednesday in D.C. was another story as the Nationals chased the left-hander after two innings, eight hits and five earned runs. The only start of his career in which he’d been knocked out earlier was the last outing of 2020’s regular season when he exited after one inning against the Marlins with a tweaked ankle. The highlight against the Nationals on the mound came in unfortunate fashion as Fried took a come backer off his right foot/leg and the ball to third base as Austin Riley turned it into a putout and he did manage to knock in a run and score the tying run, but there was much more concerning from this outing. Last season, Fried never gave up more than five hits in a start and he’s now allowed six (Phillies) and eight (Nationals) hits and fell behind the count against the first four batters he faced Wednesday and eight in all. Last season, Fried was in the top two percent of the league with a paltry 23.8 hard-hit rate and against the Nationals he allowed four hits of 95 mph or higher, led by Trae Turner’s home run at 104.9 mph and is at a nearly 40 percent hard-hit rate in 2021.

7. Who are you, Will Smith?

The Twitter Overreaction

Reaction: The spring dominance is an afterthought after Will Smith was victimized by Juan Soto in a ninth inning Tuesday in which he failed to record an out, then allowed the tying run to reach in the first game Wednesday before nailing down the save with a double play. The Braves do need Smith to rebound after a first season in Atlanta in which he gave up seven home runs in 16 innings and had a minus-0.6 fWAR on the year, and not just because they invested three years and $44 million into him doing exactly that. Watching Mark Melancon move on, with Shane Greene still unsigned, has laid the role of closer onto the lap of the former All-Star, and his Opening Day performance made Smith look more than ready to regain that All-Star form as he went through the teeth of the Phillies’ order, striking out Andrew McCutchen, Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper. Throwing three straight balls to Soto before allowing the game-winner was a step back but look at what happened before that as Victor Robles opened the inning with a single and he hit Trae Turner. The velocity on the four-seamer (94 mph) is ahead of 2020 so far in a very small sample size and Smith has yet to give up an extra-base hits, though he has looked very hittable. There are some positives that could make Tuesday and the cardiac nature of Wednesday’s appearance nothing more than speed bumps, but the way Sean Newcomb came out dealing in his first appearance, and the continued success of Tyler Matzek, competition is building.

8. Pablo Sandoval, bench god

The Twitter Overreaction

Reaction: The Braves’ first home run of the season belonged to Pablo Sandoval, who took Aaron Nola deep on Opening Day, then he came to the rescue with a pinch-hit homer off Tanner Rainey in the seventh inning Wednesday to secure the doubleheader sweep at Nationals Park. “It felt good,” Sandoval said after his late heroics. “I’m not gonna lie, it’s one of those moments where you get goosebumps when you hit the ball.” It wasn’t a given the 34-year-old, who was last a consistently productive hitter in 2014 in his Giants heyday with a bad contract doled out by the Red Sox in between, was even going to make the roster of a team with World Series ambitions. But here we are as he beat out the likes of Jason Kipnis and the Kung Fu Panda is at a ridiculous 477 wRC+ and on pace for 54 home runs and 108 RBI (small sample sizes rock by the way) with those two blasts. Now, the pace isn’t sustainable, but consider that Sandoval is just one pinch-hit homer away from the most by any Brave age 34 or over in franchise history and we’re just a week into the season. That’s $1 million very well spent.

9. Braves have solved Max Scherzer

The Twitter Overreaction

Reaction: OK, maybe one of the best pitchers of his generation isn’t “washed,” but the Braves clearly have Max Scherzer’s number these days. Acuña homered twice off the Cooperstown-bound right-hander, Freeman took him deep, and so did Swanson, marking the first time that Scherzer had ever give up more than two home runs in his previous 23 starts against Atlanta. In his first 16 starts since coming to D.C. (2015-18), Scherzer had limited the Braves to a .276 wOBA, while posting a 2.82 FIP and 0.6 HR/9. Since then, they’ve had a .358 wOBA and 2.8 HR/9, while pushing that FIP to 5.06 in that span. It didn’t’ show up in the win column, but the Braves are tormenting Scherzer unlike anyone in the NL East, with the Marlins next-best with a collective .306 wOBA since the start of 2019.

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