Michael Cunningham: Braves can make postseason run without Ronald Acuna
Maybe two big leaguers were playing better than Ronald Acuna when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in July. The Braves went on to win their fourth consecutive National League East title, anyway. That’s a great accomplishment, but the residual effects of Acuna’s injury will be felt in the postseason.
The Braves would be true World Series contenders with him in the lineup. Now they are only slight favorites to beat the Brewers in a NL Division Series that opens Friday in Milwaukee. Here’s the thing, though: Acuna played well below his standards during the 2020 postseason, and the Braves still made a deep run.
Acuna’s on-base plus slugging was lower than every regular except Nick Markakis and Austin Riley. Acuna got only four hits (no homers) over seven games against the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. The Braves still nearly won the pennant.
A similar dynamic played out with Braves pitching last October. Their No. 1 starter, lefty Max Fried, had lasted more than five innings only once in the month before the playoffs. Right-hander Ian Anderson had just graduated from the minor leagues. It wasn’t clear the Braves had a third effective starter. They still swept the Reds and Marlins while allowing one run per game.
This is all a way of saying that the Braves still can win in October without their best player. Baseball is a weird game. It gets weirder with the small sample size in the postseason. Players get only so many chances to perform. Sometimes great ones like Acuna don’t come through while marginal players like right-hander Bryse Wilson deliver.
Braves manager Brian Snitker started Wilson in a big spot last October because he really didn’t have any other good choices. Wilson held the mighty Dodgers to one run over six innings in Game 4. The Braves traded him to the Pirates in July because they needed a reliever. Wilson had the game of his life at the best time.
Snitker won’t be so desperate for pitchers this time around. The Braves are deeper with good arms. Acuna left a huge hole in the lineup, yet the Braves scored the third-most runs in the NL from July 11 through the end of the season. The outfielders acquired by the Braves filled in nicely, and they have power hitters all around the infield.
Those are among the reasons why I don’t dismiss the division title as a matter of the Braves beating up on weaker foes. Their plus-134 run differential is another. No doubt it helped that no team in the East could take control before the trade deadline. That gave Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos incentive to deals.
But the Braves went out and earned the East title. The season wasn’t lost when Acuna went down. Austin Riley’s emergence means the Braves still have a Big Three in their lineup with him, Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies. The Braves have quality arms. They shouldn’t be underestimated.
It’s a shame the Braves won’t be able to give their best shot because Acuna is out. Marcell Ozuna is another big Braves bat that’s missing. He led the Braves with 11 RBIs during the 2020 postseason and his 13 hits and three homers tied for most on the team. MLB extended Ozuna’s administrative leave through the postseason after he entered a plea agreement related to domestic violence charges.
With Acuna and Ozuna unavailable, Jorge Soler and Adam Duvall are the top hitters among Braves outfielders. Both produced significantly better once they joined the Braves. Soler’s .358 on-base percentage over 55 games with the Braves was best on the team during that time. His 14 homers are second to Duvall’s 16, which were more than all but 11 MLB players in that period.
Milwaukee counters the Braves’ bats with two starters ranked among MLB’s top 10 in Fangraphs Wins Over Replacement. Right-handers Corbin Burnes (7.5 WAR) and Brandon Woodruff (4.7 WAR) strike out a lot of batters, don’t walk many and keep the ball in the park. Freddy Peralta has a below-average walk rate but had 195 strikeouts in 144 1/3 innings.
But the Brewers haven’t come close to matching Braves’ hitting even with Acuna and Ozuna out. Milwaukee scored 4.56 runs per game this season compared with 5.19 for the post-trade deadline Braves. That doesn’t mean it will go that way in a best-of-five series. It does mean the Braves are more capable at the plate than the Brewers.
The Braves can’t match Milwaukee’s pitching trio of Burnes, Woodruff and Peralta. But the gap between those three and Braves starters Charlie Morton, Fried and Anderson is smaller than the distance between Milwaukee’s hitters and their Braves counterparts. Brewers closer Josh Hader is great. The Braves have a deeper bullpen.
The betting markets have the Braves as 5-1 to win the pennant behind the Dodgers (2-1), Giants (2½-1) and Brewers (3¼-1). I see the Braves as undervalued. They were about 5½-1 to win the pennant at the start of the 2020 postseason, when they had to win a wild-card series, while the Dodgers were about even odds. The Braves were 12 outs away from a big upset.
The Braves are underdogs to win the pennant again. But they have better pitching than last October. They avoided the wild-card game, and either the Dodgers or Giants will be eliminated before the NLCS. The Braves won’t have Acuna. They still have a shot to make a deep run in the playoffs, where weirder things have happened.