As this offseason progresses, there will be lingering thoughts about how so many things seemed to go wrong for the Braves as they ended a great season by losing three of four to the Phillies in the National League Division Series.
Were they hurt by the layoff?
It seems it would have been mentally challenging for the Braves to just turn it back on after spending five days decompressing. But the offensive struggles might not have been as much of an issue had Atlanta taken advantage of one of two bases-loaded threats created within the first three innings of Game 1. Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola may have hurt the Braves every bit as much as rest did.
What if the rotation was healthy?
Had Max Fried and Spencer Strider been at full strength, there would have at least been a Game 5. Fried developed the flu and an upper respiratory infection leading up to the NLDS. His energy just wasn’t there as he pitched in what would have been a very winnable Game 1. As for Strider, he took the ball in Game 3 with the mindset that he could go deep into the game. That’s what a true competitor does. It was the team’s responsibility to have a better feel for his limits, given he’d been on the mound just twice over the previous 26 days.
As soon as Strider issued Brandon Marsh a four-pitch walk to begin the third, somebody should have been throwing in the bullpen. But another 17 pitches were thrown during what became a six-run inning before somebody began warming up.
Strider was excellent through the first two innings and then just hit a wall once the third inning began. This took me back to a day when Greg Maddux threw 18-20 pitches during his first Spring Training start and then called it a day. When we asked why he didn’t work another inning, he talked about the importance of training your mind and body to go step-by-step from inning to inning. Strider hadn’t simulated getting up and down between innings since Sept. 18.
Here is a look back at the regular season:
When the Braves swept the Mets during a three-game series played Sept. 30-Oct. 2 in Atlanta, they essentially clinched a fifth consecutive NL East title. They officially clinched two days later with a win in Miami. The Braves were 10 1/2 games out at the start of June and seven games back as late as Aug. 10. This might have been the franchise’s most satisfying division title since the worst-to-first 1991 season.
What we learned
The future is very bright. The Braves were the defending World Series champs, but the 2021 season was somewhat of a new beginning. Matt Olson replaced Freddie Freeman, and Michael Harris II and Strider proved to be as impactful as any rookies the Braves have had since Chipper Jones in 1995. Kyle Wright and William Contreras were among the other young players who played key roles. The Braves entered the year knowing they had something special with young stars like Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña Jr. They exited it comforted by the fact they aren’t the only ones who will keep things bright in Atlanta for many years to come.
Harris entered the year with one full season above the high school level, and Strider entered with just one full year above the collegiate level. Both will enter 2023 as potential All-Stars. Harris vaulted from Double-A Mississippi in late May and gave the Braves confidence he’ll be their center fielder for the rest of this decade. Strider joined the rotation near the end of May and spent the next few months looking like a difference-making frontline starter for many years to come. It was no coincidence the Braves took off after Harris arrived and Strider moved to the rotation.
Area for improvement
Outfield defense was a catastrophe before the end of May, which is when Harris arrived and Acuña began playing defense on a regular basis. But while Harris was one of the game’s top center fielders, Acuña’s arm was his only elite weapon as he continued to distance himself from a torn right ACL sustained in 2021. Acuña’s decreased range led to some concerning defensive metrics. He had minus-6 Outs Above Average. That ranked 112th out of 123 qualified outfielders and matched teammate Eddie Rosario's mark.
On the rise
Dylan Lee was somewhat of an unknown before the Braves used him as an opener in Game 4 of the 2021 World Series. But Lee established himself as a legit big league reliever while posting a 2.13 ERA over 46 appearances this year. The southpaw should find himself used in high-leverage spots even more frequently next year.
Riley was the offensive MVP, and Harris made as much of an impact as any player this season. But the team MVP was Dansby Swanson, who was nicknamed The Captain by his teammates. Along with ranking eighth among all NL players with 6.3 WAR per Fangraphs, he set the tone in the clubhouse on a daily basis.