ATLANTA -- A little more than six weeks into the season, the Braves still find themselves in a good position as they attempt to defend their National League East crown. They sit three games behind the front-running Phillies, and now seem to have a better feel for how their rotation
ATLANTA -- A little more than six weeks into the season, the Braves still find themselves in a good position as they attempt to defend their National League East crown. They sit three games behind the front-running Phillies, and now seem to have a better feel for how their rotation and bullpen might look over the rest of the season.
Here are some early-season numbers that should provide some indication how some of Atlanta’s top players could fare moving forward:
91.1 -- Freddie Freeman’s average exit velocity
Freeman is hitting the ball harder and more consistently than he has at any point since the 2016 season, or more importantly since his left wrist was fractured six weeks into the '17 season. His 16.9 barrel percentage is also higher than any season percentage he has produced since Statcast began tracking this data in '15.
The best span of Freeman’s career stretched from June 15, 2016 through May 17, 2017 (the day his wrist was fractured). Within this season-equivalent (587 plate appearances) period, he hit .339 with 38 homers, a 1.127 OPS and 189 wRC+. His average exit velocity was 91.6 mph and he barreled 16.6 percent of balls in play.
In other words, Freeman is hitting the ball harder and as effectively as he did during his impressive stretch. While hitting .303 with a .892 OPS and 133 wRC+ from July 4, 2017 through the end of last season, Freeman’s average exit velocity was 89.1 mph and he barreled 9.5 percent of balls in play.
Having homered just once every 22.2 at-bats while producing an .929 OPS through his first 40 games, Freeman isn’t challenging Christian Yelich or Cody Bellinger for early NL MVP Award consideration. But his improved exit velocity combined with his .597 expected slugging percentage provides indication he’s capable of vying for the second 30-homer season of his career. Freeman tallied just eight of his 34 homers through his first 40 games of the 2016 season.
38.5 -- Percentage of in-zone pitches Josh Donaldson has seen against left-handed pitchers
This is MLB’s third-lowest percentage, trailing only White Sox rookie Eloy Jimenez and Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi, who is a left-handed hitter.
As Donaldson has hit .258 with six homers and an .853 OPS thus far, he has slashed .214/.421/.321 against left-handers and .269/.361/.519 against right-handers. The latter resembles his 2014-18 splits (.274/.368/.503 vs. RHP), but the former certainly doesn’t resemble production from the past five seasons (.280/.391/.598 vs. LHP).
Donaldson ranked sixth among all MLB players with the .988 OPS constructed against southpaws from 2014-18. It should be noted he produced just an .809 mark while missing much of last season with a left calf strain. But now that he appears healthy, it’s doubtful the 33-year-old slugger is in the midst of an extended steep decline.
From 2014-18, 44.6 percent of the pitches left-handers threw to Donaldson were in the zone. He hit .323 and slugged .725 against those pitches. Donaldson has gone 3-for-18 (two doubles and a single) against these pitches this year.
To his credit, while seeing a lower percentage (38.5) of in-zone pitches from southpaws, Donaldson has maintained a patient approach. He’s walked once every 3.8 plate appearances and his chase rate (16.7) would easily be the lowest of his career against lefties. But Donaldson's 21.7 percent whiff rate is also higher than any of those produced within the past five seasons against these pitchers.
19.2 -- Dansby Swanson’s swing percentage against first-pitch sliders from right-handed pitchers
Swanson didn’t need to learn how to hit the slider as much as he needed to learn how to handle an opposing pitcher’s desire to get him to chase. He swung at first-pitch sliders 35.5 percent of the time last year and too often found himself immediately behind in the count. Swanson has also shown improved discipline while decreasing his chase rate against right-handed sliders from 29.4 percent (in 2018) to 16.9 percent.
While a healthy wrist has certainly been influential, an improved approach has significantly helped Swanson, who already has as many barrels (15) as he did all of last year. His average exit velocity has jumped from 86.8 mph to 91.1 mph. Swanson's expected batting average (.281) and expected slugging percentage (.523) both trump his season rates (.268) and (.486). So there’s certainly reason to believe the shortstop could build on his early-season success if he continues to be disciplined against the slider.
68.6 -- Luke Jackson’s ground-ball rate -- second best among all relievers
Most of the focus around Jackson has understandably been centered around his willingness to use his best pitch far more frequently. But in the process of using his slider 54.5 percent of the time (MLB’s second-highest rate, minimum 300 pitches), he has also found greater success with his four-seam fastball, which has averaged 95.7 mph, up from 94.2 last year.
As Jackson has provided the Braves indication he could reliable now that he has the closer’s role, his slider has produced a whiff rate similar to the ones he produced last season, when he was designated for assignment three times. But he has used this pitch and his plus fastball to significantly increase his groundball percentage, which was 49.6 percent last year and 42.9 percent in 2017.
Jackson’s slider has led opponents to generate an average launch angle of -6 degrees, as opposed to -2 degrees last year. The more significant difference has been with the fastball, which has an average launch angle of 7 degrees, as opposed to the much more dangerous 16 degrees, which led to a much higher line drive percentage last year.
11 -- Defensive Runs Saved
Given that the defense served as one of the most influential components to last year’s division race, it should be noted the Braves are the only NL East team with a positive team DRS mark. The Phillies (-16), Marlins (-17), Mets (-27) and Nationals (-27) own the NL’s four-worst marks.
It might be easy to lobby for the Braves to trade three-time Gold Glover Ender Inciarte or for the Braves' No. 4 prospect Austin Riley to be promoted, despite just being introduced to the outfield at the homer-happy Triple-A level last week. But just remember, the consequential defensive value will significantly influence any decision Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos makes over the next few weeks and months.
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.