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Who's got the best trio of hitters in the game?

@HarriganMLB
September 9, 2020

The Braves lost their ace, Mike Soroka, to a torn Achilles, they’ve gotten zero starts out of free-agent addition Cole Hamels and their rotation has posted the third-highest ERA (5.62) in the Majors. But somehow, Atlanta is still in first place in the National League East. While Max Fried’s dominance

The Braves lost their ace, Mike Soroka, to a torn Achilles, they’ve gotten zero starts out of free-agent addition Cole Hamels and their rotation has posted the third-highest ERA (5.62) in the Majors. But somehow, Atlanta is still in first place in the National League East.

While Max Fried’s dominance before going on the injured list with back spasms and a solid performance by the bullpen have helped keep the Braves afloat, they also owe a great deal of their success to a lineup that ranks third in the Majors in runs scored (226) -- even after getting blanked by flamethrowing Marlins phenom Sixto Sánchez on Tuesday night.

And at the center of this juggernaut? Ronald Acuña Jr., Marcell Ozuna and Freddie Freeman -- the best offensive trio in baseball.

Sure, we’ve seen teams such as the Padres, Dodgers, Astros and White Sox pummel pitching staffs this season. But no club’s top three bats have been as impressive as Atlanta’s.

Entering play on Wednesday, there are 11 players who have at least 100 plate appearances and a 1.000+ OPS. Only one team has three players on the list.

Players with 1.000+ OPS by team, 2020
Min. 100 plate appearances
Braves: 3 (Acuña, Ozuna, Freeman)
Nationals: 2 (Juan Soto, Trea Turner)
Angels: 1 (Mike Trout)
Cubs: 1 (Ian Happ)
Twins: 1 (Nelson Cruz)
Mets: 1 (Dominic Smith)
Padres: 1 (Fernando Tatis Jr.)
Giants: 1 (Brandon Belt)

Together, Acuña, Ozuna and Freeman have hit .303/.420/.602 with 29 homers and a 166 wRC+ in 481 plate appearances this season. The trio was especially productive during Atlanta’s 13-6 stretch from Aug. 15 through Sept. 6, swatting 18 homers and recording a 1.271 OPS with a 226 wRC+.

Seeing Acuña and Freeman carry the Braves’ offense isn’t a new development, as both players received NL MVP Award votes in each of the past two seasons. But the decision to sign Ozuna to a one-year, $18 million contract last January has proven to be one of the best moves of the offseason.

Ozuna not only has replaced Josh Donaldson, who left Atlanta as a free agent to sign a four-year contract with the Twins, he’s been an even better hitter than the veteran third baseman was for the Braves in 2019. That wasn't a given after Ozuna had a .777 OPS (107 OPS+) over two disappointing seasons with the Cardinals, but it's worked out for Atlanta, giving the club three elite bats.

Here’s why the Braves’ Big 3 has been so tough on opposing hurlers this season. (Stats below are through Monday’s games.)

Patience, patience, patience

It all starts with swinging at the right pitches -- and laying off the wrong ones.

Of the 471 pitches Acuña has seen this season, 54.7% have been out of the strike zone. For Ozuna and Freeman, it’s 55.4% and 58.8%, respectively. All three rank 41st or higher among the 215 hitters who have seen at least 400 total pitches this season.

But pitchers haven’t been able to get any of them to expand the zone often. Acuña’s chase rate is just 21.3%, while Freeman’s is 25.9% and Ozuna’s is 26.4%. Each of these marks is below the MLB average this season (27.0%), and all are career bests.

As a result, the three have drawn 77 walks, giving them a collective walk rate of 16.4%, well above the MLB average of 9.3%. Here’s where each player’s walk rate ranks individually among the 219 players with at least 100 plate appearances in 2020:

Acuña -- 18.6% (5th)
Freeman -- 17.7% (6th)
Ozuna -- 13.6% (T-34th)

Only four teams -- the Braves, Rays, A’s and Yankees -- have at least three players who rank 34th or higher on the walk-rate leaderboard this season, and Atlanta is the only one of these four with two players in the top 10.

They consistently hit the ball hard

Acuña, Ozuna and Freeman aren’t just making pitchers work, they’re crushing the ball when they get something to hit.

All three players rank 27th or higher in hard-hit rate among the 255 qualified big league hitters this season.

Acuña is the best of the bunch, as he ranks eighth overall at 55.6%, followed closely by Ozuna with the 11th-highest mark (54.5%). Freeman, meanwhile, is tied for 27th at 49.1%.

Atlanta is one of two clubs, along with the White Sox, that has at least three qualified hitters with a 49.1% hard-hit rate or better in 2020. The Braves actually have four, as catcher Travis d’Arnaud is 14th overall at 52.8%.

They hit the ball in the air

Acuña, Freeman and Ozuna are also making the most of their hard contact by getting the ball airborne.

Acuña has posted a hard-hit fly ball or line drive on 42.9% of his batted balls this season, tied for the sixth-highest rate in MLB. Freeman ranks 14th at 36.2%, while Ozuna is tied for 21st at 34.5%.

The trio has combined for 41 barrels -- batted balls with the optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, typically resulting in extra-base hits -- out of its 289 batted balls for a barrel rate of 14.2%, almost double the league average in 2020 (7.6%).

Add it all up and you’ve got three of the best hitters in baseball on one team, as indicated by their xwOBA, which takes into account quality of contact as well as real-world strikeout and walk numbers.

Highest xwOBA, 2020
1. Juan Soto (WSH) -- .490
2. Corey Seager (LAD) -- .482
3. Fernando Tatis Jr. (SD) -- .460
4. Jake Cronenworth (SD) -- .449
5. Mike Trout (LAA) -- .446
6. Brandon Belt (SF) -- .444
7-T. Freddie Freeman (ATL) -- .443
7-T. Brad Miller (STL) -- .443
7-T. Teoscar Hernandez (TOR) -- .443
10. Ronald Acuña Jr. (ATL) -- .439
11. Salvador Perez (KC) -- .431
12. Paul Goldschmidt (STL) -- .429
13. Marcell Ozuna (ATL) -- .424

As you can see, the Padres and Cardinals are the only other teams with two players in the top 13. The Braves have three. And as long as Acuña, Ozuna and Freeman remain in the lineup, Atlanta could slug its way to a third straight NL East crown -- and perhaps win a postseason series for the first time since 2001.

Thomas Harrigan is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @HarriganMLB.