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Atlanta looks to beat projections once again

Is a fourth place finish really in the cards?

Boston Red Sox v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Like the White Sox, the Atlanta Braves are another team that projections systems disagree on. FanGraphs favors the three-time reigning NL East champs to finish with 89 wins, short of the revamped Mets, but still within easy striking distance. PECOTA, on the other hand, pegs the Braves to barely hover above .500 as they finish fourth in the division.

Both FanGraphs and PECOTA agree that the Braves are going to hit. It’s easy to come to that conclusion with a roster that features Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr., Marcell Ozuna, and Ozzie Albies. Of those four, Albies has the lowest projected DRC+ at 108 and he’s lagging way behind the third-lowest, Ozuna, at 136.

The rest of the lineup isn’t without promise either. Over the last two seasons, Travis d’Arnaud is tied for seventh among catchers (min. 300 PA) with a 113 wRC+. The player that he’s tied with is divisional rival J.T. Realmuto. Austin Riley’s major league career has gotten off to a slow start, but he’s only entering his age-24 season. There’s a chance his power materializes though the deadened ball won’t be doing him any favors.

Cristian Pache could also claim the starting center field job. Atlanta’s best prospect, and one of the top-20 prospects in all of baseball, may not hit for much in 2021, but his glove is so good that it almost doesn’t matter. Considered an 80-grade fielder by FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen, Pache is the sort of defender that can be a three-win player with a .300 wOBA. It’s no guarantee that his bat will even be that good, but there’s still a good chance Pache is more impactful than what his projections say.

On the other side of the ball is where projections are a little less confident in the Braves’ ability to repeat as division champs. Even with Mike Soroka’s availability in jeopardy for Opening Day, the Braves’ rotation should be decent. PECOTA is lower on Braves ace Max Fried than the general public, and with justifiable reason, but it still projects him to be better than league average. Rookie Ian Anderson projects to be as good or even better than Fried. Charlie Morton might be 37, but in 2019, he was worth 6.1 fWAR and threw nearly 200 innings. Even if he’s half as valuable, as ZiPS and Steamer think he will be, that’s still great production from someone who figures to be the number three starter.

Projections generally agree that Soroka, Fried, Anderson, and Morton will be good; the disagreement just comes down to how good. None are especially bullish on Drew Smyly, however.

A common criticism levied at Smyly is that he’s hardly ever good, and when he is good, he’s never healthy. That’s, uh, not baseless. Since making his debut in 2012, Smyly has thrown over 100 innings just three times and once since 2016. He missed all of 2017 and 2018 due to injuries, and when he returned in 2019, he was mostly disastrous with the Texas Rangers.

In 51 13 innings, Smyly posted a 8.42 ERA (but his xFIP was only 6.37 so he was getting unlucky). The Phillies picked him up after Texas released him, and thanks to better command of the cutter, Smyly vastly improved. In 61 23 innings with Philadelphia, Smyly pitched to a respectable 4.45 ERA.

His time in Philly was good enough to get him a one-year deal with the Giants where Smyly was fantastic. Smyly struck out 37.8 percent of the batters he faced while only walking 8.1 percent. His fastball velocity was the highest it had ever been at 93.9 mph. But he also got hurt. In the 60-game season, a left finger strain put him on the shelf for a month which happened to be about half the season.

The question with Smyly is do you believe in his newfound form as a strikeout maven and think that in a normal year, a finger strain wouldn’t have prevented him from pitching 150 innings? Or, do you think that his performance was fluky and he’ll be average or get hurt again? Obviously, the former would make this the steal of the offseason, but the latter is closer to par for the course.

Okay, I didn’t mean to devote 25 percent of this preview to Drew Smyly, but in many ways, he’s the pitching staff’s x-factor.

With Shane Greene and Mark Melancon departing in free agency, the bullpen appears to be in a little worse shape than it was a year ago, but the core remains solid. Will Smith won’t have the disadvantage of missing Spring Training II with COVID nor will 63.4 percent of his allowed hits leave the yard. Smith’s first year in Atlanta was more fluky than grim even if it ultimately ended in him losing the Battle of the Will Smiths.

Luke Jackson similarly had a rough go of things in the shortened season. From 2019 to 2020, his strikeout rate fell from 33.7 to 15.1 percent. This was the largest drop in strikeout rate of any pitcher with at least 70 innings in 2019 and 20 innings in 2020 by 7.4 percentage points. A large portion of that is just small sample noise, but Jackson’s fastball was also 1.6 mph slower on average.

Of all the teams PECOTA projects to finish fourth in their division, Atlanta has the clearest shot to a division title. It’s completely defensible to pick them to win it. After all, Atlanta, like Oakland, has consistently outperformed their projections the past few seasons. Either they’re doing something that simulations don’t account for or their luck is about to run out. Personally, my money’s on the former.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.