At last, a different team! After a much needed day off, the Yankees welcome the Atlanta Braves in Yankee Stadium. Exciting stuff!
The Braves have a nice combination of young exciting players, led by absolute beast Ronald Acuña Jr. (more on him later), and some really nice veterans like Freddie Freeman. They are fresh off a really good season where they were one game away from going to the World Series instead of the eventual champions, the Dodgers.
Their story so far
The Braves are off to a disappointing start (yup, the Yankees are not alone there, I assure you that), going 7-9 while losing 5 of their last 8. In their last series they did take 2 out of three from the Chicago Cubs though, absolutely clobbering them to the tune of a 13-4 win in the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game.
Looking at their season team stats so far they are…not good at all. As a team, the Braves are hitting .225/.311/.406 and have a 93 wRC+ (just slightly better than the Yankees 89 value to give you an idea). Their lineup has basically been Acuña Jr. doing Superman stuff, and the rest of the guys barely breaking over the Mendoza line. This will surely change; Freddie Freeman will not keep hitting .232 (and his other stats look good to be fair, he has a really good 146 wRC+ despite that batting average), and Ozzie Albies and Marcell Ozuna are waaaay too good for their 68 and 75 wRC+ values, respectively.
As for the pitching side of things, they haven’t been so hot either combining for a team 5.07 ERA. That’s the third worst value in the majors for the admittedly young season. Their vaunted starting rotation is not off to a good start, with last season standouts Max Fried and Ian Anderson struggling for 46 and 90 ERA+ values, and star addition Charlie Morton struggling as well with a 94 ERA+ (Although his peripherals have been great and seems to be getting BABIP’d). Their bullpen, while not terrible, has been worse than last season after losing key parts Mark Melancon and Shane Greene.
This team is largely unchanged, with the exception of the aforementioned bullpen exits, and it is a pretty talented group of guys that will surely turn it around (huh, that sounds familiar). Let’s just hope that the Bombers remember those old World Series classics against the Braves and turn it around before them.
Tonight marks the Yankees’ return to action for the first time in four days. Feels longer than that though, right? Maybe it’s just me. As you know, the Yanks’ series against the Mets over the weekend was postponed as a result of positive COVID-19 tests for members of the team from Queens. In turn, we’ll see a bunch of the Mets this weekend to make things up. But first, the Yankees have a quick two game trip to Atlanta that begins later today.
Their story so far
Atlanta leads the NL East with a 16-12 record and it sure looks like they’ll pull away from the rest of the divisional competition soon. The Braves are the lone team in the NL East with a positive run differential which paints a pretty clear picture of how the rest of that group has fared. Miami got off to a really nice start, and though they’re still in second place at 12-11, the Marlins likely won’t be able to keep up. The Mets, Nationals, and Phillies need to get their acts together soon, otherwise, this division will be Atlanta’s.
The Yankees and Braves squared off exactly two weeks ago in the Bronx. The Bombers were victorious in both games, though Atlanta was rather shorthanded at the time. Neither Ozzie Albies nor Ronald Acuña Jr. played. Since then, Atlanta’s gone 5-3. They took two of three from both the Marlins and Phillies and split two games with Washington. The Braves nearly swept the Philadelphia, too.
2B Ozzie Albies (wrist contusion)
OF Nick Markakis (COVID-19 protocol)
LHP Cole Hamels (triceps tendinitis)
RHP Mike Soroka (achilles tendon surgery)
LHP Philip Pfeifer (bone contusion)
RHP Jeremy Walker (shoulder impingement)
RHP Jacob Webb (strained shoulder)
Atlanta activated Ronald Acuña Jr. prior to today’s game. He was out with wrist inflammation. Markakis could be back before this brief series ends too.
Spotlight: Christian Pache
Atlanta called up top prospect Christian Pache a week ago and promptly placed him on the bench. Seems like an odd move considering that Ender Inciarte is hitting .200/.287/.229 out in center field and is a free agent after this year. Wasn’t the point of bringing up Pache if not to give him a chance to take over an outfield spot? There doesn’t seem to be much to gain from playing Inciarte at the moment, but that’s not my call of course.
The 21 year-old Pache’s offensive game is still a work in progress, but he’s described as an elite defender out in center field. The consensus is that Pache’s glove and arm are both double-plus (i.e. 70 on the 20-80 scale) alongside plus speed to boot. There’s no doubt he can handle the position at the major league level at this point.
So with defense aside, it’s just a matter of if Pache’s bat is ready. His hitting stats in the minors aren’t overly impressive, though he had a pretty nice year split between Double-A and Triple-A in 2019. Before a promotion to Triple-A last summer, Pache hit .278/.340/.474 (134 wRC+) with 11 homers in 433 plate appearances at Double-A. His walk and strikeout rates were 7.9 and 24 percent, respectively. After the bump up, Pache batted .274/.337/.411 (92 wRC+) with one homer in 105 plate appearances at the minors’ highest level. His walk rate remained pretty steady (8.6 percent), but he did cut down on strikeouts (17.1 percent).
If the numbers didn’t evidence this already, Pache isn’t much of a power hitter at the moment. That said, Baseball Prospectus noted that he’s added some strength, so maybe some game power comes down the road. Perhaps more importantly, Pache has improved his plate discipline over the last year or so. There had been concerns about his low walk and high strikeout totals at lower minor league levels, but he seemingly alleviated that last year. In any event, Pache may not need to hit much to be a significant contributor. As Fangraphs notes: “Even if he’s not posting All-Star offensive statlines, we think he’ll provide All-Star value overall because of the glove.”
There’s a decent chance Pache is sent back to the Alternate Site before this series ends, so we may not get a chance to see him play at all. Not that manager Brian Snitker seems inclined to play him anyway. Once Nick Markakis returns from the COVID-19 protocol after concerns about potential exposure, Pache seems like the odd man out. Markakis was actually expected to be back for today’s game, but no move has been made.
Ronald Acuña Jr., RF (.258/.372/.515, 137 wRC+)
Dansby Swanson, SS (.319/.353/.487, 124 wRC+)
Freddie Freeman, 1B (.302/.427/.542, 157 wRC+)
Marcell Ozuna, LF (.277/.373/.535, 137 wRC+)
Matt Adams, DH (.196/.229/.370, 55 wRC+)
Travis d’Arnaud, C (.333/.357/.591, 148 wRC+)
Austin Riley, 3B (.205/.259/.385, 68 wRC+)
Johan Camargo, 2B (.186/.231/.360, 54 wRC+)
Ender Inciarte, CF (.200/.288/.229, 46 wRC+)
On the bench: C Tyler Flowers, INF Adeiny Hechavarría, UTIL Charlie Culberson, and OF Christian Pache.
Tonight, 7:10 p.m. EDT: Gerrit Cole (vs. Braves) vs. Ian Anderson (ML Debut)
I already covered Atlanta’s top position player prospect, but now it’s time to turn to the team’s top pitching prospect: Ian Anderson. He’s making his big league debut tonight. The 22 year-old righty was the Braves’ first round pick (and third overall draftee) in 2016 out of high school. He’s a New York product, albeit not from the tri-state area. Anderson is from upstate near Albany.
Anderson is a consensus top-50 prospect in all of baseball, so there are high expectations for this kid. Atlanta’s had no shortage of rotation trouble this year, from Mike Foltynewicz ineffectiveness to Cole Hamels’ and Mike Soroka’s injuries. Perhaps he steps in a fills the void. The righty can reach 96 with his fastball, but it’s his secondary offerings that impress. Be on the lookout for a sharp curveball and fading changeup this evening.
For the Yanks, Gerrit Cole (4-0, 2.75 ERA) starts yet again. It’ll be his seventh start in the team’s 26th game. That’s a nice consolation for all of the COVID-19 postponements thus far. One matchup to watch: Travis d’Arnaud is 4-for-4 against Cole with a homer and a walk. Huh.
Tomorrow, 7:10 p.m. EDT: Masahiro Tanaka (vs. Braves) vs. Max Fried
Southpaw Max Fried has been nothing short of terrific this season. In 34 innings, he’s recorded a 1.32 ERA and 2.34 FIP. He’s induced a ton of soft contact and has yet to allow a homer this season.
Fried generates a lot of grounders (55.3 percent of batted balls) and can miss bats too (25.2 percent strikeout rate). That’s a pretty ideal combination. In addition to a fastball that sits between 93 and 94, he offers a pretty nasty curveball and slider.
Tanaka faced the Braves a couple of weeks ago and wasn’t particularly sharp. In four innings, Masa gave up five hits, one homer, two walks, and struck out three. He managed to allow just two runs, though. More recently, Tanaka also had a rough start against Tampa bay (six runs in four innings). The Yanks could really use a rebound start from him.
RHP: Mark Melancon (CL), Shane Greene, Luke Jackson, Chris Martin, Darren O’Day, Huascar Ynoa
LHP: Will Smith, Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter, Grant Dayton
Atlanta’s bullpen has been quite good this season (74 ERA-) and his full of familiar names (and ex-Yankees). They should be pretty fresh too after yesterday’s day off. The pen got a bit of work in the team’s most recent series against Philly, but nobody has been overworked of late.
The Braves have a very good roster and the Yankees are a bit banged up at the moment. I expect at least a split, especially with Cole going tonight. Have to win when he’s on the mound. Tomorrow is a little more iffy.
A day off always helps clear everyone’s minds, right? I can’t remember what happened over the weekend anymore. Not that I’d want to. The Yankees are back home for the team’s first extended homestsand of the season, and it’s about time. It all gets started tonight with a quick two-game series against Atlanta.
Their story so far
Atlanta (11-7) split a four game set in Philadelphia over the weekend and sits in second place behind the Marlins in the NL East. Yes, the Marlins. That said, it’s been a solid start for the Braves, who haven’t lost a series yet and have a +22 run differential. This, in spite of a pretty banged up roster as we’ll get to in the next section.
Offense has been the name of the game for Atlanta this season. The team leads the league in runs scored with 95. The usual players have gotten the job done: Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman, namely. Free agent signee Marcell Ozuna, who effectively replaced Josh Donaldson, has been very good too. However, it’s been surprising contributions from guys like Adam Duvall, Travis d’Arnaud, and Dansby Swanson that have propped things up.
Meanwhile, the Braves’ pitching hasn’t been nearly as good as hoped. Two pitchers who’ve been important pieces on this staff have pitched their way off the big league team. First, Mike Foltynewicz was DFA’d after one horrific start and significantly diminished velocity. More recently, Atlanta optioned Sean Newcomb to Triple-A who’s allowed 17 runs and 4 homers in 13 2/3 innings thus far. This is literally adding insult to injury: Cole Hamels has yet to throw a pitch this year and budding ace Mike Soroka will not pitch again this season (and perhaps all of next).
Fortunately, manager Brian Snitker’s bullpen has made up for the rotation’s losses. As a group, the relievers have the league’s fifth-best ERA (entering Monday) and have just seven meltdowns (tied fifth-fewest). They did this without Will Smith, one of the team’s significant offseason additions, who’s thrown just a third of an inning since his return from the COVID-19 injured list a few days ago.
The Braves have no shortage of injuries:
1B Matt Adams (strained hamstring) and 2B Ozzie Albies (wrist contusion) were both placed on the injured list on the same day last week. They won’t be eligible to return until after this series.
LHP Cole Hamels hasn’t thrown off a mound yet since he was shut down last month due to triceps tendinitis.
RHP Mike Soroka is out with a torn achilles and may not see game action again until late-2021. Huge loss for the Braves as Soroka posted a 2.68 ERA in just under 175 innings as a rookie last season.
RHP Chris Martin was placed on the injured list four days ago with an esophageal constriction.
RHP Jeremy Walker and RHP Jacob Webb are both on the 45-day injured list with shoulder injuries.
Spotlight: Tyler Matzek
We’ve heard a lot about Daniel Bard’s return from the yips with the Rockies in the early stages of this season. Bard isn’t the only guy making an unexpected return from the yips, however. Left-hander Tyler Matzek has made a big impact in Atlanta’s bullpen after not seeing Major League action since 2015.
The now 29 year-old Matzek was once a pretty big prospect. The Rockies drafted him 11th overall back in 2009 and he was an upper-third top 100 right away. Both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked him no lower than 32nd in 2010 and 2011. Unfortunately, 2011 is the year his control woes began in earnest.
Matzek walked 96 batters, plunked 4, and issued 19 wild pitches in 97 innings between A-ball and High-A that summer. Things got a little better in 2012, but his walk totals were still nowhere near acceptable levels (95 in 142 1/3 innings at High-A). Finally, come 2013, the lefty’s control became more manageable. Still not good by any means, but enough to stick in the Double-A rotation all year.
2014 was another step forward. After 12 Triple-A starts with by far his lowest walks-per-nine (4.2), Matzek was summoned to the majors. He did a really nice job: 4.05 ERA and 3.78 FIP in 117 2/3 innings. As a 23 year-old at hitter-friendly Coors Field, no less. He only walked 44 batters (3.4 per nine) too.
Things fell apart the next year, though. He was demoted after just five starts and 19 walks in 22 innings. A move to the bullpen in the minors did him no good and he was ultimately out of the Rockies’ organization after the next season.
Matzek received non-roster camp invites in each of the next two seasons but was released before the end of March. At that point, his time in affiliated baseball seemed over. So, Indy baseball it was. He played for the Texas AirHogs in the American Association in 2018. Strike-throwing remained an issue yet again: he issued 66 free passes in under 90 innings of work.
The lefty would go on to play for the AirHogs again in 2019, but not before one more brief stint within a Major League team’s organization. After a solid showcase at Driveline Baseball, the Diamondbacks brought Matzek in on a minor league deal. It didn’t last long: Arizona released him after just three appearances in relief. Back to Indy ball went Matzek, but this time, he finally started to regain a bit of control. In 30 2/3 innings, Matzek posted a 2.64 ERA. Walks were still high (19), but he also struck out 53 batters.
Atlanta noticed Matzek during that second stint with the AirHogs and brought him aboard mid-2019. He got into six games between Double-A and Triple-A in the Braves’ organization and showed flashes of what he could do out of the bullpen. Even though he gave up 11 runs in 12 1/3 frames, he posted an 18-5 strikeout to walk ratio.
That brings us to 2020. The Braves brought him to camp as a non-roster invitee. Perhaps partially in thanks to expanded rosters this season, the southpaw snuck onto the Major League roster, bringing him back to the sport’s highest level for the first time since 2015. He’s rewarded Atlanta’s faith with excellent pitching in the early going. In six games and 7 2/3 innings, Matzek has yet to allow a run, struck out 10, and walked just two.
Ronald Acuña Jr., CF (.258/.372/.515, 145 wRC+)
Dansby Swanson, SS (.273/.324/.424, 107 wRC+)
Freddie Freeman, 1B (.267/.371/.533, 147 wRC+)
Marcell Ozuna, DH (.262/.370/.475, 127 wRC+)
Travis d’Arnaud, C (.400/.406/.733, 204 wRC+)
Nick Markakis, RF (.250/.333/.500, 128 wRC+)
Adam Duvall, LF (.281/.333/.531, 132 wRC+)
Austin Riley, 3B (.167/.234/.405, 71 wRC+)
Johan Camargo, 2B (.182/.250/.364, 69 wRC+)
On the bench, Atlanta has backup catcher Tyler Flowers, infielder Adeiny Hechavarría, utility man Charlie Culberson, and outfielder Ender Inciarte.
Tonight, 7:05 p.m. EDT: Touki Toussaint (never faced Yankees) vs. Jordan Montgomery (vs. Braves)
This is Toussaint’s first real chance to stick in the Atlanta rotation. With Soroka out, Foltynewicz DFA’d, and Newcomb optioned, multiple starting spots are up for the taking. Since stepping in, Touki has made two starts and recorded a 2.53 ERA and 2.69 FIP in 10 2/3 innings. In his most recent start (video above), the 24 year-old fanned 9 in 6 2/3.
Toussaint has a couple of really nasty put away pitches: a curveball and splitter. Last year, both pitches garnered whiff rates north of 45 percent. However, he has trouble making the most of them because of control issues (47 walks in 70 2/3 innings entering this season). Small sample alert, but he’s been much better in that department in 2020 (4 in 13 1/3).
The Yanks have had one good and one bad start from Montgomery this season. The lefty was the talk of camp thanks to added velocity and strong performances, and the Yankees did get a taste of that in his first regular season outing vs. Boston. Philly knocked Montgomery around last time out, however.
Tomorrow, 7:05 p.m. EDT: TBD vs. Masahiro Tanaka (vs. Braves)
No clue who Atlanta will trot out tomorrow yet. Perhaps a bullpen game is in the works here. For the Yankees, Tanaka has been terrific in two pitch-limited starts thus far (2 runs in 7 2/3 innings). His velocity is up a tick and his slider/splitter combination have been sharp. Like usual, Tanaka is a joy to watch on the mound and I look forward to each and every start.
RHP: Mark Melancon (closer), Shane Greene, Luke Jackson, Josh Tomlin, Darren O’Day, Huascar Ynoa
LHP: Will Smith, Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter, Grant Dayton, Robbie Erlin
With 11 relievers in tow, Atlanta’s bullpen is pretty fresh. Dayton and Erlin are the only relievers we probably won’t see this series as they threw 51 and 43 pitches yesterday, respectively. Old friend Greene also pitched last night, but threw only 6 pitches. Minter threw 11 as well. Everyone else has had at least one day off.
Like Greene, Melancon’s another ex-Yankee in Atlanta’s bullpen. He’s bounced around a number of teams in his career, but has settled in as Atlanta’s closer since mid-2019. He was at his best as the Pirates’ closer from 2013 through 2016. The Yankees used Melancon as part of a trade to acquire Lance Berkman back in 2010.
The Braves are a good team, but I really expect the Yankees to bounce back in the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium. A day off after a busy stretch last week hopefully did the Bombers a world of good. Winning these two games would get things back on track (obviously).