Atlanta Braves Series Preview: 8/11 to 8/12

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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.

Injury report

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.

Projected Lineup

  1. Ronald Acuña Jr., CF (.258/.372/.515, 145 wRC+)
  2. Dansby Swanson, SS (.273/.324/.424, 107 wRC+)
  3. Freddie Freeman, 1B (.267/.371/.533, 147 wRC+)
  4. Marcell Ozuna, DH (.262/.370/.475, 127 wRC+)
  5. Travis d’Arnaud, C (.400/.406/.733, 204 wRC+)
  6. Nick Markakis, RF (.250/.333/.500, 128 wRC+)
  7. Adam Duvall, LF (.281/.333/.531, 132 wRC+)
  8. Austin Riley, 3B (.167/.234/.405, 71 wRC+)
  9. 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.

Probable Pitchers

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. (Statcast)

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.

Bullpen Status

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).


Thoughts As the Yankees Begin a Long Homestand


Game 17: Back in Action

1 Comment

  1. Gerreddardit Cole

    Braves have a good young club, Derek. I think it’ll be tough to sweep them. Too much pop in that lineup and D’Arnaud will mash against us like he did last year when every hit was a home run. I think we’ll lose tonight and win tomorrow. After tonight’s loss you’ll start to see some panic in less stable folks than us but a weekend series against the Sox should right the ship. There’s virtually no reason we’ll miss the postseason given this new format. And if they put everyone in a bubble for the playoffs there’s no reason to win HFA either.

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