Braves need more production from leadoff spot

Grant McAuley
June 11, 2018 - 12:32 pm
Ender Inciarte

© Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

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The Atlanta Braves have surprisingly been one of baseball’s best offenses this season. However, their hot start has shown signs of slowing down. Outside of the occasional outburst, the Braves have found runs a bit harder to come by over the past six weeks.

Struggles at the top of the order are a big reason why.

Atlanta’s leadoff men have been among the least productive in baseball over the first two and a half months. Despite that, the Braves remain the National League’s most potent offense.

Braves leadoff hitters MLB ranks:

  • 19th –  40 runs
  • 19th – .245 AVG
  • 29th – .292 OBP
  • 24th – .673 OPS

Despite less than ideal production at the top of the order, Atlanta leads the National League with 322 runs scored through 65 games. There are only three clubs with a .500 or better record that have gotten fewer runs scored from the leadoff spot, Milwaukee (38 runs), San Francisco (35 runs) and Arizona (34 runs). All three of those clubs are in the middle to bottom half of MLB in runs scored this season. That trend is not surprising, and it's what makes Atlanta's ability to pile up runs all the more surprising.

The Braves' issues began when All-Star center fielder Ender Inciarte got off to a slow start. That’s been the case in each of the prior two seasons, but he always seemed to find his way out of that early slump in relatively short order.

That has not been the case this season.

Inciarte is batting .240 with a .556 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) and has scored just 16 runs in his 33 games in the leadoff spot. That is a far cry from the player who hit .305 and posted a .351 on-base percentage during a 200-hit season in 2017.

Brian Snitker’s early solution was to move the hot-hitting Ozzie Albies from second in the order to the lead-off spot. While Albies brought some power, it did not solve the problem of finding someone to get on base regularly in front of Freddie Freeman and the heart of the order.

Albies has batted .250 with a .795 OPS and 24 runs scored in 32 games at the top, but has posted just a .303 on-base percentage. Though the home runs and extra-base hits are always welcome, Atlanta’s top of the order hitters simply haven’t been setting the table consistently.

Those lead-off woes are compounded by the current lack of a regular second place hitter.

Four men have batted second for Atlanta this season and they’ve combined for a .299 OBP. That paltry number ranks 28th in the majors. With Ronald Acuña Jr. injured and Albies bumped up a spot, the Braves are searching for a more permanent answer there as well.

Braves offense by month:

  • March/April (27 games): 5.6 runs per game – .268 AVG
  • May (29 games): 4.5 runs per game – .259 AVG
  • June (9 games): 4.4 runs per game – .242 AVG

It’s been a tough season for the men at the top of the order. Inciarte faltered, and the move up hasn’t really benefited Albies all that much either. It’s not an indictment of either man, because one of the two most likely remains the best option going forward.

Though Atlanta is likely ride out the storm with Albies, who is mired in a 5-for-40 slump this month, there are some short-term fixes available should Snitker feel like tinkering with the order.

Dansby Swanson might just be the name to pencil in at the top for a while.

Though he was fighting through his own slump of sorts after coming off the disabled list last month, Swanson has swung the bat better of late. He is batting .286 with a .970 OPS over his last 12 games. He’s already bumped up to the two-hole and will be looked upon to help out regardless. Swanson certainly has some of the other tangible skills that a leadoff man typically possesses. He runs the bases well and handles the bat capably. The only knock would be his strikeout rate, which is sitting at career-worst 28.8%. In today’s more strikeout-friendly game, most teams are willing to sacrifice the punch-outs for any and all added punch that a hitter can bring to the lineup. So, Swanson could be worth a look.

Johan Camargo might be a guy to consider as well.

His case is a little more nuanced than Swanson’s, but the fact is Camargo is a different hitter than he was year ago. Camargo elevated his walk rate from a pitiful 4.7% in 2017 to a respectable 15.5% this year. Despite a 90-point drop in batting average, from .299 to .209, those walks have helped Camargo up his on-base percentage slightly. His .342 mark is serviceable and will probably see an uptick when his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) normalizes. It’s a subpar .219 now after sitting at .364 a year ago. Camargo has been the beneficiary of regular playing time at third base and does not appear to be in jeopardy of losing it. If he continues to put together good at bats and the hits begin falling, Camargo could be a useful hitter at or near the top of the order.

Nick Markakis has done the job before and could do it again.

Granted, moving Markakis from the middle to the top feels not only counterproductive, but also like a move that reeks of desperation were it to happen. His work in the cleanup spot has provided bona fide protection for Freddie Freeman. Whether one believes in that concept or not, Freeman certainly benefits from feeling that he has a productive hitter behind him who can share the load. Markakis and Freeman are tied for the NL lead with 85 hits this season. Both men have been at or near the top of the league leader board in batting average, doubles, runs scored, RBI and numerous other categories. Unlike utilizing Swanson or Camargo at the top, Snitker would have to weigh the possible negative effect messing with the middle of the order equation could yield. Again, it’s not a move I’d necessarily expect to be high on the current list of possibilities.

While Atlanta’s success has been refreshing and built largely on its offense, the bottom line is, someone needs to produce in that leadoff spot. And he needs to do it sooner than later.

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