Three Atlanta Braves takeaways: RISP woes, Schwellenbach's bad inning, remembering 'Baby Bull' (2024)

ATLANTA — The Braves got to the halfway point of an erratic season Saturday with a 46-35 record, before losing 4-2 Sunday to the Pittsburgh Pirates. And it’s worth noting that in the previous 20 times they won at least as many games by the midway point during the team’s Atlanta era (since 1966), the Braves advanced to the postseason 17 times.

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That’s the glass-half-full view.

Of course, the Braves aim to do far more than advance to the postseason, after National League Division Series losses each of the past two years to the Philadelphia Phillies, who finished 14 games behind Atlanta each of those regular seasons. If the six-time defending NL East champs hope to make up the current eight-game deficit against the Phillies or maintain their lead in the wild-card standings, the Braves need more consistent offense.

The offense was moribund for seven weeks, averaged 4.6 runs in the first 18 games of June, then regressed again to a .198 average in the past eight games, with 24 runs scored in that stretch including six runs in one win against Pittsburgh.

Failure to capitalize

“It’s been tough to get a big hit,” said manager Brian Snitker, whose Braves were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position in Sunday’s loss, and are tied for 18th with a .729 OPS with runners in scoring position, after ranking third with an .823 OPS last season.

#Braves lose 4-2 in series finale against the Pirates, Atlanta's second home loss in 10 games. Braves 0-for-5 with RISP, Schwellenbach gave up 4 runs on 2 fifth-inning homers.

— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) June 30, 2024

In all situations with runners on base, the Braves are 14th in average (.255), 13th in slugging (.420) and 15th in OPS (.738). That’s jarring because a year ago, they led the majors by wide margins with their .284 average, .518 slugging percentage and .873 OPS with runners on base.

“It’s the frustrating part, because of what the guys are capable of,” Snitker said. “Just can’t quite put it together for an extended period where it just flows.”

Orlando Arcia’s .123 average (7-for-57) with runners in scoring position is the worst among MLB qualifiers, and his .304 OPS in those situations is not just worst, it’s 179 points below the next-lowest.

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Austin Riley (.228) and Matt Olson (.227) have the second- and third-most ABs on the team with runners in scoring position, and the second- and third-worst RISP averages among Braves qualifiers. Adam Duvall (.185) and Travis d’Arnaud (.196) have worse RISP averages, but not enough plate appearances to qualify.

Arcia and Duvall, along with the likes of Forrest Wall, are part of a bottom third of the batting order that’s been awful after Braves teams of recent vintage had some of the most dangerous bottom-third hitters in baseball.

Riley, who ended his extended slump with six homers in his past 16 games and ranks among MLB leaders with a 1.044 OPS over the past 15 days, was not immune to the clutch-hitting malaise Sunday. He flied out with two on base to end the first inning and grounded into a run-scoring double play with runners on the corners and none out in the fourth.

Schwellenbach’s fifth-inning issue

Rookie Spencer Schwellenbach made his sixth start Sunday and was doing fine once again until the fifth inning, when he hit the No. 9 batter leading off and two outs later left a first-pitch cutter over the plate that Oneil Cruz pulverized for a 452-foot homer with 117 mph exit velocity.

Schwellenbach (1-4, 5.68 ERA) walked the next batter before Rowdy Tellez crushed a 1-1 changeup left waist-high for another homer. Just like that, the Pirates had a 4-1 lead, and Schwellenbach’s fifth-inning ERA ballooned to 15.88.

The right-hander has given up 10 earned runs and seven extra-base hits (three homers) in the fifth innings of six starts. He’s allowed no runs in any first and fourth innings, and a combined nine runs in the second and third innings. In Schwellenbach’s debut against the Washington Nationals on May 29, he cruised through four scoreless before giving up three runs in the fifth including a three-run homer by Lane Thomas. He also gave up three runs in the fifth in his second start, June 5 at Boston.

‘Baby Bull’ with Braves

When the great Orlando Cepeda died Friday, discussion of his Hall of Fame career centered on his nine seasons with the San Francisco Giants, with whom he was a unanimous NL Rookie of the Year in 1958 and MVP runner-up in 1961, and three seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals including his 1967 NL MVP award.

Three Atlanta Braves takeaways: RISP woes, Schwellenbach's bad inning, remembering 'Baby Bull' (1)

Orlando Cepeda spent several seasons in Atlanta and savored his friendship with Hank Aaron. (Associated Press file)

But “Baby Bull” also played for the Braves during 1969-1972, and it was with Atlanta that Cepeda had his last great season, in 1970 — .305 with 34 home runs, 111 RBIs and a .908 OPS while playing first base.

What’s not widely known is how Cepeda, after being told that he was traded to the Braves for Joe Torre, seriously considering retiring rather than playing for Atlanta, so concerned was he about things he’d heard of racism and Jim Crow laws that existed into the 1960s in the South.

Cepeda’s concerns dissipated quickly after he was welcomed warmly to spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla., by the legendary Hank Aaron, a friend for the rest of his life.

This is an excerpt from his autobiography, “Baby Bull: From Hardball to Hard Time and Back,” published in 1998:

Atlanta had been part of the Old South, and I was worried about lingering attitudes. But I soon found out that a lot had changed, and my years with theBraveswere very happy ones. There were also two more good things about Atlanta: Felipe Alou and Hank Aaron.

Since being traded from the Giants to the Braves in 1964, Felipe had emerged as a frontline star, leading the National League in base hits in 1966 and again in 1968. He’d moved with the team from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. We had been through much together and had been real friends in our younger days, so I was delighted to be reunited as a teammate with Felipe.

Hank Aaron, of course, was the Braves’ reigning superstar. He’d been with the franchise since 1954. I had always admired Hank on the ball field. We had been teammates in a number of All-Star Games, and I envied his extraordinary skills. But now I would learn what a wonderful guy, decent man, and good friend Hank could be.

Hank could do it all, and do it as well as anyone. He often does not get the full credit he deserves for being such a superb all-around player. He could do all the things Willie Mays could do, he just wasn’t as flashy. Just ask the people who playedbaseballwith Hank day in and day out. They’ll tell you what a completebaseballplayer Hank really was.

(Top photo of Spencer Schwellenbach: Dale Zanine / USA Today)

Three Atlanta Braves takeaways: RISP woes, Schwellenbach's bad inning, remembering 'Baby Bull' (2)Three Atlanta Braves takeaways: RISP woes, Schwellenbach's bad inning, remembering 'Baby Bull' (3)

David O'Brien is a senior writer covering the Atlanta Braves for The Athletic. He previously covered the Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and covered the Marlins for eight seasons, including the 1997 World Series championship. He is a two-time winner of the NSMA Georgia Sportswriter of the Year award. Follow David on Twitter @DOBrienATL

Three Atlanta Braves takeaways: RISP woes, Schwellenbach's bad inning, remembering 'Baby Bull' (2024)

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