The “MVP” chants rained down during the Braves-Dodgers series finale on Wednesday, and while the Los Angeles audience was conducting them to Max Muncy when he hit the blow, it would have the ears of two Atlanta players on the field too should be brighter.
Freddie Freeman is very much in the mix for a National League MVP rerun, along with Austin Riley, as the Braves battle to claim their first consecutive winner since Dale Murphy in 1982-83, or the first instance of the franchise of two different ones deliver players who win in consecutive seasons.
The Starting Nine features the cases for and against these MVPs and three more storylines that will weigh heavily in the final month of the season as the Braves push for the fourth consecutive NL East title and beyond.
1. Arguments for: A major turning point
The latest odds have Freeman with +800 third, behind Fernando Tatis Jr. (+600) from Padres and Max Muncy (+600) from Dodger’s teams, who are the only division leaders operating with negative running differences (ahem, Mets and Phillies) – but there help get the Braves out of a 7 1/2 game deficit to take on the affairs of division leadership. Since this rise in the table began on June 16, Freeman has been on average first in the NL (0.344) and hits (89) among players with at least 110 record appearances and third in the on-base percentage (0.420). Speaking of turnarounds, Freeman’s season, not just that of the Braves, was defined by one. Last season his OPS was 1.102 and for the past eight years it had never been lower than 0.841, but on the 7th for the first month plus the season it was four percent below the league average. It also helps Freeman’s pursuit that San Diego has stalled and has lost 15 of 19 break since Aug 11 (Mookie Betts has 209 wRC + on that section, while Will Smith at 180 with 12 homers against Muncys 11 bombs and 134 wRC + lies).
2. The case for: The center of attention
Riley finally gets some love from Vegas at +2000, with Bryce Harper (+850) from Phillies and Joey Votto (+1600) from Reds being the only players to separate the third baseman from Freeman. His performance is better than Freeman’s, and no NL player has a better average in the second half (more on those two points later), but when Atlanta lost Ronald Acuña Jr. for the season things could have gone sideways. Instead, they jumped to the top of the division. He’s the well-known asset, name, and foundation of the franchise, and Freeman’s perception, reinforced with solid numbers, continues to make him a clear favorite should the Braves hold onto and make four consecutive division titles.
3. The counter-argument: the requirement to repeat
From 2001-09, seven of these nine NL MVPs were claimed by either Barry Bonds or Albert Pujols, with the former winning four in a row (2001-04) and Pujols ’08-09 (interspersed with a ’05 win). Of course, Dale Murphy’s career has been shaped by his successive MVPs in 1982-83, but they date back to the beginning of the expansion era (1961) and the stunt has only been mastered 10 times, most recently with the victory of the tiger Miguel Cabrera in 2012 and ‘ 13th But these earlier cases have rarely occurred with a teammate driving the incumbent MVP. Joe Morgan of the Reds won second with George Foster in 1977, Bonds won sixth with Giants with Matt Williams in 1994, and Jeff Kent finished sixth to another Bonds win in 2002. Riley’s place in the latest odds sets the stage for another Atlanta players who grab attention and make things even more complicated for Freeman.
4. The argument for: The outbreak
For anyone predicting a breakout season for Riley, this exceeded all expectations as he is on the verge of becoming the second Braves player since 2000 to hit 30 homers at 24 or younger (Acuña and Andruw Jones are the others) . Add in an NL best average of .349 since the All-Star hiatus to go along with 14 homers (second), a 1,047 OPS (fifth), and 174 wRC +, and you get a picture of how valuable the third baseman is in his was third MLB season. On the year Riley cuts .302 / .374 / .530 with 28 home runs, 23 doubles, one triple and 80 RBI. There aren’t many positions deeper in baseball than third base in the NL, and Riley’s 3.5 fWAR is level with the Padres Manny Machado for first on the circuit and fourth among all third basemen. Freeman has been the constant and glue that held the Braves together after Acuña, and General Manager Alex Anthopoulos helped spark that team by expanding the outfield, but where are the Braves without that Riley rise? Probably not on NL East.
5. The case for: timing is everything
Last season, Freeman closed out with a ridiculous 1,246 OPS in the final month of the season to go to the Awards, and there weren’t many hitters hotter than Riley in July and August as his 170 WRC + only had Harper (192 ) and Juan Soto (186) from the Nationals and he has hit the third most homers (15) in this distance. A similarly hot September should help lure voters to Riley’s corner, but when it comes to timing, he’s also shown the ability to hit the moment within a game. In late and tight situations, Riley’s .982 OPS brings him back behind Will Smith (1,118) from Dodgers and Willy Adames (1,054) from Brewers among all NL players (at least 65 at-bats) and he was better as the games went on. Posting the ninth best OPS of the NL (.961) from the seventh inning and scoring nine home runs in those innings. By comparison, Freeman has .745 OPS in late and tight situations and .707 OPS in the seventh inning and later. Riley plays his best baseball towards the end of the season and shows a penchant for performing when it matters most.
6. The counter-argument: the requirement to repeat
Not only does Riley deal with having the reigning MVP in Vegas’ eyes in front of him (along with the Braves slap order in front of him), there is also the rarity of a team delivering MVPs in a row with different players. In the last 50 years it has happened seven times: the Reds with Jonny Bench in 1972 and Pete Rose ’73 and then again with Joe Morgan (’76) and George Foster (’77); the Brewers’ Rollie Fingers (’81) and Robin Young (’82); Juan Gonzalez (1998) and Pudge Rodriguez (’99) of the Rangers; Jeff Kent (2000) and Barry Bonds (’01) of the Giants; the Phillies Ryan Howard (’06) and Jimmy Rollins (’07) and most recently the Tiger’s Justin Verlander (2011) and Miguel Cabrera (2012). During those seasons, the team repeated only once while reaching the reigning MVP in the top five on the vote: in 2007, when Howard was fifth after Rollins’ first.
7. Sort out the outfield in the new look
With Eddie Rosario’s arrival of Triple-A Gwinnett, all closings of deals are in uniform and all kinds of fascinating approaches are emerging in the newly made outfield. Against right-handers, Brian Snitker could bring out a group of hitters above the league average with Rosario (111 WRC +), Joc Pederson (124) and Jorge Soler (107); he could do the same against left-handers with Soler (121), Pederson (68 in his career but 103 in 2021) and Adam Duvall (100). Throw in Guillermo Heredia, who has a 111 WRC + against left-handers this year, it could lead to a lot of machinations. But so far, Rosario – who has a career of 86 wRC + against southpaw – has made three starts, including a Monday with the Dodgers starting left-handed Julio Urias. “I wanted to fix my eyes on him again,” said Snitker of the decision. “I hadn’t seen him in a long time and when I saw him I wanted to see him again.” Rosario has made three starts in a row, including the home ring in Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the Dodgers and scored four goals in 11 At-bats. “The outfield thing we were talking about is real, and I’m still not 100 percent sure how we’re going to steer it,” said Snitker. It seems that playing the hot hand might be the approach you want, but with four players in Duvall, Pederson, Rosario and Soler all through 30 homerun seasons, how he divides game time and how best to best use those options taking advantage of the postseason could be the most daunting decision Snitker faces next month.
8. Sorting out the arms
A week after wondering how a gun glutton would “work for himself”, the Braves glutton might do just that. Talk of a six-man rotation, if only for now, went out the window when Drew Smyly gave up four home runs against the Dodgers on Monday and pushed his August ERA to 8/6 as he had seven HRs this month and total 27 allowed, the fourth largest of all NL pitcher. He had positioned the Braves to win games, with Atlanta claiming six of its starts in a row and 12 of 13 starts. That run ended and amid Smyly’s struggles, Snitker said Wednesday that Touki Toussaint would start Thursday in Colorado and it is unclear how they will use Smyly in the future. Since Josh Tomlin, who is also fighting, has a tense neck on the 10-day injured list – retroactively to August 29 – it opens the door for Smyly to slip into this long relief role for the time being. But does it matter in the postseason? It’s clear that Charlie Morton, Max Fried and Ian Anderson would have the brunt of the playoff starts with the potential for Huascar Ynoa to start, if not relief innings and the same with Toussaint. Are there any changes coming to the bullpen where Will Smith missed two saves, has an ERA of 6.97 as of Aug 7, and has five home runs in 10 2/3 innings? Despite giving up a run in back-to-back appearances against the Dodgers, Tyler Matzek still has a 0.90 ERA as of July 11; AJ Minter has thrown 7 2/3 scoreless innings since returning, Richard Rodriguez had a 1.38 ERA in his first month as a Brave, and Luke Jackson’s 1.46 ERA in August.
9. How do the Braves stack up?
After the series against the Dodgers was over, the Braves went 2-6 against three teams in the postseason position after facing Los Angeles, the Giants and Yankees. The good news is that aside from a collapse that completely removes Atlanta from the playoff picture, Atlanta will not face any of these NL powers ahead of the League Championship Series. As things stand, the Braves in the Division Series would face the Brewers – who are currently 10 1/2 games in NL Central – with the West winner receiving the Wild Card Game winner. Getting there might be an accomplishment given the challenges the Braves face, but it could result in an inexpensive matchup. Atlanta and Milwaukee split their six regular season games, with the Braves in the series winning two of three at Miller Park May 14-16, while the Brewers – holding the Majors’ best road record at 46-23 – won two games during the Game caught July 30th-August. 1 set in Truist Park. The Braves had a 14-13 point advantage in that second series, beating the Brewers 34-27 overall in these meetings, but it’s worth noting that there has been no better NL offensive than the Brewers’ since the All-Star break. . They lead with an 8.8 fWAR and meanwhile their pitching team has achieved an MLB best 7.3 fWAR in the second half. It’s daunting, but the Braves reached out to the Brewers’ Cy Young contenders by chasing Corbin Burnes for five runs with nine hits on July 30 and getting Brandon Woodruff for three runs with eight hits.