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The surprising statistics of the 2021 Atlanta Braves

SB Nation logo SB Nation 10/7/2021 Grant McAuley
© Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

When reflecting on a regular season as eventful as the one the Atlanta Braves just completed, there are more than a few statistical accomplishments worth pointing to. Some jump off the page, while other require a little work to discover.

This was a club without some of its top performers and that required an injection of new talent at the trade deadline to finally put together a run to the top of the National East standings. The Braves received some big contributions from its slugging infield, rebuilt outfield, and embattled pithing staff to claim their fourth consecutive division crown and punch their ticket to the postseason.

Providing the necessary context to these numbers will take well more than the 280 characters allotted to a tweet. So, let’s dive into some of the most fascinating stats from one of Atlanta’s most improbable division title winners.

© Photo by Casey Sykes/Getty Images

Adam Duvall’s remarkable RBI title…

The season began with Adam Duvall taking is talents to South Beach, but it ended with a timely and somewhat spectacular Braves reunion. After Atlanta plucked Duvall from the Marlins at the trade deadline, he continued the RBI-tear upon his return. Duvall closed out a career-best season by hitting 38 home runs and topping the National League with 113 RBI.

That’s where things get interesting. Duvall collected those 113 RBI with only 117 hits. In doing so, he became just the third man in baseball history to drive in 110 or more runs while collecting fewer than 120 hits. Duvall joined Jason Giambi, who did so for the Yankees in 2006, and Hall of Famer Turkey Stearnes, who accomplished the feat in 1927 while playing for the Detroit Stars of the Negro National League.

Though a large portion of Duvall’s output (68 RBI) occurred with Miami, Duvall was joined by teammates Austin Riley (107) and Ozzie Albies (106) to finish 1-2-3 in the National League in RBI. It also marked the first time three Braves hitters finished the season with at least 100 RBI since 2003.

Now, if you’d told me back in March that Atlanta would have three players finish with 100 or more RBI, but Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman, and Marcell Ozuna would not be among them, I’d have asked for a rather lengthy explanation of both how and why.

Turns out, 2021 was just one long explanation.

© Photo by Adam Hagy/Getty Images

Austin Riley’s breakout season…

Few things about the Braves’ 2021 season were more gratifying than watching Riley transform from a still unproven young third basemen into one of the better sluggers in baseball.

Riley became just the seventh player in franchise history to collect at least 175 hits, 30 doubles, 30 homers, 100 RBI, 90 runs scored, a .300 AVG, and .500 slugging percentage in a single season. The other Braves to accomplish this line include Chipper Jones (4x), Hank Aaron (3x), Eddie Mathews, Dale Murphy, Andruw Jones, and Gary Sheffield. That’s some impressive company.

Speaking of which, Riley compiled those 100 RBI in his age-24 season. The only other Braves third basemen to accomplish that feat at age 24 or younger are Eddie Mathews (ages 21-23 from 1953-1955) and Chipper Jones (age 24 in 1996). His 107 RBI are the most by a Braves third baseman since Jones in 2000. To wit, Riley became just the sixth Braves third basemen with a 100 RBI season since 1900. The others: Jones (7x), Mathews (5x), Bob Elliott (3x), Darrell Evans, and Terry Pendleton.

The strides Riley took at the plate were obvious. While strikeouts will remain a part of his game, Riley honed his approach and reaped the rewards of some serious hard work. After compiling the fewest two-strike hits among qualified Atlanta hitters in 2020, Riley paced the team with 75 such hits this season. In fact, he more than doubled his career total for two-strike hits while collecting the most in a season by a Braves hitter since Freddie Freeman had 76 in 2018.

Taking it to another level, only Trea Turner (65) had more hits among NL players when trailing in the count than Riley’s 60 such hits. Mitch Haniger (16) was the only player in all of baseball to hit more home runs when behind in the count than Riley’s 15 in that situation. And only Rafael Devers (44) drove in more than Riley’s 40 runs when trailing in the count.

Those are the kinds of improvements that allowed Riley to level up in 2021.

© Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Ozzie Albies, slugging second baseman…

You would be hard-pressed to find a more improbable slugger in baseball than Ozzie Albies.

Coming up through the Braves system, no one projected Albies would be capable of providing the sheer quantity of extra-base hits or home runs that he’s collected throughout his big league career.

Albies took that to yet another level in 2021.

He became just the third Braves second baseman in franchise history to hit 30 home runs, joining Dan Uggla (2011) and Davey Johnson (1973). The latter set the single-season record for homers by a second sacker while playing for Atlanta, a mark which stood until this season when Marcus Semien belted 45 for Toronto.

Albies also cleared the 100-RBI plateau for the first time in his career, another rarity. For this one, you have to go all the way back to 1897 to find the last time in franchise history a second baseman accomplished that. Bobby Lowe did so for the Boston Beaneaters that season. If you’re wondering, the club did not change its name to the Braves for another 15 years after Lowe’s exploits. As you may have gathered, Albies and Lowe are the only second basemen in team history to reach 100 RBI in a season.

From a historical perspective, Albies put together an impressive campaign for anyone to ever play the keystone position. He is the only second baseman in MLB history to collect 75 or more extra-base hits in a season prior to his 24th birthday. It’s a feat so nice he did it twice, first in 2019 and again in 2021.

All of those extra-base knocks helped Albies become just the fifth second baseman in baseball history to record a season with 40 doubles, 30 home runs, 100 RBI, and 100 runs scored. He joined the likes of Rogers Hornsby (3x), Jeff Kent (2x), Chase Utley (2x), and Alfonso Soriano (2x).

© Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Eddie Rosario’s 5-pitch cycle on September 19…

I keep coming back to that day in San Francisco. The Braves entered the game in need of a win, but who could’ve known when Eddie Rosario took the first pitch he saw that he was about to embark on perhaps the most unique accomplishment of the season?

Rosario swung at the next four offerings, recording a double, a triple, a home run, and a single to complete the cycle on the fewest pitches since at least 1990 according to Baseball Reference. There’s a very good chance Rosario may hold the record for fewest pitches in a cycle, but complete pitch tracking information isn’t available in some cases.

The big day from Rosario gave Atlanta two cycles in the same season for the first time ever. Freddie Freeman had already completed his second career cycle against Miami on August 18. The Braves were a franchise that went a long time without a cycles at one point. After four players did so from 1896-1910, it happed just once over the next 98 years. Albert Hall was the answer to the trivia question for a long time, accomplishing the feat on September 23, 1987. Mark Kotsay joined him in 2008 before Freeman collected his first cycle on June 15, 2016.

© Photo by Todd Kirkland/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Jorge Soler’s final homer broke a Braves’ Statcast record…

Even though the final weekend saw the Braves resting regulars and auditioning relievers, Jorge Soler was still doing what he does best – hitting the ball very, very hard. So hard, in fact, that Soler set a Statcast record in the process. His lead-off blast on that final Sunday left the bat at 117.9 mph, narrowly eclipsing the record of 117.4 mph set by Ronald Acuña Jr. on June 27.

Here’s a look at Atlanta’s hardest hit home runs in the Statcast era:

  1. Soler - 117.9 mph (10-3-21)
  2. Acuna - 117.4 mph (6-27-21)
  3. Acuna - 116 mph (6-8-21)
  4. Acuna - 115.9 mph (8-2-19)
  5. Acuna - 115.7 mph (6-21-21)
  6. Freeman - 114.6 mph (8-22-16)

That homer by Soler was also one of the hardest-hit long balls of the season in all of MLB. Only Manny Machado’s 119.6 mph rocket on August 20 and Giancarlo Stanton 118.5 mph blast on September 21 and 118 mph laser on April 23 had a higher exit velocity than Soler’s final shot of the 2021 regular season.

© Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda/Getty Images

Morton’s return to Atlanta yields a couple of strikeout records

This one might actually catch you completely unawares. You may have noticed that veteran Charlie Morton had a quality season in his return to Atlanta. But you may not have realized exactly how good it was for a franchise that boasts no shortage of great starting pitchers throughout its history.

Morton’s 200-strikeout season was a rare accomplishment. It was just the 15th such season by a Braves pitcher since the turn of the century – the one before last. Yes, 1900. Five of those belong to John Smoltz and three more to Phil Niekro. Morton was just the ninth different Braves pitcher to reach the 200-strikeout plateau in a season since 1900 and 15th hurler to do so in franchise history.

If we’re looking at the more recent turn of the century accomplishments, Morton is just the fourth Braves pitcher since 2000 to record 200 strikeouts in a season, joining Smoltz, Javier Vazquez, and Mike Foltynewicz.

But Morton’s season was not just about reaching a nice round number like 200 strikeouts.

His strikeout rate was uncharted territory for a Braves starting pitcher. Morton set a single-season franchise record for a qualified starter in strikeout-percentage (28.6 K%). He also became the first qualified starting pitcher in the 150-year franchise history to have a season with over 10 strikeouts per nine innings, finishing with 10.47 K/9.

© Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Freddie Freeman is still Freddie Freeman, despite the slow start…

Freddie Freeman has proven to be one of the most consistent performers in baseball. That’s what made his early season struggles so surprising.

Despite typical hard-hit rates and exit velocities, Freeman was making more outs and hitting into tough luck at an almost inexplicable rate. Afterall, we’re talking about a guy whose 620 hits are the most in the National League since the start of 2018. In fact, the only player in MLB with more hits over that stretch is Whit Merrifield of the Royals with 652.

Those are two very different players, Freeman and Merrifield, so let’s lean into the overall on-base skills. Freeman’s .398 OBP is third among all MLB players with at least 2,000 PA over the past four seasons and checks in 56 points higher than Merrifield’s .342 OBP during that time.

But it’s not just about reaching base for Freeman; it’s about what happens when he does.

His 378 runs scored are also tops in the National League since 2018. Only Mookie Betts (404) has scored more times in all of baseball over that time period. Meanwhile, among NL players, only Nolan Arenado (359) has more RBI than Freeman’s 355 since the beginning of 2018.

Freeman has truly been the complete package for the Braves for quite some time.

If we’re turning this into a retrospective, then it’s worth noting that Freddie Freeman has simply been one of the best players in the National League for just over a decade. He leads the NL with 1,700 hits, 370 doubles, 966 runs scored, 940 RBI, and his 360 home runs are second only to Paul Goldschmidt (370) since Freeman’s first full season in 2011. There’s a consistency to his greatness.

Freeman entered May 15 batting .213 with a .793 OPS, nine homers and just 21 RBI. From that point on, he slashed .325/.409/.524 for a .923 OPS with 22 doubles, 22 home runs, 62 RBI and 99 runs scored over his final 122 games.

By the time he wrapped up 2021, Freeman had become the first NL first baseman since Albert Pujols in 2009 to turn in a season with at least a .300 AVG, .390 OBP, .500 SLG, 180 hits, 30 homers, 120 runs scored, and 80 RBI.

It may not go down as his finest season, but Freeman’s course correction was a big reason why the Braves are embarking on another playoff run.

All statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. If you like what you read here, please consider subscribing to those platforms.

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