ATLANTA — Asked why he chose to make some significant changes to his lineup for Monday night’s game against the Phillies, Braves manager Brian Snitker replied, “I probably had too much coffee this morning.”
By the time his team had suffered a 7-3 loss to the Phillies, Snitker exited Truist Park likely wishing he had consumed something stronger, or at least something decaffeinated. The Braves’ offense still has some glaring holes and Tucker Davidson’s rough outing was influenced by an outfield that continues to be a defensive liability.
“You’ve got no choice but to regroup tomorrow,” Snitker said. “I have a lot of faith with Max [Fried] on the mound. That’s the key. Anytime I put a lineup together, I say, ‘If that starting pitcher does what we need him to do, then that lineup will be really good.'”
Here are three takeaways from a loss that was influenced by Davidson’s rough start:
William Contreras started in left field and batted second, while Matt Olson was dropped to the fifth spot for the series opener against the Phillies. Austin Riley, who had batted third most of this year, found himself batting seventh, just ahead of Adam Duvall, whose 38-homer season in 2021 seems like a distant memory.
“It’s a crazy thing when you’re trying and searching to get [the offense] going,” Snitker said.
Maybe filling the lineup’s first four spots with Ronald Acuña Jr., Contreras, Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud will be more rewarding when facing someone other than Phillies starter Zack Wheeler, who recorded 10 strikeouts and allowed two runs over 6 2/3 innings.
Contreras, Ozuna and d’Arnaud all recorded hits in the first inning. But Wheeler escaped unscathed when center fielder Roman Quinn’s 99.9 mph throw denied Contreras’ bid to score from second on Ozuna’s single.
Ozuna (1.035), Contreras (.963), d’Arnaud (.879) and Acuña (.762) have produced the team’s four highest OPS marks over the nine games played going back to May 14. If going with the hot-hand route, it makes sense to start the lineup with these four players.
Dansby Swanson (.709 OPS), Olson (.641) and Ozzie Albies (.640) have struggled within this same stretch. Riley (.573) and Duvall (.442) have been even worse. So, it made sense to move both Riley and Olson down the order until they start to turn things around. Duvall is the only Braves regular who has struggled all season.
Riley did tag Wheeler for a pair of hits, including a double that positioned him to score on Swanson’s fifth-inning single.
“When [Riley] barreled those two balls, that was as encouraging as all get out,” Snitker said. “Hopefully, that’s a sign. Marcell is starting to swing it a little bit. So, hopefully, this is slowly translating into being something.
Asked to assess how Contreras fared while playing his first career game as an outfielder, Snitker said, “You could tell he hadn’t been out there, honestly.”
Contreras showed some inexperience when he went a long way to corral what became a J.T. Realmuto triple in the third and he misplayed a ball that fell in shallow left field. But given his inexperience as an outfielder, Contreras may quickly become a better defensive option than Ozuna in left field.
The Braves entered Monday ranked second-to-last among all MLB teams with a minus-8 Outs Above Average for their outfielders. Duvall has been Atlanta’s best defensive outfielder throughout the season. But he seemed to cost the team two runs when he pulled up in front of Quinn’s double in the third. Per Statcast, Duvall had a 90 percent catch probability.
Contreras will be the designated hitter on Tuesday and then return to his regular catching position on Wednesday. The Braves want to keep his bat in the lineup as much as possible. So, he’ll likely get some more opportunities as an outfielder.
When Davidson threw five scoreless innings and recorded his first career win in Milwaukee last week, Snitker said he hoped the young southpaw could fill the rotation’s fifth spot on a long-term basis. The Braves may be looking for another option after Davidson needed 76 pitches to record just eight outs against the Phillies.
Davidson escaped a first-inning threat, issued two walks before allowing Rhys Hoskins’ three-run double in the second and then issued another walk ahead of Realmuto’s RBI triple in the third. As he did this, some Braves fans began clamoring for Spencer Strider, who currently is assigned to the bullpen.
Strider would have filled the fifth spot as an opener or traditional starter had Atlanta not moved him to a relief role to account for Tyler Matzek going on the injured list last week. There may be a greater need for the hard-throwing rookie to remain a reliever. But there is also a need to round out the rotation.
Huascar Ynoa and Touki Toussaint have both struggled over the past couple weeks for Triple-A Gwinnett. Kyle Muller has posted a 3.71 ERA over the three starts he has made since returning to the Minors. But given he’s just three weeks removed from issuing six walks in 2 2/3 innings against the Rangers, Davidson might get at least one more start.
“Right now, I think we’re thinking yes,” Snitker said. “That could change. You’ve got to see how you get there. We taxed the bullpen a little bit today. So if we get some good starts, that would line it up. But it’s just going to depend on what happens the next three or four days.”