LOS ANGELES — Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer met with general manager and president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos after last season and told him he wanted the team to reduce its strikeouts.
But even in his most optimistic scenario, Seitzer could never have envisioned this. Atlanta hitters have reduced strikeouts and increased their on-base percentage resoundingly while leading the majors by an even wider margin and smashing home runs at a record pace.
All of that has happened. And it’s probably the biggest reason the Braves have the majors’ best record, the NL MVP front-runner in Ronald Acuña Jr., and a 2-0 lead in a highly anticipated four-game series at Dodger Stadium against a team that came in sizzling hot and with MLB’s second-best record and best home record.
The Braves hitters’ somehow keep improving.
“It’s been shocking how much better they’ve been this year — shocking,” Seitzer said before a 6-3 win Friday that featured an Acuña home run for the second consecutive night. His 30th in the series opener made him the first player in major-league history to have at least 30 homers and 60 stolen bases in a season.
#Braves win 6-3 at Dodger Stadium behind 7 dominant, scoreless innings from Max Fried (3 H, 2 BB, 10 K) and 3 homers including Acuña’s 31st and Ozuna’s 32nd. They’ve won the series and can clinch their first four-game series win at L.A. since 2009 with one more win this weekend.
— David O’Brien (@DOBrienATL) September 2, 2023
Travis d’Arnaud and Marcell Ozuna also homered for the Braves, who gave Max Fried far more run support than required on a night when the Los Angeles native limited the Dodgers to three hits and two walks with 10 strikeouts in seven scoreless innings, his first double-digit strikeout game since 2019.
On most nights this season, the Braves’ offense provides big offensive support whether it’s required or not. Atlanta hitters lead the majors in most major categories including batting average, OPS, runs and, of course, home runs. So many home runs.
“Really impressive,” Seitzer said of the offense. “They’re really, really uber-talented players that are just getting more experienced and getting better.”
The Braves lead the majors with a .502 slugging percentage and could become the first MLB team to slug .500 for a full season. They already established a franchise record for single-season homers with 256 and are threatening the major league mark of 307, set by Minnesota in the juiced-ball 2019 season.
They have done all of that prodigious slugging while reducing strikeouts, as Seitzer hoped, and getting on base at a considerably higher rate.
The Braves have a majors-leading .345 team OBP, after tying for ninth last season at .317. They have the sixth-fewest strikeouts (1,071), after finishing with the second-most (1,498) in 2022.
They’ve increased their walk rate, averaging nearly 3.4 after ranking 19th in the majors last season at 2.9 per game. They have 451 walks in 134 games, after finishing with 470 a year ago.
How to explain such across-the-board improvement?
“For me, it’s guys getting more experience and understanding what pitchers are trying to do,” Seitzer said. “The strikeouts bothered me last year, and in the past few years. We talked in spring training about just trying to cut down on them. Like, I don’t want to sacrifice (power) to just say, ‘Go put it in play.’ But at the same time, just shorten up a little bit and try and think a little bit more the other way on the fastball, to see the secondary stuff better.
“But you never know what to expect. I talked to Alex about it after the season, because for me it was a glaring thing. And he goes, ‘This is how we’re made; we’ve got guys that slug and strike out a lot.’ I mean, he went down the lineup and gave me their whole history, and just said, ‘Go ahead and plant the seed, but don’t get too caught up in it.’”
The Braves have done all that Seitzer hoped, and more.
Hitting in two-strike counts, they lead MLB in average (.194), OBP (.275), slugging (.325) and OPS (.600). They’ve done this while also leading in two-strike homers with 74. By contrast, the team with the next-most two-strike homers, the Yankees (70), ranks in the bottom third in average (.163) and OBP (.240).
That indicates the Braves are taking more controlled swings in two-strike counts, which also is what Seitzer wanted.
A year ago, the Braves also led the majors in two-strike homers with 92 but hit .179 in those spots with a .246 OBP that ranked 13th in the majors.
No one has played as big of a role in the team’s improvements in OBP and two-strike hitting than Acuña, whose majors-leading .420 OBP includes a stunning .393 with two strikes — 30 points higher than the next-highest qualifier, Mookie Betts’ .363 OBP.
Acuña leads the majors with an .834 OPS in two-strike counts and has hit .284 with 10 homers in 270 plate appearances in those spots, one of three qualifiers hitting as high as .260 with two strikes. Last year in his first season coming off major knee surgery, Acuña hit .161 with a .510 OPS in 297 plate appearances with two strikes.
Even in 2021, playing at an MVP level before tearing his right ACL, Acuña hit .162 with a .654 OPS in 183 PAs with two strikes — 180 OPS points lower than this season.
“That’s crazy, how much he’s (improved),” Seitzer said. “Everything he’s done this year has just blown me away. I’m so happy because after blowing out his knee, I just didn’t know if we’d see the old Ronnie. It’s still not the old Ronnie — it’s better than the old Ronnie.”
Five of Acuña’s teammates also rank in the NL’s top 18 in two-strike OPS: Orlando Arcia (.689), Ozzie Albies (.657), Austin Riley (.653), Matt Olson (.647) and Michael Harris (.617). That means the Braves account for a remarkable one-third of their league’s top 18 OPS with two strikes.
Seitzer’s preseason message was to change the approach a little with two strikes, not suddenly become slap hitters.
“Because that’s not how we’re wired,” Seitzer said. “We’re not just going to go play pepper with two strikes. We’re still trying to have good at-bats (with two strikes) but grind the at-bats. Sacrifice a little bit of power to just try and get a base hit. That’s really what the message was, focus on getting a base hit and not damage with two strikes. And a lot of times you get a mistake and damage comes with two strikes, too.”
Olson leads the majors in two-strike homers with 16, and Riley is tied for fourth with 12.
“I think there’s a controlled aggression there,” Riley said of the collective improvement in two-strike situations. “It allows you to stay on pitches just a little longer, foul off the bastard pitches, just ultimately have a more professional at-bat.”
The overall approach by Braves hitters has significantly improved, and not just with two strikes. The Braves have reduced their out-of-the-zone swing-and-miss rate from 44.6 in 2022 to 39.9 this season, the fourth-lowest rate in the majors and the greatest year-over-year reduction.
Acuña lowered his out-of-the-zone swing-and-miss rate from 40.1 in 2022 to 33.1, the seventh-largest rate reduction among 180 MLB qualifiers.
And the highest reduction? That would be teammate Michael Harris II, who went from a 47.5 swing-and-miss rate on pitches out of the zone last season to 34.1 this year, a whopping 13.4 percent reduction that’s by far the best in the majors.
While it gets overshadowed by all of the Braves’ tape-measure homers and a hard-hit rate that far surpasses any other team, the fact they lead the majors in OBP is significant. Not counting 2020, when the Braves led the majors with a .349 OBP behind MVP Freddie Freeman (.462) and NL home run and RBI leader Marcell Ozuna (.431), the last full season in which the Braves finished within the top five in the majors in on-base percentage was 2010 — Bobby Cox’s final season as manager, and the last time that Chipper Jones (career .401 OBP) finished at .380 or above.
“Yeah, we’re not striking out like we have (in recent years),” Braves manager Brian Snitker said Friday. “I think that’s the biggest thing (with the improved OBP). We have really good at-bats, long at-bats, but we’re not striking out. That’s just growth and maturity, too. I think as these guys play, they figure things out. And I think that correlates to the on-base percentage you’re talking about.”
That 2010 season was Jones’ third-from-last season, age 38, and he finished with a .381 OBP, third among Braves regulars behind rookie sensation Jason Heyward (.393) and catcher Brian McCann (.375), who that season won the fourth of his five Silver Slugger Awards in a six-year span.
Now, Freeman and Heyward are Dodgers, with Freeman still one of baseball’s elite hitters and OBP machines. But two years after he left the Braves as a free agent, Atlanta now has plenty of others who have become well-rounded hitters, not just capable of hitting loads of home runs — the Braves have seven hitters with at least 20 homers and four with more than 30 — but getting on base more and putting more balls in play.
“It’s been special this year,” Seitzer said, then quickly added, “We’ve got to finish it off and get it done. We’ve still got work to do.”
(Photo of Marcell Ozuna and Ronald Acuña Jr.: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)