Baseball, Columnists, Sports

Fair or Foul: The five unlikely heroes of the 2021 Atlanta Braves

The Atlanta Braves won the 2021 World Series, taking down the powerhouse Houston Astros in six games. Aside from better rosters across MLB this season, the Braves also faced injuries to star players like pitcher Mike Soroka, outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. and ace pitcher Charlie Morton in the World Series itself. Despite the hurdles, they won it all, and here are five players who stepped up enormously, either in the regular season or in October, to get the Braves to the top of the league.

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OF Adam Duvall (Acquired from Miami on July 30)

Duvall posted a .852 OPS in 98 games with Atlanta from 2019-20. His formula featured a low batting average and very few walks, but also some solid defense and power. After signing with the Marlins before 2021, Duvall found his way back to Atlanta just months later and got back to doing what he did in the two prior seasons and more. Duvall provided versatility in the outfield and much-needed depth with Acuña going down. He ended up finishing the season with 38 home runs, 100-plus RBIs and an adjusted OPS over 100. However, as exceptional as Duvall was in the lead-up to the playoffs, another deadline acquisition took the lead once October began.

OF Jorge Soler (Acquired from Kansas City on July 30)

Just three seasons ago in 2019, Soler had a ridiculous breakout season, clubbing 48 home runs with an OPS of .922 while playing in all 162 games for the Royals. However, in 2020 and the first half of 2021, that version of Soler vanished. His OPS dropped to around .700, and his abysmal defense took center stage as his reputation cratered. As it turns out, all Soler needed was to head to Atlanta, where he batted .269 with a .882 OPS and a strikeout rate of 18.6%. 

He willed his way into the everyday lineup in the playoffs, and hit .300 with three home runs in the 2021 World Series. That performance earned him the series MVP. While it is unclear which version of Soler the league will see next season — 2021 Royals Soler or 2021 Braves Soler — he left his mark on the Braves and gave himself another shot at a starting job.

LHP Tyler Matzek

The 31-year-old reliever joined the Braves in 2020 after being out of the majors for five seasons. His 2.79 ERA in the shortened 2020 season was impressive enough, but he managed to repeat it throughout a full season in 2021. Matzek lowered his ERA to 2.57 while maintaining a rate of 11 strikeouts per nine innings. Then in October, Matzek posted a 1.72 ERA while pitching in nearly every game. He pitched in all four games of the NLDS against the Brewers, in five of six games of the NLCS against the Dodgers and then in four of six of the World Series against the Astros. Between his durability and dominance, this southpaw rose from nowhere to become one of the most important Braves pitchers in the postseason.

LHP Max Fried

Despite having been with the Braves for many seasons, Fried’s last two seasons followed the same path as Matzek. Before 2020, Fried had never pitched like the ace the Braves thought they had. His ERA in the only full season on his resume to that point was over four, and he had logged more than 50 innings just once. Then, he posted a 2.25 ERA and finished fifth in Cy Young Award voting for the National League in 2020 and followed that up with a strong 2021. With a great-looking 3.04 ERA and 1.09 walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP), Fried became the clear No. 2 starter for Atlanta during the regular season. Then in October, as Morton went down with a broken fibula, Fried delivered a shutout performance in the series-clinching win in Game 6. Fried shook off the inconsistency that plagued him earlier in his career and will look to remain a second ace in Atlanta next season.

3B Austin Riley

I have written about Riley’s breakout campaign before, and it cannot be understated how big of a step in the right direction he took in 2021 and the impact he had from April to November on his team’s championship run. Riley’s OPS rose over 160 points in 2021 from his mark from 2019-20. He lowered his strikeout rate from 31.2% from ’19-20 to 25.4% this season. He posted a 6.1 Wins Above Replacement per Baseball Reference after that number was -0.6 over his first two seasons. In October, he hit .277 with seven extra-base hits. Atlanta is now clearly set at the corner-infield positions with 24-year-old Riley at third and the face of the franchise, Freddie Freeman, at first base, although Freeman will be looking to sign a new contract this winter.

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