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Slumping is Contagious Too

The 1991 Atlanta Braves became the first National League team to vault from worst to first after future Hall of Famer Fred McGriff arrived in a July trade from San Diego.

McGriff got so hot, the press box caught on fire the night he arrived. After a brief delay to douse the flames, McGriff hit a home run and started a tear that led to a division title on the last day of the season after a frantic race to catch San Francisco.

Fast forward to 2023. Braves hitters from Ronald Acuna, Jr. to Matt Olson feasted on pitching of all stripes, finishing with a record .501 slugging percentage and 307 home runs – tying the 2019 mark of the Minnesota Twins – while leading both leagues with 104 wins.

What a difference a year makes!

After winning Most Valuable Player honors by unanimous vote, Ronald Acuna, Jr. missed two weeks when his knee started barking during spring training.

He never got untracked, walking and homering far less frequently than usual, getting picked off base with alarming frequency, and producing batting and slugging averages far off his MVP form. The first man to hit 40 home runs and steal 70 bases in a season suddenly found mortality.

With the top of the lineup crippled, the rest of the Braves started pressing, then pressed even more when they failed to produce.

Olson, whose 54 home runs and 139 runs batted in led the majors last year, struggled to stay over the Mendoza Line for the first six weeks of the season.

Austin Riley, who missed time with an intercostal strain, seemed unable to break a bad habit of lunging for outside pitches – and missing as the strikeouts piled up.

The All-Star third baseman was not the sole offender. Ozzie Albies, the switch-hitting second baseman, missed time with a broken toe but failed to deliver much power either before or after his April injury.

Bear in mind that Riley, Albies, and Acuna were three of the five 30-homer men who wore Atlanta shirts last season, along with Olson and Marcell Ozuna.

In fact, Ozuna was the only man in the batting order earning his eight-figure salary. The DH entered the weekend leading the National League in home runs and runs batted in.

Along with the Colorado Rockies, the Braves are the only team to have three teammates enjoy simultaneous 40-homer seasons. They did it in 1973, when Hank Aaron, Darrell Evans, and Davey Johnson turned the trick, and in 2023, with Olson, Ozuna, and Acuna.

Not so in 2024, when the team entered the month of June on track to hit less than half the number of home runs they produced a year ago.

Check out these comparative stats from MLB.com writer Jason Foster:

“It’s easier said than done because they all want is to do good and they all want to help the team.

“And then, the more outs you make, the more weight on your shoulders you feel, and then it can compound and spiral.

“Our job as coaches is try and help cut that off at the pass as quick as possible. It’s like, a lot of times they’ll barrel balls and they won’t get any results for it, and then they start trying to do a little bit more on the next one instead of just staying right there.

“We just remind them of that. We’re making tweaks and adjustments mechanically, from guy to guy, day to day.”

“Hitting is one of the hardest things to do. It’s not for a lack of effort, not for a lack of preparation, not for a lack of caring and competing. It’s just, you have to stay within yourself, you have to control your emotions. It’s easier said than done.

“When guys are hot and they’re rolling, they’re loose as can be and relaxed as can be, and everything’s in slow motion. When you’re scuffling, every pitcher looks like he’s throwing 110 (mph) and you’re not seeing the secondary stuff. It’s a tough time that we’re in right now. We’re gonna get hot, and hitting is contagious. We just need (Marcell) Ozuna to rub off on his buddies.”

Ozuna has been the best hitter this season – by a large margin. Ozuna’s 16 homers are more than the combined the totals of any other two Braves. Olson ranks second on the team in home runs, with eight, while Ozuna has driven in 20 more runs than any other Brave.

The universal slump – and that includes Acuna before his injury – ended a streak of 14 winning months in a row. Entering the final day of the month, Atlanta had a 12-14 mark for May. In those 14 losses, they allowed three or more runs but in the 12 wins, they yielded two or fewer.   

Only two teams, the low-flying Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds, scored fewer runs per game in May than the Braves, whose average output was 3.4 runs. Atlanta hitters also fanned at least 10 times per game in 28 of their first 54 games and homered only 57 times, trailing 15 other clubs. To use a word that is probably too polite: ouch!

“It’s no fun when you’re struggling, but it’s not anything that I haven’t been through over 15 years of being a hitting coach,” Seitzer said. “You hit tough stretches, and offenses go into slumps. It’s no fun when it happens and usually when things start rolling again but there’s still no time to relax and breathe easy because usually there’s two or three guys that are struggling even when things are going well – which is what happened last year.”

“Part of what I have to do as a hitting coach is weather the storms and keep looking for the sunshine and pointing guys toward the sunshine. It’s going to get better.”

The coach insisted that neither he nor the players have hit the panic button.

“If they all started off like they normally hit and then they hit a rough time in July, nobody would be talking about it, because the numbers would be there,” he said. “But when the numbers aren’t there, you’re not scoring runs and you’re going through a tough stretch early, it gets magnified.”

Injuries haven’t helped. All-Star catcher Sean Murphy pulled an oblique Opening Day and missed nearly two months. Albies missed 10 days with a fractured toe. Riley had inflammation on his side. Then Acuna went down.

And that’s not to mention all the pitching injuries, from Spencer Strider (elbow brace surgery) to A.J. Minter (hip), AJ Smith-Shawver (oblique), plus Tyler Matzek and Pierce Johnson (elbow).

It would be enough to drive a younger manager mad but Brian Snitker, the dean of NL pilots at age 68, has won six straight division titles and still thinks he can win a seventh.

He reminds observers that the 2021 world champion Braves were actually under .500 at the start of August but warmed with the weather and were absolutely torrid by the time the post-season started.

Dan Schlossberg, Senior Writer
Dan Schlossberg, Senior Writerhttps://mlbreport.com/
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is a national baseball writer for forbes.com; weekend editor of the Here’s The Pitch newsletter; columnist for Sports Collectors Digest; and contributor to USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Memories & Dreams, and many other outlets. He’s also the author of more than 40 books. His email is ballauthor@gmail.com.


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