Extreme Leverage Adventures: Braves 2021 Edition

Do you remember when, as a child, your flights led you to pretend to beat for your favorite team in a situation of the utmost importance? This situation was not the start of the third, with two outs and none on, yeah? Instead, we’re talking low ninth, bases loaded, maybe two outs, that sort of thing. This magnitude gradient is what the leverage index is meant to capture.

To get a bit more technical, the idea is that for every combination of half-innings, scoring, baserunners, and outs, there is a historical win expectancy based on all baseball games played before. That’s how we know the home team, down two, down in the bottom of the ninth, with a man on second and two out, only get a win just over four percent of the time, or a visiting team up four at the top of third, with two outs and a man first, wins about 85% of the time. (For all of this and more, Greg Stoll’s Win Expectancy Finder is an invaluable resource and is now updated for 2021.) Since we know the win expectation for each possible game state, it makes it easy to calculate how much the expectation of gain would change when the batter at plate has a specific outcome, whether that outcome is an out, or a double, or a home run, or being speared by a pitch. Since we also know the relative frequency of each outcome, the Leverage Index is essentially just a way to capture how “swingy” a given situation is, which captures both: (1) how much l ‘expectation of winning’ could change depending on the outcome of the current plate appearances; and (2) the likelihood that the win expectation will move a lot.

Ideally, the leverage index for an average situation is 1.0. Meaningless situations that basically cannot have any effect on the outcome of the game are closer to zero, anything below 0.85 is considered “low leverage”. A value of 2.0 is the beginning of what we consider “high leverage” and also indicates that the situation is twice as “critical” (I prefer “swingy”) than an average situation. Note that the incidence of leverage is not evenly distributed – baseball games are full of quiet moments and therefore only 10% of situations are high leverage, while 60% are high leverage. low leverage. It’s just that the 10% is swingy enough to balance out the unswingy 60%.

Anyway, all of the above was just a preface to what follows: the five (well, sort of four) high leverage situations the Braves have been involved in this year! It goes without saying, but all of these situations were at the bottom of the last inning of the game, with the bases loaded, two outs and a one run lead, because that’s how you get extremely high leverage. Each of the games below was about 10 times swingier than the average game.

Technically on the list: Jacob Webb vs. Dishes, October 2

So, it’s something between “honorable mention” and “who cares”, because this situation came about after the Braves won the division, in the penultimate game of the regular season. It is, after all, why Jacob Webb ended up in this situation instead of everyone else.

The Braves entered the top of the ninth in position to add insult to injury, as they once again beat the Mets, 6-3, having sewn up the split. Richard Rodriguez, however, faltered again, striking out just two of the five batters he faced, allowing James a brace “I was basically just a useful MLB player against the Braves in 2021” McCann, a triple to Kevin Pillar, then a single to Brandon Nimmo. The two outs Rodriguez “got” involved a .510 xwOBA lineout and a 380-foot fly ball from Francisco Lindor with a 1.259 xwOBA that was just hit dead center. In Rodriguez’s defense, the triple he gave up was basically a cheap rocket that landed right in the corner of right field, but it was still a mess.

So to clean up said mess, the Braves went to Jacob Webb, who was instrumental in creating his own extremely high leverage situation. Webb walked the first batter he faced on six straight substitutions. The seventh pitch was nailed in the dirt, leading to an intentional walk that loaded the bases. This brought Jonathan Villar into our specific bases loaded, two out situation. Webb threw a fastball (also a ball) in that AP, but had two change puffs later. The final result ? Villar swung another super low change and hit it weak in the second to end the game:

Alright, so that one was a bit boring, since it really didn’t count. Let’s move on to the real adrenaline junkies.

#4: Will Smith vs. Marlins, July 2

The Braves started a weekend streak against the Marlins at 39-41, four games behind and in third place in the division. If you recall, this was the game where Pablo Lopez dunked Ronald Acuña Jr. to start the bottom of first, and was immediately thrown out. Acuña scored, and it was literally the game’s only run until the top of the ninth.

It made for a tense game, but it got crazier in the ninth. Will Smith started the inning by forcing former and eventual Brave Adam Duvall out, but then missed badly with a 3-2 slider to Jesus Aguilar and walked him. A flare right put the runners in the corners (Aguilar was initially called on Acuña’s throw, but deemed it safe after reviewing the replay), and Smith followed that up by running Jorge Alfaro on five pitches to charge the bases.

What brought this situation to its highest level of leverage was Jon Berti fouling, which meant the pressure was on Smith and Sandy Leon, batting for the pitcher’s spot. Smith didn’t really make a great throw at 0-1, but Leon didn’t take advantage of that either, hitting a routine ball to end the game. Phew.

A kind of anticlimax at the end.

#3: Will Smith vs. Padres, September 26

Above we had a game that didn’t make sense, and a game that came a little too early for a ton of sense. This game, however, was far more critical, as the Braves entered their series finale in San Diego with just a 1.5 game lead in the NL East.

It was one of Will Smith’s craziest outings of the year, and sure enough, the Braves held a one-point lead in the bottom of the ninth. The first was a first walk due to another full-count fastball. Then it was a five-pitch walk, with ball four again being a misplaced fastball. Smith got a huge break when he retired Fernando Tatis Jr. on a blast three-call, but followed that up by walking the bases loaded on four straight pitches. Smith fought back, knocking out Trent Grisham on another miraculous callout, and that’s how we got to the third-highest leveraged moment for the Braves in 2021, with two outs, bases loaded and this one-point lead in the ninth.

The hitter for this one was Ha-Seong Kim, and Smith made things even more terrifying by falling behind 2-0. But then he got the count at 2-2, and after a foul, beat Kim on a challenge fastball to end the game and escape another ultimate leverage situation without completing the implosion.

#2: Will Smith vs. Mets, June 21

June 21 was a strange day for the Braves in many ways. They had just shared a doubleheader with the Cardinals on June 20 and were scheduled to play yet another doubleheader, this time with the Mets, a day later. Jacob deGrom beat them in Game 1, so they entered Game 2 at 33-37, trailing the Mets by 6.5 games. The game itself was also quite disastrous, as the Braves failed to make a single run against Jerad Eickhoff in four frames; Eickhoff was making his first start of the year and hadn’t been healthy and efficient since 2018. But, as soon as Eickhoff left, Acuña popped Miguel Castro for a solo shot to start the fifth, and there had that lead, with nine outs to go, because it was a stupid seven inning game.

The Braves didn’t score again, so it was up to Will Smith. He started his inning with a groundout, but then back-to-back singles and a pitch hit loaded the bases. One of the bachelors was an eye-seer, but still no bueno. Kevin Pillar followed with a liner that luckily hit straight on Austin Riley, who caught it and dived to score the third base sack. The initial call was “out,” which would have ended the game, but no — the replay overruled it and gave us this No. 2: Will Smith vs. former Braves farmer Brandon Drury. Smith threw the first strike, Drury fouled on three consecutive pitches, and then again, something of an anticlimax for the end of the game:

Very high leverage, very low xwOBA on this game.

#1: Freddie Freeman vs. Yankees, August 24

All of the previous items on this list involved a Braves pitcher, and all went well for the Braves. Yet the highest debt situation, by a hair’s breadth, has neither of these two traits. He was a Brave at home plate, and in the end, it didn’t benefit them.

The Braves were down 5-3 in the bottom of the ninth in this one, as Aroldis Chapman came on to try and get the final three outs. He got two but worked hard, giving up a few singles and a few walks, including a goal-laden free pass for Jorge Soler. It’s what set up the single most leveraged plate appearance involving the Braves this year, and also resulted in Chapman being waived before facing Freddie Freeman in favor of Wandy Peralta.

If you’re a fan of tension, this inning, and truly, single-plate appearance had it all, as Freeman and Peralta needed nine pitches to resolve the game. Of the nine pitches, Freeman managed just one non-strike and took a 3-1 lead before committing four straight substitutions. He got a fifth, in more or less the same zone as four other changes in the zone, but unfortunately he didn’t get any safety out of it:

Aside from the result, another disappointment here is that Freeman didn’t quite get anything done with a bunch of the proverbial wheelhouse changes. Never mind.

So, now you know the Braves’ five most significant board appearances of the season. But that may seem somewhat inconsequential given that neither of these values ​​is particularly aware of the Braves’ title race, only caring about the state of the game but not the state of the season. For that, stay tuned for the same exercise, but using the Championship Leverage Index – we’ll cover five more, all taking place during the World Series.