Braves have been in funk, but Brian Snitker says it’s no time for team meeting

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves just completed their first month with a losing record in two years, but this time manager Brian Snitker had no plans for a team meeting, not like last time it happened two years ago. He wouldn’t have even if they’d lost again Friday, which they did not.

They beat the Oakland Athletics 4-2 in a series opener at sold-out Truist Park, after losing three of four in a lackluster home series against the Washington Nationals.

They finished 13-14 in May, scored two or fewer runs in 10 games, and went 0-14 when opponents scored three or more runs. It was the Braves’ first losing record in any month since going 13-15 in May 2022.

If you recall, 2022 was when the Braves played sloppy baseball in a pair of losses at Arizona to end May and slip to four games under .500 and 10 1/3 games behind the NL East-leading New York Mets. Snitker called a team meeting Wednesday morning, June 1, a couple of hours before the series finale at Arizona.

He doesn’t like to have team meetings but felt it was the right time. Snitker got his players together in the visitors clubhouse at Phoenix and told them they needed to clean things up on both sides of the ball, that they weren’t playing to the standards of the Braves, who had won the World Series seven months earlier.

He didn’t shout or throw anything, because that’s not in his nature and the players know it. But his message got through clearly, they said.

The Braves proceeded to win 6-0 that day to begin a 14-game winning streak that trimmed 6 1/2  games from their deficit against the New York Mets, whom they would catch in September and overtake with a three-game series in the season’s final week.

“We just weren’t handling things that we can control,” Snitker said Friday, recalling that team meeting.

He contrasted the circumstances then to how the Braves have played during a 13-17 stretch before Friday, to explain why he wasn’t going to have a team meeting now.

“We’re not playing bad,” he said a few hours before Friday’s game. “Pitching is really good. We’re making really good plays defensively. I mean, we’re just not hitting, that’s all. There’s nothing I’m going to tell them (to change that). You know what, when you do that and (the team) does good, it’s just a coincidence. It’s not like a light’s going off or anything like that.

“They don’t need that.”

The Braves don’t need it, Snitker said, because a hitting slump like they’ve gone through — with the notable exception of Marcell Ozuna — is different from making base-running mistakes, defensive gaffes and other mental errors.

“These guys are driven, they’re professional, they enjoy the work,” Snitker said. “They don’t like going through this; nobody does. But it’s just one of those things, you have to handle it. I always say when you handle rough spots, there’s always something good on the other side. And these guys handle it. They’re working through it.”

The Braves rank in the bottom third of the majors in first- and second-inning runs, a reversal of last season, but Friday they staked Reynaldo López to a 3-0 lead on a Matt Olson first-inning sacrifice and Jarred Kelenic’s two-run double in the second. The double came against lefty JP Spears, particularly encouraging since Kelenic is playing every day instead of a left-field platoon after Adam Duvall shifted to right to replace injured Ronald Acuña Jr.

“I think we’re just optimistic and super-positive about everything,” Kelenic said. “We’ve got a clubhouse full of ballplayers that don’t let negative crap get in the way, and I think that’s been the coolest thing, especially as a young guy learning from older guys, is that it’s always on to the next day, turn the page. I think that’s what’s going to help us win a lot of games this year.”

López limited the A’s to one run, four hits and two walks with eight strikeouts in six innings, picking up his first win in five May starts despite a 1.97 ERA for the month.

“It was great to see the team put up runs early like that,” he said through an interpreter. “You just kind of get the sense that as an offense we’re starting to click a little bit. Last year when I faced this (Braves) team, that was the entire scouting report, they put up a lot of runs early. That’s what they’re known to do. So I think what we did tonight was just a demonstration of what we’re capable of.”

Max Fried has a 1.43 ERA in his past seven starts but only a 4-2 record in that span; the Braves scored one run in each of those three non-wins. The Braves’ losing record in May came in a month when Fried, López and Saturday starter Chris Sale pitched splendidly, with Sale likely to win NL Pitcher of the Month after going 5-0 with an 0.56 ERA in five May starts.

“It’s just baseball,” Fried said. “We were piecing together the rotation last year with a bunch of different guys, and the offense was really lifting us. These guys are still putting together really good at-bats, a lot of hard-hit balls that aren’t falling. Sometimes that’s the luck of baseball. I really like our at-bats, and I know these guys are due. I’m not worried about them.”

Snitker was a former coach on legendary Braves manager Bobby Cox’s teams and has many of the same tendencies as Cox, his friend and mentor. Eddie Perez, a current Braves coach and a catcher for nine seasons on Cox’s Braves teams, said Cox rarely called team meetings. Especially not because of a team hitting slump.

“Bobby wasn’t a guy with meetings and stuff, he just trusted everybody,” Perez said. “He knew we were going to get out of it. I feel the same way now. I feel we’re going to get out of this soon.”

Snitker’s the same way as Cox in that regard, Perez said.

“I think we’re going to get out of this,” Perez said before Friday’s game. “C’mon, man. You look at the season last year. I’m not worried. It’s frustrating to see the guys like that, but I think we’re going to be fine. And we went through this, we went through stuff like this before. We just keep going out there and doing the little things and start winning games.”

Not that it’s pleasant going through it for anyone.

“And it’s rough when you’re a team that’s built on slug and power like we are, and you don’t have that,” Snitker said. “That even makes it harder. But you know what, we’ve done really well with it the last five, six, seven years, built like that. So we just have to weather this storm like we have in the past.”

It’s not as if the Braves are going to change course in the middle of the season and start playing “small ball” and manufacturing runs with stolen bases (especially now with Acuña out for the season), sacrifices and singles.

“Yeah, like I say, our guys aren’t built that way,” Snitker said.

The Braves have created plenty of problems for themselves by striking out so much more frequently this season and hitting far fewer homers than during their spectacular 2023, when they led the majors in virtually every hitting category and tied an MLB single-season record with 307 homers. But they also have been the victims of some bad luck.

It’s evident by the fact they led the majors in average exit velocity (90.2 mph) and hard-hit percentage (44.2) before Friday, after leading in the same categories last season at 90.9 and 46.2. Their expected numbers — average, OBP, slugging percentage — have all been significantly lower this season than their actual averages. The Braves’ 52 outs on balls hit at 105 mph or higher were the most in the National League before Friday, and Michael Harris II’s 14 such outs led NL hitters.

Not that they are using that as an excuse to explain away their recent offensive futility. No, this is a team that was hitting a paltry .206 with runners in scoring position in May before Friday, second lowest in the majors and better only than the Chicago Cubs (.184).

It’s a team that has Ozuna with a .989 OPS and NL-leading 16 homers and 49 RBIs, but no other qualifier with an OPS as high as .750 or with more than eight homers or 29 RBIs.

The Braves’ .289 on-base percentage in May was the majors’ third lowest, and their 28 homers and .373 slugging percentage in May were 23 homers fewer and 96 points lower than last May, which wasn’t even a particularly good month for Atlanta. They slugged .569 with 61 homers last June, en route to .501 for the season, becoming the first team in MLB history to slug .500 or better for a full season.

They’re hoping for a similar turnaround this June. For whatever reason, May has been a relatively bad month for them for some time. Since they began their run of six consecutive division titles in 2018, the team’s 86-79 record in May (before Friday) was its lowest winning percentage (.521) in any month over that span.

That still was the 11th-best mark in MLB over the past seven months, but the Braves’ 460-298 record (.607) in all other months during that period is second best behind the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Snitker was asked Friday how hitting coach Kevin Seitzer is handling all this.

“He wears it worse than anybody,” Snitker said. “It’s harder on him than anybody, him and Bobby (Magallanes, assistant hitting coach). Because they put so much into it. Their study, the work, everything they do, they’re living it. It’s harder on them probably than anybody in the building, because they care so much, and they’re so dedicated to what they’re doing.”

Perez said there’s one other thing that makes him believe the Braves will break out of their funk and get on a roll soon. Their clubhouse. He said it’s even better than during his playing days.

“You go in the clubhouse today and everybody is acting the same way they always do,” Perez said. “I know they worry. But they come to the clubhouse, have fun and are the same guys winning or losing. It’s fun to watch those guys having fun. It’s a family team out there, man. It’s unbelievable.”

Perez started to walk away, but stopped to add, “The question you asked before, did (team slumps) happen when I was playing? Yes, but probably the guys don’t talk to each other. Now we’ve got guys that help each other. It’s a family team; I love this team.”

(Photo of Brian Snitker and Adam Duvall: Matthew Grimes Jr. / Atlanta Braves / Getty Images)

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