The best hitter on the Atlanta Braves is not Freddie Freeman, Marcell Ozuna, or Ronald Acuña, Jr.
No, it’s Huascar Ynoa, a 22-year-old rookie righthander from the Dominican Republic who has already hit two home runs this season. One of them, at Nationals Park in Washington last night, came with the bases loaded.
While Freeman and Ozuna went a combined 0-for-9 in the same game, Ynoa raised his batting average to .385, with five hits and six RBIs in 13 plate appearances. Three of his five hits went for extra bases, as he also has a double to his credit.
Ynoa has a .385 on-base percentage, .923 slugging average, and 1.308 OPS (on-base plus slugging). Like Shohei Ohtani, this guy needs no DH.
“Incredible,” said Acuña Jr. through an interpreter after the game. “He did a great job, and he did what we expected him to do. We’ve come to expect that from him on the mound and at the plate.”
The grand-slam, against Rainey, came in the top of the sixth. Fellow freshman William Contreras, Ynoa’s batterymate, knocked in a run with a single, increasing Atlanta’s lead to 2–0 and setting the stage for the hard-hitting pitcher. Ynoa then converted a 95 mph fastball into a 427-foot home run to dead center field.
“Obviously, he put a good swing on it,” said Washington reliever Tanner Rainey, who surrendered the slam.
Ynoa is now the first pitcher in the history of the Atlanta Braves to homer in consecutive starts and first in franchise history since both Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette did it for the Milwaukee Braves in June 1961.
Not bad for a guy who started the season as the 26th man on the 26-man roster and got his chance to start only when Max Fried strained a hamstring running the bases three weeks ago.
In six starts, he’s gone 3-1 with a 2.36 ERA while averaging 10 strikeouts per nine innings. That makes him the team’s best pitcher too.
A hard thrower considered a two-pitch pitcher entering the season, Ynoa has added a changeup to his repertoire. He threw quite a few of them during his 6-1 win over Washington Tuesday night.
But, like most pitchers, he only wants to discuss his hitting.
“I put a lot of work into my hitting going into camp this year,” Ynoa told reporters afterward. “I don’t go in an inning trying to hit a home run. All I’m trying to do is get on base, or just get a hit because that’s not where the danger is. The danger [for them] is facing Acuña next. All I’m trying to do is get on base and let the hitters, the actual hitters, do the rest of the damage.”
Ynoa hit his first career home run April 28 in a 10-0 win over the Cubs.
Braves pitchers have an affinity for grand-slams. On July 3, 1966, Tony Cloninger became the first player in National League history to hit two of them in one game (he also had an RBI single that day).
The last Braves pitcher to homer with the bases full was Jaime García on July 21, 2017, against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Three days later, he was later traded to the Minnesota Twins with catcher Anthony Recker in a deal that brought Ynoa to Atlanta. At the time, Ynoa was a 19-year-old Rookie League pitcher with an 0-4 record and 5.26 ERA.
That deal is starting to look like a repeat of the 1987 swap that sent veteran starter Doyle Alexander to Detroit in exchange for an unknown right-handed pitcher named John Smoltz.
Just last week, Ynoa became the first Braves pitcher since Smoltz with consecutive multi-hit games. Now he’s the first pitcher in the major leagues to homer in consecutive games since Steven Matz, then with the Mets, in September 2018.
Getting into better playing shape helped. The 6’2″ righty slimmed down to 220 pounds – most of it muscle, from the looks of him.
Ynoa broke into the big leagues with two relief appearances in 2019 (six runs in three innings) and posted a 5.82 ERA in nine games including five starts in 2020. But he pitched well when it counted, as evidenced by his four scoreless innings of one-hit relief in an NLCS game against the powerful Los Angeles Dodgers.
Ynoa and fellow rookie Ian Anderson are the only Braves starters who have pitched seven full innings in games this season. Free agent signees Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly have struggled, while Fried, the erstwhile ace, pitched poorly even before his mid-April injury.
“He worked in a lot more changeups tonight,” manager Brian Snitker said of Ynoa, who fanned four, walked two, and yielded four hits. “That’s going to be really good for him too as he continues to start. He has command of the strike zone, his fastball, and a feel for his breaking ball, and he’s just throwing really well.”
A position player as an amateur, Ynoa turned to pitching because of his strong arm. He and William Contreras, Atlanta’s No. 1 catcher after Travis d’Arnaud submitted to surgery for a torn ligament in the thumb of his catching hand, have been together since rookie ball.
“We’ve definitely come up a long way together,” Ynoa said of his Venezuelan backstop, whose brother is Cubs All-Star Willson Contreras. “We have a good relationship and know each other well.”
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