Braves’ Orlando Arcia blossoms as elite defender after replacing Dansby Swanson

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ATLANTA — When Atlanta Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia was voted to start in the NL All-Star team last summer, it was because he was batting .330 with a nearly .900 OPS in mid-June for a first-place team when fan ballots were cast. It was not for his defense, which was solid but not exceptional in his first year as Atlanta’s starting shortstop.

This season, however, things have changed significantly. Arcia is playing shortstop at a level that Braves fans became accustomed to because of his predecessor, two-time Gold Glove winner Dansby Swanson. If there was a bit of a defensive downgrade last year in the first season after Swanson went to the Chicago Cubs as a free agent, any disparity has been erased in 2024.

“I’m sure people thought there was going to be a huge dropoff, and there hasn’t been,” said Walt Weiss, the Braves bench coach and infield coach who was a 1998 All-Star shortstop with Atlanta.

Most advanced defensive metrics at Fangraphs rate Arcia well ahead of Swanson this season, including defensive runs above average (DEF), where Arcia was fourth among MLB shortstops at 4.3 entering Tuesday, easily outpacing Swanson (1.4), who was tied with the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts at 13th.

In outs above average (OAA), Arcia was tied for third among MLB shortstops at 4.6, trailing only the San Francisco Giants’ Nick Ahmed (6.0) and Kansas City Royals star Bobby Witt Jr. (5.5). Swanson was 16th at zero OAA, just ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies Trea Turner (minus-1).

That’s why it was so surprising when Arcia made a fielding error in the sixth inning Tuesday night in a 4-2 win against the Boston Red Sox, just his second of the season after entering with a .993 fielding percentage tied for second-best among MLB shortstops.

That was the same inning when Braves pitcher Reynaldo López’s pinpoint command suddenly abandoned him and he issued three walks in a five-batter span. The last of those brought in a run before López was replaced by Aaron Bummer, who gave up a game-tying RBI single that caromed off the back of his leg before striking out the next two to avoid further damage.

The Braves, who had taken a 2-0 lead in the third inning on Jarred Kelenic’s first home run of the season, scored twice in the eighth on a Marcell Ozuna single and Arcia’s RBI groundout to win for just the second time in seven games, after a 1-5 trip to Seattle and Dodger Stadium. They’ll try to sweep the two-game set when Atlanta lefty Chris Sale faces his former Red Sox team Wednesday night.

Last season, Arcia ranked 10th among qualified MLB shortstops in DEF at 8.2, while Swanson led with 20.5. It was similar in OAA — Swanson was first with 20 and Arcia 10th with 4.

“It’s like I’ve always said, I show up every day at the stadium ready to work,” Arcia said through an interpreter when asked about his defensive improvement. “I feel very grateful. I feel like Wash (former Braves infield coach Ron Washington) helped me a ton last year, Tui’s helping me a ton this year, and I just want to express that gratitude. They’ve been super helpful.”

Tui is Matt Tuiasosopo, who replaced Washington as third-base coach and shares infield coaching duties with Weiss.

Arcia always had a stronger arm than Swanson, whose throws weren’t high-velocity but were accurate. Arcia’s throws have been accurate and sizzling this season, so strong that Matt Olson said he has to make sure he keeps the strings tight on his first baseman’s mitt for the heat on throws from Arcia and third baseman Austin Riley.

“Absolutely, he’s played Gold Glove-caliber defense,” Olson said when asked if Arcia should get consideration for that award if he keeps this up. “He makes all the plays. He’s able to mix up his arm slots a lot. Which you don’t think is that big of a deal, but especially at shortstop, where you have to range a little bit, you’re put in some different, awkward positions, and he’s able to throw from any spot and hit me in the chest with velocity.

“When you have that ability, it gives you the luxury to take your time on some stuff or to collect yourself with an extra step.”

“That arm is something else,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Arcia. “And his range has been better this year than I remembered last year, honestly. It’s been All-Star caliber shortstop.”

Arcia’s range, as measured by range runs above average (RngR), was only 15th among 20 qualified MLB shortstops in 2023, but was seventh-best this season entering Tuesday, just ahead of Swanson’s.

Arcia has the instincts and slick footwork around the base to make plays that show up on highlight reels, like one Sunday at Dodger Stadium. He ranged to his left to field a sharp grounder from Teoscar Hernández and, while still on his knees, Arcia spun and tossed the ball from his glove backhanded perfectly to second base, an out on a close play he likely wouldn’t have made if he tried to transfer the ball to his throwing hand.

“You can practice that sort of stuff and you have fun doing it,” Arcia said, “but then when it happens in the game it’s more instinct.”

At the plate, Arcia’s .731 OPS since the beginning of the 2023 season ranked 10th among MLB shortstops with a minimum of 500 plate appearances, just ahead of Swanson’s .727 in that span, and Arcia’s 98 weighted runs created-plus (wRC+) was just behind Swanson’s 101.

“I think (Arcia) is one of the best bargains in baseball,” Weiss said.

There’s no question about that. Among lineup regulars with the service time for arbitration eligibility — he’s well beyond that requirement — Arcia might be the best bargain. He’s on a three-year, $7.3 million contract extension he signed on 2023 Opening Day. It pays an extremely modest $2 million this season and again in 2025, and has a $2 million club option for 2026 with a $1 million buyout.

Swanson, 30, is making $26 million in the second season of a seven-year, $177 million contract with the Cubs, and his salary climbs to $28 million each of the next three seasons.

“It’s nuts,” Riley said, speaking not of contracts but the elite defense he’s seen from Arcia. “I definitely think it’s Gold Glove-caliber. I just think it’s more about him settling into himself and the player that he’s capable of being.”

Of the contract being club-friendly, Riley smiled and said, “For sure. I think it’s another testament to how good Alex is. He sees stuff that we don’t see.”

That would be Alex Anthopoulos, Braves general manager and president of baseball operations, who surprised many late in 2023 spring training when he announced that prospects Vaughn Grissom and Braden Shewmake, who’d been competing for the starting shortstop job, were optioned to Triple A and that the Braves instead were going with the more experienced Arcia as Opening Day shortstop.

Until then, Arcia was expected to be a utility player, after spending more time at second base and left field during the previous two seasons with the Braves. Before that he had been shifted to a utility role at the end of his tenure with the Milwaukee Brewers.

After debuting at 21 with Milwaukee in 2016, Arcia was the Brewers’ starting shortstop for all or parts of five seasons before being shifted to a utility role late in 2020. He was traded to the Braves in April 2021 and spent much of that season in Triple A.

Since late in 2023 spring training, he’s been used exclusively at shortstop, and Arcia has flourished.

Weiss said, “He’s always been really talented. I saw him as a kid in Milwaukee, his first big-league camp. I was managing Colorado. I was once a shortstop, so I heard about him. He was a big prospect and I watched him and said, this kid looks like the real deal right here. He got sidetracked there for a little while, and to his credit, he fought his way back.

“People say, ‘Why is Arcia doing so well?’ And I say, I think it’s just a matter of a really talented guy being able to settle into his spot on this team.”

Arcia agreed with Riley and Weiss said about him getting better now that he’s a starter again at the position he prefers.

“Absolutely,” Arcia said. “I think just being able to focus on one thing, not having to worry about how to play in the outfield, how to do whatever, being able to just play shortstop has allowed me to focus on that. It’s the position I developed in, the position where I signed as. So that’s where I feel most comfortable.”

(Photo of Orlando Arcia from April 29: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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