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Braves somehow outdo themselves in miraculous May

May was not without its stumbles, but the Braves somehow improved on their April record anyway

New York Mets v Atlanta Braves - Game One Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

There are a lot of things to know about the May 2018 these Atlanta Braves have just had, but I have three big-picture thoughts. First, and foremost, the Braves lead the National League East on the start of play in June. It was wild that this was true at the beginning of May, it’s even wilder now. They’ve just kept on chugging, despite some setbacks and disappointments. Second, the Braves actually outplayed their April selves, at least as far as overall record goes. The team finished 14-10 in April, and 17-12 in May. Even when you combine March with April to get a 16-11 record, the results were basically the same. For a team that lost just one series in April but three series in May, that’s pretty impressive.

Third is something different. It’s kind of crazy, but below is a list of all the notable comeback wins the Braves had this month, and the lowest win expectancy they suborned in each:

  • May 8 - 35.5 percent
  • May 12 - 30.2 percent
  • May 14 - 30.0 percent
  • May 16 - 39.2 percent
  • May 19 - 28.8 percent
  • May 20 - 0.3 percent (yes, this happened)
  • May 28 - 16.1 percent
  • May 29 - 5.1 percent
  • May 31 - 36.4 percent

No, not all of those are significant. For example, the last one was a win expectancy trough experienced three batters into the game, when the Nationals had men on second and third with none out after a double steal. But still, over half of the team’s 17 wins in May came after the win expectancy had dropped below 40 percent. If you wanted exciting Braves baseball, the month of May delivered.

Here’s where the Braves stand:

  • They have the sixth-best record in baseball, and the second-best record in the National League.
  • They lead the NL East by half a game.
  • They have MLB’s fifth-best run differential (second in the NL). This is also true for Baseball-Reference’s “Simple Rating System” which adjusts run differential by strength of schedule.
  • They’ve still underplayed their Pythagorean Expectation by one game.
  • They had the league’s sixth-best record in May.

Here’s how they got there, series by series:

  • Swept the Mets in New York
  • Got swept by the Giants back in Atlanta (ugh)
  • Swept a two-game set from the Rays on the road
  • Won three of four against the Marlins in Miami
  • Won the makeup game against the Cubs in Chicago, then split the next two games in Atlanta, with one rainout
  • Won two of three against the Marlins at home
  • Lost a three-game series in Philadelphia
  • Lost a three-game series in Boston
  • Split a series with the Mets in Atlanta
  • And, finally, won the last game in May against the Nationals (start of a four-game set).

After April, the Braves were on pace for 96 wins. After May, they’re on pace for 95 wins. If they go .500 the rest of the way, they will finish with 86 wins. If they play at a 79-win pace the rest of the way (what I figured before the season), they will pretty much still win 85-86 games. Even the Fangraphs projection system has them finishing above .500 (83-79) right now. Playoff odds from Fangraphs are now over a quarter (26.1 percent). They’ve climbed from 14.7 percent when the month started, and from a paltry 3.2 percent before the season began. The current 25th and 75th percentiles per Fangraphs’ probabilistic distributions for wins are 79 and 86. They’ve moved up in the world, is what I’m saying.

Let’s talk about team performance.

  • Offensively, the Braves finished ninth in MLB (fifth in the NL) for May with a teamwide 109 wRC+ (excluding pitchers). Defensively, they finished seventh (fourth in the NL) in Fangraphs’ Def, though that’s subject to revision in-season as lagging data are added. Overall, this group of position players remained solidly above-average in May, finishing ninth in MLB (fifth in the NL) in fWAR. If you look at the entire season so far, the Braves are third in MLB (second in the NL) in both wRC+ and fWAR.
  • Despite this value, baserunning was an issue. After a top-five baserunning mark in APril, they suffered a bottom-five one in May. The main issue was how many runs they gave up on unsuccessful steal attempts, with Ender Inciarte’s lack of success (5 SB, 4 CS) really pushing the team downward. (Johan Camargo and Nick Markakis being slow on the bases was also a notable detriment here.)
  • Where the hitting faltered a bit, the pitching picked up the slack. The rotation was middling in April, but improved in May. By ERA, it finished tenth (sixth in NL). By FIP, eighth (fifth in NL). By xFIP, still 18th (and ninth in the NL) (homer-suppression!). By fWAR, tenth (fifth in NL).
  • The bullpen remained somewhat of a sore point for the team, and actually got worse in some respects relative to April. The relief corps finished 15th in ERA (eighth in NL), 16th in FIP (eighth in NL), and 10th in xFIP (fifth in NL). By leverage-weighted value (fWAR), they finished 21st (eighth in NL); by WPA, they finished 12th (seventh in NL). However, the overall effect of the bullpen was split. Dan Winkler and A.J. Minter (the latter not always entirely due to his own skills) provided a lot of WPA at the tail ends of games; Matt Wisler and Sam Freeman had some poor outings at Boston that really drove the team’s bullpen WPA down.
  • Put the rotation and bullpen together and you had the league’s ninth-best pitching staff by fWAR in May. (14th by RA9-WAR.) On a full season, the pitching remains middling: 16th in fWAR (but ninth in RA9-WAR), but that’s an improvement from a bottom-third pitching performance in April. The hitting got worse, the pitching got better. Team effort.

Onwards, to recognition.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for Position Player Excellence in May 2018 — Freddie Freeman again

Freeman, as he so often does, led his teammates in wRC+ and fWAR for the month. He knocked five homers (tied with Ozzie Albies for the team lead), drove in 21 runs (most, one ahead of Nick Markakis), scored the third-most runs, and generally made life annoying for opposing pitching with a .433 OBP. Freeman finished as a top-15 position player in MLB for the month; on the season he’s eighth in MLB with 2.5 fWAR (with about even amounts in both April and May).

Freeman dominated two of the Braves’ victories in the month. He had a two-homer game against the Marlins that gave the Braves enough of a cushion to come back from a disappointing sequence in the middle innings. He also did it without homers later in the month against the Mets, going 2-for-3 with a single that set up a game-tying sacrifice fly in the eighth. But, mostly, he was just consistent: despite those two games being the only ones in May with a WPA over 0.25, he still finished 23rd in MLB in WPA for the month (among position players).

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for Starting Pitcher Excellence in May 2018 — Sean Newcomb

Aside from one hiccup pitching in front of hometown fans (and me) in Boston, Newcomb was straight-up dominant in May. His ERA was 1.54, his FIP was 2.78, his average game score was 64. In his first three starts of the month, he threw 19 scoreless innings and allowed just five hits (and only eight walks, too). Even in his next three starts, including the Boston blowup, he allowed just six total runs. The Braves went 5-1 in his starts. He finished essentially top 10 in fWAR for the month.

Most impressively, he did most of his pitching with barely any cushion. In his first start of the month, he kept a scoreless game going for five innings and continued it when the Braves finally scored three runs in the last two innings before he departed. He was the pitcher of record in a 1-0 win against the Rays. Against the Marlins, he made a 1-0 lead stand up until again, the Braves extended it by a few runs late. It was only in his two most recent starts that the Braves actually scored for him consistently before the fifth. Good on you, Sean.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for Relief Pitcher Excellence in May 2018 — Dan Winkler

After the Shane Carle magic faded somewhat in May, Dan Winkler stepped up and continued his phenomenal season with a downright dominant month. In short: he allowed zero earned runs in May. He faced 38 batters and allowed just six to reach base legitimately (five hits, one walk). He struck out 15 of them. He did allow two costly runs in Boston, but they were unearned and his only blemish. In his 12 outings for the month, that was the only one with a negative WPA.

Winkler’s month was bookended with mostly-dominant outings. On May 1, he issued a leadoff walk and then exacted revenge via two straight strikeouts and a foulout to preserve a two-run lead in the seventh. He preserved another two-run lead in the seventh on May 22 by facing the minimum, thanks to a double play. Ignoring his Boston misadventure, he then pitched a scoreless inning in the top of the ninth despite allowing the first two batters to reach against the Mets on May 29, and then carved up the Nationals with two strikeouts and a fly out last night to hold a two-run cushion in the eighth.

Best Offensive Play - Charlie Culberson ?!?!?!?!?!?!

As indicated, this was a miracle month, full of miraculous plays. None was more miraculous than Charlie Culberson’s walkoff homer in the ninth off of Seth Lugo.

There were a lot of crazy things about this incident, including that it came after the Braves had tied the game in the eighth and then fallen back behind in the ninth thanks to a Devin Mesoraco homer off of Shane Carle. But, mainly, it’s that Charlie Culberson is a career 52 wRC+ hitter with only seven homers (including that one, his first of the year) to his name in regular season play. Only starting due to Ronald Acuña’s injury and a lefty starter, Culberson made the most of his opportunity and added another stanza to the ongoing epic of the Braves’ 2018 season.

(Why not Dansby Swanson’s walkoff against the Marlins? Well, mostly because that was the culmination of a team effort; Culberson’s homer was the single best offensive play.)

Best Run-Stopping Play - Turn the Double Play, then Exhale

When the Braves and Rays tangled on May 8, only one run scored, on a Ronald Acuña Jr. homer off of Blake Snell. That’s the way the score remained, and how it would end up, thanks to this play. Arodys Vizcaino entered the ninth and allowed a leadoff single, bringing up Denard Span. Span hit a liner to right field. It wasn’t particularly hard-hit (78.8 mph off the bat), but liners like that still end up being hits about half the time (48 percent hit probability). Instead, this happened, and possibly saved the game for the Braves.

In the “May looks kinda like April camp,” you’ll recall that April’s best run-stopping play was also Albies bailing out a reliever by starting a double play.

Most Dominant Offensive Performance

Ha, yeah, I’m just going with Culberson here, because really? Freakin’ Charlie Culberson, man. Right in the feels, when you least expect it. That single play resulted not only in the highest single WPA play by a Brave in May, but also the highest single-game WPA performance. Wild.

Most Dominant Starting Pitching Performance

This one happened very early in the month: Sean Newcomb utterly dominanted the Mets. He allowed just two hits and one walk. He struck out eight. Most impressively, he turned on the jets after the Mets had already seen him once, flipping the script on when pitchers tend to struggle. He retired the last twelve batters he faced, striking out five of them. Even both hits he allowed early in the game were with two outs, and he had no trouble following them out with easy outs.

The game gave him an 82 game score (version 2), easily the highest of his career and of any Atlanta starter this season. You can watch some highlights below.

The Mets couldn’t hit the soft stuff that swept across the zone. They couldn’t hit the 93-94 fastballs at the belt or higher, swinging through tons of strikes. Oh yeah, he also hit a double in this game. Fun stuff.

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

Shane Carle really faded in May, actually putting up the team’s worst individual pitching line (3.97 ERA, 5.59 FIP, 5.15 xFIP, -0.2 fWAR). After throwing up a 22.4 percent strikeout rate to go with a 5.3 walk rate in April en route to appearing like a highly-effective multi-inning relief option, he cratered with a paltry 10.6 percent strikeout rate and 8.5 walk rate in May. However, that obscures some of the story. Carle didn’t start struggling as soon as the calendar turned — it was only in the last ten days of May or so that he struggle. Indeed, he’s given up runs in every outing since May 21, but went an entire calendar month (April 18 to May 19) before giving up a run.

So, it kind of goes without saying that this particular outing occurred before May 20, and it was a doozy. In the seventh inning of a makeup game against the Cubs at Wrigley, the Braves clung to a 6-4 lead. Sam Freeman came on retired the first batter, but then put the tying runs on base via back-to-back singles. Out came Shane Carle to deal with the threat. First, he got an infield pop. Then, a soft grounder from Tommy La Stella ended the rally. He wasn’t done yet, though. Facing the heart of Chicago’s MLB-best lineup, he carved right through them. Kris Bryant grounded back to the mound. Anthony Rizzo grounded to second. Ben Zobrist grounded to first. Five up, five down. The hit probabilities for the contact he elicited? 3%, 28%, 11%, 43%, 5%. The ball that Bryant hit? It was hit at 14.6 miles per hour. No, that’s not a typo.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy video of this, but Shane Carle was awesome that night. The Braves preserved the lead thanks to his fine efforts.

Again, in the “May looks kinda like April camp,” you’ll recall that April’s most dominant relief pitching performance was also Shane Carle, keeping a game scoreless for two innings. Will he find the magic again in June?

Ronald Acuña Jr., Baseball Obliterator

I couldn’t choose which of these was the month’s most-crushed ball, so just have both. Behind Door Number One, you have his homer against Jason Vargas, hit at 112 mph, traveling an estimated 451 feet.

Behind Door Number Two, you have the only run in the May 8 game against Blake Snell, hit at 108.5 mph, traveling an estimated 434 feet. I can’t choose.

Ronald Acuña is a bad mamma-jamma, or something. Get well soon, kid. (Actually I think he’s already “well” but you know what I mean.)

Despite all the miracles, though, May was not without its disappointments. It didn’t end with the Giants sweeping the Braves. It didn’t end with losing a series to the Phillies. Nor did it end with losing a series in front of my non-screen-filtered eyes at Fenway Park. Let’s relive some of the garbage from this month, if you dare.

Most Painful Opposing Plate Appearance

The good news is that the Braves won this game anyway. The bad news is that this was super-annoying. Mike Soroka held a 4-1 lead heading into the fifth in Miami. He got the first two outs, but a Martin Prado single to center and a Starlin Castro infield single put two men on. Soroka then walked Justin Bour, bringing up Brian Anderson. Anderson then hit the play that probably caused the most internet vitriol in Braves land for a while, knocking a slow bouncer to third that was misplayed by Jose Bautista, allowing a run to score and the inning to continue.

Two pitches later, Soroka threw one of the worst pitches of his nascent major league career to Derek Dietrich, and the ball landed out in center field, giving Miami a go-ahead three-run double. Ugh. Watch it here. Or don’t. Whatever.

Hey, at least what happened last month in this slot (Matt Adams homering off of Arodys Vizcaino) didn’t happen again in May, even though it almost did. Miraculous, perhaps.

Most Painful Braves Plate Appearance

This one happened recently, and boy, did it suck. In the bottom of the eighth, after being dominated by Jason Vargas, the Braves put the tying runs on base against Jeurys “the one reliable Mets reliever” Familia. Nick Markakis came to bat with one out, and doing exactly the opposite of what made him more successful in April (not hitting grounders), hit a grounder. Just like that, the rally was over; the Braves lost a few minutes later.

For some reason this video isn’t embeddable, but it’s for the best. You can still watch it here if you hate happiness. Nick Markakis finished May with a 45.7 grounder rate after only hitting 38.5 percent of his batted balls on the ground in April.

Worst Single-Game Hitting Performance

You thought this was going to be the game where Dansby Swanson was forced to wear the ignominious sombrero, but nope, it’s a different game. Specifically, it’s even a game the Braves won, though no thanks to Swanson.

Here’s how this game went for Swanson. Third inning: full count fly out on a very, very blatant ball four. Fifth inning: 2-2 strikeout on his nemesis, a slider low and away. Seventh inning, with the tying run on third and one out: full count strikeout on that same nemesis slider, after every other pitch he got was up in the zone and eminently hittable, including a hanging slider and changeup that he took for strikes, and another hanging slider he could only foul off. Ninth inning: line out to right on a 1-2 pitch that wasn’t a strike.

The flip side, though, is that the Dansby-ganger of Charlie Culberson won this game immediately after Swanson’s last plate appearance. But still, you hate to see that. After finishing April with a 107 wRC+, Swanson’s production in May cratered to a 61 wRC+, with a 35.1 percent strikeout rate. His season xwOBA is now down to .285, and was an amazingly awful .195 in May.

Worst Single-Game Starting Pitcher Performance

Brandon McCarthy has been one of the few Braves limping along this season. While he’s had his share of bad luck, he also hasn’t quite done the same things that gave the team hope he’d be successful while healthy when they acquired him.

McCarthy’s roughest stretch so far was in early May. On May 5, he allowed eight runs and didn’t make it out of the fourth against the Giants. That was bad, but there were a lot of bloops. So many bloops. While not worse on paper, McCarthy being unable to bounce back next week in Miami was far more demoralizing. The woeful Marlins scored six runs off of McCarthy, including homering twice. When McCarthy faced the Giants, only about 28 percent of the batted balls fell in Fangraphs’ “hard” bucket. Against the Marlins, it was an insane 52 percent. The contact management didn’t work.

Making this even more frustrating was that the bleeding happened over multiple innings, between which the Braves kept bringing the score closer. McCarthy allowed runs in all but one of his innings, and immediately gave up the tie the bats had give him twice.

Worst Single-Game Relief Performance

Arodys Vizcaino does occasionally melt down, and May was no different. He had two very costly meltdowns in April, but the Braves lost only one of those games. In May, he only had one paroxysm, but it was brutal.

Vizcaino came on the protect a one-run lead against the Cubs, after the Braves had jumped ahead on an eighth-inning Acuña homer. Unfortunately, Vizcaino’s sequence went: fly out, double, double, groundout, single, strikeout. Just like that, the Braves were down by one instead of up by one, and lost three batters later. He didn’t get victimized, either. The three hits in the inning had hit probabilities of 74, 88, and 88 percent; the groundout had a hit probability of 50 percent. Both doubles were hit at over 100 mph. It happens, but it sucked.

Most Crushed Ball Allowed

The Braves staged an epic rally to win this game in the end, but holy smokes, Julio Teheran. Try not to do this ever again. Just absolutely mashed — 113.2 mph off the bat, an estimated 450 feet. And it was a grand slam.

See you next month!

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