Coming into the season, questions were abound about the Braves’ offense. There seemed to be holes throughout the lineup, and the team figured to struggle against the elite pitching talent in the NL East. Between Scherzer, Strasburg, Arrieta, Nola, deGrom, and Syndergaard - among others - the Braves were projected to have a long season in the fourth year of their rebuild.
This helps to underscore the inherent inaccuracy of some projection systems.
For anyone keeping score, the Braves’ lineup has proven both pesky and powerful from top to bottom, and they haven’t bowed down to the NL East’s power arms. With Freddie Freeman playing at an elite level, an unforeseen power breakout from Ozzie Albies, and the resurrection of Nick Markakis, the Braves’ offense is among the best in baseball. Not only do they lead the NL in runs scored, they are tied for the lead in batting average (.258) and slugging percentage (.424). They are second in OPS (.749) and offensive fWAR (12.7), third in wRC+ (102), and tied for third in OBP (.325).
But how have they fared against top-tier pitching? Have they just been racking up these gaudy numbers against lesser competition? Actually, it’s quite the contrary.
The Braves have faced 8 of the top 30 pitchers in baseball, and 13 of the top 36 (rated by fWAR). They figure to face another this week when they travel to Toronto to face J.A. Happ. Games against these top 36 pitchers have comprised 26 of the Braves first 71 games - 36.6% of their games so far in 2018. Let’s take a look at how they’ve fared against some of the game’s best arms:
The offense hasn’t exactly been destroying these starters, collectively slashing .248/.291/.379 against them with 45 extra base hits over these 26 games (13 HR). By no means does this qualify as elite offensive performance, but when taking into account the fact that these are some of the best in the game, it’s actually somewhat passable. (Note: Syndergaard would have placed between Nick Pivetta and Blake Snell on this list, but as of this week he has fallen below the minimum innings threshold. The Braves went 1-1 against the Mets in games Thor started this year, and slashed .333/.352/.471 against him).
Some of the games pitched against the Braves have been absolutely stellar, including Scherzer’s 2-hit, complete game shutout on April 9, and Strasburg’s 3-hit, 8-inning gem the following night. On the other hand, the Braves have torched Vince Velasquez multiple times, and made Chris Sale wish he’d never shown up at Fenway on May 27. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth about this offense’s ability to handle top-tier pitching strictly from a 9 vs. 1 perspective.
But here’s where it gets interesting and even a bit awe-inspiring. Despite their overall 3.31 ERA against the Braves, this Top 36 only carries a 5-14 W-L record against the Braves. In the 26 games started by these pitchers, the Braves’ overall record is 18-8.
It seems unlikely that the Braves would be winning against these arms at a 69.2% clip, but it’s true. This team has consistently proven its ability to make the impossible possible, and the improbable seem logical. Some of it has been luck-based, but what successful baseball season isn’t? All season, we have watched the Braves find ways to win games they had no business winning. The Opening Day comeback against the Phillies, a game which was started by Nola (#8). The Memorial Day walk-off HR by Charlie Culberson, which was started by deGrom (#2). The six-run bottom of the 9th rally against the Marlins on May 20. The five-run comeback on May 29 against the Mets.
Their proclivity for late-inning heroics is not exactly a preferred or reliable method, but their offense has found ways to scratch out victories in all forms, regardless of who is toeing the opposing mound. In some cases, the most crucial aspect of some of these games is to keep it within reach while the top-tier opponents are on the mound, and do the heavy lifting against the bullpen. Not necessarily a sustainable formula, but if the shoe fits, wear it until you wear it out.
As much as anything, this run of good fortune demonstrates how good the Braves’ pitching has been to counter these great arms (for what it’s worth, Mike Foltynewicz ranks 12th in fWAR; Sean Newcomb is 22nd). A great example of this came just last week - deGrom came out firing and only allowed one run against Atlanta over 7 innings. This could have proven devastating on any other day, except for the fact Mike Soroka brought his A-game and held a no-hitter into the 7th. The Braves held on to win 2-0. It was an unfair loss for the elite deGrom, and a hard-earned win for the scrappy and never-say-die Braves. This past weekend, it was a similar story with Newcomb out-dueling San Diego’s Jordan Lyles and leading the Braves to a narrow 1-0 victory. All it takes to win is to be up by one run when the last out is squeezed.
This is of particular interest when considering a potential Braves playoff run. If Atlanta makes it to the postseason, these are the exact types of pitchers they will be facing. Teams will often rearrange and truncate their rotations so they are only letting their most seasoned and elite pitchers start games in October. The Braves have demonstrated time and time again that they can hang with the best, even if it results in the occasional 1-0 or 2-1 final score.
With a Braves offense that has outperformed even the most optimistic of projections, and a pitching staff that has taken giant steps forward, any game is within reach in 2018. Nobody wants to face Max Scherzer at any point, and nobody would face Jacob deGrom if they didn’t have to. But the Braves have proven they will not back down from these challenges, and if that’s how the schedule lines itself up, so be it. They are more than capable of finding a way to win against anyone at any time.