This post is going to be about July 2018. Here’s the short version: July 2018 is going to be absolutely critical to the Braves’ overall 2018 season. If there’s going to be any stretch that proves decisive, I would put my money on it being the next four weeks, All-Star Break and all. With that basic point out of the way, I want to go back and think about the last couple of weeks, before jumping in to why July matters.
Back on June 11, Scott Coleman wrote an article about how these past two weeks were quite critical for the Braves. Why? Because the Braves were facing an array of “bad” teams while the Nationals and Phillies faced stiffer competition, allowing the Braves to build a bit of a cushion in the division race if they were able to take advantage. If you think back to June 11, here’s what the standings and Fangraphs playoff odds looked like:
Now, let’s look at what the Fangraphs playoff odds looked like after yesterday’s series-losing contest against the Reds (but before most other teams in the NL had played):
In this “very important” stretch, the Braves made some hay! They gained a whopping four games (in two weeks) on the Nationals, and gave no ground to the Phillies. Their playoff odds increased by nearly 10 percent. (They’ll have dropped somewhat since the Braves lost their last game against the Reds, though.)
On the one hand, it’s incredibly disappointing to lose four of six games to the Orioles and the Reds. But, on the other hand, the Braves went 8-6 in that stretch of easy competition overall, including a two-game sweep of the Mets, a 3-1 series against the Padres, and a split against the Blue Jays. Winning eight of 14 is a .571 winning percentage, akin to what a 93-win team does over an entire season. The Braves’ winning percentage is currently .569 (hey, that’s the same as it was before this prior two-week stretch), which is a 92-win pace. The Braves basically did exactly what they have been against these teams. Sure, it’s still disappointing. But it hasn’t really done anything to their season other than kept it rolling along at the same pace.
But, all of that could change, oh-so-quickly. The July schedule is the reason why.
This is what the entire NL looked like, after the Braves’ loss on Wednesday afternoon:
The Braves are essentially tied for the NL’s best record. There are six NL contenders with higher estimated playoff odds: the Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals, Brewers, Diamondbacks, and Cardinals. The Braves play all of them but the Cubs in July. Oh, and while they don’t play the Cubs, they have to play the Yankees instead. In other words, almost every game this month will have double impact: the Braves won’t be able to rely on other teams to take wins away from their competition for a playoff spot; they’ll have to do it themselves, over and over again.
First, the Braves will have a brutal, 10-game road trip that might be the most critical stretch of the entire season. They head to St. Louis for three against a Cardinals team that’s played about as well as they have over the last month. Then, it’s off to New York to face the Yankees, who are, as of June 27, the best team in baseball by record. After that, they go back out to the Midwest to play the Brewers in a four-game set that might have some effect on who ends up with the NL’s best record. By the way, there are no off-days between any of these games, so whatever bullpen fatigue/rotation reshuffle shenanigans the Braves might be tinkering with, they’ll have to get sorted out before the first game in St. Louis on Friday night.
The Braves then get a relative breather with an off-day and two games at home against the Blue Jays. Then, they get another off-day (ugh, two off-day weeks) before the respite ends and the Diamondbacks come to town. Then, there’ll be the All-Star Break, which constitutes a four-day layoff, before the Braves are due in Washington against their division rivals. After that series, the Braves get another breather by having to go down for Miami for two, followed by another off day.
They then return home to close out the month with four against the Dodgers before the month mercifully ends with two more against the Marlins. (The concluding game of that series is in August.) So, yes, you read that right: the Braves play only six games against non-contenders during the entire month. Every other game will have playoff implications for both of the teams involved. Good luck, Braves. We’re all counting on you.
As a point of comparison, while the Braves play only three series and six games against non-contenders in this period, the Nationals will play 16 games (across five series) against weaker teams (Marlins x2, Mets x2, Pirates) in this stretch. The Phillies, meanwhile, get a whopping 20 games in the shortened month (also across five series) against weaker teams (Orioles, Pirates, Mets, Marlins, Padres, Reds).
Something will definitely happen in July 2018. If these Braves are to be a team of surprising destiny, they’ll need to prove it. That journey begins on Friday night.