Note: This post only contains information through Friday’s series opener against the Diamondbacks. Two games won’t change much in the greater scheme of things.
Coming into play on Saturday’s Game Two against the Diamondbacks, the Braves had gone 2-7 in their last nine contests, and 8-12 in their last 20. Friday’s 2-1 defeat to Arizona was the first time since the last day of April that the Braves were more than a game out of first place in the NL East. Previously, I wrote that July would be the month to make or break this team — about halfway through, it’s looking more like the latter than the former.
There are a lot of things that can be said about the team’s overall results, but the bottom line is simply going to be that the Braves have not played well going back to mid-June. They were bailed out by the Phillies and Nationals scuffling a bit, but the Phillies have turned on the jets against weak competition in July, while the Braves have foundered on the rocks of good teams. While Atlanta is still in the mix for a season that can hardly be considered to be anything but shattering expectations, it’s still somewhat disappointing to decline from coin flip odds of making the playoffs to a one-in-three chance, especially in the span of under a week.
In late May, I noted that the Braves’ blistering start was not just the result of a team managing to claw together wins in a ton of its games, but directly tied to the extremely good performance of a lot of their players. In particular, five the Braves’ eight lineup spots (Freeman, Albies, Markakis, Flowers, Swanson), as well as two of their rotation spots (Foltynewicz, Newcomb), were performing at levels exceeding any reasonable projection likelihood. Fast-forward to mid-July, and a lot has changed. (For an explanation of what these tables reflect and their nuances, refer to the above-linked article.)
Ozzie Albies, Nick Markakis, and Mike Foltynewicz are still killing it, but even they’ve fallen off the pace. Albies and Markakis were playing on a pro-rated 5.7 fWAR/600 and 5.3 fWAR/600 basis, respectively, through about the first 20 days of May. They’re still on fantastic paces, mind, but just a bit lower, at 5.0 and 3.9 now. Mike Foltynewicz deserves a special shoutout here, as pretty much the only Brave to actually turn it up a notch in June. Sean Newcomb’s regression has come in a hurry, but it’s definitely happened.
Everyone else, though... they’ve slid. Freddie Freeman, Tyler Flowers, and Dansby Swanson have endured various struggles and pitfalls to put them more or less in line with expectations. Freeman had a slump. It happens, but it sucks when it does. Flowers has still been hitting the ball with authority, but it hasn’t been dropping and it’s tanked his numbers. Swanson’s issues are too multifarious to discuss here, but he’s lost the thread he had spooled earlier in the year offensively.
Even the guys that weren’t busting out of their distribution curves have slid down, or perhaps more critically, failed to regress upward. Back in mid-May, the biggest laggards were Ronald Acuña, Charlie Culberson, Brandon McCarthy, and Julio Teheran, the latter of which was particularly awful to start the year. Fast-forward to the present day, and Acuña still hasn’t done much in line with his admittedly-gaudy projections, while McCarthy and Teheran are still severely underperforming. In addition, Ender Inciarte, who was so consistent on a seasonal basis before 2018, is enduring his worst season and is in danger of finishing his year as a below-average player unless he drastically improves after the All-Star Break.
As for Culberson, he’s actually a funny case. After being pressed into full-time duty following Acuña’s leg injury, he actually hit pretty well (better than Acuña had himself) and put himself on an offensive plateau. But actually, that’s kind of the point: when one of your team’s biggest “gainers relative to projections” in June and July has been your historically-terrible utility player, it means those months haven’t gone very well. And indeed they haven’t.
Can the Braves somehow avoid the magnetic pull of their projections going forward? We’ll find out. But that magnetic pull is a tough thing to shake. The projections had the Braves finishing with 70-80 wins this season. They’ve shot up to 85ish on the back of some superlative performances so far. Will regression drag them back to the low 80s or high 70s? That’ll be something to watch for as they begin their post All-Star Break campaign.