Lets get this out of the way: it isn’t a certainty that the Braves will win the NL East this year although the odds are quite good. It is theoretically possible that the Braves could lose a bunch of games AND either the Phillies or Nationals go on some crazy run to chase them down. Based on how all three teams have performed this year, this is a very unlikely scenario, but possible nonetheless. It is fair to say that the Braves are the overwhelming favorites to win the division, but hopefully the above disclaimer will remove any potential jinxes and prevent too many “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” type comments.
The fact remains, though, that the Braves are in a great position despite most thinking before the 2018 season that while the team was expected to take a step forward, they weren’t going to be in contention for the division title. The Braves’ current position has certainly been impacted by the fact that the Nationals have been decidedly mediocre for most of the year when they were considered among the World Series favorites in the preseason. It also hasn’t hurt that the Phillies have forgotten how to play baseball over the last month or so.
However, what has been more important is that the Braves have defied the expectations placed upon them for this season in a number of ways. While most (whether it was pundits spitballing or actual, data-based projections) had the Braves somewhere in the 73-76 win range for 2018, they currently sit at 82-64 and in the driver’s seat at the top of the division. How did this happen? What did this team do to over-perform expectations the way they have?
To answer this, I went and looked at the ZiPS projections that internet lurker, Digital Dandy, and long-time Fangraphs’ writer Dan Szymborski put together back in January. Lets be clear, this article is not to make fun of these projections or to dog projection systems in general....far from it. Many of us here find Dan’s projections to be the best out there. Dan would be the first among those to say that most projections will likely be wrong to some degree especially when it comes to younger players (more on them in a bit), but they do generally give a good sense of how well a player should perform. Plus, ZiPS has a plethora of projections which allows for some great comparisons. Don’t get too caught up in differences in counting stats and accumulative stats like homers and WAR given that the season isn’t over yet, how WAR is calculated, and when these numbers were generated alters those a little bit. They are there more to highlight big discrepancies, not to quibble over smaller ones.
Also, these projections don’t include additions like Anibal Sanchez, Kevin Gausman, Brad Brach, Jonny Venters, etc. They have clearly had an impact on the Braves playoff push, but these projections were made well before they were Braves. ZiPS also had some things like Luiz Gohara and Mike Soroka pitching significant innings and, due to injuries, that hasn’t happened. With that in mind, here is an incomplete, but still useful look at how the projections were wrong (and right) about many Braves players in 2018 so far.
Projection: 4.35 ERA, 4.53 FIP, 7.66 K/9, 3.02 BB/9, 2.0 zWAR
Actual: 3.95 ERA, 4.84 FIP, 8.19 K/9, 4.12 BB/9, 0.6 fWAR
This one isn’t far off with a notable exception. As we can see, Szym’s projections about Julio are really pretty close to what he has ended up with so far with the exception of his walk rate which has really dinged Teheran’s overall value. Other than that, Julio has been right around where ZiPS projected to be, but walking one batter per 9 more than what was projected for him has been less than optimal.
Projection: 4.28 ERA, 4.22 FIP, 10.1 K/9, 5.75 BB/9, 1.9 zWAR
Actual: 3.82 ERA, 4.04 FIP, 8.58 K/9, 4.29 BB/9, 1.9 fWAR
Again, pretty close here as well. Newcomb’s ERA, FIP, and walk rate have been better than he was projected for although the strikeout rate is appreciably worse. Assuming Newcomb pitches reasonably well in his final few starts, he will beat his preseason projections but the overall picture isn’t crazy dissimilar.
Projection: 4.76 ERA, 4.56 FIP, 8.58 K/9, 3.32 BB/9, 1.1 zWAR
Actual: 2.66 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 10.08 K/9, 3.31 BB/9, 3.7 fWAR
Whoops, this is the big difference on the pitching side for the Braves. ZiPS had Folty’s walk rate pretty spot on, but Folty has outperformed ZiPS significantly in every other facet of his game. Going from a reasonable, if unexciting starter from a production standpoint to one of the better starters in the National League has been a big part of the Braves success in 2018.
Projection: 3.32 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 12.32 K/9, 3.55 BB/9, 0.7 zWAR
Actual: 3.36 ERA, 2.66 FIP, 10.38 K/9, 3.04 BB/9, 1.4 fWAR
Again, reasonably close in some aspects, but Minter has still be been better than was projected thanks largely to nearly a half a run difference in his actual FIP. Minter has outperformed his expected walk rate, but isn’t striking out as many as ZiPS thought he would be. It is also worth mentioning that Minter has pitched significantly more innings than ZiPS projected for him which has definitely added to his overall value.
Projection: 3.86 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 9.96 K/9, 3.21 BB/9, 0.3 zWAR
Actual: 3.12 ERA, 2.52 FIP, 10.61 K/9, 2.34 BB/9, 1.4 fWAR
Here is another guy that ZiPS missed on a couple of levels. It is clear to see that Winkler has been significantly better in every way than what was projected for him. Moreover, he has pitched a ton of innings for the Braves this year which is largely due to how good he has been. Pitch well, you get more innings. Continue to pitch well there and you go from a decent bullpen piece to a guy that gets the call in a lot of important games. Staying healthy helps a lot, too.
Ronald Acuna Jr.
Projection: .269/.321/.452, 21 homers, 101 wRC+, 2.8 zWAR
Actual: .290/.368/.578, 25 homers, 150 wRC+, 3.8 fWAR
Hahaha....ok. Lets be clear, when ZiPS came out for Ronald Acuna Jr., they were legitimately bonkers. 20 year rookies VERY seldomly put up numbers as good as the ones that Szym put out for Acuna. Instead, Acuna laughed at those projections and has been one of the very best hitters in all of baseball in the second half. Some of us thought he had the talent to be a star in this game, but few saw him taking off to these heights this quickly.
Projection: .258/.316/.408, 15 homers, 89 wRC+, 3.3 zWAR
Actual: .273/.311/.468, 22 homers, 106 wRC+, 3.7 fWAR
ZiPS was reasonably close in terms of overall value, although Ozzie still outperformed expectations and did so in unexpected ways. Ozzie’s first half power surge was insane and he has definitely cooled off in the second half. What hasn’t happened for Ozzie (and was the case in several spots for the Braves) was that the stolen base numbers haven’t been as high. His defense has been outstanding (he is among the favorites to win a Gold Glove) and he has been a significantly better hitter than projected even with the diminished walk rate and OBP.
Projection: .248/.288/.374, 7 homers, 70 wRC+, 0.6 zWAR
Actual: .274/.354/.468, 18 homers, 120 wRC+, 3.0 fWAR
Here is another whoops. Camargo definitely showed flashed last season of some real raw power and ability, but when pressed into action as the team’s primary third baseman, Johan has gone wild. A fifty point difference between his projected and actual wRC+ is no joke and he has been particularly good in the second half. Doubling his projected walk rate hasn’t hurt his cause, either.
Projection: .265/.340/.366, 8 homers, 86 wRC+, 0.5 zWAR
Actual: .308/.373/.460, 14 homers, 121 wRC+, 3.0 fWAR
Welp, here is another whoops. One can understand the skepticism about Markakis coming into 2018. His power has diminished in recent years, he isn’t a young player, he has long been defensively mediocre, and he had seemingly into being a steady veteran hitter with limited upside. In 2018, he decided to flip the script and, until a recent swoon especially in terms of his power, turn into one of the better hitters in the National League and improved defensive numbers (thanks in part to some better positioning in the outfield).
Projection: .254/.331/.385, 10 homers, 87 wRC+, 2.3 zWAR
Actual: .244/.304/.408, 14 homers, 82 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR
Again, reasonably close although Dansby still has some time to catch up to his projections and he has been better lately. Dansby has been worse than was projected by ZiPS, but his outstanding defense and improvement at the plate could get him pretty much where the projections had him in terms of overall value.
Projection: .291/.339/.396, 9 homers, 93 wRC+, 3.4 zWAR
Actual: .258/.315/.376, 10 homers, 86 wRC+, 2.3 fWAR
It has been a tough year at the plate for Ender, although the last month or so has been much kinder. Thanks to stealing a bunch of bases and a touch more power, his wRC+ is pretty close to what was projected for him. If he gets hot over the final few weeks, he could get reasonably close to his projected overall value. Also, his defense is still insane although he could feasibly get beaten out for a Gold Glove by Lorenzo Cain this year.
Projection: .291/.396/.542, 27 homers, 141 wRC+, 4.2 zWAR
Actual: .305/.387/.500, 21 homers, 136 wRC+, 4.6 fWAR
Pretty close on Freddie as well with Freddie’s power being slightly worse so far this year versus what was projected for him and his baserunning and defensive numbers being better. ZiPS had him as one of the better hitters in baseball and he has been.
Projection: .222/.264/.313, 5 homers, 50 wRC+, -0.1 zWAR
Actual: .280/.327/.494, 11 homers, 116 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR
Wut. I am not going to dwell on this too much as Ivan had a great write-up on what Culberson has done this year that you should read. In short, Culberson has been significantly better this year than at any point in his career. We don’t really care what deals had to be made for him to get to this point...we are just happy he did.
In short, it wasn’t one or two players beating expectations that got the Braves to this point. It has been a collective effort. From the players above who have turned in outstanding seasons to the randomness that is associated with every baseball season like Ryan Flaherty leading the league in hitting for the first month of the season, the Braves have had a ton go right for them this season.
In many respects, this makes one feel like what the Braves are doing is sustainable. If one player is going wild and carrying the team, the regression to the mean could be absolutely brutal. What the Braves have done is exceed expectations in so many ways that even if some players end up falling to earth, others can and will pick the team up...we have seen it time and time again in 2018. That bodes well for the team in the season’s closing weeks and, hopefully, into the playoffs.