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Another happy September propels Braves to postseason

The Braves just kept rolling in September, right up to clinching the division

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

I love doing the monthly recaps, but doing the September ones for the past two seasons has felt weird. After all, I’m writing these words on the eve of the Braves starting a playoff series, and the focus is on the future, not on what happened over the past month. Yet, like the Braves in September, the monthly recaps will roll on.

The Braves clinched their second consecutive division title in September, and they kept the pedal floored as they did so. While the team’s overall September record was a pretty pedestrian 14-11 (their second-worst month aside from the March/April combination), the reality is that the team blazed a 12-6 warpath up through their clinching victory, and then ambled to a 2-5 finish thereafter. As such, recapping the calendar month as a whole feels somewhat incongruous, but here’s where the Braves ended up:

  • The offense was fine. Not good, fine. The position players put up a 100 wRC+ for the month, which is definitionally average, and a little above (12th in MLB) considering that offense tends to dip as a whole in September. With that September finish, the Braves locked in a 110 wRC+ for the year, good for sixth in MLB and third in the National League. That also happens to be their season-end fWAR rank, as a somewhat-above-average-but-not-too-much defense didn’t move the needle in either direction.
  • The pitching was kind of fine, and kind of blah. The rotation finished with just 1.1 fWAR over the month, good for 21st in MLB, though a lot of that was just homer shenanigans, as they finished 10th in ERA-, 19th in FIP-, and 17th in xFIP- for September. The bullpen was much better, finishing ninth in MLB in fWAR, and benefited from the opposite kind of homer shenanigans while the rotation was suffering from them: 11th in ERA-, second (!) in FIP-, fourth in xFIP-. Put these things together and the Braves’ pitching staff put up the 17th-most fWAR in September among MLB teams, paving their way to finishing... 18th in MLB over the full season (12th rotation, 21st bullpen).

In the end, though, the Braves finished with 97 wins, the most since a pair of 101-win seasons in 2002 and 2003. That, of course, is sufficient for the fifth-best record in baseball and the second-best in the NL, despite only the league’s 10th-best run differential. On that same note, the win estimators for the Braves are a funny thing...

The Braves finished with around 91 or 92 wins by Pythagorean expectation (depending on the exact calculation used), which puts them as easier the second- or third- biggest outperformer of this metric in MLB this season. They had the ninth-highest second-order run differential (i.e., not based on runs, but essentially on net “bases” or plate outcomes); only four teams outplayed this metric by more. And, if you take that second-order measure and adjust it for strength of schedule and opposition, to derive a third-order measure, the Braves again end up ninth in baseball... but this time, they’re the biggest outperformers of this measure around. In any case, none of that matters anymore, but it does give some retrospective color to the 2019 Braves as a unit: they were good, their record says they were super-good, but the overall production wasn’t quite as lofty. Interestingly, the Braves had only 87 fWAR-predicted-wins, making their 10-win gap the second-largest in baseball this season (Giants). (But hey, the utility of the WAR-win hasn’t gone anywhere, the Braves being weird notwithstanding.)

In case you need a refresher, here’s what the schedule actually looked like in September, and the corresponding results:

Things actually kind of went as planned according to team quality and matchups: the Braves went 14-11, which is what the combined probabilities of winning each game suggested. (They did, however, lose seven games which they were favored to win, and made up for it by winning four games in which they weren’t favored.) And all of that aside, the month was pretty cool just to watch — the Braves extended a three-game winning streak to end August for six more contests, giving them their longest winning streak of the season, and more importantly, they deftly swatted the Nationals away twice, winning three of four in Atlanta and then two of three in Washington, including a 5-0 statement in a Mike Soroka-Max Scherzer matchup.

Anyway, onto the individual performances:

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for September 2019 Performance - Position Players

If these awards had any meaning or were done for some kind of fairness purpose, the right awardee would be Ozzie Albies, who played for most of the month (even post-clinch) and put up a 139 wRC+ in September. But, they don’t have any meaning, and they aren’t fair, so let’s do something wild: Adeiny Hechavarria, come on down.

The Hech, as I like to call him, only had 26 PAs for the Braves in September, but he made them count: .438/.500/.957, a nifty 262 wRC+, and three homers. That’s a .522 ISO! Hechavarria only started five games, but across his total 11 appearances for the month, he managed positive WPA in six of them, including a massive 0.82 WPA in the regular season’s final game, where he hit both a game-tying homer in the ninth and then a go-ahead homer in the 11th. Good times.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for September 2019 Performance - Starting Pitchers

Mike Foltynewicz did not have a good season, in the end, finishing with just 0.8 fWAR and all three ERA minus estimators above 100 (102 ERA-, 114 FIP-, 107 xFIP-). But, he had a clear standout September, including working the hill as the Braves clinched the division against the Giants. Foltynewicz’ numbers looked eminently reasonable in September: 34 ERA-, 77 FIP-, 89 xFIP-. He took the hill five times, had only one bad start, and had two scoreless outings. He helped the Braves stave off the Phillies and Nationals in back-to-back outings where he allowed just two total runs before the clincher, too. Of his nine starts with a Game Score (v2) above 50 (i.e., above-average starts on a results basis), four came in September.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for September 2019 Performance - Mark Melancon

The Braves actually had a lot of good relief work in September, as Luke Jackson, Chris Martin, and Sean Newcomb (among others) all managed sub-3.00 FIPs and xFIPs for the month. Shane Greene and the heavily-used-for-some-reason Anthony Swarzak were the only notable relievers that didn’t fare particularly well in September. In any case, Mark Melancon is worth the callout here: he pitched 10 13 innings (only Greene pitched more for the Braves) of 39 ERA-, 64 FIP-, 65 xFIP- ball. Jackson had better peripherals but far worse results, Martin had better everything but for some reason only pitched in six games, and Sean Newcomb had similar everything but hiccuped a few times over the month. Melancon, though, took the ball ten times and delivered ten WPA increases. Hard to do better than that as a reliever.

Best Offensive Play

This is basically just going to be a compilation of Adeiny Hechavarria bat flips. You’ve been warned. And also a compilation of that one particularly stupid game the Braves played on September 29 to end their regular season.

Hey, here’s Adeiny Hechavarria hitting a go-ahead homer in the 11th. That’s pretty cool, right?

Homers! Bat flips! The Braves had a good season! Woo!

Best Run-Stopping Play

Right, right, back to when games still mattered. (And no bat flips.)

This was a pretty big point in this game (obviously). The Braves hadn’t yet clinched, the go-ahead run was at first base, and you-know-who was at the dish, with Keuchel navigating the dreaded third time through the lineup (spooky noises). It worked out about as well as possible, and the 3-1 score held for the rest of the game.

Most Dominant Offensive Performance

Okay, enough of that. Back to bat flip videos. What’s better than one monster homer? Two!

Honestly, the only dumb thing is that the Braves lost this game. More on that later. By the way, Hechavarria finished this game with 0.82 WPA, which is by far the highest of his career.

Most Dominant Starting Pitching Performance

On September 5, Max Fried pitched the game of his life. Facing off against Stephen Strasburg and the hard-charging Washington Nationals, he absolutely dominated. Seven innings, one hit, nine strikeouts. No walks! The hit was in the first inning; he retired 19 batters in a row to end his night.

The Braves aren’t going to be using this guy as a starter in what they’ll tell you are the most important games of their season to date. I’m just sayin’.

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

Let’s give some love to Josh Tomlin, who has existed on this team all season. On September 2, with Mike Soroka departing a one-run game after five innings, the Braves tabbed Josh Tomlin to try and preserve their slim margin for as long as possible. “No problem,” Josh Tomlin apparently said. Strikeout, strikeout, groundout, fly out, ground out, fly out. Two innings, no nothin’, Braves went on to win without allowing another run.

No video, because Josh Tomlin is a man of anonymity, I guess.

Most Crushed Ball

You can’t throw that, Austin. Not to Josh Donaldson. Apparently his longest homer of 2019, going a prodigious 443 estimated feet. Oh, and then the umbrella came out. Boom. Woo.

Of course, September had its share of disappointments, too. We’re really just talking about one in particular, but let’s see what else we can sprinkle in.

Worst Offensive Result

Mega-yikes: The Yikening

A homer there would have been awesome, but staring at a splitter letter-high? That’s just weird. And awful. Maybe not the absolute worst situation for that sort of guess-hitter-looking-for-something-else-gone-wrong outcome, but it’s definitely up there.

Worst Pitching Result

Oh, Grant Dayton, we hardly knew ye.

Losing the game with a lefty-lefty, two-out matchup in the 11th inning on a walk-off three-run homer after you just hit two different homers to take the lead? This is basically the worst pitching result of the season, except that it didn’t matter in any way whatsoever for the future.

Worst Offensive Performance

Here’s the thing about that Josh Donaldson strikeout looking above — that game, overall, was just nasty for the Braves’ third baseman. Donaldson went 0-for-4 with a sacrifice fly and another strikeout beyond the one against Neris. While he did push across the first run of the game with a fly out, he also made two other outs with men on base and flew out to start the bottom of the eighth. Overall, he amassed -.328 WPA on the night, which was his second-worst WPA total of the season.

Worst Starting Pitching Performance

This actually happened in the same game as Donaldson’s brief stint of futility just discussed above. Dallas Keuchel had himself a start to forget. Handed a 2-0 lead after the first inning of play, Keuchel imploded after three scoreless frames. After retiring J.T. Realmuto to start the frame, he allowed four straight hits (two of the infield variety, but also a homer). After an RBI groundout took his team from leading 2-0 to trailing 3-2, he allowed a two-run homer to Jose Pirela, of all people. Amazingly, Keuchel was actually left in and somehow worked a scoreless fifth despite facing the same batters that victimized him in the fourth again and allowing two hits and a walk, but the damage was done. It was arguably Keuchel’s worst start since the obliteration at the hands of the Marlins in August, and just not a very fun game for the Braves overall.

Worst Relief Pitching Performance

See Grant Dayton, above.

Most Crushed Ball Allowed

Mike Soroka hasn’t allowed many homers this season — among hurlers qualified for the ERA title (all 61 of them, what a lame cutoff), he had the second-lowest homer rate allowed after Charlie Morton. But, he allowed this absolute monster shot to Rowdy Tellez on September 2. The Braves still won, but man, that ball went a long way.

Soroka’s only allowed 15 homers in his career — aside from that one, none had gone over 424 feet. That one went 455 feet. None had gone over 109 mph off the bat, that one went nearly 113 mph off the bat. None had an xwOBA above 1.850, that one had an xwOBA above 2.000. You get the idea. It was bad. But the Braves still won, and Mike Soroka’s still awesome.

Cheapest Homer Hit

This is from the same game as Donaldson’s moonshot above, by the way. The ultimate deciding run in what eventually became a 5-4 game, Joyce’s ball only had an estimated distance of 358 feet and an xwOBA of .260. Basically, a fly out. He just happened to pull it down the line, and he didn’t miss an opportunity to watch it sail well beyond the short right-field porch, either.

Cheapest Homer Allowed

Adding insult upon insult, the homer that Mike Foltynewicz allowed to Rene Rivera (yes, Rene Rivera) had a measly hit probability and everything else about it, too.

That was (of course) Rivera’s only homer of 2019, meaning that he had more against the Braves in 2019 than he had as a Brave in 2018.

See you at the conclusion of next April!

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