Each season every team in Major League Baseball has a defining stretch of games – for better or worse – that determines whether they are legitimate contenders or mediocre teams likely to be surpassed by the league’s better teams. Sometimes that defining stretch is a string of series against division rivals, and sometimes it’s a matter of playing great ball (or really poor ball) for an extended period, regardless of opponent. The Braves are hoping they’re amid exactly that kind of defining stretch since the beginning of June, and there’s ample reason to believe that’s the case.
The Braves have started June with a 12-3 record (the best June record in MLB) topped off with a pummeling 15-1 win over the division-rival Phillies on Sunday. Since the beginning of June, the Braves’ chances of making the playoffs have jumped 31.2% (up to 84.3%), and their chances of winning the NL East have increased 32.8% (up to 66.6%), per FanGraphs. To put that in perspective, no other team has increased either of those odds by 13% or more during that span. Granted, it would be impossible for some teams to make such a jump if their odds entering June were already high, but nonetheless this represents a very significant shift in the landscape in a short period of time.
The most obvious reason the Braves are playing so well in June has been the offense. The Braves’ have scored an average of 7.46 runs per game in June, which is the best in MLB. In fact, the Braves’ position players have been the best in nearly every offensive category in June:
Braves position players in June
To pile on, the Braves have scored at least six runs in seven of their last eight games and at least 10 runs three times in the month of June.
What is most encouraging about the Braves’ offensive output is that it has not been reliant upon a couple of hot bats. Atlanta’s lineup is incredibly deep. Six Braves hitters have a wRC+ over 130 this month. Consider being an opposing pitcher trying to get through this lineup:
So the Braves have played well lately. What’s the big deal? They played well in mid-May only to lose a bunch of games at the end of that month. Why is this any different?
To start, the landscape of the NL East has changed. The two biggest threats to the Braves in the division are the Phillies and Nationals. The Phillies sustained a huge blow when Andrew McCutchen went out for the rest of the season, and their pitching hasn’t looked like they’re up to the challenge of winning the NL East. I consider the Nationals more of a threat than the Phillies at this point, and they’re currently 8.5 games behind in the standings, five games below .500, and 5-5 in their last 10 games. While a lot can change, especially with the trade deadline looming, the Braves are trending in a much different direction than the rest of the division. If you think I’m overstating things, look at this chart of the probability of winning the NL East by FanGraphs:
Additionally, the Braves already have reinforcements on the way, and there will likely be more to come. While Atlanta’s offense has been elite, the pitching staff has left plenty of room for improvement. Recognizing this need, the Braves signed 2015 Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel to add to the rotation. After making two starts in the minors, Keuchel is expected to join the Braves’ rotation during the Nationals series this weekend.
The Braves will also likely address the bullpen before the trade deadline on July 31, and there’s no shortage of relievers believed to be available that could bolster it. The Braves are believed to still have room to add payroll this season and have a deep pool of prospects to deal if the right deal arises.
Furthermore, Atlanta has been playing well for more than just a couple of weeks. While June has been dominant, the Braves hold a 24-10 record since May 10, which ties them for the second-most wins during that span. What’s interesting in comparing the Braves’ hot streaks in May and June is that they were propelled by different units. As I noted in May, the starting rotation was phenomenal during a 12-4 stretch in mid-May. In June, the Braves’ offense has seemed unstoppable. With both units capable of producing at the highest levels, imagine what they can do if both units are playing near their upper limits simultaneously.
This is evidence that we are witnessing more than a hot streak. Whether it is the offense carrying the team, the pitching carrying the team, or a little of both, the Braves seem to have the talent to sustain winning at a high level over the course of the season. Braves fans who endured the infamous 2011 collapse understandably might want to temper their excitement in June. However, rest assured that the Braves are trending in the right direction.