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Unfazed Braves continue soaring in August

August is a case where looking at the whole month together doesn’t quite do anything justice, but the Braves just kept winning anyway.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of the season, teams ebb and flow. With a 162-game schedule, this seems inevitable, if only due to the necessity of our human minds to arrange events into patterns. When it comes to August 2019, though, it’s hard to slap any one “ebb” or “flow” as the label for the entire 31 days, as the team went through phases. Coming off a horrific bullpen performance in July, the Front Office bolstered the team through the addition of three new relievers. As fate would have it, though, those relievers all faltered to various extents out of the gate in their new threads, and the first part of the month was characterized by continuing bullpen meltdowns.

Amidst this, the Braves’ position players kept getting injured. Dansby Swanson missed most of August. A recently-returned Ender Inciarte quickly returned to the Injured List. Brian McCann, who had only missed a few days with injury up to this point in the seaosn, hit the shelf. The lineup became a funhouse mirror version of itself — once a bunch of bonafide Braves and a long-haired, costly-but-oh-so-worth-it hired gun had become transfigured into a familiar top half and a bewildering bottom half. For some teams, this bit of necessary alchemy could have resulted in disaster, but not for these Braves. As the bullpen’s performance normalized the team reeled off a tie for its longest win streak of the season (eight games), even with a small ark of injured regulars in tow.

Yet, while the wins kept coming, the composition changed: the team had clobbered opponents into submission in the early part of the month. but entered an offensive dry spell around August 22, scoring three or fewer runs in five of six games. Yet, they still won four of those six (the tail end of the aforementioned winning streak), before once again soaring to meet pre-established clobbering guidelines at the expense of White Sox hurlers to close out the month.

That seems like a lot of changes for the month, but what didn’t change was the winning. The Braves went 19-9 in August, their second-best calendar month of 2019 (so far). Only one team in baseball had more wins than the Braves in August, and only two teams had a better record (unfortunately, one of them was the Washington Nationals). Relative to the start of the month, only two teams added more to their projected end-of-season win totals (Nationals, Cardinals). I don’t know if the trials and tribulations the team experienced over the past 31 days make this feel viscerally untrue, but August was a really good calendar month for the Braves, even if the process of amassing those 19 wins oftentimes felt more excruciating than exhilarating while it was happening.

Checking in on the Braves both for August and for the season as a whole:

  • All things considered, the offense did very well in the month, with a 110 wRC+ (11th in MLB). For the season, it sits sixth in MLB with the same mark.
  • With defense included, the position players were a top-10 squad in August (ninth in MLB in fWAR), and sixth for 2019 to date as a whole.
  • The starting pitching, hardly a strength to this point, really buoyed the team in August. The Braves’ rotation was 18th in MLB in fWAR coming into August, but now sits at 13th. That improvement owes itself to a starting pitching unit that finished fourth in MLB in fWAR (ahead of the Mets, Astros, and Nationals) for the month. Every starter pitched at least decently well, and Max Fried amassed over 1.0 fWAR for the month in the face of BABIP shenanigans tearing him down.
  • The bullpen, at least, was middle of the pack: 17th in fWAR in August; 12th in WPA. While this wasn’t enough to rescue the unit from an overall sub-replacement-level performance on the season, the Braves probably won’t complain given how August went overall. 12th in WPA. At this point, it actually seems somewhat feasible that the Braves will make the playoffs with a season-long bullpen mark below replacement by fWAR, which is remarkable. That’d be a fun trivia question: who was the last team before the Braves to accomplish this dubious feat? I have no idea.

The Braves currently sit at 83-54, which is the second-worst record among division leaders but still the fifth-best record in baseball. They’re still outplaying their run differential by a ton, and this has actually increased to some extent as the season has gone on. (They are now one of only two teams, along with the Yankees, to be outplaying their Pythagorean expectation by seven games.) Not that it really matters, but they’re behind the Nationals in every “ordered” win estimator now, but that just warrants a Nelson Muntz “ha ha” in Washington’s direction at this point, given the 5.5-game lead in the standings. In some ways, the Braves are an enigma. It’s hard for me to look at their roster, with various bits and holes and injuries and somewhat mismatched pieces (the current bullpen’s two lefty relievers are a seldom-used LOOGY that sees a lot of garbage time and a converted starter that generally doesn’t get tactically inserted to retire lefties), and see a juggernaut in lieu of a fringy playoff team, but hte reality is that it doesn’t matter at all what I see. What matters is what the Braves have done, which is rack up Ws and generally kick baseball arse, even as various things collapse around them, get righted, only for something else to collapse in the process. They’ve been unfazed in their ability to agglomerate victories, and it’s been great to watch.

Here’s a quick reminder of what exactly the month of August looked like:

The month featured some weird outcomes. It had the team’s second-least-likely loss of the year, when Dallas Keuchel got destroyed by the Marlins on August 8, as well as the fourth-least-likely of the same (Mike Soroka v. Sandy Alcatara, bullpen meltdown du jour). However, it also featured the team’s most improbable victory to date, a 2-1 defeat of the Mets in a Mike Foltynewicz/Jacob deGrom matchup that took 14 innings, featured seven scoreless bullpen innings, and had the winning run driven in by a Billy Hamilton hit. Overall, using the pre-game win expectancies, the Braves should’ve gone 16-12. They made that mark look silly. Using the heuristic of “win expectancy above 50 percent equals win,” they should have gone 24-4. That’s silly for another reason (no team should be expected to go 24-4 in any stretch), but that’s a testament to the Braves not faltering during a pretty easy month, schedule-wise.

Anyway, onto the individual performances.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for August 2019 Performance - Position Players

If we were being reasonable, Josh Donaldson’s 150-plus wRC+ for the month probably warrants this. We’re anything but reasonable. Ronald Acuña Jr. had himself quite a month to remember. His 133 wRC+ is all well and good, he tied for the team lead in August homers with 11, etc. But really, a lot of what I’ll remember this month is him doing the improbable again and again.

On August 3, he drove in the go-ahead run via walk before walking the Braves off with two outs in the 10th. The next day, with the Braves seemingly cruising into an offensively-challenged defeat (they had scored just one run in 8 13 innings), he connected for a massive two-run homer to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth (the Braves would sadly go on to lose). It took less than three weeks for him to again walk the Braves off with two outs, this time against the Marlins. And just two days later, he broke a 5-5 tie with another two-out success to help topple the Mets. While he’s been in a slight skid since, it happens. But, more importantly, all that awesomeness happened. That August 2019 was a pretty humdrum month in his career tells you just how awesome he’s been.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for August 2019 Performance - Starting Pitchers

Again, if we’re being reasonable, this should be Max Fried. Some stupid ball-dropping, sequencing stuff aside, Fried had a dominant month. Only about ten pitchers in baseball had a better August, and if you use something like xFIP-, that list falls to just four. But, Fried being great (and horrifically unlucky in terms of run outcomes) is old hat. Instead, I want to talk about Dallas Keuchel.

Among the five Atlanta starters, Keuchel actually had the worst FIP in August. (He did, however, have the second-best xFIP.) Due to HR/FB variation, his season overall probably hasn’t gone as expected, with a 105 FIP- on top of an 86 xFIP-. Yet, in August, this somehow largely worked for him, with one huge caveat. Yes, he was absolutely shelled by the Marlins, one of the worst starts of his career. But the rest of it was delicious: completely stifling the Reds before being allowed to continue third TTO and allowing a three-run homer to Aristides Aquino, who then got so empowered he’s been destroying everyone ever since; shutting out the Mets (twice); revenge on the Marlins; and, finally, an ugly but effective outing against the White Sox. Aside from the Marlins-shelling, the Braves won each game. So, a shout out to “Big D,” who bounced back with the best of them and rolled with most of the punches, even while functioning as a weaker link in a surprisingly good August rotation.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for August 2019 Performance - Relief Pitchers

The Braves acquired three relief humans at the conclusion of the prior month, on the heels of a bullpen conflagration that was so bad it was comical in nature. (Seriously, if someone had ill-spent the time to video-splice the Braves’ July 2019 relief adventures with clips of “Team Rocket’s blasting off again” ... I wouldn’t complain.)

So, of course, the Braves’ best-outcome reliever for the month after the Trade Deadline was... Luke Jackson, aka, the same guy that had anchored a faltering relief corps for most of the season to date.

Jackson allowed a couple of homers and continued to walk guys to some extent, making his FIP, xFIP, and fWAR below those of two of the new acquisitions, Mark Melancon and Chris Martin. Yet, where Melancon and Martin had the ill fortune of being on the hill while defensive and other shenanigans resulted in stuff on the bullpen hijinks-to-meltdowns axis, Jackson really didn’t. Melancon did okay in this respect during the month, but had a couple of worrying problems (Mets, Marlins) here and there. Martin’s been far more haunted, through little contribution of his own. Jackson, though pitched 14 innings in August across 14 appearances. In only three of those did he harm the team’s chance of winning in any way, and none were particularly costly. (In his worst outing, the Braves still retained a lead by the time he was done.) Beyond that, he was there to clean up what the rest of the relief corps often spilled. On August 3, he set up Atlanta’s walk-off win by holding the Reds scoreless where Shane Greene could not. On August 11, in the midst of a series of horrific meltdowns by the bullpen against the Marlins, he was called on to close out a one-run game and did so, despite things not going his way in the ball-in-play department (yet again). On August 23, with the Mets in walkoff territory, he threw not one, but two, relatively peaceful innings, a breath of fresh air after both Anthony Swarzak and Sean Newcomb nearly handed the Mets a victory in their respective innings of work. Of course it’s the old guy, and not the new guys, who end up looking better. That’s just baseball. It’s wild.

Best Offensive Play

It really sucks that the Braves lost this game, because this was one of the coolest moments of the season.

If you ever need to describe what the 2019 Braves are about, it’s this: exciting dingers by exciting humans. (And also, I guess, a bullpen that really wants to erase all joy from the world at times.) Just watching the above makes me want to go high-five someone.

Best Run-Stopping Play

The Braves lost this game, too, but still — awesome. With the Braves nursing a 3-2 lead, Mike Soroka continued to work his way through the fearsome Los Angeles lineup for a third time on the evening. It wasn’t going super-well. Soroka got the leadoff batter, but Justin Turner singled. Soroka kept Cody Bellinger in the park, yes, but not short of extra bases. He got two whiffs on Corey Seager, but wouldn’t give in and walked him. There was thus no place to put Edwin Rios...

...except back in the dugout, with his team still trailing 3-2, and the inning coming to a close. My favorite part of this clip is that neither Soroka or Freddie Freeman seem to be particularly pumped about the huge play that just happened. “Yeah, so what?” they could be thinking. “Of course we were gonna get out of it.” Thanks but no thanks, Sean Newcomb v. Max Muncy matchup from hell.

Most Dominant Offensive Performance

I hope you like more Acuña. (And if you don’t, what are you even doing here, go away.)

This video has everything. It has an epic bat flip for a go-ahead walk. It has that clip where the kid has to contain his excitement due to being near a Reds fan (screw ‘em, kid, celebrate to your heart’s content). It has Acuña’s first career walkoff hit. Note that despite an o-fer in his remaining PAs in this game, the kid still racked up .539 WPA in the game, an insane amount for anyone that doesn’t go 0-for-4 before the heroics kick in.

Most Dominant Starting Pitching Performance

Hey, Dallas. Here’s your one-run lead, courtesy of a Josh Donaldson homer. Now go make it stand up.

Seven scoreless innings. Three double plays. Only three walks to seven strikeouts. Making Pete Alonso look silly twice. Making Michael Conforto look even worse. A random cameo appearance by former Brave Rene Rivera, striking out to conclude Keuchel’s outing. Great stuff.

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

Of course, there’s no easy video of this. There’s video of Anthony Swarzak and Sean Newcomb both nearly losing the August 23 game against the Mets, and then losing it. But there’s no video of Luke Jackson’s two shutdown-ish frames in the 12th and 13th.

In the 12th: grounder, single, strikeout, forceout.

In the 13th: groundout, strikeout of Alonso, groundout.

Thanks, Luke, for being awesome.

Most Crushed Ball

More Acuña clips. More!

Yeah, whatever, came in a loss, don’t care. Majestic. 463 feet. Not Acuña’s longest of the year, but his hardest-hit (nearly 116 mph off the bat), and a top 10 homer by exit velocity in baseball this year.

Aaand now, onto some pain.

Worst Offensive Result

For once, there’s a tie here, and they came in back-to-back games in similar situations.

On August 3, just before Acuña walked the Braves off, Johan Camargo bunted the winning run over to third base for the first out of the inning. That brought up Charlie Culberson, who could have won the game himself with a fly ball. He even got a 2-0 count with which to work. Then he missed a slider in the zone. Then he missed a slider not in the zone. Then he missed a slider nowhere near the zone, that even the catcher couldn’t corral. He saw five sliders from Robert Stephenson, and missed the last three. Good guy Charlie, though, just setting up Acuña’s first walkoff hit.

The very next day, the situation was similar: walkoff run on third, one out, ninth inning. This time, Adam Duvall was at the plate, and Robert Stephenson was again the pitcher. Stephenson again threw only sliders. This time, all four missed the zone. Duvall actually connected with two, fouling them off. But he missed the first one and the last one, and that was that. Brian McCann would ground out, and the Braves would go on to lose when Shane Greene allowed a three-run homer, thus sullying that beastly Acuña homer-and-chest-thump clip forever.

Worst Pitching Result

No, it’s not the Shane Greene three-run homer allowed to Tucker Barnhart. It’s even worse. Allowing three-run homers is always bad. It’s bad in extra innings, really bad. But it’s even worse when you turn a one-run lead into a two-run deficit, when having the platoon advantage. Welp.

Worst Offensive Performance

Rafael Ortega had a huge moment not mentioned anywhere else in this recap: his grand slam against the Dodgers was team-of-destiny-type stuff. But, he also had the month’s worst offensive performance for a hitter. Fortunately, it came a win. It wasn’t even necessarily his fault.

In the second inning of an August 22 game against the Marlins, the Braves had gone ahead 1-0 on an Adeiny Hechavarria single, putting runners on the corners with none out. He promptly lined out to first, getting The Hech doubled up. The Braves wouldn’t score again in the inning. Ortega struck out to lead off the fifth. In the seventh, with his team now trailing by one, he again made a leadoff out. By the time the ninth rolled around, the Braves had tied it up, and Hechavarria had doubled to lead off the inning, representing the walkoff run. Ortega, though, struck out. You could view this as a good guy move, setting up Acuña’s eventual walkoff. But it was a disappointing conclusion to a disappointing game to a guy that had played hero just a week before.

Worst Starting Pitching Performance

It’s not your fault, Max. I don’t really know why you were allowed to face Pete Alonso for a third time with two men on base, after already having given up a run and three hits in the inning, and having uncorked two wild pitches to boot. But you were, and the result was annoying. Sorry.

By WPA, Fried’s worst start of the year, and all because of the above.

Worst Relief Pitching Performance

Go back and watch the Muncy v. Newcomb video. On second thought, don’t. Newcomb suffered -.624 WPA with the outing, which was even worse than the Muncy homer alone. Newcomb’s night went: walk, homer, homer, strikeout. Yikes.

Most Crushed Ball Allowed

There’s a lot of Pete Alonso in this monthly recap. Julio Teheran probably wishes there was a little less.

In an old-fashioned Teheran beatdown at the hands of the Mets, which thankfully hasn’t happened against any team all too often this season, Alonso made the game a 3-0 contest before an out had been recorded. It was the fifth-deepest homer allowed by the a Brave this year.

And now, for a bit of silliness.

Cheapest Homer Hit

Ozzie Albies had already homered once in this game. His second homer wasn’t that meaningful, and garbage time wallscrapers are their own delight.

The fact that his first homer in the game went 444 feet makes this funnier. That one had a hit probability of 98 percent and left the bat at 109 mph. This one had a hit probability of four percent and left the bat at 96 mph. We take homers of all size and shape here, though. We’re an accepting bunch like that.

Cheapest Homer Allowed

Ah, yes, Garbage Time Wall Scrapers: The Return, starring Starlin Castro.

This actually wasn’t too much of a cheapie, with a 45 percent hit probability, 383 feet of distance, and an exit velocity of nearly 102 mph. But, it’s just that the Braves didn’t really yield anything more dubious in August, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you want to look at it.

See you next month!

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