While you may not know it from the national baseball coverage that has been out there over the last couple of months, the Atlanta Braves are one of the best teams in Major League Baseball right now. This hasn’t been the product of just one hot streak that feels fluky against bad teams (looking at you, Mets), this has been an entire season of weathering potential obstacles and prolonged periods of absolute dominance from the Atlanta Braves baseball club.
The offense has certainly carried the load for large portions of the season as the Braves’ position players currently rank sixth in all of baseball in fWAR with 24.5 and the team is on pace to set a new franchise record in home runs while having a realistic shot at having three 40 home run guys in Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman, and Josh Donaldson.
The starting rotation, despite some early hiccups, has done their job as well as they rank 11th in the league with 11 fWAR. We’ll get to the bullpen here in a bit, but the TLDR version is that the Braves can hit, they can pitch, and they can field and that combination has the team on the verge of back to back division titles.
Nearly every projection system has the Braves with a 99% chance or better of winning the National League East this season at this point and they have a real shot at 100 wins in 2019 which, given what many folks (including those at this very site) thought was going to happen this season, is a wonderful surprise to say the least. Having a 9.5 game lead in September is no joke especially when you consider that the Nationals have done their absolute best to challenge the Braves over the last several months. If you are not convinced by now that the Braves are for real, then I cannot help you.
Back in March, I wrote an article about the five things the Braves were going to have to do in order to repeat as National League East champions. You can find that article by clicking here. Given that the Braves magic number currently sits at 10 and the Braves are playing some of their best baseball right now, let’s take a look back at those predictions and see if they came to pass.
“Continued emergence of Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies”
In short, yep — got this one right. It was always going to be hard for Acuña to follow up what he did in the second half of last season, but he has somehow managed to do just that. Not only has he inserted himself as a fringe MVP candidate, but he is already a 5 WAR player with almost three weeks of games to go and has a chance at a 40/40 season. A recent slump took a little air out of his sails, but he has been one of the best players in the league this season and has been a critical piece of the Braves’ success.
However, we already kind of knew that Acuña was going to be good (maybe not quite this good this soon, but still). The bigger question coming into the season was what Ozzie Albies was going to be. Was he going to be the offensive juggernaut that he was in the first half of the 2018 season or was his swoon in the second half a sign of things to come. The short answer: it is much closer to the former. Ozzie still has his dry spells, but he has made a lot of improvements over the 2018 version of himself. The walk rate is up to 7.9% from his 2018 rate of 5.3%, his ISO is higher at .202 vs. .191 in 2018, and overall at the plate he has been just flat out better with a 112 wRC+ against his 2018 number of 101.
Ozzie gets lost in the shuffle at times with all of the star power on this team, but he has already eclipsed his WAR total from last year (which was still quite impressive) and he has firmly cemented himself as one of the better second basemen in the game.
“The pitching staff must decrease their walk rate, especially in the bullpen”
Actually got most of this one right, too. I noted in the preseason article that both the starting rotation and the bullpen in 2018 were among the worst in the league in issuing free passes and that was less than good. I also noted that if the starting rotation and bullpen could approach the league averages of their colleagues around the league (around three walks per nine innings for starters and 3.5 BB/9 for relievers) that it would likely lead to a significant increase in their production.
The starters absolutely did their part as they brought their walk rate down to 3.16 BB/9 in 2019 and it is no coincidence that, in terms of fWAR, the Braves have a top 10 rotation in all of baseball this season.
As for the bullpen, there has definitely been improvement there, but the walk rate for the season has still been too high at 4.03 BB/9. It is hardly surprising that the bullpen’s numbers are less than great because for a large chunk of the season, the Braves had one of the worst bullpens in baseball. However, a closer look at the numbers since the Braves made several bullpen additions at the trade deadline gives cause for even more optimism as the Braves’ bullpen had one of the league’s best walk rates for the month of August (4th with 2.74 BB/9) and September is off to a good start as well with a 3.00 walk rate.
“The emergence of at least one starting pitching prospect, if not more”
Yep, this happened, too. My Canadian son Mike Soroka came back from some offseason shoulder worries and is firmly in the NL Rookie of the Year discussion (understandably behind Peter Alonso who has been insane this season) and will get some Cy Young voter love as well even though he will not win that award, either, sadly. He currently has a 2.67 ERA and 3.50 FIP and has a real chance at a 4+ WAR season if his last few starts go reasonably well. There was some early turmoil in the Braves rotation with Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, and Kevin Gausman all struggling mightily, so Soroka’s emergence was not only welcome, but necessary to weather those early struggles.
The other guy who really stepped up was Max Fried. I personally thought it was going to be someone else that would emerge as I viewed Fried as a guy who could see time starting and in relief in order to manage his innings due to his issues with blisters. However, he locked on to a starting spot early in the season and has not let go. The middle of the season wasn’t particularly kind to him, but his strong start to the season combined with the current run he is on has him in strong consideration for a spot in the playoff rotation and he honestly probably deserves it.
It is also worth mentioning that Julio Teheran has been significantly better this season and that has been a big deal, too. He still has had to outperform some scary peripherals, but he has done just that and has been a big part of the team’s success as a result.
“Injured Braves must come back healthy and, more importantly, good”
The short answer here is nope, not even close.
The notable exception here has been Josh Donaldson. Donaldson battled calf injuries last season and, as a result, the Braves were able to ink him to a one year deal that right now looks like an absolute bargain. Josh has slashed .262/.385/.546 with 37 home runs this season with only a few days off sprinkled in there. What started as a one year flirtation has now turned into most of the Braves’ fan base clamoring to sign him to an extension and honestly, we can’t fault them for that. He has been great.
However, as for the rest of the injured Braves, not only have they not contributed, but there have been a slew of other injuries that would normally torpedo a club’s chances. Below is a partial list of players that missed time this season due to injury.
- Mike Foltynewicz
- Kevin Gausman
- Austin Riley
- Ender Inciarte
- Nick Markakis
- Mike Soroka
- Dansby Swanson
- Brian McCann
- Max Fried
- Arodys Vizcaino
And that doesn’t include some of the lesser names that the Braves were counting on for some depth that ended up being varying degrees of hurt. The Braves were able to weather those losses mostly because of the production from Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman, and Donaldson who have been in the lineup every day more or less, but contributions from those that replaced these guys like Matt Joyce, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Francisco Cervelli certainly helped the cause as well.
“Front office is going to have to be willing AND able to get this team some help during the season”
This has been the big one and proved to be absolutely correct as well. Braves fans (as well as those that cover the team, as well including yours truly) were understandably harsh on the team’s lack of moves this past offseason to improve the bullpen. Those fears proved to be founded as not only was the bullpen bad, but it was also beset by injuries which made it both bad and not very deep. I noted in the first article that during the course of the season, there were going to be needs that were not going to be able to be filled internally (still looking at you, Bullpen) and that the Braves were going to have to be willing and able to use some of that “saved payroll space for during the season” that we heard so much about to improve the club during the season.
Well, Alex Anthopoulos and the front office did just that and in spades. At the trade deadline, they went and got Chris Martin, Shane Greene, and Mark Melancon in moves that completely overhauled the complexion of the bullpen and showed a willingness to spend to do so. Not only that, but the moves did not stop there as the Braves were active even after the trade deadline to snag complimentary pieces like Billy Hamilton, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Francisco Cervelli which allowed the team to weather a rash of injuries.
Other than a very, very probable berth in the 2019 postseason, we don’t know what this season holds for the Braves just yet. They are absolutely one of the best teams in the league, but once the playoffs start — weird things happen. It wouldn’t be crazy if the Braves made it to the World Series nor would it be out of the question that they made another first round exit. What we do know is how the team got to this point, on the verge of back to back division titles, despite almost no one expecting them to be here.