For me, this week has been both exciting and unsettling. Like many of you, I am thrilled to have baseball back, as any sign that sports is returning to our world is great. However, also like many of you, I am anxious knowing that COVID-19 is a reality that is not going away. The excitement remains a bit tempered with the knowledge that this season still be delayed or cancelled in a heartbeat.
Though simulated games have started this week and the overwhelming majority of Atlanta’s best talent has been on somewhat of a display, it can be argued that Atlanta has been impacted by the presence of COVID-19 more than any other team in baseball. Freddie Freeman and Will Smith are two of the highest profile players that are known to have tested positive so far, with Freeman by far the biggest talent that is known to have shown symptoms. Furthermore, veteran depth pieces Felix Hernandez and Nick Markakis decided to not participate in the 2020 season once the Braves positive tests were revealed. While neither Hernandez nor Markakis were expected to fill significant roles, they were relevant pieces to the depth the Braves had built for the unexpected twists and turns of this season that await.
Though Freeman could still be available to start the season, logic suggests that is far from a guarantee. In a setup where each game logically carries three times the weight that it usually would during any other year, each game without Freeman is significant. While the hope is that he will be ready to go once the season gets started on July 24th, the reality is that he must first be cleared and then be in comfortable and in good enough shape to play. Atlanta will rightfully give their first baseman all the time he needs to get back to full health.
The Braves schedule for 2020 , much like the schedule for the Phillies , the schedule for the Marlins, the schedule for the Mets, and the schedule for the Nationals , are among the toughest in baseball due to the decision for MLB teams to play ten games each against their four division opponents and then some variation of the remaining 20 games against the teams in the AL division in the same region. The significance of this schedule setup for each of the NL East teams is that majority of the schedule is made up of opponents that finished with a better than .500 record in 2019 and have realistic playoff aspirations in 2020. Furthermore, with a shortened schedule, if one hot streak occurs where the Marlins’ pitching talent or Blue Jays’ hitting talent breaks out, an unexpected contender emerges.
7 MLB teams will play 20 games in 20 days (max allowed in a row):— Matt Kelly (@mattkellyMLB) July 7, 2020
*Braves (July 24 - Aug 12)
*Mariners (July 24 - Aug 12)
*Tigers (July 24 - Aug 12)
Twins (Aug. 14 - Sept 2)
Rockies (Aug. 14 - Sept 2)
Blue Jays (Aug. 21 - Sept 9)
Phillies (Aug. 25 - Sept 13)
*to start season
Obviously, there are plenty of similarities among the schedules for the Braves and their NL East rivals. However, there are a few schedule quirks that could prove significant for Atlanta, and not in the most ideal of ways. As listed above, Atlanta is one of only seven teams that will have a stretch of 20 straight games without an off day. Furthermore, Atlanta is one of only three teams that starts their season off with that stretch. While it is a positive that Atlanta will have a deeper roster to start the season, the potential absence of Freeman carries even more significance as well.
#Braves games against AL East:— Gabe Burns (@GabeBurnsAJC) July 6, 2020
Blue Jays: 3
Red Sox: 6
Another trait of the Braves’ schedule that could be a bit of a disadvantage is their mix of games against the AL East. For most, it is clear that the playoff contenders from the that division are the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox, while the Blue Jays and Orioles are still considered playoff long shots ( though anything can happen, especially this year.) Among the NL East teams, the Braves have the fewest combined games against the Blue Jays and Orioles; the Marlins have eight, the Phillies have nine, the Mets have seven, and the Nationals have 10, respectfully. Though it is a difference of just a few games, if this season is completed, it is very likely just a few games will separate several teams from making the playoffs and staying home. Therefore, even the slightest difference in the number of games versus less talented opponents certainly counts.
A few other potential obstacles on the schedule come from the setup itself. The Braves have the latest home opener of any NL East team, and 14 of their first 23 games will be on the road (with only 1 off day scheduled.) The other deterrent is a continuation of the reference to the Blue Jays and Orioles above. In terms of the NL East, the Braves schedule contains the most games against opponents with a .500 record or better in 2019. However, that fact carries even more weight through the first 40 games of the season. In their first 40 games, the Braves play only six opponents who had a record under .500 in 2019; the Marlins play eight, the Mets play nine, the Phillies play 12, and the Nationals play 17. As a result, it certainly seems that the Braves will quickly need to find their groove in order to stay in contention once the calendar turns to September.
Fortunately, as a result of having the hardest schedule of any team in the NL East through the first 40 games of the season, the Braves will have the easiest schedule to manage during the home stretch. Over their last 20 games in September, 10 will be against the Marlins and Orioles, by far the most games against opponents with .500 or worse records in 2019 among the NL East teams. Atlanta will also finish the season with their last seven games at home, a stretch in which they also have the easiest strength of schedule.
While the schedule clearly is at a disadvantage for the Braves to begin the season, if they can enter September in contention and with a winning record, the schedule becomes a clear advantage for the Braves as the season concludes. Furthermore, though the schedule is not too encouraging based off records from 2019, the Braves are tied with the Nationals for easiest projected strength of scheduled in terms of opponent’s 2020 records.
Overall, the Braves’ 2020 schedule offers few favors. The Braves certainly remain one of the most talented teams in the National League; however, that also certainly have one of the smallest margins for error of any playoff contender if they struggle out of the gate. The health of Freeman, the effectiveness of the Braves’ pitching depth, and the development of one or two reliable bats in the bottom half of the lineup are all critical.
Without a doubt, the Braves certainly have the ability to once again make the postseason with some of the best NL pennant odds in the National League. However, one extended stretch of sluggish play could easily knock them out of playoff contention. Hopefully, the internal questions surrounding the team will receive positive answers over the next few weeks to mitigate the external obstacles that await once the season begins.