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Braves ride sweet September to fourth straight division crown

It wasn’t as good as August, but it was plenty good enough to seize a playoff berth

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Adam Hagy/Getty Images

When I first started doing these monthly recaps, we were in the dark days of rebuild, and the September version that happened each year was a mix of coda and a touchstone for how far the team had come (or didn’t) over the course of the season. Over the past few seasons, as the Braves have graduated to kicking butt and procuring pennants to hang around the stadium, the September recaps have started to feel a bit weird: it’s a summary of the end, but also not the end. It’s like placing a capstone atop an arch, only to then graft an insouciant gremlin on top of the capstone. (The gremlin is the playoffs, in case that wasn’t clear.) Anyway, the point is, in 2021, the Braves built atop their awesome August with a savvy, sweet September that let them clinch the division with a sweep of the Phillies, and then cap it off with an October series win over the moribund Mets for good measure.

Across the month, and those three days in October, the Braves went 18-11. That was actually the Braves’ best finish during their return to contention; weirdly enough, the Braves last did better than that .621 winning percentage in... 2016 (?!), when 18 of the team’s 68 wins (that’s over a quarter) occurred over the last 28 games of the season. The net result of all this winning was that the Braves captured the last 26 percent of the playoff odds they needed. Playoff odds actually dipped as low as 64 percent (they started the month at 74 percent) when they lost their fourth straight on September 18, as the division lead dwindled to just half a game. But then they won four straight, dropped a game, and six straight wins later, that was it. Four in a row, yay. Need a refresher? Image time.

By game-by-game odds, the Braves were possibly looking at something like 16-13, maybe 17-12. They beat that by a game or two, though they probably could’ve spared those wins. They were actually favored in 25 of the 29 games, though, not that they were going to go 25-4 or anything. They did pull off stuff like beating Joe Musgrove on the road with a pseudo-bullpen game, but bizarrely, they lost a Charlie Morton-Elieser Hernandez matchup which, on paper, should have been their second-easiest win of the season.

(Fun trivia time: the Braves actually lost the three games in which they were most favored this season. All three were Charlie Morton starts, and all three were blown by the bullpen, though at least two of those blows were of ties and not of leads. The third was the infamous Will Smith-Riley Adams homer debacle. They didn’t really make up for it, also losing the four games in which they were least-favored. We can laugh about this now because they won the division.)

On the season, the Braves combined an above-average position player unit with slightly above-average pitching. That adds up to the somewhat above average record they ended up with. Notably, the reinforcements acquired at the Trade Deadline weren’t really some kind of huge difference in terms of context-neutral results: the position player production was actually worse, relative to other teams, in August-September compared to April through July, and the pitching somewhat better, but not by much. Of course, context matters for the standings, and that was one place where the team made hay... but even though there were a lot of new faces, the overall complexion of production just didn’t change much. To wit, in September:

  • The Braves were 14th in position player fWAR. They didn’t even break into the top 10 in wRC+ (even when removing pitchers), and certain defensive metrics had not-so-great feelings about the defense, though OAA gave them very high marks for September. (On the season, UZR and OAA had the Braves lumped in as average-y, but DRS was much more positive.)
  • The starting staff was very not-naff, placing seventh in MLB in fWAR, ninth in FIP-, and seventh in xFIP-... but the relief work was interestingly mediocre — 16th in fWAR but eighth in FIP- suggests that a lot of the not-so-good bullpen-ing happened in higher leverage, especially since the Braves used their bullpen a reasonable amount for the month.

The net result of all this is that the 18-11 mark was built on the back of a team fWAR that justified maybe a 15-14 or 16-13 record, and in the end, the Braves finished with that little bit of outperformance, as their fWAR-wins translate to around 86 wins, and they garnered 88. A nice little treat after the slog that was the first four months of the season, where the Braves seemingly underperformed everything with their outcomes and win totals.

That’s all in the past now. The slate is wiped clean for the bizarre sideshow that is the MLB playoffs. So, before all that gets going, let’s take a stroll through the big moments and games of September.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for September 2021 Performance - Position Players

Freddie Freeman had 0.9 fWAR, tops among the team’s position players in September. (He had a .452 xwOBA but a .391 wOBA for the month; what else is new?) But, I want to call out someone else here: Jorge freakin’ Soler. The big Cuban-born slugger had himself a fine month, with a 126 wRC+ and an xwOBA mostly to match, but what he did in context was pretty amazing, with some absolutely huge games interspersed throughout the month. Early on, he had a bases-clearing single that turned a one-run deficit into a two-run lead against the Marlins. A couple of weeks later, he capped a crazy see-saw game against the Padres with a tiebreaking double. And then, as the Braves returned home to fend off the Phillies, he drove in both of the team’s runs in Game 1 against Zack Wheeler, and then hit a leadoff homer as the Braves prepared to sweep the Phillies in Game 3.

Soler really defined the month for the Braves, who found ways to win on and above their overall production. Soler’s 0.81 WPA for the month was top 30 in baseball; only two of the guys ahead of him got more WPA-mileage out of a wRC+ lower than Soler’s 126.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for September 2021 Performance - Starting Pitchers

Uh, yeah, it’s NL pitcher of the month Max Fried. No big surprise here, for sure. Fried’s month was fundamentally insane: he finished sixth in MLB in pitching fWAR for September (Charlie Morton was right there too), and also sixth in WPA. (Looking at the leaderboard, Ranger Suarez, who finished first in both fWAR and WPA for the month maybe should’ve gotten the pitcher of the month award, but I guess no one wanted to recognize the died-in-the-water Phillies.) Fried allowed eight runs in six starts and had an insane 36/7 K/BB ratio. His lowest Game Score (v2) was 58, his worst xFIP- was 96, and his aggregate line was 36/68/70. He had marginally negative WPA in two of the starts, but outright dominated the other four, including a Maddux in San Diego, bookended on either side by seven dominant frames against both the Giants and Phillies.

It’s been a bit of a whiplash season for Fried, who went from mediocre and very unlucky in terms of HR/FB in April to mediocre and very lucky in that regard in May, to very solid in June-July, and then to dominant down the stretch. September wasn’t as good as August for him, but he was great all the same, and he gets the award for another month.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for September 2021 Performance - Relief Pitchers

Luke Jackson did a bizarre thing (well, had a bizarre thing happen to him...) in 2021. I’ll show you.

  • Through April, his slash was 23/94/130. That’s kind of terrifying.
  • After May, it was 33/95/97. While one month has all sorts of variability, you don’t usually see the xFIP drop to the FIP; usually it’s the reverse. And the ERA was stubborn.
  • One more month: through June, he was at 44/103/94. The ERA was taking its sweet time rising.
  • And then through July, 55/106/100.
  • August? 50/92/95. Hey, wait, ERA, what are you doing?
  • And finally, he finished the year at 46/87/88.

It’s hard to make grand pronouncements, but boy, that FIP and xFIP really failed to pull his run-allowance upward. Instead, his peripherals actually improved. And did Luke Jackson ever straight-up shove in September: he allowed two runs and one homer all month — 31/66/64. He hurt his team’s chances of winning just once, letting the Nationals tie a one-run game, and the Braves ended up victorious anyway. This isn’t the 2019 version of Luke Jackson, as he’s mostly been much worse... but as shown by the bullets above, the dumb stuff is helping him now, as it has pretty much all season. No one’s deserved it more than him, after what the spirit realm subjected him (and us) to during the 2019 season.

Okay, let’s get to plays and games.

Best Offensive Play - d’Arnaud from out of nowhere

Amusingly, possibly the single biggest offensive play for the season for the Braves came in a loss. It also came from absolutely out of nowhere. The Braves had dropped a couple in a row to the Rockies, and then headed out on the road to face the team with baseball’s best record in San Francisco. Ian Anderson had given up three homers, turning the Braves’ early 2-0 lead into a 4-2 hole, and in came Tyler Rogers to slam the door in the ninth.

But then, oh so quickly, amazing Braves things happened. Rogers gave up two first-pitch singles, and it could have been a third straight hit had Eddie Rosario’s hard liner not been caught in the infield. Up came Travis d’Arnaud, and he waited for the fourth pitch before unloading:

The Braves suddenly, almost-randomly, had a lead after trailing for oh-so-long. Could they ride this fortuitous jack (25 percent hit probability) to a win? Well, no. We’ll get to that later. But it was awesome when it happened.

d’Arnaud finished the 2021 season with a 78 wRC+, and fell back to an 87 mark in September following a 105 mark in August after returning from injury. It was mostly a season to forget for the backstop, but that homer will live on in awesomeness.

Best Run-Stopping Play - He did it, he did it, the crazy “closer” did it

The Braves’ version of Will Smith has done a lot of things in 2021. Some have been good. Some have been bad. One thing I hope he’s done is taught everyone in Braves Country that spending real money on relievers is a no-no. On September 26, nursing a one-run lead in the ninth, he also did this: walk, walk, strikeout, walk, strikeout. That brought up Ha-seong Kim as the Padres’ last hope. In a 2-2 count, Smith got a feeble swing-through on a very, very meaty fastball, ending the game with his own horrid mess on the bases.

One of the more bizarre random stats from this season: Will Smith had not one, but two outings in 2021 where he walked the bases loaded but also struck out three in the inning, with no runs scoring, and no non-walk, non-strikeout results.

Most Dominant Single Game Offensive Performance

Jorge Soler, September 25, was kind of what this subsection was made for. Not just one big play, but a huge game. He led off the game with a walk. In the third, with the Braves already down three, one on and one out, he singled on a gimme pop-up; the Braves scored two in the inning. After making a foulout to start the fifth, Soler came up massive in the seventh, pounding a game-tying three-run homer as part of a procession of five straight Braves hits. Oh, but he wasn’t done. He made another out in the eighth, but in the tenth, he came up with two on and one out, and sizzled a go-ahead double that would drive in the eventual winning run. One of his best games of the year, and certainly his highest WPA effort as a Brave. This highlight doesn’t have everything, but it has enough:

Most Dominant Single Game Starting Pitching Performance

The series of the season, with the Phillies flying into Atlanta to battle for the division crown, received some extra luminosity from the fact that both teams were able to line up their rotations for the showdown. In Game 1, Zack Wheeler, in the midst of a monstrous season (second in MLB in fWAR, nearly as much as Corbin Burnes, well above every other pitcher), lined up against Charlie Morton (12th in MLB in fWAR, but nowhere near Wheeler).

And, well, you know what happened: Morton delivered, and Wheeler tried, but ultimately did not (though it wasn’t really Wheeler’s fault). Morton bamboozled the Phillies; he eviscerated them and their playoff dreams. After allowing consecutive hits to start the game, he escaped with no damage and allowed just one hit the rest of the way. A two-out “rally” of back-to-back walks by Morton in the fourth proved fruitless, and he threw perfect frames in the sixth and seventh, facing the meat of the Phillies for a third time.

What’s crazier about this start was that Morton couldn’t find his curveball, his best pitch, until partway through the game. That potentially helped more than hurt: as the Phillies did nothing against a curveball-less version of his arsenal, they were helpless when he discovered the version of it he wanted, and they had to adjust to that the second and third time through, without already having seen it once.

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

Ah, the stupid runner-on-second-in-extras rule. Maybe we be rid of it forever. But, before we are, it at least gave us Jacob Webb’s outing in the 10th in September 9: he started with that ghastly runner on second, and retired the Nationals in order: flyout (no advance), groundout (advance), groundout. The Braves walked it off in the bottom half. Of course, no one ever crafts great highlights of these sorts of shutdown innings, but this one was agony-free: the first out came on a 1-2 count, the second on 0-2, and the third on the second pitch after a ball. Nice and easy, without any cheap runs for the opposition — a rarity for the Braves this year.

Most Crushed Dinger

I mean, yeah, it’s this one. You know it is. Adam Duvall hits baseballs very far at times.

While parabolic arc isn’t a perfect way of estimating fly ball distance, by that method, this was the fourth-longest homer hit this season. Amusingly, the Braves have three of the six, and four of the eight, longest homers this year — though none in the top three. Duvall has two of the top eight, Miguel Sano has the longest and the 11th-longest.

And now, to exorcise (not exercise) some demons from the month so they don’t haunt the Braves in the playoffs, or something.

Worst Offensive Result - Eddie Rosarioh, no

That September 9 game against the Nationals, where Jacob Webb excelled, was actually really crazy. The Braves fell behind 2-0 early, tied it up, went ahead on Steven Vogt’s second homer of the game (and then Vogt left with injury), lost the lead, went ahead by a run again, lost that lead, got two homers to take the lead, had Will Smith blow the save on a bad infield throw after a leadoff triple, and then Webb’s heroics and Joc Pederson’s walkoff hit. But before much of that, with the game tied at four in the eighth, the Braves had a golden chance, as they loaded the bases with none out on a single and two walks. Up came Eddie Rosario, and oh no, Eddie!

Worst Pitching Result - Donovan Solanoh, no

Remember the high you felt after the d’Arnaud three-run shot? Well, he’s the plummet off the precipice afterwards:

This came on a 2-2 count with two outs. So dumb.

Worst Single-Game Offensive Performance

As noted previously, Travis d’Arnaud did not really enjoy a positive 2021. The low point was arguably September 15, two days before his awesome homer. The game was a one-run affair the Braves dropped to the Rockies. d’Arnaud did a lot of damage to his own team. He struck out looking with a runner on and one out in the second. Up a run in the fourth in the same situation, he nearly got doubled up on a grounder. There was another groundout to lead off the bottom of the seventh in a tie game. The next inning, he had a chance to break the tie with men on first and second and one out; instead he struck out on three pitches against Tyler Kinley. But the big blow came in the 10th, with the Braves down a run and men on first and second with one out. Once again, d’Arnaud had a chance... but he struck out on a 3-2 pitch despite starting the PA up 2-0. It happens. It was by far d’Arnaud’s worst WPA for a game as a Brave, and his second-worst as a starter ever.

Worst Single-Game Starting Pitching Performance

Like a few of these, this one isn’t really on the pitcher. I keep ending up using this space to highlight really bad tactical management, because really bad tactical management keeps happening.

On September 25, which, by the way, was the amazing Jorge Soler game described above, Huascar Ynoa was struggling. He gave up a leadoff homer to Adam Frazier. The next inning, he gave up a leadoff homer to Eric Hosmer, and an RBI groundout to Vince Velasquez. The Braves tied the game behind him, and after a couple of perfect innings, he started the fifth with an out, and then a pinch-hit single allowed to Jake Marisnick, who stole second.

At this point, Ynoa had given up two homers, and was going to immediately face Frazier, who hit one of those homers. For some reason, he was left in the game. Frazier singled and stole second. To Ynoa’s credit, he did strike out Fernando Tatis Jr., but then he hit Jurickson Profar on a full count throw. That brought up Manny Machado... and you know what happened next.

Ynoa finished the season with an ERA of 3.35, a wOBA-against of .280, an FIP of 3.44, and an xFIP of 2.92 the first two times through the order. All of those numbers are quite good. The third time through the order, those numbers ballooned to 8.31, .394, 6.86, and 6.30, respectively. All of those numbers are very, very bad. Even before Machado’s slam, the numbers were a poor 5.40/.349/4.97/6.27, yet had faced at least someone for a third time in each start since his return from the IL but one, with bad outcomes three of the six times. Yet, he was left in, to allow a grand slam. This was a classic pre-2021 Braves game, where the bats came alive and made up for the tactics issues in thrilling fashion, but Ynoa didn’t just get hung out to dry here, he got taken to a dry cleaners that’s a front for a violent crime syndicate or something. It was one of the two worst starts of his season, and a lot of the horridness could’ve been avoided if someone was paying attention to his splits.

Worst Single-Game Relief Pitching Performance

Will Smith is on a mission to make everyone question the wisdom of spending on relievers, but a potentially-unlikely name is his sidekick in this quest: Chris Martin. The now-35-year-old was solidly reliable and more after being acquired in 2019, and after signing a why-level $14M/2 deal ahead of the 2020 season. He continued being that in 2020, but fell off the pace in 2021. To be clear, Martin’s 0.5 fWAR in 43 13 2021 innings, with a 92 ERA-, 82 FIP-, and 94 xFIP-, is perfectly fine. It’s not even that far off relative to his contract or anything. It’s just... generic, and half as productive as he had been in fewer innings over his prior two Braves partial seasons.

Martin’s underwhelming season consisted of a pretty long stretch in the middle where he mixed in okayness with brutal losses. Between June 10, the no-out defeat in extras against the Phillies, and September 1, the game I’ll describe below, Martin threw 25 innings of 126/91/94 ball, with a crazypants -1.25 WPA. The FIP/xFIP show it wasn’t really his fault, but it was still awful. And September 1 was really awful in the same way.

In this game, Max Fried had dueled Max Scherzer to a draw, and the Braves took a one-run lead on Dansby Swanson’s seventh-inning homer. Tyler Matzek came on for the eighth and issued a leadoff double to Trea Turner, got a groundout from Max Muncy that moved the tying run to third, and then struck out Mookie Betts. For whatever reason, the Braves then swapped Matzek for Martin (not for Betts, but after Betts). Justin Turner greeted Martin with a hard-hit grounder (.400 xBA) that tied the game as it rolled through the left side. After a walk, A.J. Pollock hit another grounder hard, but less well (.330 xBA), which also got through the infield and gave the Dodgers a lead. Martin escaped the inning with a strikeout, but the Braves lost by that score. Not really Martin’s fault, but a summary of Martin’s season.

Most Crushed Dinger Allowed

Oh, Richard Rodriguez, if only you somehow didn’t do this and amass -0.5 fWAR in 26 innings after the Braves traded for you this season. If only.

See you in the playoffs! (Though hopefully we don’t see more of that from Richard Rodriguez in the playoffs.)

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