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Braves surf stout September to another division title

The Braves needed their best September in a decade to complete their resurgence, and they pulled it off.

Atlanta Braves v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

When September started, the stakes were obvious, but at least somewhat daunting. The Braves had 31 games to make up a three-game deficit in the division, with a key showdown for the Mets in Atlanta set to begin on the final day of the month. Their odds of winning the division sat at 15 percent, reflecting a distinct, but still pretty unlikely, chance that they’d take home a fifth straight NL East crown. When September ended, the Braves were tied. When “September,” that is, the remainder of the regular season, which we call “September” because the vagaries of MLB scheduling, ended, the Braves had indeed won the NL East. It took a great “month” (I’m gonna stop the scare quotes after this) to get there — the Braves went 21-10 in their final 31 games, on par with what they did in 2012 and notably outdoing even their solid Septembers during the rest of this good run.

Like all months, it was somewhat of an up-and-down affair. The Braves started it by winning seven in a row, combining with the last game in August for an eight-game winning streak. They then dropped series in both Seattle and San Francisco, before winning five, losing three, and winning four in a row. And then, soon thereafter, they swept the Mets to nearly ice the division.

Once again, the Braves outdid themselves, playing three games better than their game-to-game odds, which suggested an 18-13 performance. They were disfavored in five games and did a great job to win three of them anyway, including the first two games of that key series against the Mets where they stared down Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer.

On the season, they also ended up flattening their game-to-game odds, which suggested around 94 wins. They underperformed these odds by around three games in April and another two games in May, before making all of that back up in June alone. The rest was then gravy (if you like gravy, I think it’s gross): +2 in each of July and August, and as mentioned, +3 in September.

After somewhat of a dip in how they succeeded in August, the Braves went back to leaning heavily on their bullpen in September. Here are their ranks for September, and the season as a whole:

  • wRC+: Sixth in September, seventh for the season
  • Defensive value: 12th for September, 12th for the season
  • Total position player value: Eighth for September, seventh for the season
  • Rotation fWAR: Tenth for September, seventh for the season
  • Bullpen fWAR: Fourth for September, second for the season
  • Total pitching value: Sixth for September, third for the season

Yep, that’s how you build a phenomenal team. No real top-level weaknesses, and high quality in just about everything but aggregate defense.

The Braves finished with 99-100 fWAR-wins, outdoing that mark a tiny bit with their 101 actual wins. The Mets finished with a teeny bit fewer fWAR-wins (closer to 99 than 100, but we’re really splitting hairs here) and the same 101 wins. Them’s the breaks.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for September 2022 Performance - Position Players

The trio of Michael Harris II, Dansby Swanson, and Travis d’Arnaud played incredibly well in September, with Harris finishing in the top 30 among all MLB position players in fWAR for the month, and the other two sliding into the top 50. But, Robbie Grossman did something for the month that was kind of nuts, considering he didn’t actually play particularly well (0.1 fWAR) in September.

Grossman appeared in 24 September games, including two as a pinch-hitter. Somehow, in those 24 games, he managed a +.300 WPA game, four games between +.090 and +.200, and the kicker, his +.720 game in Seattle. One fourth of his games provided meaty impacts to the Braves on the field, which is a real baseball-y occurrence given that, again, he didn’t actually do that well for the month overall. Harris and d’Arnaud? They raked and somehow finished with negative WPA for the month. Go figure.

Live it up, Robbie. You helped in September, a lot, even though you kind of didn’t.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for September 2022 Performance - Starting Pitchers

Look, man, it’s gonna be Max Fried because he somehow pitched five innings against the Mets to start the biggest series of the year, while afflicted with Exploding Butthole-itis. Who else can it even be?

In all seriousness, though, Fried’s September was kind of a late-season bummer, but only because of how good he was earlier.

The peripherals were still fine, but batters were able to take a bunch of former grounders and make them not grounders, which caused some trouble. Maybe in a different universe, Fried’s five starts in September, featuring an elevated fly ball rate, benefit from HR/FB shenanigans and give him a pristine FIP despite the second-worst monthly xFIP, but that’s not what happened. Instead, he allowed multihomer games in consecutive starts for the first time in his career, and that was enough to make his September look kind of blah.

The Braves won three of Fried’s five outings for the month, which seems like a not-great ratio for a guy still throwing up the numbers he did. Unfortunately, he matched up with a near-untouchable George Kirby in Seattle (and allowed two homers), and after the Braves won his other multihomer game, the universe got its revenge by putting him on the losing end of a 1-0 game even as he recovered his prior grounder rate and had an 8/1 K/BB ratio.

Oh and Spencer Strider was super-good and had as much fWAR as the next two Braves pitchers combined in September, but he just had a boring old oblique issue that he didn’t even pitch with so shhh it’s Max Fried.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for September 2022 Performance - Relief Pitchers

Here’s A.J. Minter in September: 15 appearances, eight shutdowns, zero meltdowns.

Here’s Raisel Iglesias in September: 16 appearances, nine shutdowns, zero meltdowns, and zero runs charged.

The vagaries of usage (Minter often in the eighth, Iglesias often in the seventh) gave Minter slightly higher WPA despite one fewer appearance and shutdown, but September probably looks a bit different, or very different, if either of these guys faltered. They didn’t. They will one day, many days even. But not in September.

The weird thing about September was that the obviously big games, the ones that led to sweeping the Mets, weren’t particularly “swing-y.” The Braves came back in each one, but not late (and probably wouldn’t have been able to, late, given the existence of Edwin Diaz). So the big moments? Well, take a look, but they weren’t quite what you’d expect, perhaps.

Best Offensive Play - Robbie Grossman?!?!

Two outs in the ninth. Grossman is the go-ahead run. The Braves were down 6-2 to start the inning. After two walks and two outs, Harris homered for the second time in two innings to bring the Braves within one. Eddie Rosario shot a single to right to bring up Grossman. Was this going to be one of those improbably insane comebacks that happens every so often? Apparently, with an asterisk...

Robbie Grossman had a two-out, two-run walkoff homer that turned a one-run deficit into a win in extra innings last year. This is probably the second-biggest swing he’s ever taken. But, again, that asterisk.

Best Run-Stopping Play - Phew

On September 20, the Braves held a late lead over the Nats at home. Swanson homered to extend a 2-1 lead by a run, and then it was Kenley Jansen time. It went kinda poorly. The inning started with back-to-back bunt singles, and after two strikeouts, Luis Garcia singled in a run. After he stole second, the Braves walked Joey Meneses to bring Luke Voit up, with the bases loaded, two out, up by a run.

Voit actually got a pretty great pitch to hit, but failed to make any kind of impact, hitting a pretty weak fly to center to end the game.

Most Dominant Single Game Offensive Performance

Yeah it’s still Grossman’s homer. He didn’t even do anything for the rest of the game, but that was enough.

Most Dominant Single Game Starting Pitching Performance

Spencer Strider missed the end of the month, but he got September started right.

Eight shutout innings, 16, count ‘em, 16 strikeouts, mostly in a close game to boot. The most amusing part? A 99 Game Score (v2), suggesting a one percent chance of losing a game where a starter does what Strider did. Enjoy the three minutes of awesome above.

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

Probably the dumbest game of the month came on September 25, in Philadelphia. The Braves led, then trailed, then tied it, then trailed again, then led, then trailed, then finally tied it on an unforced error on an infield single in the eighth, which eventually forced the game into extras. The Braves ended up winning 8-7, pushing two across in the 11th while the Phillies only scored one later that inning. But how did they even get to the 11th? And how did they win?

Well, Jackson Stephens is the answer. Stephens got three outs after an intentional walk to Bryce Harper in the tenth. He got two outs to start the 11th, gave up an RBI single to J.T. Realmuto, and then sealed the game with a win. Not too shabby for the fifth guy out of the bullpen chute, and a pretty cool example of most of the bullpen, even the guys you don’t expect, being nails for much of the month. Here’s a video of the last out, but Stephens’ performance was much more than this one result.

Most Crushed Dinger

Haha you threw a 3-0 pitch to William Contreras for some reason.

In 12 PAs this season, Contreras put together a .464 xwOBA and .640 wOBA against Ranger Suarez, with this being the second of the two homers. I don’t really get why you’d throw him that with a one-run lead and Harris, he of the noted struggles against southpaws, up next, but here we are. This was actually the only run the Braves scored off Suarez in that game, and the only earned run the Braves have charged to Suarez in his last three starts against them. Gonna be interesting if the Phillies advance to the NLDS, kinda.

But, I also want to include this crush job by Austin Riley, because it’s really fun when Riley gets an inner-portion breaking pitch he can wait back on:

And now, for the bad stuff, in a month, and year, where none of the bad stuff ultimately added up to disappointment...

Worst Offensive Result - The Dreaded West Coast Double Play

Trips out West for this Braves team often go awry. This one particular PA went awry for Austin Riley and the Braves.

Atlanta was held scoreless through seven in their first game in San Francisco, and found themselves trailing 3-0 in the eighth, when they mounted a rally to start the frame. Four straight Braves reached, and Riley came up in a 3-2 game, still nobody out, and runners on first and second. He didn’t single-handedly kill the Braves with this one PA, but it was pretty close:

A bad 0-1 pitch to swing at, and a bad call to just reach out and throw the bat at something, something that Riley doesn’t do too much of.

Worst Pitching Result - From Elation to Agony

Remember Robbie Grossman’s amazing homer? You probably don’t want to remember what came a few minutes later.

Everything about this sequence was so bad, even context aside, that the Mariners’ announcer knew it was gone just with the swing, and arguably even when Julio Rodriguez began his swing. There’s the asterisk I mentioned earlier — the Grossman moment was amazing until the stuff that negated it.

Worst Single-Game Offensive Performance

September 28 was one of the last disappointments for the Braves. They came into the day tied with the Mets atop the NL East, and had just one more game to go before the big weekend showdown. Coming into that weekend showdown tied would mean a series win could be a decent launching point for winning the division. Coming in a game down would mean a sweep was mostly needed to be division champs again. The Braves did get the sweep, but they didn’t know that during this game, which was downright awful for Dansby Swanson.

Swanson’s first three PAs were a couple of groundouts and a popout. In the eighth, Swanson came to bat with the tying run on second and one out, and once again grounded out. The play resulted in a rigmarole where the net effect was just an extra out and Swanson replacing Contreras at second, but that didn’t help win expectancy at all. The Braves later tied it thanks to a throwing error on an infield single, but Swanson’s misery wasn’t done. In extra innings, with pinch-runner Guillermo Heredia on third and one out, Swanson once again grounded out to the right side, preventing the free runner from scoring. The Braves ended up losing in the bottom of the 10th when a grounder snuck through the right side with two outs.

Swanson’s -.336 WPA in this game was his worst of the season, and the worst he’s managed in a game going back to June 2019. He’s only had two worse games, WPA-wise, in his career.

Worst Single-Game Starting Pitching Performance

We go back to September 25, the game that Jackson Stephens saved with his extra-inning relief. The game got to that point partly because A) Charlie Morton was horrid and B) the Braves refused to remove him from the game.

Morton blew a 2-0 lead in the very first inning as five straight Phillies reached base to start the game, including a leadoff homer by Kyle Schwarber that bounced off the right field foul pole. After the Braves tied the game, he allowed a second homer to Schwarber, this time to left. After the Braves took the lead on a go-ahead Swanson homer, he was left in to face the Phillies for a third time, walked Schwarber, gave up a double, and then consecutive sacrifice flies to have the Braves fall behind once again. It took a downpour later the inning to remove him from the game.

Worst Single-Game Relief Pitching Performance

You think giving up a game-tying homer right after your team scores five in the ninth to take a one-run lead is bad? Jansen, that day, was much worse. It wasn’t just Julio Rodriguez dingering to re-tie the game; Eugenio Suarez decided to end it, too.

Most Crushed Dinger Allowed

Actually a double-whammy here. Here’s Peyton Burdick in a game that did not matter at all, taking Silvino Bracho deep:

And here’s Bryce Harper in a game that did, ruining Kyle Wright’s stats:

See you at the end of April 2023, I guess! Or in the playoffs.

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