At the lowest point last year, the Braves were 8 games back of the Mets. It was June 16th, they had just lost to the Red Sox 10-8, were 30-35, and 8 games back of first. Things were going south, quickly. Of course, we know how it ended.
I bring this up because, once again, the Braves find themselves 8 games back of the Mets. On May 20th, they’ve reached the largest division deficit they faced at any point last season. After losing two out of three against Milwaukee this week and the Mets winning three of four against St. Louis, the Braves are 17-21, while New York is 26-14. Now, there is quite literally no fanbase in baseball that better understands how long a baseball season is and how drastically things can change within one better than Braves’ fan. Well maybe Mets’ fans. It is a long, long season. And we’re not even a quarter of the way through it. But 8 games back is 8 games back. So the question is, is it time to worry?
As Memorial Day approaches, a commonly used benchmark day in the baseball calendar where fans and front offices evaluate their team, honesty compels us to say the Braves haven’t been very good. Even more honesty compels us to say, at times, they’ve been just bad. Consider, as June approaches, the Braves have won two series all season. Two series. The Reds have won three series. How that’s possible is when Cincinnati has lost a series this season, they usually get swept. The Braves haven’t been swept once, obviously helping the cause. But still, out of the 12 series they've played, they've won only two. And the schedule hasn’t exactly been a gauntlet. So far their schedule has included Cincinnati, Washington, Miami, the Cubs, Texas, and Boston. They won one of those series.
And it’s not just the results. The inputs haven’t been all that great either. As a team, the Braves have a 94 wRC+ this season, which ranks 18th in baseball. When Alex Anthopoulos built this team, he sacrificed a lot of athleticism and defense in exchange for an explosive offense. This team was built to win games with their offense and bullpen. The bullpen, for the most part, has held up their end of the deal. The offense hasn't.
Part of the problem can be attributed to Ronald Acuna Jr being out of the lineup a majority of the games played so far. When’s he's played, he’s been his normal dynamic self. Fingers crossed, as he gets further away from knee injury, he’ll be in the lineup more and more frequently. But again, Acuna’s absence has only been part of the problem. The rest lies in some drastic underachieving throughout the lineup. Marcell Ozuna has an 84 wRC+. Adam Duvall has a 56 wRC+. In the 50 plate appearances he had before his eye surgery, Eddie Rosario had a -20 wRC+. Those were the projected 4-5-6 hitters in the Braves’ lineup coming into the season. And for most of the season, they've been awful. Combine that with cold stretches from Matt Olson, Austin Riley, and an off season from Ozzie Albies so far, it’s not hard to figure out why the Braves have been so inconsistent on offense. In fact, when you add in Acuna’s absence to all that, the fact that they’ve been the 18th best offense in baseball is impressive. It’s only been through the heroics of unexpected guys like Orlando Arcia, Travis Demeritte, and William Contreras that they can say that.
On top of the position players struggling with their offense, the defense has arguably been even more costly. Aside from Dansby Swanson having a tremendous year at SS, and Duvall d’Arnaud being solid in CF and C, the Braves defense has been rough. Very rough. Overall, they have -7 Outs Above Average as a team, 22nd in baseball, and that's with Dansby grading as basically the best defender in the game. To illustrate how bad their defense has been, their pitching staff ranks 21st in ERA and 5th in FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching. When removing defense from the equation, the Braves pitching staff has been one of the very best in baseball. When adding defense back in, the Braves pitching staff has been one of the worst. It's also an important reminder why ERA should always be considered a pitching and defense stat, much like throwing out base-stealers is reflective of both the pitcher and catcher. But the position player group is not catching the ball. And a lot of the time, they’re not hitting the ball either. Getting Ronald back will help, but frankly, the Braves need more from the players they currently have. On both sides of the ball.
So what has this rough start to the season done to their playoff chances? Because that’s really what we’re talking about with all this. Here’s a graph of their running playoff odds for the season:
When the season started, FanGraphs gave the Braves an 88% chance to make the playoffs. Today, it sits at 62%. Losses matter, even early in the season, but overall, the Braves are a still in a decent spot when it comes to making the postseason. What about winning the division? Here’s that graph:
Most of the projection systems very much liked the Mets to start the season, nothing new there, and so the Braves only had a 54% chance of winning the division on Opening Day. As of today, that number has been cut by more than half, now sitting at 25%. The Mets are facing serious injury issues, again nothing new, with Jacob deGrom and now Max Scherzer out for an extended period but still, the Braves are 8 games back. That’s significant ground to make up, even with 75% of the season still to play. Any talk of playoff odds needs to include the fact that MLB and the MLBPA agreed to expand the playoffs in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, and now, instead of five teams from each league making the playoffs, it's six. This is one of the reasons why the Braves chances of making the playoffs is still relatively high, while their chances of winning the division are relatively low.
It's a cop-out not to answer the question that’s posted in the title. When is it time to worry? If the main concern is making the playoffs, it’s really no where close to time to worry. With three wild-card teams now in play for each league, the Braves could tread water for months, turn it on in late August or early September and still accomplish the goal of making the postseason. As it sits today, they’re still more likely to make the playoffs than not. But if the goal is to win the division and avoid the extreme randomness of the Wild Card round as opposed to the normal randomness of the Division round, it’s probably time to worry. Yes they overcame and 8-game deficit last season, but we need to be careful of using that as template for success. Despite how last season ended, playing like shit for months of a baseball season is not actually an advisable strategy for success. You’re not always going to find yourself in a terrible division that will just let you hang around below .500 for four months of a season. If Atlanta played in any other division last season, they miss the postseason completely and all the magic that followed never comes to pass.
So when is it time to worry? For making the playoffs, not for a while. Between other mediocre teams and expanded playoffs, they're still fine there. But for continuing their reign as NL East Champions, it’s time now. The Braves have already dug themselves a hole they might not be able to climb out of again. The Mets’ having serious injury problems helps the cause as does the fact that, well, they’re the Mets but counting on being able to sleep-walk through 60% of the season again and expecting it to all work out seems like a bad bet. It’s much, much easier just to start playing better now.