It’s a cruel twist of fate, the likes of which only baseball can deliver. The 2022 Atlanta Braves, with six games left to play, have 97 wins, as many as they had in all of 2019, and the most for a Braves team since the back-to-back 101-win seasons of 2002-2003. Yet, going back to the period after those 101-win seasons, they won the NL East with win tallies of 96, 90, 96, 90, 97, and of course, last year’s paltry-by-comparison 88. That 88-win team went on to win a bunch of short series and claim the championship. This 97-plus win team? They still trail the Mets in the NL East by a game.
But I’m not here to talk about the divisional standings. I’m here to talk about how great this team has been, with tables and stuff. And really, most of this can be summed up in this one table:
The Braves have six games to play. They already have their most wins since 2002-2003, and their highest fWAR total since that period. There is a great chance they’ll fly past the 50.2 total team fWAR from 2003, and therefore the 98 total fWAR-wins from that year. Bottom line: you’ve already been watching something special, day-in, day-out, compared to the good Braves teams of years past.
It’s really the well-roundedness of this team that makes it impressive, though. Aside from team defense, the other components have been notably above average. Among all the teams in the table above, if you break their performance down into those four components (ignoring, for the moment, that defense and the bullpen are less meaningful than hitting and the rotation), the 2022 and 2013 Braves teams are the only ones to have no ranks lower than 12th. That 2013 team was very consistent, finishing between seventh and ninth in MLB across these four components, but this 2022 team is better in everything but defense.
The obviously-good, obviously-improved rotation
For the first time since 2009, when Javier Vazquez had his awesome season, the Braves have a rotation that is going to crest 15 fWAR. Max Fried, with 4.8 fWAR, has the best mark for any Braves starter since Vazquez threw up 5.9; Spencer Strider has 4.2 as a starter and 4.9 overall. The only other guy in recent history to come close is 2021 Charlie Morton, who finished with 4.5 fWAR. The last time the Braves had two pitchers with 4+ fWAR was 2007 (John Smoltz, Tim Hudson); the last time the Braves had two pitchers with 4+ fWAR and another starter with more than 2.5, to reflect what Kyle Wright has done this season, was 2000, when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Kevin Millwood, and John Burkett all posted 2.5 or more, and Andy Ashby plus Terry Mullholand combined for another 2.7. That 2000 rotation was the best in MLB, and the current one isn’t quite the Braves arms of yore, but it’s none too shabby either.
The rotation is a big reason as to why the Braves haven’t really been blown out much this season. The team has suffered just eight losses of five-plus runs so far in 2022, compared to 14 last year and 11 in 2020’s shortened season alone. That’s the fewest since the 106-win, ‘98 Braves team; no other team since has even managed single-digit blowout losses. What’s more, this team’s last blowout loss in a non-Jake Odorizzi start came all the way back on July 27 (that’s two months of either wins or close games that didn’t involve Odorizzi!), and they’ve only had three blowout losses, two of which were Ian Anderson starts, going back to the start of June. If you think of “well-rounded” as involving day-to-day competitiveness, this team has you covered.
The bullpen did the good thing that bullpens do sometimes
While there’s always some degree of kvetching about a team’s relief corps, recent Braves teams have been relatively underwhelmed by their relievers. Not so in 2022, and in a fashion that should be obvious to everyone by now, it isn’t because they doubled down on spending moolah by throwing presumably good Kenley Jansen money after the bad Will Smith money.
A.J. Minter has been amazing. His 2.2 fWAR is the highest since Craig Kimbrel posted 2.4 in 2014. He’s the only non-Kimbrel, non-Smoltz reliever to exceed 2.0 in basically forever. Collin McHugh has been great and surprisingly (to me) durable. Dylan Lee came out of nowhere to also be awesome, obliterating lefties. Kenley Jansen has been good, not $16 million good, but good enough, despite the agita he causes the fanbase. Keep in mind that this is MLB’s third-ranked bullpen by leverage-weighted fWAR despite a horrid four months of Will Smith, nine abominable appearances by the rehabbing Kirby Yates, and the very sad season that Tyler Matzek is mired in at this point.
In short, the Braves had random small-sample relief breakouts from Minter and Lee, and that’s made up for all of the usual downside relief pitcher variation, and more.
The awesomely top-heavy position player crew
On the position player side, this team has been beset by both major and minor problems. There have been costly injuries (Ozzie Albies, Adam Duvall) and nagging ailments (Ronald Acuña Jr.). There have been out-of-the-blue seriously underwhelming seasons (Matt Olson, driven by a September collapse). There’s been whatever’s going on with Marcell Ozuna, which has included xwOBA underperformance, a vortex sucking down any chance for him to provide WPA, and a bunch of other unpleasant stuff. Eddie Rosario apparently couldn’t see well enough to play yet stuck around to be awful for a while anyway, and then was awful after coming back.
Yet, with all that, the Braves still have a top-seven position player crew. Oh, and they’re doing it without outhitting their xwOBA. For comparison, of the six teams that have better hitting outputs than the Braves, after adjusting for park, so far in 2022, all but the Yankees and Astros are outhitting their xwOBA to some extent, and the Yankees are the only team underperforming their xwOBA.
We talk about how stars-and-scrubs doesn’t tend to work out that well in baseball (hi Anaheim Angels!), but the Braves have made it work on the position player side. Look at it this way:
On this chart, the height of the blue bar is the proportion of the team’s position player fWAR represented by its top four players, while the dot is just the sum of the fWARs of those top four players. The Astros are the clear weirdos — they have a top four to rival the Dodgers, but that top four makes up a way bigger chunk of their team’s fWAR. The Yankees and Braves are good foils — they also have a similar top four fWAR, but for the Braves, those guys are nearly three-fourths of the team’s position player production, while for the Yankees, Aaron Judge’s 11.0 fWAR and all, the top four are just 60 percent.
Oh, but what a top four they are.
- Dansby Swanson is up to 5.9 fWAR. He’s third in MLB in defensive value, and 13th in fWAR overall among position players. While Swanson has cooled considerably at the plate (he had a .376 xwOBA in May and a .400 mark in June, with his next three months being .317, .304, and .285), his defense has given him a value floor and then some. Swanson is just barely behind Dennis Menke’s 6.1 fWAR in 1964 for the top shortstop fWAR season by a Brave, ever. He might beat it in his walk year. In the defensive metrics era, no one else even comes close to what he’s done.
- Austin Riley is the opposite of Swanson, as his value is pretty much all offense. Riley is 18th among position players in fWAR, and is 13th in total offensive value accrued. He has a top-10 xwOBA even if you set the roster of qualified players low enough to grab guys with 150 balls in play, and a wOBA to match. Riley has also cooled in a similar fashion, albeit with a much different starting point — he had a .435 xwOBA in April and an absurd .506 mark in July, and has gone .345 in August and .333 in September, with underperformance making those two months look worse than they have been. His season is the best for a Braves third baseman since Chipper Jones’ 2008, in which he posted 7.1 fWAR.
- Michael Harris II has just been amazing everywhere (except hitting lefties). The relationship between his wOBAs and xwOBAs month to month has been erratic, but overall, he has 4.9 fWAR, giving him an insane, fringe MVP-esque 7.0 fWAR/600 pace. Harris’ 2022 is already a top-30 center field season in Braves history, and he didn’t even play in the majors for two months.
- And then there’s Travis d’Arnaud, who has sneakily notched his first-ever 4.0 fWAR season. It has been sneaky indeed, as d’Arnaud’s .314 xwOBA isn’t really remarkable, but like Harris, he has one of the biggest xwOBA overperformances in MLB in 2022. Given that the Braves as a whole are underperforming due to Ozuna and Acuña, it’s nice that at least someone can have a monster season with the luck dragons helping them out. It hasn’t been all luck, though, as d’Arnaud has had an excellent framing year, which has given him a huge value boost.
Having four players with 4+ fWAR isn’t too uncommon for this franchise. They nearly did it last year, and achieved it in 2019. So, the well-roundedness has really been about combining the position player production with some recently-unprecedented pitching awesomeness.
Anyway, I won’t belabor the point much longer. You know these guys, you’ve seen them dominate opposing teams for the better part of a season now. However these last six games go won’t change the fact that this is the most complete team the Braves have fielded in about two decades, and no matter what the roulette wheel spins for them in October, that’s worth celebrating.