The Atlanta Braves will begin the next step in their quest for another World Series championship Saturday when the Division Series gets underway. This will be the Braves sixth straight trip to the postseason, but they will be in a much different situation this time around as the favorite. Since about midseason, Atlanta has been the best team in the majors with an historic offensive performance and two players in Ronald Acuña Jr. and Matt Olson that have put up MVP caliber numbers.
There is an increased level of randomness in MLB’s postseason, relative to the regular season, that doesn’t really exist in other sports. The expanded field has added even more complications in recent seasons. One need look no further than last year, when three 100-win teams exited in the Division Series. That aside, the Braves enter the 2023 playoffs as the favorite, and that adds another level of outside pressure to the situation.
Atlanta’s run of postseason appearances began in 2018 when a young team burst on the scene and probably arrived a year early. The Braves won 90 games that season and their first NL East title since 2013. They were quickly dispatched in the Division Series by a more well-equipped Dodgers team.
The team added depth in 2019 with the free agent addition of Josh Donaldson and the first full season of Acuña. They took a step forward with 97 wins and a second straight division title. Atlanta appeared poised for a deep playoff run, but were instead upset in the first round by the St. Louis Cardinals in a series that included a painful Game 5 loss where the Braves gave up 10 runs in the first inning.
The shortened 2020 season introduced even more randomness into the equation: a 60-game regular season followed by an expanded playoff field. The Braves went 35-25 and again won the NL East, but their rotation was in shambles essentially from the start. Michael Soroka suffered an Achilles injury in his third start, Mike Foltynewicz was designated for assignment after his first appearance, and Sean Newcomb was sent back to the minors. Max Fried took a significant step forward and Ian Anderson provided a substantial lift upon his arrival, but Atlanta essentially had to piece together the remainder of their rotation for the rest of the season. That team nearly broke through though as they built a 3-1 lead in the NLCS against the Dodgers, only to watch it slip away with three straight losses. Despite the disappointing end, it felt like Atlanta’s young group was starting to turn the corner.
2021 was a storybook season, but it didn’t begin that way. The Braves didn’t climb over .500 until August 6. They overcame a season-ending injury to Acuña, and were as many as eight games back in the division in mid-June. There were serious questions as to whether or not they should consider selling at the Trade Deadline, but Alex Anthopoulos doubled down and rebuilt his outfield with the additions of Joe Pederson, Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler. The 2021 Braves went 36-19 over the final two months of the season and steamrolled their way through the playoffs behind homers and an excellent bullpen to win their first World Series since 1995. The 2021 Braves are a shining example of the randomness that can come in MLB’s postseason.
The Braves continued to add to their young core in 2022 with the additions of Rookie of the Year Michael Harris II and his runner-up, Spencer Strider. They again started slow though and were under .500 until the arrival of Harris at the end of May. The 2022 club trailed the Mets by 10.5 games on June 1, but went 78-34 from that point on to claim their fifth straight division crown. This season however, was also another reminder of the randomness that the postseason forces. Strider suffered an oblique injury down the stretch and Fried came down with a virus that caused him to lose about 15 pounds. With their two best rotation options ailing, they ran into a Phillies team that looked a lot like their 2021 version and fell 3-1. Philadelphia, who had to battle all the way to the end of the regular season just to make the postseason, got hot at the right time and rode it all the way to the World Series.
The final chapter of the 2023 season is still yet to be written, but these Braves enter the postseason in a much different situation. The furthest they were behind in the NL East was a half-game on April 2. They spent 185 days in first place and led the division by 17 games on September 13. The one-time underdog has now become the massive favorite.
They are well equipped to handle the situation with a roster that has been battle tested over their six-year run. Still, there won’t be any sneaking up on anyone this time. They are going to get everyone’s best shot.