So, here we are! The All-Star break is winding down and the second half of the season is about to get off and rolling and the Atlanta Braves are in an incredibly comfortable and enviable position to be in. They’re the first team to reach 60 wins this season, they lead the National League in team wRC+ (121, just one point behind the Rays and Rangers who are tied with 122), they lead Major League Baseball with a team wOBA of .356 (10 percentage points clear of the Rangers in second place) and are also tops in MLB when it comes to Isolated Power (.222, which is again 10 percentage points clear of the Dodgers in second) and they’re also on pace to break the record for most homers by a team in a single season.
While this insane level of production at the plate isn’t particularly shocking since they’ve were projected before the season to be one of the best lineups in baseball. What’s surprising about it is just how dominant the team has been. At the risk of indulging in a bit of hubris here, this has been one of those seasons where it feels like it doesn’t matter who the Braves are dealing with on a nightly basis — if they’re on the field, they’ve got a solid chance of winning. Maybe I shouldn’t judge a team based on their highest of highs (just as you shouldn’t judge a team at their lowest point) but at the same time, it’s hard to not get excited when the following events happened:
- The infamous “Throw it again” game
- The now-annual team meeting in Arizona immediately doing the trick
- Those four days of dominance against Colorado
- Taking Cincinnati’s best haymaker shot over three days and simply getting up from the attack like they’re The Undertaker
- Welcoming a confident Miami team to town and sending them back out of town with a 1-9 record against the Braves this season (including this demolition job against Eury Pérez)
- Going to Tampa’s house and taking two out of three against the team with the best record in the American League
That's not to mention that the Braves have been getting the job done against all caliber of competition, recently. If you're a division leader and you're seeing the Braves then you're probably exiting that series looking at the standings to make sure you didn't cede too much ground after what Atlanta did to you. If you're a mediocre team, the Braves simply take care of business and move on. If you're a bad team, the Braves are relentless. Outside of that shocking series in Oakland to end what was a slog through the month of May, the Braves have turned into a buzzsaw.
What's even more encouraging about this is the fact that as far as the regular season is concerned, this is now basically just standard operating procedure for Atlanta. This is a team that finished the 2022 regular season on a 78-33 run and again, they've gotten off to a 60-29 start to kick off this season. For those who are counting at home, they're on pace for a 109-win season, which would be the best in franchise history by three wins. Usually this would be the part where I try to temper expectations by saying that this team could cool down at any point and fall off that pace but once again, the current level that the Braves are playing at just seems to be their normal level of operation. It is genuinely wonderful and exciting to see the team playing at such a high level and it's extremely encouraging that it's been going on for an extended period of time as well.
What makes this current run even better is that they've getting this done while getting a grand total of 10 starts combined from Max Fried and Kyle Wright. If you had told me before the season started that the Braves would be missing two of their best starters for such an extended period of time, then I also would've guessed that the season may have been a bit of a struggle for Atlanta on the mound. Instead, it's actually been relatively smooth sailing for Atlanta's pitching staff. Atlanta's pitching crew leads baseball in ERA- (82, five points clear of Houston in second) and are fifth in FIP- with 92, which is third in the National League only behind Miami and Philadelphia who are in second and first, respectively.
It's not even like it's the starters or bullpen carrying the weight, either — it's been a total team effort in that regard. Atlanta's starters lead baseball in ERA- (85) and find themselves in the top 10 in FIP-, while the bullpen has the best ERA- in the NL (third overall) and are actually leading MLB in FIP-. While their performance isn't quite on the same level that the offense has been on, it's been enough to make sure that the Braves are in every single game with the way they swing the bat. It's very rare to see multiple Braves pitchers have an off-night in the same night and even when it does happen, the offense lifts them up and rises to the occasion. It's just very exciting to see this type of performance on a nightly basis.
What makes this season so fun is that you really don't have to look far for excitement when it comes to individual performances. Enough has been said about Ronald Acuña Jr.'s performance so far that I don't really have much to add. He's already got one foot in the 40/40 Club after stealing 41 bases before the break and he's on pace to have a really solid shot at getting the 40 homers he needs to join the exclusive club. This is exactly what we wanted to see from Acuña in his first season where he was fully recovered from the injury that robbed him of what could've been an MVP campaign in 2021 and sapped him of a lot of his ability in 2022. He's operating at full force here in 2023 and this is looking like the year where Acuña gets the MVP that eluded him a couple of years ago.
Matt Olson is leading the National League in home runs and Isolated Power, Sean Murphy is well on his way to having a career year at the plate while providing the same level of elite defense as expected, Ozzie Albies is looking as good at the plate as he's ever been and Orlando Arcia has repaid the faith that Alex Anthopoulos and the rest of the Braves organization had in him to be a reliable shortstop by joining all of these guys in Seattle at the All-Star Game.
Marcell Ozuna has gone from playing his way out of town to playing his way back into an everyday role as a DH, Travis d'Arnaud has continue to be a reliable source of offense at the plate, Eddie Rosario is looking at his usual self at the plate after his snakebitten 2022 season and it feels like it's only a matter of time before we see Austin Riley and Michael Harris II really start to kick their respective seasons into high gear. Simply put, there are no real holes in Atlanta's lineup and we've seen what happens when they're all operating at peak performance. As long as this continues, they are going to be incredibly formidable for any pitching staff to handle.
On the mound, it's genuinely been stunning to see Bryce Elder defy both the odds and the analytics with his development into a perfectly reliable starter this season. Charlie Morton has also provided a steadying presence in the rotation as you'd expect. Then there's Spencer Strider, who has managed to wade through some bumps in the road this season and appears to be on track to have another great season. These three have been carrying the rotation and if Max Fried can make a hopefully seamless return to the rotation and they can get something out of Kyle Wright this season then you have to feel very good about Atlanta's rotation once things start to get intense in October.
The bullpen has just been a collective source of reliability, as it seems like basically any name that's called upon cam come into the game and do exactly what's asked of them. Losing Nick Anderson until September is a bit of a disappointment and Jesse Chavez was on an extended heater before he suffered an incredibly unfortunate injury but even with those two being gone, they still have A.J. Minter getting the job done, Raisel Iglesias being a reliable closer, Michael Tonkin eating innings when he has to and the rest of the pen has been utilized pretty well by Brian Snitker so far.
Speaking of Snitker, he deserves a ton of praise for his role in making sure that this machine has been rolling for as long as they have been. Anytime you hear the Braves players talking in public or being quoted in interviews, you can tell that the team is following the day-to-day baseball philosophy that the manager has helped to instill in them. Any time a team is playing this well for this long, the manager definitely deserves a fair amount of credit for keeping the ship sailing in the right direction. Snitker's never going to be known as a master baseball tactician but he is indeed a master when it comes to keeping a peaceful, focused, and motivated clubhouse and that's enough to where I feel like he should be recognized as one of the top managers in MLB right now. We're a long way from when it seemed like he was a placeholder hire back in 2016, right?!
The first half of the 2023 season is probably some of the most enjoyable baseball that I've seen the Braves play when it comes to the regular season. While it's not quite on the scale of how it felt watching the Braves during the 1990s when the regular season had a feeling of inevitable success for Atlanta for such a long period of time (and nostalgia is probably playing a part in this as well), it's been genuinely incredible to be able to tune in every night and not feel like "Oh this is gonna be a long night," or "Well why tune in? It's going to be rough." The television ratings seem to agree with me in that regard.
Instead, it genuinely feels like something fun or exciting is going to happen at every juncture of each game — especially when it comes to their first inning prowess. They actually have a team wRC+ of 171, a team wOBA of .431 and an Isolated Power number of .311 during the first inning of games this year, which is far ahead of what any other team has done in the opening inning of games this season. Those numbers alone have contributed to me making sure that I'm tuned in at 7:20 P.M. E.T. on the nose for Braves games.
I really hope that y'all are enjoying this run as much as I am. While I can understand anybody who may be concerned about the few flaws that this team has and the volatility of October, I think last season may actually be fueling the Braves this year. It's almost as if they're in a holding position before they get to the Postseason and that's when they plan to really set the record straight. We are watching some special baseball right now and my best advice to any Braves fan reading this is to keep on enjoying the ride. You'll have plenty of time to stress over every single pitch once October rolls around. For now, enjoy watching this team tear through the competition like a hot knife through butter. They're clearly having fun — you should too!