On September 9, 2022, the Atlanta Braves beat the Seattle Mariners 6-4 to open up that series in Seattle and — most importantly — take sole control of first place in the NL East for the first time in the entire 2022 season. Atlanta’s time at the top didn’t last long as they ended up dropping that series but by that point, they were in it to win it. They never fell behind New York for further than 2.5 games and by the time October rolled around, the Braves passed them for good and ended up winning the division on a tiebreaker. That race in 2022 was equal parts insane, intense and ultimately impressive as the Braves did everything they could to cling onto their position as the top dogs in the NL East for a fifth straight season.
Heading into this season, it was widely expected that there was going to be another knife fight for the divisional crown. Both the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies had loaded up in order to challenge the Braves for divisional superiority and with the Miami Marlins poised as a potential dark horse team, it was seemingly as clear as day that the Braves were going to be in for one hell of a fight in the 2023 campaign. Were they still the favorites? Sure they were but at the same time, this wasn’t supposed to be easy. It was going to be anything other than easy this year. You could argue that the Braves winning the division hasn’t been easy since they got back to the top of the East in 2018 and took that division by eight games. It definitely wasn’t going to be a cake walk this season, we all thought.
On April 3, the Braves beat the St. Louis Cardinals 8-4 in order to go 3-1 on the season and a half-game up in the division. This was after they spent one day in second place following their "failure" to sweep the Washington Nationals in the opening series. As it turned out, April 2 would be the last day the Braves would be in second place for the entire season and April 3 was the beginning of the march to September 13. By the time September 13 rolled around, the Mets had long ago suffered a spectacular collapse, the Marlins had faded away after the All-Star Break and the Braves were busy beating the Phillies 4-1 in order to clinch the division for the sixth-straight season and with 16 games left to spare. As it turned out, the race ended up being just about as easy as it could get for the Braves.
So how did we get here? How did this go from being a race that could’ve been one of the most competitive in all of baseball to being a dominant march to the top for the back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back NL East Champion Atlanta Braves? In my opinion, it boils down to two major factors. The most important factor being that we finally got to see what would happen if the Braves played up to their potential for an entire season. Yes, the Braves ended up winning 103 games in 2022 but that was only after they spent April and May struggling mightily and were forced to make up a 10.5 game deficit on the Mets.
Instead of having to go on a furious pace to end the season, the Braves started as they meant to finish. They were up by as many as 7.5 games in the month of May and while things did tighten up a bit past that date, Atlanta’s lead in the division never went below 3 games following the month of April. They were back up by seven games by the end of an utterly dominant month of June and then they started July by going up eight games. July was far less dominant and yet by the end of the month, they were up 11 games in the division and it was never close from that point forward. From the opening series in Washington until they were popping champagne in the visitors’ clubhouse in Philadelphia, this was complete and utter dominance on the part of the Braves as far as the division was concerned and it was something that both the Braves and the fanbase had been waiting to see for a while now.
The second factor also involves the fact that their main divisional rival just never materialized. Again, it was widely expected that the New York Mets were loading up to make a serious challenge to the divisional throne and to say that they came up woefully short would be a wild understatement. I’m not going to spend a ton of time on everything that went wrong — you don’t have to look too far to find articles talking about the trials and tribulations that the Mets went through this season. It started before the season began when All-World closer Edwin Diaz suffered an extremely unfortunate injury while representing Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic and this sad piece of bad luck ended up not being an isolated incident.
Absolutely nothing went right for New York this season, which is how they ended up going from being projected as a near-lock for the Postseason to undergoing a bite-sized rebuild as we speak due to a disastrous season. This left the Phillies as the next-best team left to contend with the Braves and as you can see, the fact that we’re celebrating the Braves being the first team to clinch their division this season (and with a decent amount of time before we’ll see the next division get clinched) says everything you need to know about whether or not Philadelphia had the horses to contend with Atlanta this season.
While the Phillies still figure to be a very tough out in the Postseason this year, it was clear before and it’s clear now that this wasn’t going to be a team that was going to going to have enough to win a division this season and everything would’ve had to go in their favor. They’re still having a good season but not the type of season that they needed to have if they were going to keep up with a Braves team that actually didn’t start the season in a hole.
Instead, the Braves started out 14-4 and just kept on rolling for the rest of the season. Going back to the first factor, a lot of this is just down to the fact that the Atlanta Braves are just really, really good. They have the best offense in baseball with a team wRC+ of 124 (which is eight points clear of where the Dodgers are at in second place), a team wOBA of .359 (again, 16 percentage points clear of the Dodgers in second) an Isolated Power number of .226 (once again, 25 percentage points ahead of the Dodgers) and they’re going to have a shot at breaking the 2019 Minnesota Twins’ regular season record of 309 home runs in a season.
Atlanta has nine regulars who have a wRC+ of 100 or above and in each case, they’re above 100 with room to spare. Of these regulars, Orlando Arcia has the lowest wRC+ with 104 — the fact that the "worst" hitter in the lineup is still four percent above league average tells you all you need to know about how deep and terrifying this lineup is. The highest wRC+ on the team (168) belongs to MVP candidate Ronald Acuña Jr., who is currently in the midst of a historic season where he could not only join the 40/40 Club but build his own wing within that club by being the only player to go 40/70. The second highest belongs to Matt Olson (161) and it's only a matter of time before he becomes the franchise record holder for home runs in a single season and he could shatter that record as well.
Sean Murphy has slowed down a bit recently but he's still on track to have a career year both at the plate and in general. Marcell Ozuna completed a stunning turnaround that's still kind of hard to believe is actually happening when you consider what happened during his first 800 plate appearances after signing his contract extension. Austin Riley is having a typically brilliant season at the plate, Ozzie Albies has bounced back after an injury-plagued 2022 season, Eddie Rosario has also bounced back in resilient fashion and Michael Harris II has proven that his rookie season is no fluke. It wouldn't be shocking to see any one of these guys prove to be a Postseason hero if and when the time comes — this lineup is that deep.
With that being said, this was not a case of a strong lineup dragging a team to success. In fact, Atlanta's pitching staff has more-than carried their own weight in helping this team be as dominant as they've been. The staff as a whole has an ERA- of 88 and a FIP- of 91, with the ERA- number being tied for best in all of baseball and the FIP- being top three in baseball.
The starters have a ERA- and FIP- of 93, which is impressive on its own but even more when you consider that the Braves have not had a consistent fifth starter for the entire season and went long stretches without even having the luxury of a solid fourth starter. A huge amount of props have to go to Spencer Strider, Charlie Morton and Bryce Elder for holding down the fort and performing as consistently as they did when they were basically the only three reliable and healthy starters the Braves had for a stretch. Max Fried has been his usual self when healthy, which is incredibly encouraging for the playoffs. As a result, there's less pressure at the moment on Kyle Wright to really produce as it's looking like there are four other pitchers who are ready to carry the load if they have to.
It also helps to have a very strong bullpen as well. The bullpen currently has baseball's second-best ERA- at 80 (three points behind the Yankees (!!!) at 77) and a top-5 FIP- at 87. Raisel Iglesias and A.J. Minter have been about as reliable of a set-up/closer combination that you can get this season and that's been huge when it comes to finishing games for the Braves this season.
It's also just been the fact that no matter who Brian Snitker calls upon for any given situation, the reliever has come in and gotten the job done. They haven't been perfect but implosions have been pretty rare. More often than not, this bullpen will hold onto a lead or at least keep the opposition from pulling away and that allows the lineup to stay competitive in any given game that they're in. They've delivered consistently strong and reliable performances and that's all you can ask of any given bullpen.
What it all boils down to is that the Braves are formidable in all facets of the game and they've played like it. It also helps that this is a team that (from the outside looking in) seems to genuinely enjoy each other's company and are playing not just for their manager and the fanbase but themselves as well. It says a lot about the clubhouse culture that manager Brian Snitker has cultivated that we still haven't heard of any type of clubhouse drama or in-fighting or anything. They're all pulling in the same direction and striving for each other. While it's not a requirement to like your teammates and/or co-workers, clubhouse harmony sure helps things and Brian Snitker deserves a ton of credit for not just his on-field work but also how he's managed to be in charge of such a harmonious group of baseball players.
As a result, this team is living up to the vision that General Manager Alex Anthopoulos very likely had when he took the job. Winning has always been something common for the Braves (across 32 seasons dating back to 1991, the Braves have won their respective division 21 times) but it's now deeply embedded in the culture around here. They won the World Series in 2021, they stormed back from 10.5 games down to take the division with 103 wins in 2022 and now they're on pace for 106 wins and not just another divisional crown but the best record in all of baseball. This team has not just figured how to win — it's embedded in the club's DNA at this point. There's still some games left and then the gauntlet of the Postseason remains but as of right now, it seems difficult to bet against the Braves going all the way again. They've been dominant since the season started, so why stop now?