This 2018 Atlanta Braves were not supposed to be this competitive. Sure, they were expected to make some decent strides off of a pretty lousy 72-90 2017 campaign, and we all agreed, they’d have their moments of success growing into a 2019 contender. Entering into this season, we knew we’d be introduced to Ronald Acuna, we figured we’d see a few really solid Sean Newcomb starts, and most of us hoped for a step forward by Dansby Swanson, but 2019 was the year for the Braves to really blossom.
Much to the delight of Alex Anthopoulos however, the Braves are exceeding expectations and appear to be positioning themselves as possible buyers heading into the summer.
Pretty much everyone in the baseball writing community missed the boat on the upside of the 2018 Braves. Bloggers and writers sometimes look for darkhorse surprises, but inevitably, the projected division winners are by-and-large the same six teams across platforms. Most of us nod our heads in agreement, celebrating a coronation for a job well done, and move onto how we expect the LCS series to play-out. This hubris is not without merit, most of the time the projections are correct, but really, we should all know better.
The fascinating thing about the ‘[shrug] guess they arrived a year early’ narrative is how we really should be more open to something like this happening, especially after seeing the Yankees effectively do the same thing last year. 2017 was supposed to be the year of growing pains as New York got their youngsters plate appearances and innings, not the season in which the team came within a game of making it to the World Series.
The Braves are not the Yankees, and Atlanta is not New York, but statistics and projections know no geographic or ‘big-city’ bias. PECOTA projected the Braves to finish 76-86, fourth in the division. FanGraphs was less enthusiastic, and projected Atlanta for a 72-90 record, good for fourth instead of last, only because the Marlins traded their entire core.
Before we shake our heads and cluck our tongues about what we should have foreseen from these ‘Baby Braves’, it is worth taking a look at the last seven weeks to analyze the Braves underlying numbers and expected performance based on clustered hits, expected runs, and run differential.
If anyone is looking for vindication, this is not a good place to start. Though they’ll be sorely disappointed.
The Braves have posted the best run differential in the National League, bolstered by a strong offense. Atlanta has scored more runs per game than any other NL team, including nearly a full-run more per game than the NL-East favorite Nationals. With a Pythagorean record of 25-16, the Braves actually have underperformed their run differential record by a game, but it’s in the ballpark, and adds more credence to their performance do date not being a fluke.
Diving deeper lends further evidence the Braves have been for real up to this point, as their second order winning percentage (obtained by substituting actual runs scored with projected runs scored, based on underlying numbers), and third order winning percentage (based on strength of opponents) are both aligned with their current record.
What we seemingly underestimated on the Braves this season is how potent their offensive production could be at the higher end of their projections. The Braves currently have a 111 team wRC+, which is tied with the Yankees for the best in the majors. Led by veteran Freddie Freeman, Atlanta is first in MLB in batting average, second in OBP (behind the Yankees), and third in slugging (behind the Yankees and Red Sox).
Freeman is not much of a surprise, as he has been an excellent player since 2013. The biggest surprises this season have been zero-time All Star Nick Markakis, and sophomore Ozzie Albies.
Markakis is 34 years old, and has already amassed more Wins than any season since 2014. His .337/.406/.524 slash line is one of the best in the league, and he’s cut his 16.4 percent 2017 strikeout rate to 9.1 percent. Though he’s benefitted by a highish BABIP (a trait he’s exhibited in previous years), Markakis has been the veteran spark that has ignited the lineup behind Freeman. The projections still don’t love Markakis ROS (rest-of-season), and project him for only 0.6-0.7 Wins despite having nearly ⅔ of the season in front of him, but should he be able to even remotely keep this up, it’s a good sign for Atlanta’s playoff prospects.
Ozzie Albies has been incredible at the plate as well, though it’s the power that has been the major surprise. In today’s game, seemingly everyone hits 20 home runs, but getting this type of production from a 21-year-old middle infielder is a huge asset. Aided by a 20.6 percent home run / fly ball ratio (likely to be halved, by the time the season is said and done), Albies currently tops all of baseball in dingers, ahead of Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, and J.D. Martinez.
With a trio like that leading the offense, players like Dansby Swanson, Ryan Flaherty, and Preston Tucker (all hitting for average with minimal power), the Braves have put together a nice offensive start to their 2018.
While there are some clear yellow flags, and some signs of possible, maybe even probable, regression, there’s upside for a pitching staff that has been adequate, but not amazing. Atlanta sits seventh in the NL in ERA, eighth in FIP, and 11th in SIERA.
Across 46 ⅔ innings, Sean Newcomb has been effective limiting hard contact (26.3 percent this season) and has allowed only three home runs. Both Mike Foltynewicz and Julio Teheran have been playing with fire, as both pitchers have allowed around 80 percent of balls to be hard-or-medium hit, but their underlying numbers are not so far out of line wiht their ERAs that we expect them to crater. Folty has posted a 2.87 ERA and has allowed only four homers in 47 innings. Tehran has not been so lucky, giving up eight home runs, which shows up in the delta between his 4.87 FIP and a good 3.49 ERA.
So the question remains: can Atlanta keep this up, and make a playoff run? The projection systems are not optimistic, as both FanGraphs’ Coolstandings and Baseball Prospectus[ PECOTA projections expect the Braves to finish somewhere in the 80/82 wins, missing the playoffs.
I’ve seen enough to think Atlanta can surpass both projections and head into the playoffs as a wild card team. After that, it’s anyone’s guess how they’ll do, I just know from recent history, don’t sleep on the sleepers.