The NL East was supposed to be dominated by the Phillies and Marlins, wasn’t it? After all, the Phils had the best starting rotation in the game going into the season. And, with all the big deals the Marlins made, it looked to be their time to be back in the playoffs. It was supposed to be a division that would see Washington possibly making a run at the playoffs, and having to fight Atlanta for 3rd place. Oh well – so much for prognosticating. While Washington has been absolutely dominant, the Braves have put together an unheralded quality season. They likely will end up with 92-93 wins (right around what the Yankees will have). They’ll have to play in the Wild Card round, because of just how dominant the Nationals have been. But, they certainly are more prepared for the playoffs than a typical Wild Card team. So, how far could they go? Could they win it all for just the 2nd time since the team moved to Atlanta?
3 Reasons Why:
- Bullpen – while Craig Kimbrel is getting (and deserving) the attention for an impressive season as the closer, this is one of the best bullpens in the league, top to bottom. Eric O’Flaherty is nearly untouchable (1.82 ERA), Chad Durbin is having one of the best seasons of his career (3.19 ERA), Luis Avilan has been excellent since he was called up in July (2.25 ERA – only 4 earned runs allowed since July 30th), and another pleasant surprise has been side-armer Cory Gearrin (1.62 ERA) who was called up in June and has performed well in limited action. The scariest part about this bullpen is that they can come at you from either direction (lefties & righties) multiple times. Once you get past the 6th inning, the Braves will be tough to score on.
- No Gaps – errors are game-changers in the playoffs. But, the Braves have committed the fewest errors in the NL. Most of that success can be credited to their talented outfield. Only the Cubs have a better team fielding percentage in the outfield. Only the Diamondbacks, Astros and Phillies have more outfield assists than Atlanta. And, when you start looking at the sabermetric stats, it blows you away. 52 DRS (defensive runs saved) – tied for 1st in MLB with the Angels (the next highest is Milwaukee with 25!); 41.1 UZR (ultimate zone rating – measuring how many balls they get to, and how it effects the game) – the best in baseball (2nd place is Anaheim with 31.5, 3rd is Arizona with 18.9!). Mistake-free baseball is incredibly important in the postseason.
- Winning the Close Ones – the Braves are 24-12 in 1-run games. So, they win 2 out of every 3 1-run games they’re in. 3 of the 7 World Series games last year were 1-run games. More than 1/3 of the entire playoffs was 1-run games. The teams are so closely matched that winning the close ones makes all the difference – just ask the Rays, who outscored Texas 23-14 in the ALDS, but lost the last three games of that series by a total of 4 runs.
3 Why Not:
- Missed Opportunities – the Braves have the worst batting avg. in the NL with runners in scoring position (.231). While their offense as a whole isn’t exactly prolific (ranks right around 18th-20th in the majors in most categories), this is the statistic that I believe will hurt the most in the postseason. Scoring opportunities are even harder to come by in October, and you simply cannot afford to let those slip by.
- Defensive Help – while the defense is certainly an asset on this team, it also has a way of covering up some weaknesses in the pitching staff. While the Braves’ starters have just a 3.83 ERA as a group, their FIP (fielding independent pitching) rating tells a different story. The Braves’ starters have a 4.08 FIP, which is the worst in the NL among any of the teams still in the playoff hunt. You have to wonder at what point the defense is going to let the Braves’ starters down. And, if it comes at a critical time, it could cost them dearly.
- Team Speed – wait a minute (you’re saying), don’t they have the NL leader in stolen bases?? And, yes, they do. Michael Bourn is leading the league with 39 steals. And yet, even with his 7.5 speed rating, the Braves as a team are tied for 9th out of 16 NL teams with a 4.1, and rank 10th in the NL in stolen bases (19th overall). That says a lot for just how slow the rest of the team is. If Bourn isn’t getting on base, and creating problems for the defense with his speed, opponents won’t have much else to worry about. That makes it too easy for opposing pitchers.
As we get closer to the top of the league, I’m sure you’re noticing that it’s getting harder to find reasons why teams won’t win it all. But, even if you aren’t noticing – trust me when I say that it is. That’s it for the Braves, though. Next up (hopefully on Thursday) – the Baltimore Orioles.