The Atlanta Braves have been in the baseball wilderness since their 2013 run to the NL East title. The Braves haven’t had so much as a winning record since then and the last three years have been particularly bad, with an average record of 69-93. But 2018 has been different and after yesterday’s stunning six-run rally in the ninth inning to beat the Miami Marlins, Atlanta is sitting on a 28-17 record that is the best in the National League.
An offense that leads the NL in runs scored is the biggest reason why and the Braves are hitting for both contact and power. Ozzie Albies, the 21-year-old second baseman showed sparks last year when he posted a stat line of .354 on-base percentage/.456 slugging percentage in 244 plate appearances, has kept that rolling into his first full big league season. Albie’shas hit 13 home runs and slugged .581 in the early going.
Atlanta has three veterans off to good starts with the bat as well. Freddie Freeman, the first baseman who has been this franchise’s bright spot during the recent dark years, is at it again with a stat line of .431/.568. Nick Markakis, the 34-year-old rightfielder is at .412/.519 and catcher Kurt Suzuki’s numbers are a solid .344/.486. Collectively, the Braves offense is at or near the top of the National League in every key offensive category except walks.
Pitching has been steady, ranking 5th in the league in ERA. If you break the ERA down by starters or the bullpen, the ranking comes up fifth either way. The bullpen is balanced, with the top five arms all with sub-3.00 ERAs. The rotation is similarly well-balanced, with the biggest stories being the development of Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz.
Newcomb and Foltynewicz have each made nine starts and have ERAs of 2.39 and 2.87 respectively. At ages 25 & 26, each is having their first notable season. They’ve given depth to a rotation that was previously carried by Julio Teheran. The 27-year-old Teheran, who seems like he’s been around much longer than that, has established himself as an extremely consistent major league pitcher. Over the last six years, he’s taken his turn consistently, making more than 30 starts each year with a career ERA of 3.62.
Teheran’s ERA this season is at 4.17. If Atlanta is going to keep this going, the first prerequisite would be for Teheran to lift his performance and knock that ERA down into the low 3s, where he generally was until a hiccup last season when he posted a 4.49 number. It’s not realistic for the offense to keep producing at its current levels, and that means an already pretty good pitching staff will have to make up the difference.
The reason the Braves are not going to lead the league in runs scored is that Markakis and Suzuki are hitting well over their heads. Markakis is consistent at getting on base, but not to the level he’s been doing thus far and the power surge he’s shown is wildly out of character. The same goes for Suzuki, whose career pattern is that of a functional major league catcher with all that entails—usually meaning subpar offense. On the flip side, the only likely candidate to increase offensive output is shortstop Dansby Swanson, the hero of yesterday’s comeback win.
Atlanta could also use a veteran pitcher to stabilize the back end of the rotation. Brandon McCarthy is currently in the rotation, but his track record suggests injuries are on the way and in either case his ERA is on the wrong side of 5. The other possibility is Anibal Sanchez. He hasn’t been effective, or even reliable in taking his turn, since 2014 and is currently on the disabled list with a hamstring injury. But he’s likely to be healthy this week, he pitched well in his first couple outings and if a team is going to have a special season, this is the kind of veteran that shows a second wind in his career.
A special season is exactly what Atlanta is after. Washington remains the heavy favorite to win the NL East and I would have to concur. I also don’ t know that I’d pick the Braves to get a wild-card in a race that will have several teams in the mix. But I do like what this team is doing and I really like the foundation they have to move forward with. Atlanta is back and relevant again.