The Atlanta Braves continue to hold a huge 14-game lead in the NL East, and I think it’s safe to say, in the parlance of political analysts, that we can call this race early.
Since TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage in September will be devoted to legitimate playoff races, the Braves are going to mostly fall off the radar, save the jousts for the #1 seed in the National League. But we can’t let this summer pass by without celebrating this team’s achievement, looking at their heroes and what they overcame.
There are several things impressive about the 2013 Atlanta Braves. One is their exceptional balance. If you just look at the general team-wide stats, it’s hard to find an area that stands out. They rank near the top of the National League in both runs scored and ERA.
Within those areas, they rank high in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and closing out save opportunities. Really, I just burned up a paragraph of your time saying simply that this team does everything on a baseball field well and wins a lot of games because of it. I know, breathtaking analysis.
It’s when you go inside the general team stats that the Braves get interesting. There was no reason to think this team could even beat, much less blow out the Washington Nationals. It would have been as reasonable to pick the Philadelphia Phillies at the start of the season. Since I did both of these things, this boils down to me running for political cover, but when I look at the Atlanta lineup I still wonder how those component parts have meshed to form such a potent whole.
Atlanta hasn’t necessarily had an easy ride either. A team that’s built its recent success on a deep bullpen lost Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty for the year. B.J. Upton has been a bust in centerfield and Dan Uggla has been so bad offensively that he’s current on the disabled list while he recovers from Lasik surgery. Tim Hudson was lost for the season with a broken ankle, and Brandon Beachy never really made it back.
These are all problems that an Atlanta optimist would have expected to go well, and the fact they didn’t, should have amounted to a death blow. But the Braves kept winning, and here are the biggest reasons why…
The NFL is the league that popularized the phrase “Next man up” to convey the mindset for dealing with injuries. Atlanta did the same with its bullpen. Venters and O’Flaherty have been replaced by a trio of Scott Downs, Luis Avilan and David Carpenter, who all have sub-2.00 ERAs. Jordan Walden and Anthony Varvaro have pitched well. Frankly, manager Fredi Gonzalez could go to his pen by the sixth inning each night and have enough depth to cover it.
Oh, and did I not mention that none of these names actually pitch the ninth inning? That honor still goes to Craig Kimbrel, who’s calmly closed 40/43 save chances with a buck-05 ERA. You better get ahead of Atlanta early.
NEW NAMES ON OFFENSE
Justin Upton and Chris Johnson came in to juice up the attack and both have worked out splendidly. Upton has hit 24 home runs and produced a stat line of .363 on-base percentage/.492 slugging percentage. Johnson has raked for a .330 batting average and stat line of .366/.471.
Upton and Johnson are added to the usual suspects of Brian McCann, Fredi Freeman and Jason Heyward. The latter is out right now with a broken jaw, but expected to be back in time for the playoffs. In either case, this post is not about what Atlanta might do in October, but what they have done to this point, and Heyward’s .347/.423 stat line has been a key part of that.
YOUNG PITCHING COMES THROUGH
We knew coming into the season that Beachy was a questionable proposition. And that Hudson’s days as a true #1 starter were behind him. Atlanta needed its young arms to step up and Mike Minor and Julio Teheran did just that.
Minor is 12-5 with a 3.06 ERA, while Teheran has a 10-6 record and 2.96 ERA. Kris Medlen, who got insanely hot in the second half of last season, has still been respectable with a 3.71 ERA, even if his record is 10-11. Hudson gave the team 21 starts before getting hurt and had a 3.97 ERA. He won’t be a part of the postseason, but he was a big part of helping them get that big lead in the division.
Another heartening development is the pitching of Alex Wood. He got his opportunity with the injuries to Hudson, Beachy and the subpar Paul Maholm. Wood has made seven starts and has a 2.50 ERA. He’s only 22-years-old and could be that young arm that changes the landscape of a playoff series. We’ll look closer at that when it comes time to preview the Division Series matchups in October.
Yes, we can say with certainty that Atlanta will be a part of the Division Series landscape for the first time since 2010 and they are going to win their first NL East title since 2005. They’ll face questions about whether they can go all the way, a problem that seems to afflict teams in their city. But that’s for another day. For now, congratulations to Gonzalez and everyone associated with the organization.