The final push is on. September is nearing its halfway point, and most of the league is still vying for those coveted playoff slots. The Atlanta Braves, on the other hand, have knocked their magic number down to seven after winning their second game against the Miami Marlins. Which means, if all goes well, by this time next week the Braves could have a playoff spot locked up. And as long as they maintain the best record in the NL, they’ll also nail down home field advantage in October.
Yet the pundits are finding new and creative ways to jerk the rug out from under the Braves. In a recent article, the Extremely Skewed and Prejudiced Network took another shot at Atlanta’s finest. Although I’ll also give credit where credit is due: On their flagship show, they mentioned they hadn’t covered the Braves much, even though they have the NL’s best record. Too little, too late, I say!
Don’t get me wrong, sports fans, I’ve got my doubts. I’ve got concerns. I’ve got questions, y’all! But such is the fun of sports, isn’t it?
Their big argument is the Braves don’t have the look or the makeup of a team ready to make the run. I won’t say that’s not true, but I also can’t say the key to winning the World Series is to “look” like a playoff team to a few analysts. Raise your hand if you picked the Detroit Tigers to go all the way last year? Don’t be shy, I won’t judge. It was a good choice, until it wasn’t. They looked like strong contenders until they couldn’t win a game and got swept right out of October. The team that was supposed to be a run-producing juggernaut got shut out twice and was outscored 16-6.
Let’s just say guesses are guesses, no matter how educated they may be.
Jason Heyward isn’t a prototypical leadoff guy, but he did quite a job in that spot. The Braves were picked preseason as a wild-card contender at best. The Washington Nationals were supposed to run away with the NL East and are instead fighting for a shot at maybe having a chance to battle for a wild-card spot. The Braves have had a combined 144 days of players on the DL (at last count) and have played with their preferred starting lineup only 25 games. They lost their opening-day starter. They lost two of their best bullpen arms before the end of April. Their biggest offseason acquisition is still batting under .200.
That’s the bad stuff, and not even all of it. Here’s the good stuff.
They lead the NL with a 87-57 record, 12 games ahead of the Nats and two games over the Dodgers for best record. Their record at home is 51-20. Speaking of the Dodgers, the Braves are tied for lowest team ERA with those guys. Those same Dodgers have a starting rotation that includes Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu. They lead the league in home runs and are fourth in runs scored and slugging percentage. Their run differential is second only to the St. Louis Cardinals.
But just like I pointed out, all of that can be thrown in the garbage as of September 29. Stats are numbers that may give us a glimpse of what to expect, in terms of probability, but they don’t cover everything. Just like those #@%$ing Cardinals that finished 9 games back in their division but went to the NLDS anyway.
What is worth looking at are the Braves’ strengths and how to improve them moving forward so Atlanta can compete with teams that have the “right look” for the postseason.
The bullpen is solid, with the exception of Kameron Loe, so we’ll leave that there. Although I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the beast that is Craig Kimbrel. Mr. Door Slammer. The Fireballer. Rikki Tikki Tavi, the snake slayer! (too much?) The guy who’s already got 46 saves on the season, an ERA of 0.91 and 87 punchouts in 59.2 innings. I think we can safely put that one in the plus column.
The starting pitching has been strong all season, but while Kris Medlen is starting to look more like the guy from last September, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran have struggled in the last month. Each of their most recent starts were good, but there was a moment or two when it looked like the length of the season was getting to them. As the Braves look ahead to the playoffs, what’s clear is the starting three will be Minor, Teheran and Medlen. What’s not clear is the order in which they will throw or who will be the fourth starter should that position come into play. Alex Wood has made a strong bid, even though his last few starts have shown some cracks in his armor. Paul Maholm hasn’t been particularly sharp this season, but his experience can’t be ignored.
The offense has certainly been streaky. No one can argue that. But even when they haven’t been putting up tons of runs, they’ve still scored enough to win. And contrary to popular belief, they don’t only win when they hit home runs. Unfortunately, their best streak of run producing was while Heyward was in the leadoff spot, batting .349 with five home runs, 15 RBI and a .417 OBP. If the stars align and Heyward makes his return to the lineup around September 20, he may have the chance to fall back into that groove and light up the offense again, which will be formidable. If he misses the rest of the regular season and comes back for the playoffs, fans will have to hope he can ramp up in a game or two. B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla still haven’t done much to change their averages or their value with a bat in the last couple of weeks, but seeing them turn the heat up in the next few could change the look of the offense in a hurry. Failure to do so may result in them seeing more pine than playing time.
All in all, I think it’s harder to make the case that the Braves aren’t ready for postseason contention. This team has been undervalued and overlooked since March, and all they’ve done since then is disprove every strike against them. They trail the Red Sox for the best record in baseball and have been in that column for a month now. Sure, their division could be better and more challenging, but the same could be said for the hallowed Dodgers, who haven’t had a legitimate competitor in the NL West since before the All-Star break. And I can’t resist mentioning the Braves have done it with nearly a third of the Dodgers’ payroll, and those are the numbers before the season even started.
The Braves may not be the sexiest playoff team, but they are the real thing. Don’t believe me? See you in October.