There are two ways to view a baseball season. There’s the micro view, in which the close observer absorbs a million little moments, some that make us want to fire the general manager, the manager and every member of that confounded bullpen. Then there’s the macro view, which requires a step back and a dollop of perspective.
Memorial Day is a macro day. It’s the first of the holiday checkpoints, and this year it falls as the Atlanta Braves have completed one-third of the 162-game season. They’re 30-24, 1-1/2 games behind Philadelphia in the National League East. They’ve won their past five series, four of those against teams .500 or better.
They’re 12-4 since May 9, having had streaks of three, four and three consecutive wins. Of their past five losses, four have come in the opponent’s last at-bat, which brings us to that confounded bullpen, but let’s hold that thought for a moment. Memorial Day arrived with the Braves six games above .500, the most they’ve been all season, with their next 15 games scheduled against teams that were, as of Monday morning, an aggregate 39 games below break-even.
Over the next 2-1/2 weeks, the Phillies are scheduled to play the Cardinals, the Dodgers, the Padres and the Diamondbacks. Then, on June 14, Philly comes to Cobb County. There’s a good chance the Braves will be in first place by then. Can they hold it over a six-month season? Well, FanGraphs projects the Braves and Phillies to finish 87-75, which by its calculations would put both in the playoffs. The Braves are given a 39.9 percent chance — against Philadelphia’s 38.1 — of taking the East.
The macro view: This season didn’t start well for the Braves, but brighter tomorrows await. They’re sixth among NL clubs in overall ERA and starters’ ERA, one and two spots ahead of Philly. They’re first in batting average, nine spots ahead of the division leader. They’re fourth in OPS, four spots ahead. They’ve added Austin Riley. Mike Foltynewicz has gotten going. The last time a Braves’ starting pitcher yielded more than three runs was 13 games ago.
This rotation took time to stabilize, which figured. Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka and Kevin Gausman weren’t healthy on Opening Day. They’re back now, but there has been a change in numerical designations. The Nos. 1 and 2 starters are Soroka and Max Fried, who rank first and ninth in ERA among NL pitchers who’ve worked 40 innings. Three Braves — Soroka at No. 2, Julio Teheran at No. 8, Gausman at No. 20 — are among the top 20 in opponents’ batting average. Did we not suggest, way back when, that this club would never lack for starting pitching?
With Riley included, this everyday eight can stand with any octet in baseball. Here’s the list of Braves’ position players who’ve posted a higher WAR than Bryce Harper’s 0.5: Ronald Acuna, Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, Nick Markakis, Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies and Riley (who has played 12 big-league games). The Phillies bought Harper for $330 million and will be paying him through 2031. He’s hitting .227; he has 73 strikeouts and 44 hits. Going by WAR, he has been the 13th-most valuable Phil.
Can the Braves do better? You’d have to think so. In the Triple Crown categories, only Freeman, who’s eighth in batting average, ranks among the NL’s top 10. Only Freeman, who’s ninth, is among the top 10 in OPS. Only Acuna and Freeman, who are seventh and ninth, are among the top 25 in WAR. Of these position players, only Riley has caught such a blazing start as to seem unsustainable.
In sum, there’s every reason — save one — to believe the best of the 2019 Braves is yet to come. The caveat remains the bullpen. It’s not as bad as it was a month ago, but it’s still costing the Braves a game (or so) a week. They came close to going unbeaten on the road swing that ended Sunday, but lost leads in San Francisco and St. Louis left them at 5-2. Then again, the Braves staged rallies to win in extra innings at both places, so maybe 5-2 was a just result.
Here, though, is the one place where the macro view isn’t kind: The Braves have blown nine saves, fourth-most in the NL, and converted 60.9 percent of save chances. The league-average conversion rate is 66.4. Their bullpen ERA is 11th-best in a 15-team league; Philadelphia’s is third-best.
We’ve been saying it since April, and it’s no less true now: The Braves should repeat as division champs, provided their bullpen allows it. They have the hitting. They again have the rotation. They’re talented. They’re deep. They roused themselves after an 18-20 start to play the way they’re capable. They’re hot on the heels of the first-place Phillies after spotting them a three-game leader before April commenced.
Memorial Day dawned with the Braves where they need to be. The only thing that could bar them from where they want to go is the same old thing. The belief here is that Alex Anthopoulos will use the weeks between the June draft and the Fourth of July to address that need. That mightn’t mean Craig Kimbrel is coming, but surely someone will.
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