Braves stand apart with good hitters ‘top to bottom’ in lineup

From the start of this season, Braves hitters were getting on base frequently one way or another, which is the foundation of any good offense. That formula kept them afloat for a month. Some timelier hits and more production from laggards with histories of doing more and, well, no telling what the Braves might do.

Now we can tell. Everybody knows the Braves need more pitching for their playoff push. Everyone also can see that, even when Braves pitchers give up a few runs, their hitters are always a threat to get them back no matter the inning, the count, or the slot in the batting order.

A few MLB teams have more great hitters than the Braves, including their persistent thorn, the Dodgers. No team has a lineup with fewer holes, which is why the Braves will head to the All-Star break in command of the NL East.

“I feel like our lineup has really found its identity probably in the last month or so,” Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson said. “And not just using the long ball but lots of manufactured runs as well.”

If these Braves were going to be any good, this was the way it would happen. Good hitting took the Braves to the NL East title in 2018. It’s got them on track to do that, plus more, this season.

The Braves’ offense wobbled late in 2018 and against the Dodgers in the NLDS. The only time that’s happened lately is against ace pitchers. And then the Braves come out the next night and continue pounding out runs.

“I really believe we have too much talent in our lineup to be up and down like that,” Donaldson said. “There is no need to panic. There is no need to have that sense that one person has to carry the load because everybody in our lineup has a chance to do that any given day.”

You could look at the Braves’ spring roster and see that was possible. There were questions, though. Mark down Freddie Freeman for another good year, of course, but not much seemed certain after that.

Ronald Acuna was so good as a rookie that regression was inevitable. Ozzie Albies was an All-Star in 2018 but didn’t look like it by the end. Dansby Swanson hadn’t shown he can hit. Injuries had diminished Donaldson’s production, Brian McCann had his worst hitting year in 2018 and Nick Markakis would be trying to duplicate his most productive season in a while.

All those questions have surfaced at some point during the first three months. They have been answered by the break.

Acuna isn’t hitting like he did in 2018, but he’s still among the better hitters in baseball. Albies remains a free swinger, but he’s walking more and showing pop. Swanson can hit, after all. Donaldson is rediscovering his power. McCann is resurgent; Markakis is timeless.

Add in rookie Austin Riley’s power binge and there really is no real weak link in this Braves lineup. That includes the days when reserves Charlie Culberson and Matt Joyce are in it.

“It’s impressive,” McCann said. “It’s fun. It’s top to bottom. We make you throw strikes. We are aggressive. If you have both of those and are really good at those, you are going to be successful.”

No NL team outside of Los Angeles does that better than the Braves. The Dodgers hadn’t scored as many runs as the Braves entering the weekend. They were significantly outpacing them in on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

The Dodgers are top-heavy with star sluggers. NL MVP favorite Cody Bellinger entered the weekend leading the majors in Weighted Runs Created Plus, which measures total production adjusted for park and league average. Three other Dodgers ranked among the top 50 in wRC+: Max Muncy (17th), Joc Pederson (34th) and Justin Turner (48th).

The Braves had two top 50 hitters in wRC+ before the weekend games wRC+: Freeman (eighth) and Acuna (41st). But they had four others in the top 100: Donaldson (54th), Swanson (72nd), Albies (74th) and Markakis (88th). Every Braves regular was league average or better in wRC+.

The Dodgers are fearsome one through five, but they can’t match the Braves’ lineup depth. Neither can the AL’s top-hitting teams: Astros, Twins and Yankees. Those teams also can’t run like the Braves, who have three of the fastest base runners in MLB with Acuna, Swanson and Albies.

“We’ve got speed,” McCann said. “Power. We score from first. We steal bags. We are alert on the base paths. We do everything well and that’s why we are where we’re at.”

If the Braves don’t stay there, it will be because their pitching doesn’t hold up. Mike Soroka (by results) and Dallas Keuchel (by reputation) are the only two starters who appear playoff-ready. The bullpen has recovered from an awful start, but relief pitching can be volatile.

At some point the Braves will need to limit a good-hitting team in a playoff series. But their opponent will have to do the same. That’s not easy against the Braves, who go into the break certain that they can out-hit any foe.