For the past four years, this was the time to forget about the Braves. It was easy to do. They were buried in the standings, football was starting and busy lives in the fall don’t leave much room for watching bad baseball.
But these Braves will not let you forget about them. They might wobble but they won’t fall down. Since May 1 the Braves have never been more than 2-1/2 games behind in the NL East. They’ve led the division since Aug. 13 and, after winning at San Francisco late Monday, they are threatening to run away with the division.
That victory gave the Braves a season-high lead of five games in the division with 18 to play. FiveThirtyEight.com’s statistical projection gave the Braves a 91 percent chance of staying on top of the East. Baseball Prospectus put it at 93 percent.
The Braves are a safe bet to win the East for the first time since 2013. On Aug. 8, when the Braves were clinging to a one-game lead, I figured they had the staying power to stick around. I was right, but for the wrong reasons, which can happen when trying to figure out baseball.
Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis have not carried the Braves down the stretch, nor has the bullpen depth held up. Instead, the Braves overcome relatively cool streaks by their big boppers and the spotty relief pitching with impressive lineup depth. (I was right about that last part.)
Barring a collapse, which would be shocking at this point, the Braves are headed to the postseason as East champions. The postseason is trickier to predict because a postseason series is a small sample size, and luck plays a role. But I think the Dodgers are the only NL team that is clearly superior to the Braves.
As of Tuesday, bookmakers gave the Braves the third-shortest odds to win the NL pennant (4-to-1) behind the Cubs (14-to-5) and Dodgers (13-to-4). Some of that is a function of the Dodgers still being no sure thing to make the playoffs -- they trail the Rockies in the West, and the Brewers and Cardinals in the wild-card race.
But surely the betting markets have noticed that the Braves are no pushovers. And there are reasons to believe they’ll be stronger down the stretch.
The Braves’ bullpen situation should improve with the pending return of Arodys Vizcaino. Based on their histories, Markakis and (especially) Freeman eventually will find their grooves. Clinching early would allow the Braves to rest their big bats and bullpen arms.
If the bullpen doesn’t stabilize and the big boppers don’t erupt, the Braves still could be a dangerous opponent in October. You can envision them winning with strong outings from their starting pitchers, and getting just enough production from hitters other than Markakis and Freeman.
The Braves have been doing it that way since the All-Star break. From then through Monday, rookie phenom Ronald Acuna Jr. led the Braves in weighted on-base average (.458) and Johan Camargo (.382) is second. Freeman (.345) is third, Ender Inciarte (.327) is fourth and Markakis (.316) is fifth.
Rank the Braves in isolated power since the All-Star break, and Freeman and Markakis don’t even crack the top four. Acuna is the leader, followed by Camargo, Swanson and Inciarte.
Acuna’s 18 homers since the break lead the team, followed by Johan Camargo (nine), Dansby Swanson (seven) and Charlie Culberson (six). Freeman (fifth) is next, with Inciarte and Kurt Suzuki hitting as many dingers (four) as Markakis since the break.
Acuna has produced a team-leading 34 RBIs since the All-Star break, and Camargo has the second-most, with 31. Markakis has 27 post-break RBIs, and Inciarte (23) has as many as Freeman. Swanson (22) is right there with them.
You get the point. Freeman and Markakis still are producing, just not up to their first-half standards. And yet entering Tuesday the Braves had the fifth-best wOBA in the NL since the break.
The lineup is young, but deep. By now it’s obvious that Acuna (20-years old) is a special major-league talent. Camargo (24) is looking like the third baseman the Braves thought they would need to go out and get. Ozzie Albies (21) can’t stop swinging at everything but Swanson (24) seems to have figured something out over the past couple weeks.
It’s hard to know what to expect from young players playing in October for the first time. The Braves have enough dependable, veteran hitters to supplement Freeman and Markakis.
Inciarte, true to form, is producing more in the second half. Catcher Kurt Suzuki is heating up, too. Culberson is a good bench option, and he’s played in 14 postseason games, including last year’s World Series with the Dodgers.
The Braves are not a great team, but they may not have to be to win the NL pennant. They are stubborn and persistent, and they can be fun to watch. That last point was on my mind last week while simultaneously watching the Braves complete a thrilling comeback at Arizona while the Falcons flailed to an unsightly loss at the Eagles.
Football is back in full swing, but this time, the Braves aren’t going away.