Braves won their division without much tension, but it wasn’t inevitable

Braves players and coaches celebrate after clinching their sixth consecutive National League East title by defeating the Philadelphia Phillies in a baseball game, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Braves players and coaches celebrate after clinching their sixth consecutive National League East title by defeating the Philadelphia Phillies in a baseball game, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Think back to spring training, when the Braves thought they could somehow replace Dansby Swanson at shortstop with either Vaughn Grissom or Orlando Arcia, and then somehow went with Arcia even though he had hit .244 last season.

At the same time, Eddie Rosario was another question mark. In 2022, his batting average dropped nearly 60 points from the previous season because of eye issues later remedied by surgery.

Or to opening day, when ace Max Fried walked off the mound with a hamstring injury. Or April, when Marcell Ozuna could do virtually nothing at the plate except get booed.

Or May, when Fried and Kyle Wright, the team’s two innings leaders from 2022, went on the injured list within a week of each other and scrambled the rotation for most of the summer.

On Wednesday night, that team became the first in baseball to clinch its division, suppressing the Phillies 4-1 in Philadelphia to claim the National League East yet again.

This is not to say the Braves are plucky upstarts that no one could have predicted to win the division. They won the previous five division titles and were picked widely to win it again before the season began. And, once play began, the Braves were so dominant – and the rest of the division so lukewarm – that the season has been absent much tension.

But it is to say that what has transpired over the first 146 games of the season was not inevitable. Winning five in a row didn’t ensure a sixth, not with the Phillies being the defending league champions and the Mets having spent a mint to upgrade their roster. And it certainly didn’t make any down payments on a season that will have its place in the club and league record books.

Before the season, Fangraphs projected division titles for the Padres, Cardinals and Braves in the National League and Yankees, Twins and Astros in the American. So far, they have hit upon half. The Twins, Astros and Braves all ended Wednesday in first place in their divisions. They were significantly less accurate with the Padres, Cardinals and Yankees, each of them at least 16-1/2 games out of their respective division leads before Thursday’s games.

“You try not to take it for granted, because this game’s so hard, it’ll knock you down in a heartbeat,” Austin Riley said in Philadelphia on Wednesday night as his teammates made merry in the visiting clubhouse with cigars and alcohol. “You’re not always guaranteed it.”

But beyond maintaining the longest active run of division titles, Braves fans have watched a bottle catch lightning. This franchise could exist another 100 years and not experience a regular season quite like this one.

The numbers help tell the story. The Braves are on track to win 106.5 games; the franchise record is 106, set in 1998. They also are on pace for 312.9 home runs, which would break the major league record, set by the Twins (307) in 2019.

The possibility of barely eclipsing a four-year-old record does not tell the entire story of this mark. The 2019 season was an outlier for offense driven largely by the use of balls with seams that were unusually low. Four teams that season broke the previous record (Yankees, 2018, 267). So if you toss out 2019 and the Braves finish at 312, they’ll have moved past the pre-2019 record by 16.9%. That is a monumental leap.

The last team to extend the existing single-season home-run mark by a greater percentage? The 1927 Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

You’re in pretty good company when you can legitimately compare yourself with a team that, nearly a century later, remains a shorthand reference for historic juggernauts.

Further, the Braves were slugging .501 after beating the Phillies. If they finish the season there, it’ll be the highest team slugging percentage since 1928, and actually higher than the mighty ‘27 Yankees.

This is a collection of high-level players at or near their peaks. Should Ozzie Albies hit one more home run over the final 16 games, the Braves will become only the second team in major league history with five 30-home run hitters – Matt Olson, Ronald Acuña Jr., Riley and Ozuna already have hit their 30th – and they’ll be the first to do so in a season when the ball didn’t have significantly less drag on it, as the only other team to do is the aforementioned 2019 Twins (for whom one of the five was Rosario).

Consider the following. In baseball history, there have been only 31 players to hit 50 home runs in a season (Olson joined the club Monday). With four more stolen bases, Acuña will become the 33rd player to reach 70 thefts in a season since 1900.

It generally takes a special player having a career year to attain either plateau. Hank Aaron never hit 50 home runs in a season, after all. There’ve been more people who’ve been elected U.S. President than who’ve hit either 50 home runs or, since 1900, stolen 70 bases in a season. This doesn’t happen all the time.

But should Acuña get to 70, Braves fans will have witnessed the first pair of teammates to reach those milestones together in the same season.

“I guess there’s a new upcoming record every week or something that we’ll find out about,” Michael Harris II said in August.

For 85 of his 123 games, Harris has hit in the No. 9 spot, where typically the weakest hitter in the lineup is stashed. If there could be a lineup of nine Michael Harrises – if his statistics were expanded to match the 30 teams’ average number of plate appearances for the season thus far – Team Harris would do far more than singlehandedly propel the headband industry to heretofore unseen heights.

Such a lineup, through Wednesday, would lead the majors in batting average, hits and stolen bases, would rank second in OPS, third in doubles, fourth in runs and 14th in home runs.

This is the supposed easy out in the Braves’ nine.

“Every day I show up, I feel like I’m playing on the best team in baseball, ever,” Spencer Strider, who earned the win in the clincher, said in the victorious clubhouse.

It’s easy to understand why. With this truly historic production, the Braves have surmounted the extended absences of Fried and Wright and withstood the prolonged slump of Ozuna, who has amply rewarded the faith that manager Brian Snitker showed by keeping him in the lineup. Arcia, the questioned choice at shortstop, is another Brave enjoying a career year. Post-surgery, Rosario has regained his form.

Strider, Bryce Elder and Charlie Morton have been a stable top three in the rotation. Fried returned in August and looks again like an ace.

The moments that have added up to the overwhelming statistical data have been many. The Acuña-led first-inning ambushes. The sweep of the Mets in June at Truist Park – the final win gained from Albies’ walk-off home run in the 10th as the Braves won all three games despite trailing by three or more runs in each – that triggered a 21-4 record in June and tied a franchise record for wins in a month.

“If we lose a game, we don’t put much weight into it, and we kind of expect to win the next day,” Olson said during that torrid stretch.

Strider’s devastating slider that has nourished 10 10-strikeout games. The entire infield appearing in the All-Star game together. Rosario’s eighth-inning home run against the Giants in a come-from-behind win at home. Acuña reaching the 30 home-run/60 stolen-base mark with a grand slam against the Dodgers after getting married that morning. The explosive innings that have erased deficits in the blink of an eye.

October will bring what it brings. Earning the best record in baseball – which the Braves possess – doesn’t mean much once the playoffs begin. In the wild-card era, the team with the best regular-season record has won the World Series seven out of 28 years.

Surely, it will be much, much easier to remember the splendor of this regular season if the last time that Braves fans cheer for this team is at a parade in November. (Should they be so fortunate, hopefully the buses ferrying the team will not drive at breakneck speed down the parade route this time around.)

But either way, this regular season merits singular distinction regardless of how the postseason turns out. It has been entirely out of the ordinary. Riley’s observation – “you try not to take it for granted” – is on the mark.