Glass half-full: The Braves aren’t quite out of it

Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz (front left) talks with starting pitcher Ian Anderson (36) during the first inning against the Miami Marlins, Sunday, July 11, 2021, in Miami. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz (front left) talks with starting pitcher Ian Anderson (36) during the first inning against the Miami Marlins, Sunday, July 11, 2021, in Miami. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Credit: Lynne Sladky

Credit: Lynne Sladky

The most beloved batch of Atlanta Braves hit the 1991 All-Star break at 39-40. They were 9-1/2 games behind the first-place Dodgers, 4-1/2 back of the second-place Reds. Those Braves won the National League West on the penultimate day of the regular season, won the NLCS after trailing the Pirates 3-2 and, after 9-1/2 innings of Game 7 of the World Series, were tied with the Twins.

The 2021 Braves hit the All-Star break at 44-45. They’re four games behind the first-place Mets, a half-game back of the second-place Phillies. The Braves are seven games behind the Padres, who hold the second wild card slot. Their best position player has been lost for the season. Their best pitcher has been lost for the season. If they were still in the National League West, they’d have no chance to go anywhere worth going. That they’re based in the NL East means hope still flickers.

FanGraphs assigns these Braves a 6.7 percent chance of winning the division. Their odds of claiming a wild card have shrunk to 1.1 percent. After falling one game short of the World Series last year, the 2021 Braves have been a dud. They’re 12th among MLB clubs in runs, ninth in OPS. They’re 14th in starters’ ERA, 21st in bullpen ERA. The only thing they’ve done well is hit home runs. Their leading hitter of homers just tore his ACL.

Season so far

The experience of the worst-to-first Braves of ’91 reminds that teams can override their All-Star break standing. Those Braves, however, played their worst in the 10 days pre-break. After edging the Dodgers in the first game of a Friday night doubleheader on June 28 — Kent Mercker, of all people, worked a bases-loaded walk in the 10th — the Braves lost seven of their next nine. Their dip to 39-40 marked the first time they’d been below .500 since May 1. It also marked the last time. They came off the break by sweeping four games from St. Louis. Within four days, the Dodgers’ lead was cut almost in half.

These Braves haven’t been above .500 a single day. Sunday’s loss in Miami marked the sixth time they’d pulled to break-even only to backslide. They’ve worked more than half a season. We’re beyond small sample sizes. They haven’t been very good.

And yet: You don’t give up when you’re within four games of first place, even if you know Ronald Acuna and Mike Soroka aren’t returning before 2022. Travis d’Arnaud and Huascar Ynoa — the catcher and pitcher who suffered differing hand injuries — should be back by August. (Marcell Ozuna’s availability hinges on what MLB decides after completing its investigation into charges of domestic violence.) Even Sunday’s game, which arrived 13 hours after Acuna had been declared out for the duration, hoisted a red flag. Manager Brian Snitker suggested there might be an issue with Ian Anderson’s shoulder. Going by Baseball-Reference WAR, Anderson has been the Braves’ second-best player. Acuna had been the best.

In postgame remarks, Snitker went through the sort of verbal gymnastics that this correspondent has spent the previous 500 words performing. Asked to describe his team’s season, he said: “Challenging.” Then: “An unbelievable grind.”

Then: “But all that said, we’re right there. When we start up again, we’re a winning streak from pushing the envelope for first.”

The Braves would have to collapse when play resumes for general manager Alex Anthopoulos to declare this a lost season and start selling off resources. The first-place Mets can pitch (fourth in the majors in ERA) but can’t hit (29th in runs). They were 35-25 on June 16; their lead over the Braves was 7-1/2 games. The Mets are 12-15 since. They led last-place Pittsburgh by a run Sunday with one out to go. They lost 6-5.

As unlucky as the Braves have been, they’ve been blessed by geography. In any other division, they’d be at least 7-1/2 games behind. Were they still in the West, they’d be 13 back. Nobody who works for the Braves is thrilled about this half-season, but those folks are also pragmatic. Assuming d’Arnaud and Ynoa return — and assuming Anderson’s shoulder is merely tired — there’s reason to believe the East is winnable. This team has won just enough to give itself a chance.

Question is, how much in young talent — young talent is all any deadline seller wants — would Anthopoulos be willing to shed in the effort to prop up a team that, at its best, might still be the Braves’ worst of the past four seasons? In 2019 and 2020, the in-house belief was that the Braves were good enough to win it all. (They didn’t, but that was the belief.) In the wake of Acuna’s loss, I’m not sure anyone in a decision-making capacity feels the same.

The guess is that Anthopoulos will do his managerial duty and try to find another bat and another bullpen arm, but — barring a 10-game winning streak post-break — maybe not much more. The Braves are too close to first place to strike the tent, but the colder reality is that they’ve gone 89 games without rising above mediocrity. They could still win the division. It’s hard to imagine them winning 11 games in October.

And now you’re asking, “What happened to you insisting that any team making the playoffs can win it all? Have you forgotten the 2019 Nationals?” Answer: I have not. I also know those Nats, who qualified for postseason as a wild card, were 47-42 at the break. They’d started 19-31, but by July you could see them coming. I can’t tell if these Braves are coming or going.

Example: Their starting outfield Sunday was Orlando Arcia, Guillermo Heredia and Ehire Adrianza. The aggregate WAR for those three, all acquired at modest cost since the end of last season, is 0.8. Acuna’s WAR was 3.6.

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