Since 2017, the NL East has been the Braves’ to win. It was just a matter of when they got going. Their final margins of victory were eight, four, four and 6.5 games. The one time they needed to break fast was the COVID season of 2020, and they did. They were 21-14 after 35 games. As for last season: They didn’t reach .500 until the first week of August; they wound up … well, you know where.
These Braves haven’t hit like they can, but that’s true of many teams. Their team batting average is .228; the MLB average is .234. They’re fifth in home runs. They’re the second worst at striking out. They’re 13th in OPS, but that’s with Ronald Acuña working only 10 games and Eddie Rosario doing nothing.
The starting pitching has underperformed. The Braves’ rotation is 23rd in ERA, 18th in fielding independent pitching, 20th in FanGraphs WAR. Much of this has to do with Charlie Morton’s struggles; his past two outings have been better. Ian Anderson has made it through six innings once in six starts. Max Fried and Kyle Wright have been quite good.
The bullpen is why the Braves have won as many games as they have. Its ERA is 16th best, but its peripherals are stunning. These relievers lead the majors in fielding independent pitching and FanGraphs WAR. The Late Shift is third in strikeouts, with 156 K’s in 131 innings. Closer Kenley Jansen hasn’t blown a save. Jesse Chavez, acquired from the Cubs for Sean Newcomb, has yielded two earned runs and struck out 11 in seven appearances.
What makes this season different is that the Braves are 6.5 games behind the first-place Mets. (We say again: Jacob deGrom hasn’t yet thrown a pitch. He was moved to the 60-day injured list last week.) Over the past four division-winning seasons, the Braves were, after 35 games: 1.5 in front in 2018; 1.5 behind in 2019; three up in 2020, three back last year. Last season’s deficit bottomed at eight games in mid-June.
There’s nothing to make us think the Braves can’t and won’t win the East yet again, though it’s not essential they do. FanGraphs gives them a 28.2% chance of finishing first, largely because the Mets have the biggest lead of any division front-runner. The same website assesses the Braves’ chances of making the expanded playoffs at 66.7%.
It’s surprising the reigning World Series champs have played halfway into May without showing more, but ballplayers are human. When you’ve won in October/November, it’s hard to treat April/May with the same urgency. Not since the Yankees won three World Series from 1998 through 2000 has a team repeated as champ. The latter of those Yankee clubs won only 87 games and held the worst record among that year’s playoff qualifiers.
As the Braves’ gaudy rings remind them, they’re fully capable of reinventing themselves. Acuña stands to be back at full force soon. Rosario’s return from blurred vision could supply the midseason kick that his deadline acquisition did last season. Heck, Mike Soroka might even pitch a big-league game.
Each of the past four seasons has seen the Braves get going with such oomph that they won the East without strain. They might have to strain this time – the Mets look pretty good – but a fifth consecutive division title remains doable.