Braves are National League’s best team now, and they’ll stay that way

I’ve learned over the years that there’s a telltale sign for teams that everyone believes are good but they just aren’t. Those teams will fix one thing and then two more go wrong. They’ll talk about a lack of consistency all season until eventually it’s clear that they are what we thought they were.

The Braves are the opposite of that. Plenty of things have gone wrong for them this season, but they keep winning. The Braves are the best team in the National League. Admittedly, It doesn’t always seem that way. They’ve taken some bad losses. They blunder on the base paths too often. They botch plays in the field.

And yet the Braves (42-26) have the best record in the NL (all statistics before Thursday’s home game against the Rockies). They lead the NL in run differential. The Braves are the only NL team that ranks in the top 10 in the majors for both runs scored and runs allowed.

The Braves aren’t dominant like the Rays and Rangers in the NL. They are very good despite facing plenty of adversity. We’ve played just 40% of the season, so there’s still a long way to go. But all signs point to the Braves improving, with better health as the caveat.

In the meantime, the Braves keep winning games when the odds say they shouldn’t.

The Braves did it with a comeback victory in the ninth inning June 3 at Arizona. That secured the series win against the Diamondbacks, who won five games in a row after that loss and lead the NL West. The Braves did it again last week by rallying late to beat the Mets three times in a row. The Mets left town in shambles after getting owned again by their East rivals.

The Braves continued to show their mettle by sweeping a doubleheader in Detroit on Wednesday. The Tigers aren’t good. But it was hard for the Braves after starter Spencer Strider was tagged for five runs in Game 1 and emergency fill-in Dylan Dodd did the same thing in Game 2. The Braves overcame the poor starting pitching by cranking out runs and getting quality innings from the bullpen.

That’s been a winning formula for the Braves this month. Braves starters have posted a 4.99 ERA in June, the worst mark in MLB. The Braves have compensated by scoring the most runs per game in the majors this month (6.1) and posting a 2.21 ERA in the bullpen, fourth-best in MLB. One thing has gone wrong for the Braves while two things have gone right. That’s what happens with truly good teams.

A fair evaluation of the Braves must acknowledge they’ve been unlucky with injuries. Two of their best pitchers have been out for the past six weeks. That’s about nine turns in the rotation missed so far by Max Fried and Kyle Wright. Both pitchers were among the top 10 in votes for the NL Cy Young Award in 2022.

To get by, the Braves have thrown three so-called bullpen games. They’ve started three pitchers who are new to the big leagues this year. The Braves sent Michael Soroka to the mound for the first time in nearly three years. The results of all those moves have been mixed, as expected.

Injuries to starting pitchers happen. They’ve happened a lot this season across the majors. But it’s hard for any team to overcome the absence of two good starters. Only one NL contender has been without two pitchers as good as Fried and Wright for so long.

Dodgers ace Walker Buehler hasn’t pitched while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Julio Urias has been out since May 20. The Dodgers still have the second-best run differential in the NL behind the Braves. I get the feeling the two teams will be playing for the pennant in October, just like old times.

I’m buying the Braves as better than the Dodgers because pretty much everything else has gone according to plan for L.A. Sluggers Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts are healthy and producing MVP numbers. Catcher Will Smith missed two weeks with a concussion but still looks like an All-Star. There’s not really a weak link in the rest of L.A.’s lineup because veteran hitters are doing what’s expected.

That’s not been the case for the Braves. Ronald Acuña Jr. and Sean Murphy have been great. But third baseman Austin Riley is having a down year, and outfielders Michael Harris and Eddie Rosario have scuffled. Both Harris and Rosario are hitting better lately. We’ll see if they can keep it going.

It’s a given that Fried will boost the rotation once he’s back. He’s scheduled to return next month. Fried’s forearm injury is less concerning than Wright’s shoulder ailment. Riley already has had one hot streak and is capable of another. The bullpen was never as bad as it seemed — small samples and dramatic moments skew perceptions — and now the Braves are showing they have plenty of effective relief pitchers.

Some things will go wrong for the Braves that don’t seem obvious now. That’s how it goes in baseball, the most mysterious game of them all. If that happens, then the Braves will keep winning because they’ll do more things go right. That’s how it goes for truly good teams.