Braves dominate bad teams, ready for Giants and Dodgers

The Braves are at Wrigley Field for a three-game series against the Cubs this weekend. Chicago has lost nine games in a row, while the Braves have won 14 consecutive. Still, the Braves can’t take anything for granted. Things are going great for them now, but they were enigmatic underachievers not long ago. Baseball is a strange game that humbles like no other sport, so the Braves need to be all business against the Cubs.

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That doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t look ahead. Everyone sees what’s coming next. After facing bad teams for two-plus weeks, the Braves (37-27) next week will tangle with two of their main rivals for the three National League wild-card berths. That’s assuming the Braves won’t catch the Mets in the East. I still don’t see that happening – the Braves still were four games back after 14 consecutive victories – but lately they are making anything seem possible.

The Giants are at Truist Park for four games beginning Monday. The Dodgers are here for three games next weekend. San Francisco can match the Braves’ offense and has better starting pitching. The Dodgers wobbled to four losses in their past 10 but still have the best run differential in the NL (plus-111) by a margin of 39 over the Padres (all records and statistics before Thursday’s games).

The Braves are plus-44 in run differential. They were minus-16 before the win streak. That came after they couldn’t win as many as three games in a row for nearly two months. The Braves have made hay by beating up on bad teams. That’s a compliment. Dominating lesser teams is what good teams are supposed to do. Now the results, rather than just their talent, are proving the Braves are a good team.

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During the streak, the Braves have defeated Arizona, Colorado, Oakland, Pittsburgh and Washington by a combined score of 101-41. The Braves won 12 of the 14 games by two runs or more. They never trailed in eight of the 14 games. They had to rally later than the third inning only three times.

Those are good signs for the Braves’ chances against the Giants and Dodgers – and for the rest of the season. The Braves haven’t been lucky during the streak. They’ve been very good. Crucially, they’ve also been balanced. Hitting, pitching and defense all have been strong, with contributions from players across the roster.

All-or-nothing offense had been holding the Braves back. They’ve been well-rounded during the streak. The Braves hit a majors-high 35 home runs over the 14 games but also ranked fourth in on-base percentage. As a result, the Braves produced 59 runs on those 35 home runs. They’ve struck out in 20.7% of plate appearances during the streak vs. their full-season rate of 25%, third worst in the majors.

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The surge at the plate isn’t a matter of a couple of guys getting hot and carrying the lineup. Every Braves hitter has been part of the resurgence. Weighted on-base average measures the relative value of each outcome. Only Dansby Swanson and Michael Harris rank among MLB’s top 25 in wOBA over the past 14 games. Just three other Braves are among the top 50: Adam Duvall, Austin Riley and Ronald Acuña.

It’s a similar story for Braves pitchers over the past 14 games. They’ve produced in ways that don’t have much to do with luck. The Braves have gotten strong innings from nearly every guy who’s taken the mound for two weeks.

Braves pitchers have posted a 2.72 ERA over the past 14 games, fifth best in the majors. That number undersells their performance. They have a 2.85 FIP during that time, best in the majors. “FIP” is Fielding Independent Pitching, which removes defense and results on balls in play from the equation. Braves pitchers rank 11th in hard-hit percentage and 10th in average exit velocity during the streak. But they are keeping the ball in the park while walking few hitters and striking out many.

Max Fried and Kyle Wright each made three effective starts during the streak. They’ve been good all season. Rookie Spencer Strider joined the rotation just before the win streak began and, so far, is showing he belongs. Braves relievers have handled 47 innings during the streak and allowed seven earned runs with 48 strikeouts against seven walks. A.J. Minter, Jesse Chavez, Darren O’Day and Collin McHugh have been charged with zero runs in 20 combined appearances over the past 14 games.

The Braves appear ready to take on the Giants and Dodgers. First come the Cubs. They are getting the expected results after selling off most of the players from their curse-ending World Series title in 2016. The Cubs are 43-75 since the 2021 trade deadline.

Three Cubs starting pitchers are on the injured list: Marcus Stroman, Wade Miley and Drew Smyly. That leaves one effective pitcher, Justin Steele, in Chicago’s rotation. He’s scheduled to start Saturday. The Braves have Charlie Morton lined up for the opener. He’s had poor results four outings in a row after it seemed he had steadied.

That’s the best I can do making a case for why the Braves can lose this series. The Braves eventually are going to lose another game, but they should take at least two of three from the Cubs. That would be the fifth consecutive series victory against a scuffling opponent. The way the Braves have been beating those foes signals that they’ll keep it up when the Giants and Dodgers come to town.