Running Away With the NL East: The Braves are Doing it With Depth

ATLANTA BRAVES @ WASHINGTON NATIONALS4/13/13FINAL - BRAVES 3 NATIONALS 1

Prior to the start of the season, the darlings of the National League East were the Washington Nationals.  Far be it for me to fault pundits with that assessment.  The Nationals were coming off of a 97-win season, Bryce Harper would be an everyday figure in the lineup and Stephen Strasburg would finally be released from his innings limit. They were as much a mortal lock to win the NL East as the Houston Astros were to finish dead last in the AL West.

But baseball can be a cruel mistress. Inconsistency and injuries have plagued the Nationals for nearly the balance of the 2013 season. Derailing a promising young team. There’s still a top-notch core in place, both in the rotation and in the lineup. This year just isn’t their year.

Nine and a half hours south, the Braves came into the season as Wild Card favorites. They had splurged this offseason signing B.J. Upton to a five-year $75 million contract, and trading for his brother Justin Upton. Inadvertently creating an internet meme in the process. But with Chipper Jones‘ retirement, and an ultra-competitive division, they were still viewed as a bridesmaid and not a bride.

Fast forward to today, and the Braves are running away from the National League East. Their 74-47 record is the best in all of baseball, and their 14.5 game lead is the largest in baseball. For comparisons sake, the Detroit Tigers are 16.5 games better than the Minnesota Twins. But the Twins are in fourth place, not second. And with no other team in the NL East sporting a winning record (thanks largely in part to having to play, you know, the Braves who are 33-18 against divisional opponents), the Braves postseason ticket has has been all but punched.

Maybe it’s luck?

Yeah. Sure. Maybe it is luck. Last year the Baltimore Orioles finished the season 93-69, but their Pythagorean record was 82-80. The Braves Pythagorean record this year is 75-46.

There goes that argument.

Depth.

The fun part about watching the Braves play is that, even though they do have a few “stars” on their roster, nobody is essentially “carrying” this team.

A quick glance at Fangraphs team pages and you can see that, by now, certain players on certain teams have become their respective teams’ statistical leader. The Angels have Mike Trout. The Pirates have Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin and Starling Marte. The Cardinals have Adam Wainwright, Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina. You can see where I am going with this. Each of these teams have at least one player who has an fWAR (Fangraphs WAR) north of 5.0, or in Mike Trout’s case, north of 8.0. And the Angels, to be precise, present an interesting dichotomy with regards to the Braves.

As has already been said, the Angels have Trout. The best player on the planet. And it isn’t my bias that has me using that term. It has been used in many other places by people who are much smarter than I am. His 8.2 fWAR paces all of baseball. If you combine the fWAR’s of Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward (the top three position players for the Braves by way of fWAR), you get 8.8. Mike Trout has almost been as valuable as all three of those players this season. By himself. Yet the Angels are 54-66 and 15.5 games back while sitting in fourth place in the AL West. It doesn’t matter that Trout could be the first player since Barry Bonds to post consecutive seasons with fWAR’s of 10.0 or higher, the Angels are going nowhere fast this year.

But there are the Braves. Their best position player by fWAR is Justin Upton (3.0). His .271/.363/.486 slash line is well off from the torrid pace that he started the season with. He’s worth -7.3 runs defensively. And both ZiPS and Steamers only project for him to be worth 0.9 wins for the rest of the season. That’s their best position player. And by the end of the season he is projected to not even be worth half of what Mike Trout has already been worth up to this point.

Their best pitcher has been Mike Minor. And he has legitimately been fantastic. His 3.2 fWAR leads the team. His 2.87 ERA is the best among Braves starters. His 1.04 WHIP. The best. His 23.1% K-Rate? Also the best. Unless you include Alex Wood who has started five of the 20 games that he has appeared in. Minor has been the Ace of the Braves staff this season. But even though he has been their number one, he still doesn’t stack up against the game’s elite pitchers.

But with the Braves, it has always been about pitching.

Just as it has been for the last 20 years, the Braves live and die with pitching. And this season has not been any different.

ERA WHIP AVG OBP SLUG OPS K/BB K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP
Pittsburgh Pirates (PIT) 3.13 1.213 .231 .306 .339 .645 2.36 7.63 3.23 0.68 .278
Atlanta Braves (ATL) 3.20 1.174 .239 .298 .368 .667 3.01 7.63 2.54 0.77 .286
Los Angeles Dodgers (LAD) 3.31 1.245 .247 .308 .371 .679 2.73 7.83 2.86 0.82 .296
Cincinnati Reds (CIN) 3.33 1.175 .235 .296 .381 .677 3.10 8.29 2.67 0.97 .282
St. Louis Cardinals (STL) 3.50 1.242 .248 .311 .367 .678 2.80 7.74 2.77 0.68 .301

The Braves team ERA is second in all of baseball. Their team WHIP is the best. And it is not because they have an overly dominant starting rotation. Oh no. This year, it is the bullpen that has been head and shoulders above everyone else, leading Major League Baseball in ERA, WHIP, HR/9, OPS against and general scariness. Well, scary in the way that who really wants to stand at the plate when Craig Kimbrel is staring you down from 60 feet 6 inches away? I don’t.

So far this season, 39 players have suited up for the Atlanta Braves. Of those 39 players, only six have brought negative value to the team; Eric O’Flaherty, Cory Rasmus, Cory Gearrin, Jose Constanza, Paul Janish and B.J. Upton. The latter of those being the most notable. But when you factor in what position he plays, even with his .188/.270/.304 slash line, he’s still only at -0.4 fWAR. He should take that as a victory.

This team is not incredibly deep with players who have sexy, popular names. Who really knew Chris Johnson before the season started? But it is deep with quality players that do their jobs, and do them well. They don’t have Mike Trout. They don’t even have a player with Jhonny Peralta‘s fWAR (3.7). But they win. They win and win and win.

  • dieharddodgerfan

    The Braves are the model franchise. Always seem to have a good mix of veterans and young players and always have a lot of home grown talent.

    If the Braves starting pitching can step up in the playoffs and the hitting maintains and does not go into a cold streak, they can make a really deep run this year.