The Braves are playing like World Series contenders at the right time
The Atlanta Braves walked out of the most important division series of the season with three wins and a nine-game National League East lead. With the Washington Nationals throwing out their best in a playoff-caliber matchup, including top starting pitchers Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, Atlanta sent yet another message that it’s ready to compete in October.
1. The Braves are finishing strong and beating playoff teams in head-to-head matchups
Atlanta owns a 17-3 record over its past 20 games. Push that sample size out to 25 games and manager Brian Snitker’s club claims a 20-5 record with series wins over the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals, the National League’s two most probable playoff teams not named, well, the Atlanta Braves.
Ever since the team's mini-debacle against the Kansas City Royals, dropping two games to a lowly interleague opponent with Julio Teheran and Dallas Keuchel on the mound, Atlanta has played like a World Series contender.
With a 6-1 September record following Sunday’s loss to the Nationals and a manageable remaining schedule, this Braves team is positioned to challenge the organization’s 1969 squad for the best September record (20-7) in Atlanta franchise history. Finishing the regular season on a high note does not guarantee a deep playoff run, but it certainly breeds optimism. The Braves have made 18 playoff appearances, including five World Series runs, dating back to 1991, and the teams that advanced at least one round typically posted better late-season records. Here’s the post-August records for Braves playoff teams broken down by postseason performance:
WIN PLAYOFF SERIES: 140-89, .611 win percentage
NO PLAYOFF SERIES WIN: 165-120, .579 win percentage
More importantly,Atlanta’s record is not a mirage.
The Braves’ offense ranks top 10 in runs scored and offensive production since the All-Star break. Hitting coach Kevin Seitzer’s group hits for power and puts runners on base. The rotation has rattled off the ninth-best adjusted ERA and 12th-best adjusted FIP dating back to when Dallas Keuchel made his first start of the season — and the starting five keeps showing month-to-month improvement. The relief corps has settled in after post-deadline hiccups, turning a season-long question mark into a potential strength.
All the numbers stack up, plus the Braves keep getting healthier. They are a virtual lock to make the postseason and now the only pressing questions will be if they can catch the Dodgers for the NL’s best record and if they can reach the playoffs at full strength.
For everything else, including if this is the team to finally break the franchise’s playoff drought, we’ll all have to wait until October.
2. Can Atlanta get Dansby Swanson going before the playoffs?
Hours before Game 1 of last year’s NLDS, the Atlanta Braves announced that Dansby Swanson did not make the franchise’s first playoff roster since 2013. The young shortstop tried to bounce back from a torn ligament in his left hand, but instead watched from the dugout as Charlie Culberson filled the role. Culberson tallied two singles and a walk during the series. Swanson’s glove, in particular, was missed.
Swanson bounced back from last season’s injury-riddled performance with a breakout-quality start to the 2019 season. The 25-year-old paired standout defensive ability with a bat producing seven percent above league average in the first half, even climbing up to the No. 2 spot in Atlanta’s batting order — sandwiched between All-Stars Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman. He was a two-win player through 89 games played.
Then the wheels fell off.
Before hitting the injured list with a foot contusion in late July, Swanson was slashing .227/.333/.273 after the break. That line has gone downhill since his return. The former No. 1 overall pick is hitting 66 percent below league average in the second half. He’s come up with only three extra-base hits (all doubles) in his past 92 plate appearances.
The top half of Atlanta’s lineup appears locked in for the playoffs: In Acuña, Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Josh Donaldson, the Braves possess Nos. 1-4 hitters that can match up with any opponent. It’s the back end of the lineup — given injuries to regulars and the drop off in performance from the likes of Austin Riley — that highlights the need for Swanson to rediscover his offensive form over the next month. Atlanta’s Nos. 5-8 hitters rank 19th in weighted runs created since the trade deadline.
Dansby Swanson’s glove will already be a welcome addition to the presumed 2019 NLDS roster. If his bat returns to June form, Atlanta’s hopes of winning its first playoff series in 18 years get that much better.
3. Are the Braves getting lackluster production from left-handed relievers?
The overall numbers are, admittedly, alarming for a playoff contender.
The Atlanta Braves have trotted out three left-handed relievers in the second half — Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins and A.J. Minter — but only two regulars since the trade deadline. When the front office added three right-handed veterans to bolster the bullpen mix for the playoff run, it (perhaps inadvertently) doubled down on Newcomb and Blevins, especially if the franchise plans on giving Max Fried and Dallas Keuchel playoff starts. Here’s how those two arms have fared since the All-Star break:
Sean Newcomb: The 26-year-old owns the worst second-half WAR among Braves pitchers (-0.6) thanks to his 6.53 FIP and 16.7 percent walk rate. The converted starter, who dominated in relief role during last season’s NLDS and earlier in the 2019 campaign, has given up five home runs in 22 innings since the break. His 80 percent second-half strand rate is the only thing keeping his ERA at 4.50 over that span.
Jerry Blevins: The veteran lefty specialist claims a respectable 3.65 ERA in the second half, but his walk rate is over 13 percent and he’s given up three homers in 12 1/3 innings.
A.J. Minter carried a 9.00 ERA into his first outing since the July 30 on Sunday afternoon and gave up four hits with one strikeout, though he did not allow an earned run of his own. Still, at this point it would be difficult to project Minter, the presumed future closer for this franchise at the beginning of the season, to make the postseason roster barring injury or a spectacular September stretch run — and he did not jump out to a promising start.
So are the Braves in trouble if they run into a postseason opponent like the Dodgers or Cubs, two clubs hitting much better against right-handed pitching this season? Well, the outlook is a bit more optimistic when viewing Newcomb and/or Blevins through the lens of facing left-handed hitters only (second-half weighted on-base average):
Newcomb: .277 wOBA vs. LHH, .338 wOBA vs. RHH
Blevins: .237 wOBA vs. LHH, .322 wOBA vs. RHH
Those weighted on-base averages against left-handed hitters are two of the top 24 second-half marks in baseball among left-handed pitchers. Atlanta’s bullpen may be righty-dominant entering the stretch run, but the team’s two lefty staples have been able to find some success against same-side hitters, something to keep in mind when their names are called in high-leverage situations this month and beyond.