Last Updated: 2019-03-04
Even though the Braves went 68-93 in 2016, it was a season that gave us some signs of what was soon to come. A 31-58 first half led to a 37-35 second half. A 72-90 season in 2017 was the next step of the process, as Ozzie Albies made his MLB debut and the rotation transition to guys like Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb took hold.
Everything came together in 2018. Ronald Acuna Jr. made his presence known with authority. Foltynewicz and Newcomb took major steps forward and even veterans like Julio Teheran and Anibal Sanchez followed suit. The bullpen was better than expected and the Braves went 90-72 to win the NL East for the first time since 2013 and just the second time since 2005.
I’ve said this before in a lot of different contexts. Having success is one thing. Sustaining success is another. This is the first time since 2007 that 90 wins were enough to win the division. The Nationals inexplicably fell on extremely hard times. The Mets were a mess most of the season. The Phillies were too inconsistent. The stakes are raised for the Braves this season, as the Nationals should be better, even with the loss of Bryce Harper. The Phillies are a year more experienced and spent a lot of money. The Mets still have a great rotation and very quietly finished the season 38-30 in the second half and 18-10 in September. They also added some nice pieces, including Edwin Diaz to shore up the bullpen.
What that means is that the Braves, who were 49-27 against NL East foes, could be pushed a little more by their most frequent opponents. While the Braves did overcome Acuna’s injury, a lot of young guys and a lot of old guys had big seasons all at once.
Right away, I can tell you that the Braves feel like a high-variance team to me this season. Winning 90 and having a shot at the division or the Wild Card makes a lot of sense. Regressing back into the low 80s is very possible as well. As a general rule, these are the teams I like to play in the season win totals market because I feel like I can have well-defined edges and find something that the oddsmakers and other bettors are missing.
A lot of teams will ride a wave like this. The Braves had been in rebuild mode for a while, going back to the John Hart days and then the John Coppolella days. Now, Alex Anthopoulos is the guy tasked with keeping this team at the new set of standards. Usually teams that have that type of progression wind up enjoying a three or four year window of contention and then have to figure it all out again as arbitration-eligible players raise payroll and teams dabble more in free agency to fill holes.
Will the Braves be one of those teams?
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 90-72
Run Differential: +102
Pythagorean W/L: 92-70
BaseRuns Record: 92-70
BaseRuns Run Differential: +100 (4.62/4.00)
3rd Order Win% Record: 93.9-68.1
Record in One-Run Games: 23-12
Additions: Josh Donaldson, Brian McCann, Raffy Lopez, Pedro Florimon Jr., Andres Blanco, Ryan LaMarre, Jonathan Aro, Jose Rafael De Paula, Rafael Ortega, Ben Rowen
Losses: Rene Rivera, Kurt Suzuki, Lucas Duda, Ryan Flaherty, Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez, Brad Brach, Peter Moylan
The Phillies added David Robertson, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, and JT Realmuto. The Nationals added Patrick Corbin, Yan Gomes, and Brian Dozier. The Mets added Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano, Jed Lowrie, and Jeurys Familia.
The Braves added Josh Donaldson and a collection of spare parts. Atlanta fans are right to be disappointed with the offseason. Atlanta had a fine season last year and the young core, including Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr., got some very important experience. The rotation is filled with five starters under the age of 30. But, you still have to wonder if the Braves could have done more, especially in light of some recent draft and scouting penalties.
Not listed here is that the Braves re-signed Nick Markakis, but the overall theme here is that this is virtually the same team as last year. Will that be good enough in the rough and tumble NL East? Every team, theoretically, should have done more, but it really would have been nice to see the Braves a little more proactive.
BA: .257 (5th)
OBP: .324 (11th)
SLG: .417 (11th)
wOBA: .319 (12th)
wRC+: 97 (15th)
BABIP: .302 (7th)
K%: 20.6% (7th)
BB%: 8.2% (21st)
Maybe the Braves felt like they didn’t need more help. This was a solid performance overall and Ronald Acuna Jr., the team’s most potent offensive performer, was limited to 487 plate appearances because of injury. Everybody else, except for Kurt Suzuki, is back in the fray.
While I’m not a big believer in betting on status quo, the Braves do have a lot of pieces. Freddie Freeman is not talked about enough. He didn’t have an MVP-caliber campaign in 2018, but still surpassed 5.0 fWAR for the second time in his career. His wRC+ actually fell from 150 to 137, which was the second-lowest mark of the last six years. He’s an elite-level hitter and I would expect the power to spike back up this season.
Ozzie Albies showed some unexpected pop with 24 dongs. He didn’t walk much and only graded as a league average bat in wRC+, but power is usually the last thing to come and it came pretty early in the development curve for Albies. Between the 22-year-old second baseman and the 21-year-old budding superstar in Acuna, who led the team with a 143 wRC+, the Braves are in good hands for a while.
We’ll have to see which version of Josh Donaldson the Braves get, but he could really increase the ceiling for this group. Donaldson missed most of the season with a calf injury, but posted a .280/.400/.520 slash in 60 PA with the Indians after a waiver trade deal. Donaldson is an OBP monster who is just one season removed from hitting 33 HR in just 113 games. If the calf holds up, the idea of Donaldson at the top with Acuna, Freeman, contact hitter extraordinaire Nick Markakis, and some speed/contact guys like Albies and Inciarte, this is a lineup that could do a ton of damage.
The nice thing for the Braves is that Johan Camargo can fill in for Donaldson in the event of injury and he posted a 115 wRC+ with strong numbers and quality defense last season. Tyler Flowers is a serviceable backup to Brian McCann. Adam Duvall hit 64 homers over the previous two seasons prior to last year’s ugly showing.
Continued development from the youngsters and what we’ve come to expect from the veterans can take this Braves offense a long way.
ERA: 3.75 (7th)
FIP: 3.99 (12th)
xFIP: 4.17 (16th)
K%: 23.1% (12th)
BB%: 10.3% (30th)
LOB%: 74.1% (9th)
This is the area of the ballclub where most of my concerns lie. Mike Foltynewicz posted a 2.85 ERA with a 3.37 FIP and a 3.77 xFIP. Anibal Sanchez is gone. Sean Newcomb posted a 3.90 ERA with a 4.14 FIP and a 4.33 xFIP. Kevin Gausman posted a 2.87 ERA with a 3.78 FIP and a 4.46 xFIP in his 10 starts after the Trade Deadline. Julio Teheran posted a 3.94 ERA with a 4.83 FIP and a 4.72 xFIP.
Regression signs for all four starting pitchers and the other could very well be unproven big leaguer Touki Toussaint. Typically, we see ERA/xFIP gaps regress the following season. Remember that xFIP assumes a league average HR/FB%, which is one silver lining for the Braves because those guys all posted well above average HR/FB% marks. The Braves staff did an excellent job not allowing homers. The Braves were also fourth in defensive runs saved and also fourth in UZR, so the fielders helped a lot.
Still, there are so many concerning outliers. Foltynewicz posted a career-best 27.2 percent K%, jumping 6.5 percent from 2017 to 2018. He also posted a career-best .251 BABIP against, which was 73 points better than last season. Increased slider usage was a noteworthy arsenal change that helped, but will it stick? His K% dropped four percent from the first half to second half last year.
Speaking of second half swoons, Newcomb went from a 3.51 ERA to a 4.58 ERA. Over his last eight starts, he was virtually unusable with a 6.45 ERA. Gausman was actually really good for the Braves, even though his K% and BB% both went in the wrong direction. Teheran survived on a 75.6 percent LOB% and a .217 BABIP against, which was 64 points better than his 2017 BABIP. His BB% increased and he didn’t improve his HR/FB% by much.
The offense is going to have to perform. On the whole, the Braves are an over team for me in terms of game totals. Plus, the NL East is a bit stronger offensively this year. This rotation has a lot of question marks. There is a lot of depth, with guys like Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Luiz Gohara, Kolby Allard, Bryse Wilson, and Kyle Wright, so the Braves don’t have too much to worry about in the event of injury. I’m more worried about performance.
Dan Winkler worked 69 games out of the Atlanta pen last season. His total number of MLB appearances from 2015-17 was 21. Hopefully he stays healthy. AJ Minter was a breakout star last season and should anchor a solid bullpen with Arodys Vizcaino and Darren O’Day. I do like the bullpen, but I’m not sure it will be a tremendous strength. It will be a bullpen that probably rates around the middle of the pack again.
Positives & Negatives
The broken record theme with the four NL East hopefuls is that the 57 games against each other are going to be a real challenge. Marlins games will be gimmes for the 19 times those teams face Miami, but over 35 percent of the schedule comes against the Mets, Phillies, and Nationals. Those head-to-head games will not only define the division race, but quite possibly the season win totals as well.
The Braves do have a lot of ammunition to add at the Trade Deadline if they wish. Some observers, like me, have scoffed at the lack of effort put forth by the Braves to build on last year’s division title. Maybe they’re just biding their time and waiting for the Trade Deadline. They certainly have a lot of attractive currency to move and one of the strongest farm systems in baseball, even with some recent penalties.
Pick: Under 86.5
Somebody has to lose in the NL East. My guess in handicapping the division is that it will be the Braves. And, by lose, I mean they’ll only win something like 80 or 81 games instead of contend for the title. What is Josh Donaldson at this point? Can Ozzie Albies actually be a league-average bat again? Will Freddie Freeman stay healthy for a second straight year? Was Johan Camargo a flash in the pan? Is Adam Duvall affected too much by the park factor change?
Those are just the offensive questions. As I mentioned, all four returning starting pitchers show clean signs of regression from an ERA/xFIP standpoint. I like to play against outliers and career-bests in a lot of instances and there are chances to do that with this group. The bullpen is average. It’s not good, but it’s not bad. It’s the weakest of the four contenders in the NL East.
If I had to peg a team to not be as good as the others, it would be the Braves. One final note on the Braves. You saw their full season numbers. They were fourth in wOBA and fifth in wRC+ with men in scoring position. We’ve seen that there is really no statistical correlation year-to-year in that department. So, we’ve got an offense likely to step back and a starting rotation likely to do the same.
That’s good enough for me to go under the total.
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