|Sportsbook||Win NL East||Win NL Pennant||World Series|
|Over/Under Season Win Total: 90.5 (BetOnline)|
We’ve made it to the National League section of the MLB Betting Guide and the best division in baseball. That is the National League East. The reigning champion Atlanta Braves won’t have an easy path to repeating as the division king, but they’d probably settle for being a Wild Card and a World Series champion like the Washington Nationals.
The Braves prevailed by four games to secure their second division title and second playoff appearance in as many years. They also exited the postseason in the first round, though they did win one more game this time around. The problem is that the decisive Game 5 started about as bad as it possibly could. The Cardinals scored 10 runs in the first inning off of Mike Foltynewicz and Max Fried. That was curtains for the season and for what was a very impressive season for the Braves.
Sports are such a bottom-line business, so a first-round playoff exit, especially in consecutive seasons, looks like a major failure. That point of view really takes away from what the Braves were able to accomplish. Atlanta won 97 games for the first time since 2003. The 97-65 campaign marked a seven-game improvement from the previous season. The Braves also scored 96 more runs. Key contributors played an even bigger role in the team’s success.
Of course, our focus here is on the regular season and from a betting standpoint. For Braves fans, the frustration that comes with not having won a playoff series since 2001 is certainly understandable. If it’s any consolation, the Braves are set up really well to give it another shot in 2020, but they do look to have more competition for the playoffs this season from four very capable contenders. At least everybody can still beat up on the Miami Marlins.
Right off the top, there are some worrisome signs for the Braves, though. They were 28-16 in one-run games, a mark that tends to regress the following year. They were 97-65, but 91-71 per Pythagorean Win-Loss and finished second to the Nationals in 3rd Order Win% as outlined by Baseball Prospectus with a record of essentially 89-73. BaseRuns also paints a negative picture with a record of 90-72. When all three alternate standings metrics show such a big discrepancy from the actual results, it is more than fair to be skeptical. The Braves opened and ended the season with three losses, so they were 97-59 in the other 156 games. Prettay, prettay good. Just maybe not as good as it should have been.
The Braves are also growing up as a team, though, and there is something to that. Mike Soroka turned 22 in August. We all know how good 22-year-old Ronald Acuna Jr. is. Austin Riley had a mediocre debut, but he’s another young player in the mix. Ozzie Albies had a huge age-22 season. Max Fried turned 26 in January. And the youth movement isn’t coming to a close anytime soon. Christian Pache and Drew Waters are likely to debut this season. Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, Ian Anderson, Touki Toussaint, and Kyle Muller are just some of the names that will either make the Braves or make up one of the best rotations in the minor leagues. The system is rich with talent to say the least.
How quickly that talent has an impact could determine how the Braves do this season. So will the 57 games against the Phillies, Nationals, and Mets. This is still a strong team, but the ceiling may be lower than people think.
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+96 (5.26/4.67)|
|3rd Order Win% Record||89.1-72.9|
|Record in One-Run Games||28-16|
|Additions: Yonder Alonso, Marcell Ozuna, Felix Hernandez, Chris Rusin, Yangervis Solarte, Peter O’Brien, Cole Hamels, Travis d’Arnaud, Will Smith|
|Losses: John Ryan Murphy, Anthony Swarzak, Dallas Keuchel, Francisco Cervelli, Jerry Blevins, Josh Donaldson, Josh Tomlin, Matt Joyce, Julio Teheran, Billy Hamilton|
The Braves really didn’t need to do much this winter. The loss of Josh Donaldson could prove to be a very big deal after the huge year that he had in 2019, but the Braves have pretty good depth and some very exciting young players to build around. With the loss of Donaldson, the Braves looked to recoup some of that power with Marcell Ozuna.
Timing is sometimes everything when it comes to offseason transactions. I will admit that I totally forgot that the Braves signed Cole Hamels and Will Smith very early in the offseason. Hamels is still a very solid starting pitcher, but he was slowed by an injury in Spring Training and probably won’t return until late May or early June once he gets back on schedule.
Smith could very well have been the best relief arm on the market this winter. We all know that the Braves had some bullpen questions much of last season and Smith is a true stabilizing force.
All of the sudden, the Braves rebuilt their bullpen in a five-month span with Smith and the 2019 Trade Deadline acquisitions of Shane Greene and Chris Martin. Not too shabby.
This is a pretty good set of numbers from last season. The Braves do lose Josh Donaldson, who was second on the team among regular players with a .377 wOBA and a 132 wRC+, so some production most definitely needs to be replaced. Maybe Austin Riley, who hit 18 homers in just 297 plate appearances, is that guy. Maybe Johan Camargo will bounce back with more consistent playing time. Carmargo did post a .272/.349/.457 slash with a .346 wOBA and a 116 wRC+ back in 2018. His numbers fell off dramatically last season with a .233/.279/.384 slash, a .279 wOBA, and a 67 wRC+.
Maybe it will be new acquisition Marcell Ozuna, who has reliably been worth 2.8 and 2.6 fWAR over the last two seasons. He hasn’t found the magic to replicate his .312/.376/.548 slash, .388 wOBA, and 143 wRC+ from 2017 yet, but he could have had that chance last season if not for a .259 BABIP. Ozuna was 14th in average exit velocity and in the 96th percentile in Hard Hit%. His xBA ranked in the 86th percentile. He had a .243 BA with a .288 xBA. The Braves signed Ozuna to a one-year pact and hope that his elite contact metrics lead to increases in BA and subsequently OBP. It isn’t hard to see Ozuna getting back up to those 2017 numbers this season.
If Ozuna has a season that falls somewhere in between, that will be plenty good because the Braves are one of those teams with average or better players just about everywhere. They’re building around Ronald Acuna Jr., and why wouldn’t you? Acuna hit 41 homers last season with a .280/.365/.518 slash, a .369 wOBA, and a 126 wRC+.
The scary thing is that Acuna’s 2018 was even better with a .388 wOBA because his BABIP was higher and he carried a higher SLG. As good as last season was, we’ve probably barely scratched the surface with this kid. His BB% increased last season and he also got more aggressive on the bases with 37 steals. With true 40/40 potential, good contact skills, an improved walk rate, and likely fewer strikeouts as he keeps progressing, Acuna is on the verge of being one of the game’s elites. It feels like he’s been around forever, but he just turned 22 in December and has only 1,202 plate appearances to his name at the MLB level.
Acuna is the star, but he isn’t the only well above average player on the team. Freddie Freeman led the team in wOBA and wRC+ last season at .387 and 138, respectively. He hit 38 homers, set career-bests in K%, HR, RBI, R, and it wasn’t even one of his two best seasons. It was, however, the best season of Ozzie Albies’s young career with a .354 wOBA and a 117 wRC+. He’s also a plus defender and looks to be on pace for his first career five-win season. Albies walked more and struck out less than he did in 2018 and, once again, we’re talking about a player that just turned 23.
Nick Markakis took a cheap deal to hang around and be part of what the Braves have built for another season. He’s not going to light up the stat sheet, but he’s an extremely reliable contact hitter in an era laced with strikeouts. The catcher tandem of Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers is solid and guys like Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte, and Adam Duvall are plenty capable.
The Braves also have more outfield help coming from below in Cristian Pache and Drew Waters. These two guys just reached legal drinking age over the winter and were consensus top-25 prospects in baseball heading into 2019. Both Pache and Waters struggled a little with their promotions to Triple-A, but scouts love these two guys.
The Braves are one of the deepest offensive teams in the NL. They have the star power and they also have the supporting cast. There is a lot to like about this group and continued improvement, particularly from the young guys, would not surprise me.
To be honest, I’m a little bit perplexed by the Braves pitching staff. On the whole, I like it. Mike Soroka and Max Fried had really nice seasons. Soroka, specifically, won’t turn 23 until August, and already has 200.1 innings under his belt, with 174.2 of those coming this past season. In those 29 starts, Soroka hung a 2.68 ERA with a 3.45 FIP and a 3.85 xFIP. Regression is likely to come for the youngster. The Braves are very solid defensively, but you don’t see a lot of 50+% ground ball guys running .280 BABIPs against. He also had a 79.9% LOB% with a below average K% at 20.3%.
That isn’t a knock on Soroka, who is plenty capable of adding more strikeouts to his repertoire as he continues to develop. His 10.3% SwStr% is about average for a starter, so his K% should reflect that moving forward and he could get more whiffs and continue to carry a high strand rate. He is also likely to see some ERA regression towards his FIP and xFIP. He’ll still be very good, but we’re looking at the aggregate in these win total write-ups. Most win total lines are expectations based off of the previous season or the transactions completed over the winter. If we see enough areas of regression – positive or negative – it can be the reason and justification for a play. So, Soroka, while still projected to be very good, has clear-cut regression signs.
On the flip side, Fried presents positive regression signs with a 4.02 ERA, a 3.72 FIP, and a 3.32 xFIP in his 165.2 innings of work. Fried also posted a GB% north of 50%, but he fell victim to the BABIP gods with a .336 mark against. He had a better K% than Soroka, but also had almost double the HR/FB% at 20.2%. If the ball is different this season, Fried projects to gain a lot from that. Fried also finished the second half on a high note with a .298 wOBA against in 277 plate appearances in the second half.
We’ll say that Soroka and Fried cancel out each other’s regression to both be very good starters. The other full-time rotation holdover from last season is Mike Foltynewicz, who was limited to 117 innings because of injuries. He threw 183 innings with a 2.85/3.37/3.77 pitcher slash in 2018. He had a 4.54/4.97/4.73 pitcher slash this past season. He made strides in the BB% department, but his command totally disappeared. After allowing 17 HR in 2018, he allowed 23 HR in 66 fewer innings this past season. He never found his slider. That pitch was 22.9 runs above average in 2018, but -2.3 runs in 2019. If 2018 was the outlier, Folty worries me a lot. Last season may be more of who he is, particularly if the velocity doesn’t come back.
Cole Hamels was a solid addition to the rotation, but another injury has popped up. Injuries did limit him to 141.2 innings last season, but his 2.5 fWAR was the most he has had in a season since 2016. While waiting to return, he can mentor the youngsters and work with the lefties like Fried and Newcomb. When he gets back, he can be productive for however long he is out there every fifth day. He is probably going to a better situation with the Braves and a better defense overall, so those things should all help. It’s just a matter of how many innings he can actually throw.
Atlanta’s pitching depth is absurd. Sean Newcomb has shown flashes at the MLB level and will compete for the final rotation spot with Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, Touki Toussaint, and prospects even further down the line like Ian Anderson, Patrick Weigel, Huascar Ynoa, and Tucker Davidson. The Braves run at least 12 deep with guys that have MLB-caliber upside. That means a lot to me because pitcher injuries are inevitable, as we’ve already seen.
The Braves have a lot more bullpen depth now, too. I’m not a huge Mark Melancon guy, but a 62% GB% and a 23.9% K% can make me more of a believer. Will Smith is the best reliever in the bullpen and is a top-10 reliever in baseball with enormous K numbers and 3.2 fWAR over the last two seasons. Shane Greene was traded midseason and went from the outhouse to the penthouse, but couldn’t live up to the expectations. Now that he’s more settled, he should be fine, and Luke Jackson should also bounce back from a mediocre second half in a less-stressful role. Chris Martin is also a huge upside guy that doesn’t walk anybody and saw a huge K% spike last season.
The Braves are loaded with depth at the MLB level and some of the starters that fall short of rotation spots could help in the bullpen, a la Toussaint and Newcomb last season.
Positives & Negatives
As I’ve mentioned multiple times here, depth is tremendously important to me. The Braves have two legit stars in Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman. There are a lot of teams with two stars. For some of those teams, though, the stars are all that they have. For the Braves, the stars are just the best players on a very good team with a ton of competent Major Leaguers.
What do we make of the fact that the Braves outperformed their alternate standings metrics by so much? Well, the 28-16 record in one-run games is a big part of it. That was the third-best win percentage in one run games in the league. The Mets were the only other team in the division over .500 and that was at 24-23. Regression could very well take place in that department, but this Braves bullpen is much better than last season’s, so I wouldn’t plan on that being the case to any large degree.
The Braves had a .258/.336/.452 slash overall with a .332 wOBA, a 102 wRC+, and a .305 BABIP. With the bases empty, Atlanta slashed .253/.332/.452 with a .333 wOBA, a 103 wRC+, and a .303 BABIP. With runners in scoring position, the batting average did leap to .271 with an OBP of .359 and a SLG of .447. The .334 wOBA and 103 wRC+ suggest that it was not Cluster Luck on offense.
Was it Cluster Luck on defense? With the bases empty, the opposition batted .244/.311/.407 with a .292 BABIP against. With runners in scoring position, the opposition batted .257/.348/.423 with a .301 BABIP.
It wasn’t that either. Usually when there is a big discrepancy between actual record and the alternate standings metrics, we see teams with some interesting splits with bases empty and RISP. We don’t have that for the Braves. It looks like it was just the one-run record and I don’t see any reason to be worried.
Pick: Over 90.5
It doesn’t surprise me to see the Braves win total line at 90.5. A survey of the alternate standings metrics would seem to suggest that is the right number, even though the Braves won 97 games. I seem to be a little bit higher on this team than the market, given that the under was juiced to -130 at time of publish.
I understand the notion of regression and I think it is very much a possibility for the Braves. It would still take quite a bit of regression to see this team win fewer than 91 games. Maybe I am too high on Ozuna, but I don’t think it is crazy to see him recoup some of the offensive losses from Donaldson leaving via free agency.
The bullpen is clearly better with Smith and last year’s Trade Deadline acquisitions. I see a lot of upside for the young pitching staff as well. I’m not exactly sure if this would classify as a bold call, but the Braves are going to finish ahead of the Nationals. I think this is a very complete team with a lot of depth, plenty of help in the minor leagues, and good room for individual growth.
I would not, however, call this a bet at time of publish. The Hamels injury is a concern, as any other pitching injuries that pop up in Spring Training could hurt the ceiling for this team. This one is on my shortlist for consideration, though. It is a solid and firm over pick for the guide, but it is not quite one of my favorite National League win total picks.