Projection systems pegged the Braves as the least likely non-Marlins team to win the division. Now thanks to an excellent June, they hold a multi-game lead for first place.
The Braves surprised many last season by winning 90 and easily taking the division by eight games. While many analysts and projections systems forecasted improvement for the Braves in 2018, nobody predicted a big jump of 18 wins over the year before. Despite that success, the Braves were expected to regress in 2019. The Phillies made some major additions during the offseason by acquiring Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto, and it seemed unlikely that the Nationals would disappoint yet again.
FanGraphs’ preseason projections had the Braves in fourth place by a hair under the Mets with a 13.2 percent chance to win the division. Baseball Prospectus gave the Braves roughly the same odds, but their projection system was more bullish on the Mets at third place. The two sites’ projections disagreed on the division winners, however, with FanGraphs giving the Nationals a 53.2 percent chance to win the division, and Baseball Prospectus giving the Phillies a 33.5 percent chance. Personally, I had a really hard time picking a division winner. I went back and forth between the Nats and Phillies before reluctantly settling on the Phillies as the winner by one game over the Nats, with the Braves a few games behind them.
Well, the Braves are making fools out of everyone. As of this writing (Saturday), they have a 4.5-game lead over the Phillies for first place with a record of 44-32. Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus give them over a 60 percent chance to win the division. They currently have the second-best record in the NL!
At the end of May, the Braves were only three games above .500. They were only three games behind the division-leading Phillies, but only two games ahead of the Mets. Since then, the Braves have been performing at another level and are having a stellar June.
The Braves are 14-5 in June, and that includes an eight-game winning streak. Their offense has truly been absurd, with Braves’ hitters having combined to hit .289/.368/.550 this month. Their .381 wOBA leads June by a gargantuan 36 points over the Twins. If you are hitting better than the Twins, you know you are doing something right, let alone outdoing them by that much.
Unsurprisingly, Freddie Freeman has been the Braves’ best hitter among those with at least 40 PA. He is hitting an astounding .333/.416/.744 this month with 8 HR. Also unsurprisingly, Ronald Acuña has been raking as well, with a line of .326/.396/.581. They both have been worth 1.1 fWAR in just 19 games! Let’s take a look at how well other Braves hitters have been doing.
The Braves’ offense has been pretty good for the season, too, ranking seventh in the majors when adjusting for league and park effects. Unsurprisingly again, Freeman has been leading the pack. He is hitting .314/.401/.605 with 21 HR. His 157 wRC+ is tied with Josh Bell for fifth-best in the majors.
(As an aside, it needs to be said that Freeman has had a heck of a career so far. He has a career line of .294/.379/.504 over 5,350 PA, good for a 138 wRC+ and about 36 WAR.)
Acuña is following up his Rookie of the Year campaign nicely, though his .289/.371/.498 line is down from last year. As expected, he is adding value defensively and on the base paths, resulting in 2.6 WAR to date.
Josh Donaldson has been a great one-year sign by the Braves, hitting .265/.370/.498, and while he is not the 80-grade defender he used to be at the hot corner, his defense has still been very good. Hopefully his performance will help him get a more deserving contract this winter, but given that he will be 34 years old and the precarious state of free agency, I fear he might be disappointed.
After a terribly disappointing past two seasons, it is great to see Dansby Swanson come to life. I’ll take a league-average bat from a shortstop, but I am concerned about how much he is being helped by the juiced balls. His OBP has not improved much, but he is hitting for a lot more power with 13 HR this season compared to 20 total over the previous two.
Austin Riley has also hit the ground running. The rookie is hitting .291/.345/.619 with 12 HR already, but his underlying numbers are not very promising. He has a .351 BABIP, 31 percent strikeout rate, and he is not walking much.
The Braves’ pitching could use some help, though. Mike Soroka has been outstanding this season with a 2.59 RA9, 2.22 DRA, and 2.6 WAR. He does a good job of limiting free passes, but he is only striking out a fifth of batters faced. Max Fried and Julio Teherán have been good but not great. Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman both, unfortunately, have RA9s over 6.00, and the latter of the two just hit the IL. Some might point to Gausman’s 4.13 FIP, but as I have mentioned before, ERA/RA9 estimators do not work for pitchers who give up a ton of runs. Dallas Keuchel should provide a boost to the rotation, even though his debut start was not great.
The bullpen is actually pretty decent, with an RA9 that ranks in the top ten. Sean Newcomb has been outstanding since being moved there. He has a 1.42 RA9 in 19 innings of relief this year, while striking out 21 and walking only two batters. Anthony Swarzak has arguably been even better by allowing just one run in 13 IP and striking out 16. His control needs help, though. Luke Jackson, Touki Toussaint, and Jacob Webb have all been effective as well, though the latter two are greatly outperforming their peripherals. It is a pretty solid bullpen overall, but the Braves could still use a boost at the back end of it.
The Braves are in the driver’s seat right now, but there is plenty of baseball left to be played. The Phillies will not be slumping forever, and the Nationals have been doing a lot better after a poor start to the season. The NL East race is as exciting as it was expected to be!
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.