How the Braves Flipped the NL East Race

You could have been forgiven for giving up the Braves for dead in the water last month. Heading into the July 30 trade deadline, they were 51–52, four games behind the NL East-leading Mets and eight back in the Wild Card race, with four teams between them and the second-slotted Padres. Three weeks earlier, they’d lost their best player, Ronald Acuña Jr., to a season-ending torn ACL, plus they were down last year’s NL home run and RBI leader (Marcell Ozuna), their starting catcher (Travis d’Arnaud), and three key members of their rotation (Ian Anderson, Huascar Ynoa, and Mike Soroka). Yet nearly four weeks later, the division race has been upended, and Atlanta is squarely in the drivers’ seat. What happened?

The short version is that the Braves were aggressive in giving their outfield a much-needed makeover at the deadline and entered Tuesday with an NL-best 17–5 record since then, albeit largely against a soft schedule. Even after their nine-game winning streak came to an end against the Yankees — themselves riding a nine-game winning streak at the time, making for a first-in-120-years matchup — to knock them back to 17–6, a half-game behind the Dodgers, they’ve left the Mets in the dust, as New York has run into buzzsaw after buzzsaw. Here’s the full picture of how the NL East standings and Playoff Odds have changed:

NL East Before and After July 30 Trade Deadline
Split W L PCT GB Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Braves
Pre-Deadline 51 52 .495 4 8.4% 1.4% 9.8% 0.4%
Now 68 58 .540 0 75.8% 1.7% 77.5% 5.7%
Change 17 6 .045 -4 +67.4% +0.3% +67.7% +5.3%
Phillies
Pre-Deadline 51 51 .500 3.5 17.8% 2.1% 19.9% 1.1%
Now 63 62 .504 4.5 19.7% 3.3% 23.0% 1.1%
Change 12 11 .004 1 +1.9% +1.2% +3.1% 0.0%
Mets
Pre-Deadline 54 47 .535 0 73.6% 1.4% 75.1% 8.3%
Now 61 64 .488 6.5 4.5% 0.6% 5.2% 0.3%
Change 7 17 -.047 6.5 -69.1% -0.8% -69.9% -8.0%

For those who prefer a picture, here you go (this one shows only the division-winning odds):

For the Braves, this run has come the old-fashioned way, as they’ve held their own against the other strong teams and steamrolled the weak ones. They’ve played series against just four teams with a .500 or better record: the Brewers (against whom they lost two of three), Cardinals (whom they swept), Reds (against whom they won two of three), and Yankees (who swept a two-game series) That’s a 6–5 mark against four teams with a weighted winning percentage of .560. Meanwhile, they’ve gone a combined 11–1 against the Nationals (5–1), Marlins (3–0), and Orioles (3–0), teams with a weighted .395 winning percentage. At the same time, the Mets went 3–14 against the Reds (1–2), Phillies (0–3), Dodgers (1–6), and Giants (1-3), four teams with a weighted winning percentage of .592, and 4–3 against the Marlins (1–3) and Nationals (3–0), a pair with a combined winning percentage of .417.

I’ll leave the Mets’ miseries for another day. As for the Braves, Ozuna’s May 29 arrest on charges of aggravated assault strangulation and misdemeanor battery and Acuña’s July 10 ACL tear left the team with Orlando Arcia (a shortstop), Ehire Adrianza, and Abraham Almonte manning the outfield corners and Guillermo Heredia covering center. All of the holdovers have basically stopped hitting since the deadline, but newcomers Joc Pederson (acquired from the Cubs on July 15, when the team was 44–45), Adam Duvall, and Jorge Soler (both acquired on July 30 from the Marlins and Royals, respectively) have done solid to exceptional work. Note that all stats from here on do not include Tuesday night’s game:

Braves Outfielders Pre- and Post-Trade Deadline
Player PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Jorge Soler 95 .260 .383 .494 134 0.1
Adam Duvall 92 .203 .315 .443 100 0.6
Joc Pederson 56 .283 .321 .434 101 0.2 68 .246 .368 .439 119 0.4
Guillermo Heredia 268 .244 .325 .391 92 0.9 53 .128 .226 .234 28 -0.3
Ehire Adrianza 160 .263 .346 .438 109 0.4 14 .077 .143 .077 -37 -0.2
Abraham Almonte 160 .235 .344 .434 109 0.1 14 .000 .214 .000 -14 -0.2
Orlando Arcia 54 .224 .278 .367 66 -0.1 1 .000 .000 .000 0 0.0
Ronald Acuna Jr. 360 .283 .394 .596 157 4.3
Marcell Ozuna 208 .213 .288 .356 75 -0.2
Ender Inciarte 89 .215 .276 .316 60 0.1
Cristian Pache 68 .111 .152 .206 -7 -0.7
Statistics through August 23.

Nobody was ever going to replace Acuña, but aside from the surprising contributions of Adrianza and Almonte, which had gone well beyond their previous bodies of work (each with a wRC+ in the low 80s), the Braves were getting very little from their other outfielders. Sure enough, those two players (and Heredia) have all crashed through the floor in limited playing time lately, but the newcomers have stabilized the situation.

Meanwhile, Dansby Swanson has been the majors’ most valuable position player and fourth-best hitter since the deadline, and both Freddie Freeman and Austin Riley have improved upon already-strong showings. And d’Arnaud, who missed over two months with a torn ligament in his left thumb, has finally begun to provide some offense from the catcher’s slot, though it still ranks dead last in the majors with a 48 wRC+:

Braves Infielders and Catchers Pre- and Post-Trade Deadline
Player PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Ozzie Albies 435 .261 .322 .491 113 2.9 105 .232 .295 .432 92 0.4
Austin Riley 416 .289 .370 .519 134 2.3 99 .322 .374 .578 150 0.8
Freddie Freeman 449 .287 .392 .505 135 2.9 95 .337 .400 .535 144 0.7
Dansby Swanson 425 .242 .297 .455 95 1.7 95 .376 .432 .671 189 1.6
Stephen Vogt 31 .207 .258 .207 30 -0.1 40 .121 .250 .121 6 -0.2
Travis d’Arnaud 87 .220 .253 .341 57 0 29 .292 .414 .625 172 0.4
Kevan Smith 87 .182 .276 .221 31 -0.2 14 .071 .071 .071 -69 -0.2
William Contreras 158 .204 .278 .387 76 -0.3 8 .000 .250 .000 2 -0.1
Statistics through August 23.

One thing not captured by this table is the home run totals. Not that the Braves have produced a dramatic uptick; their total of 182 ranks second in the NL, and on both sides of the All-Star break, they’ve been tied for second. What’s of particular interest is that they’re not far off from becoming the second team with all four regular infielders hitting at least 25 homers, joining the 2008 Marlins (Jorge Cantu, Mike Jacobs, Hanley Ramirez, and Dan Uggla); Freeman and Riley both have a team-high 27, Swanson has 25, and Albies has 22. They even have an outside shot at becoming the first infield with all four reaching 30, something those Marlins fell one Cantu homer short of doing; Swanson, who’s projected to hit five more homers, would reach the mark, but Albies, who’s projected for six more, will have to pick up the pace.

Anyway, the Braves improved from scoring a healthy 4.75 runs per game before the deadline to a gaudy 5.59 per game since, with their cumulative batting line improving from .241/.321/.428 (98 wRC+) to .248/.333/.442 (106 wRC+). Meanwhile, they’ve gone from allowing 4.29 runs per game (4.13 ERA, 4.11 FIP) to 3.73 (3.56 ERA, 3.65 FIP), with improvements across the board in their major peripherals: from 1.16 homers per nine to 1.04, from a 23.8% strikeout rate to 25.5%, and from a 9.1% walk rate to 7.3%.

Rotation-wise, Max Fried and Charlie Morton have done the heavy lifting, with just about everybody else along for the ride:

Braves Starting Pitchers Pre- and Post-Trade Deadline
Pitcher GS IP ERA FIP WAR GS IP ERA FIP WAR
Max Fried 17 91.2 4.32 3.92 1.4 4 27.0 0.67 1.69 1.2
Touki Toussaint 2 13.2 1.32 2.59 0.4 5 25.1 4.97 6.05 -0.1
Charlie Morton 21 116.0 3.72 3.50 2.4 4 24.0 2.25 2.05 1.0
Drew Smyly 18 92.0 4.40 5.05 0.4 4 19.0 5.21 5.01 0.1
Kyle Muller 5 23.2 1.90 3.26 0.5 3 12.0 7.50 4.67 0.1
Huascar Ynoa 8 43.2 3.09 3.79 0.7 2 11.1 2.38 2.82 0.3
Ian Anderson 18 96.0 3.56 3.60 1.9
Bryse Wilson 8 33.2 5.88 5.67 -0.1
Tucker Davidson 4 20.0 3.60 4.52 0.2
Kyle Wright 2 6.1 9.95 9.65 -0.3
Jesse Chavez 1 2.1 7.71 1.89 0.1
Statistics through August 23.

Fried, Morton, and Ynoa, who recently returned after missing three months after fracturing his right hand by punching a dugout bench in frustration, have been very good, but they account for just 10 of the 22 starts by the team in this span. The rest has been pretty crummy in the balance, though we’re talking about a mere 56.1 innings split three ways. If Anderson is able to return from his shoulder inflammation as planned after one more rehab start, Atlanta can afford to figure out whether Muller, Smyly, or Toussaint is the best fit for the fifth spot.

As for the bullpen, it’s seen improvement, too, particularly thanks to deadline addition Richard Rodriguez:

Braves Relievers Pre- and Post-Trade Deadline
Pitcher G IP ERA FIP WAR G IP ERA FIP WAR
Will Smith 43 40.2 3.32 2.97 1.1 12 11.1 5.56 7.67 -0.5
Richard Rodriguez 11 11.0 0.82 3.26 0.2
Luke Jackson 44 38.0 2.37 4.46 0.0 10 9.2 0.93 1.62 0.4
Tyler Matzek 42 39.0 2.77 3.22 0.6 11 9.0 0.00 1.39 0.5
Jesse Chavez 10 10.2 0.00 1.11 0.4 8 7.2 5.87 2.91 0.1
Edgar Santana 28 30.0 3.60 4.74 0.0 8 7.2 4.70 4.35 0.0
Chris Martin 28 26.0 3.81 3.56 0.3 8 7.1 2.45 2.35 0.2
Josh Tomlin 31 42.0 5.36 4.34 0.1 4 7.1 13.50 6.58 -0.1
A.J. Minter 42 33.1 4.86 3.08 0.7 5 5.2 0.00 0.35 0.2
Shane Greene 18 16.0 8.44 5.98 -0.2 1 1.0 9.00 19.17 -0.1
Nate Jones 12 10.1 3.48 8.78 -0.6

This isn’t a complete listing; I’ve focused on the higher-leverage and/or higher-volume ones. While Smith has had a rough August, the team’s top setup guys (Rodriguez, who was acquired from the Pirates, and Matzek) have been lights out, and likewise for the top middlemen (Jackson, Martin, and Minter). Meanwhile, two relievers who weren’t very effective, Jones and Greene, are long gone, with the former having retired and the latter having recently caught on with the Dodgers. As a group, the bullpen has shaved about three-quarters of a run of ERA off their pre-deadline mark, as well as about half a run of FIP.

In all, that adds up to substantial improvements on both sides of the ball for the Braves. Their run has been fueled by some exceptional work by core players (Swanson, Riley, Freeman, Fried, Morton) with a boost by timely July acquisitions (Pederson, Soler, and Rodriguez), and it’s come at a time when the Mets have had just about everything go wrong. This stretch hasn’t sealed the Braves’ fourth straight division title just yet, but it’s given them enough of a cushion that with 36 games to go, they’re now firmly in command of the NL East.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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sadtrombonemember
1 year ago

I mentioned this on the Reds article about how they might catch the Padres soon (and indeed, they did catch the Padres soon). But between the Reds and the Braves, we have two teams who traded away marginal prospects for underperforming veterans and hoped the team in front of you gets completely wrecked by injuries and/or cold streaks. And it worked!

It’s easier to make this sort of a decision when you don’t have many obvious trade candidates on expiring deals and if you have a lot of guys like Bryce Ball or Kasey Kalich hanging around. And it doesn’t really work if you have two or more teams that are clearly ahead of you (the Cardinals still have to pass both the Padres and the Reds), or if you’re 10 games back or something. But if a team really just wants to get out of paying Joc Pederson or Jorge Soler or Eddie Rosario, and your whole outfield is hurt or bad then why not?

Antonio Bananasmember
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I wanted the Braves to sign Joc and keep Duvall from the beginning of the season. I think guys like that make a lot of sense for the Braves with Waters/Pache likely needing some more runway.

Lanidrac
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

It’s also worked to a degree for the Cardinals, especially with the excellent work they’ve gotten from Happ, to where they’re currently only 2 1/2 games behind the Reds and 2 games behind the Padres.