The Atlanta Braves and the Two-Month Victory Lap

Monday night in Washington, the Braves beat Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals by a 3-2 score. The beginning of the Nationals’ game recap reads so casually you almost skip right over the astonishing part and miss the absurdity. Quote:

WASHINGTON — The Nationals entered Monday night with nine chances remaining to cut directly into the Braves’ 12 1/2-game lead in the National League East. They wasted the first of those chances in the opener of a three-game series, as Justin Upton’s go-ahead solo home run in the eighth inning lifted Atlanta to a 3-2 victory.

Braves in first, check. Nationals with chances left, check. Nationals with a blown chance, check. Twelve and a half games. Wait. Now thirteen and a half games. Because the Braves won. The number is inserted as if the gap isn’t completely ridiculous. The number is inserted as if Nationals fans ought to be holding out hope.

More than a year ago, toward the end of April 2012, I wrote an article titled “The Texas Rangers and the Season-Long Victory Lap.” The Rangers looked fantastic and they’d already opened up a seven-game lead over the Angels in the West. The Angels, of course, were supposed to be the Rangers’ main competition, and a seven-game lead is hugely substantial no matter how early it might be, since those games have to be made up. I identified the Rangers as a team with everything working, and indeed, the Angels buried themselves too deep. Then, on the last day of the year, the Rangers lost the division to the A’s and I looked like an idiot. I’d already looked like an idiot, but that made it all the worse.

The lesson is that, when it’s early in the year, it’s early in the year, and there’s a whole lot of time for things to surprise you. Faced with the same circumstances, I wouldn’t write that article again. The Braves don’t find themselves in the same circumstances.

For the Braves, it’s August, not April. For the Braves, it’s not a seven-game lead over what you’d think would be the closest rival — it’s a 13.5-game lead over the closest rival, with 49 games left. The Braves’ lead over the Nationals is basically double that Rangers lead over the Angels, and the Braves right now are winners of 11 consecutive games, showing up what’s been an impossibly hot AL Central. The Nationals could sweep the Braves the rest of the way, and they’d still have to make up another 5.5 games yet. The Braves’ lead is almost all the other first-place leads combined.

Curious, I started looking up the biggest division leads through August 5 since baseball expanded to six divisions. Obviously, the seasons are always different, so there will always have been a different number of games played through a given date, but this is a lot easier to research than the alternative, and it makes for a perfectly fine approximation. The seasons aren’t that different. Following, a table, with the biggest division leads through August 5, and the leading team’s odds of winning the division at that point as provided by Cool Standings.

Year Team Lead Div. Odds (%)
1995 Indians 19.5 99.9
2001 Mariners 19.0 99.9
2002 Braves 18.0 99.9
2002 Twins 16.0 99.6
1998 Yankees 15.0 99.7
1998 Braves 14.5 99.4
1999 Indians 13.5 99.4
2013 Braves 13.5 99.9
2005 White Sox 13.0 96.8
2006 Mets 12.0 96.4
2003 Giants 12.0 96.9
1998 Padres 12.0 99.5

Immediately, it’s apparent these Braves aren’t headed for the record books. The 1995 Indians were 63-27 when the Brewers were 44-47, and the Indians wound up winning that division by 30 games, and they didn’t even play a full slate. That doesn’t even make sense to me and I spent a full hour doing research. The Braves aren’t in the most lopsided race in recent big-league history. But they do have the biggest lead through August 5 since 2002, which counts for something. Over the course of the last decade or so, MLB has taken big steps toward greater parity, and it’s within that landscape that the Braves are running away with the NL East. They’re not even running away with it — they already ran away with it, and now they’re sitting down, resting, with shade and a cocktail.

One way in which this is remarkable: everything that’s already been said. The lead is huge. It’s the beginning of August. We just forgot about the trade deadline on the other side of last weekend. Teams aren’t supposed to have these kinds of leads. Not even at the end of September. Teams aren’t supposed to be able to look at August and September as opportunities to rest regulars in anticipation of the playoffs.

A second way in which this is remarkable: on the face of it, the Braves aren’t blowing away the expectations. That is, they’re not doing what you would’ve assumed they’d be doing if you were told last March they’d end up in this position. B.J. Upton has been a disaster. Justin Upton has been good without being amazing or consistent. Jason Heyward continues to not be easily classified, and Andrelton Simmons hasn’t hit, and Tim Hudson is gone. Kris Medlen’s taken a step back. Jonny Venters will end the year with zero innings. The Braves have been good and they’ve overcome adversity, but they’ve gone about this in an odd fashion.

And a third way in which this is remarkable: it was supposed to be the Nationals. Steamer projected the Nationals would win the division. ZiPS projected the Nationals would win the division. CAIRO and Oliver projected the Nationals would win the division. PECOTA projected the Nationals would win the division. In pretty much every case, it was the Nationals winning over the Braves, but in pretty much every case, it was the Nationals who looked like one of baseball’s best and deepest teams. Before the year started, I told people, confidently, that the Nationals were more talented than anyone else. They were my go-to team when asked who I thought was the best in baseball. I don’t like predictions — I detest predictions — but this didn’t feel like a prediction. This felt like a statement, and I was certain the Nationals would be terrific, so long as they didn’t suffer too many injuries. Looking back, it’s obvious I and others over-stated their ability, but it sure as hell didn’t feel that way. The question wasn’t who would finish first in the East. The question was whether the Braves could hold off the Phillies.

Coming in, the Nationals were favored. If I were told in March the Nationals would hold a 13.5-game lead the morning of August 6, I’d get myself some raised eyebrows. If I were told the Braves would hold that lead instead? I might’ve slapped you in the face for wasting my time. It looked too certain the Nationals were too good, and the Braves are tied for the best record in baseball. With the Pirates. Which is another thing.

Every year, in every sport, around playoff time, people debate whether it’s better to rest up or play hard every day. People debate whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing to have a break, some kind of let-up before or during the tournament. The Braves can start thinking about whether they want to rest some regulars in anticipation of October. We all just bid farewell to July.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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10 years ago

Braves magic number is 37 on August 6th. If you told me before the season started that the magic number would be 37 on September 6th I would have been thrilled.