The Braves and the Heavyweights They KO’d en Route to a Championship

When Freddie Freeman clutched the throw from Dansby Swanson to secure the final out of this year’s World Series, the 2021 Braves instantly matched the total number of championships won by the franchise from 1991-99, a span during which a core laden with future Hall of Famers won five pennants but lost four World Series. That this year’s Cinderella team stands with that dynasty — yes, I’m using that word to describe even a non-contiguous run — in total championships is a reminder of one of current third base coach Ron Washington’s famous catchphrases: “That’s the way baseball go.”

Indeed, the game does not always distribute its rewards evenly or justly, and sometimes the player or team that’s streaking or simply lucky is the one that wins, particularly in a short series, where injuries and hot hands can have a disproportionate effect. Suffice it to say that if NLCS MVP Eddie Rosario were a true-talent .383/.456/.617 hitter, he would not have been available at the trade deadline in exchange for a sack of Pablo Sandoval’s laundry.

This is not intended to slight the Braves, who were clearly a better team than their full-season .547 winning percentage — lower among World Series winners than all but the 2014 Giants (.543), 2000 Yankees (.540), 1987 Twins (.525), and 2006 Cardinals (.516) — indicated. From the point of the trade deadline, when they were 51-54 (.486) but had reassembled their outfield on the fly with Rosario, Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, and future World Series MVP Jorge Soler, they went 37-19 (.661), outplaying every team in the majors but the white-hot Dodgers (.772) and Giants (.729). In the postseason, they knocked off the 95-win Brewers, 106-win Dodgers, and 95-win Astros by going a combined 11-5 and never facing an elimination game themselves.

And now Rosario, Duvall, Pederson, Soler, Freeman, Swanson, Max Fried and others have won as many World Series together as Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Chipper Jones, and Andruw Jones did with Atlanta [Andruw didn’t debut until 1996, as one commenter reminded me]. As many, for that matter, as Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa et al have won with Houston, or Clayton Kershaw and company have with the Dodgers. Both of those teams, like the 1995-99 Braves (or the 1991-95 Braves) won one World Series and lost two during a five-year span while meeting additional roadblocks and heartaches elsewhere within the half-decade. And yes, I’m aware of the subsequent revelations about the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing work circa 2017-18, and allegations regarding their use of a whistling scheme in 2019, as reported in Andy Martino’s book Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing, allegations that, unlike the trash can scheme, have not been backed by findings from the commissioner’s office. I won’t begrudge anyone the application of their own asterisk regarding the Astros, but for the purposes of this article, I have to assume that at least this year’s squad is on the level.

A year ago, iterations of those 1990s Braves and the more recent Dodgers and Astros popped up time and again within my look at the best five-year winning percentages and run differentials by teams in the post-1960 expansion era. The various lists often highlighted the contrast between sustained dominance in the regular season and intermittent success in the postseason, serving to remind just how difficult it is to win the hunk of metal. In the Wild Card era, for example, only seven teams that finished the regular season with the majors’ best winning percentage survived three (or even four) rounds of playoffs to win the World Series: the 1998 and 2009 Yankees, ’07, ’13, and ’18 Red Sox, ’16 Cubs, and ’20 Dodgers. That’s seven out of 27 champions, about 26%. Billy Beane isn’t the only one whose s*** doesn’t work in the playoffs.

With those jarring juxtapositions in mind, it’s worth revisiting that data. I’ll start with a top 20 for five-year winning percentage, from which I’ve removed overlapping spans:

Top 5-Year Spans by Winning Percentage Since 1961
Rk Team Years W-L Pct WS Win WS Loss Div WC
1 Dodgers 2017-2021 451-258 .636 1 2 4 1
2 Braves 1995-1999 496-296 .626 1 2 5 0
3 Reds 1972-1976 502-300 .626 2 1 4 0
4 Orioles 1969-1973 495-303 .620 1 2 4 0
5 Yankees 1998-2002 497-309 .617 3 1 5 0
6 Astros 2017-2021 435-273 .614 1 2 4 1
7 Yankees 1976-1980 489-317 .607 2 1 4 0
8 Orioles 1979-1983 453-297 .604 1 1 2 0
9 Mets 1984-1988 488-320 .604 1 0 2 0
10 Athletics 1988-1992 486-324 .600 1 2 4 0
11 Yankees 1961-1965 485-324 .600 2 2 0 0
12 Athletics 2000-2004 483-326 .597 0 0 3 1
13 Indians 1995-1999 471-319 .596 0 2 5 0
14 Athletics 1971-1975 476-326 .594 3 0 5 0
15 Cardinals 2001-2005 480-330 .593 0 1 3 1
16 Yankees 2008-2012 479-331 .591 1 0 3 1
17 Dodgers 1973-1977 475-334 .587 0 2 2 0
18 Indians 2016-2020 415-292 .587 0 1 3 1
19 Angels 2005-2009 475-335 .586 0 0 4 0
20 Giants 2000-2004 473-335 .585 0 1 0 1
Does not include overlapping stretches; each team-season could only be included once (e.g., 1994-98 Braves’ .620 would have ranked 5th).

By winning 15 more games in 2021 than in ’16, the Dodgers rocketed up the list from fifth for the ’16-20 period (.615, 436-273) to first for ’17-21, bumping the two teams in the photo finish at the top (the 1995-99 Braves’ .6263 over the 1972-76 Reds’ .6259) down to second and third, respectively. Similarly, this year’s Astros improved by 11 games relative to 2016, pushing them from 11th on the list to sixth. For all of that, these 20 teams, representing 100 good-to-great seasons with a collective .603 wining percentage (approximately 98-64 over 162 games) won just 20 World Series between them! They lost another 23, meaning that more than half of them didn’t even make it that far. And these are the great sustained runs of the era! Two teams, the 2000-04 Athletics and ’05-09 Angels, didn’t win a single pennant despite their individually strong seasons.

Turning to per-game run differentials, the Dodgers’ 2016-20 entry topped the list last year, so it should’t be surprising that they’ve done it again with the ’17-21 stretch, and by an even wider margin:

Top 5-Year Spans by Run Differential Since 1961
Rk Team Years Rdif/Game WS Win WS Loss Div WC
1 Dodgers 2017-2021 1.50 1 2 4 1
2 Astros 2017-2021 1.34 1 2 4 1
3 Orioles 1969-1973 1.22 1 2 4 0
4 Reds 1972-1976 1.10 2 1 4 0
5 Braves 1995-1999 1.07 1 2 5 0
6 Yankees 1997-2001 1.03 3 1 4 1
7 Yankees 2007-2011 0.98 1 0 2 2
8 Indians 2016-2020 0.95 0 1 3 1
9 Cubs 2015-2019 0.95 1 0 2 2
10 Yankees 2017-2021 0.95 0 0 1 4
11 Yankees 1976-1980 0.94 2 1 4 0
12 Dodgers 1974-1978 0.93 0 3 3 0
13 Mets 1986-1990 0.93 1 0 2 0
14 Cardinals 2001-2005 0.89 0 1 3 1
15 Athletics 1971-1975 0.88 3 0 5 0
16 Yankees 2002-2006 0.88 0 1 5 0
17 Red Sox 2007-2011 0.88 1 0 1 2
18 Athletics 2000-2004 0.86 0 0 3 1
19 Indians 1995-1999 0.85 0 2 5 0
20 Red Sox 2015-2019 0.84 1 0 3 0

As I noted last year, there’s some overlap between the two leaderboards, as you’d expect, as well as cases where the best stretch shifts by a year or two in one direction or the other between the two tables (for example, the Dodgers’ 1973-77 seasons by record, ’74-78 by run differential, or the Mets’ ’84-88 by the former and ’86-90 by the latter). Note that the Yankees have three contiguous five year stretches represented in the second table, covering the 15 seasons from 1997-2011. Their group from the past five years — one of two here without a pennant, and with just one division title to boot — is one of half a dozen teams on this leaderboard that run though 2019, ’20, or ’21, which I suspect is a reflection of the competitive imbalance we’ve recently seen due to multiple teams tanking.

That subject is a column for another day, but just looking at the other end of the rankings, the 2017-21 Orioles’ -1.32 runs per game in the second-lowest non-overlapping run differential of the era, ahead of only the 1962-66 Mets’ -1.53 per game. The 2017-21 Tigers’ -1.11 per game is the seventh-lowest.

Comparatively speaking, the run differential leaders were slightly less successful than the won-loss leaders, with 19 World Series wins and 19 losses between them. They do have a 67-64 edge in division titles and a 16-7 edge in Wild Card berths, mainly because the second list skews more recent; nine of the spans of the won-loss leaders took place before 1995, whereas only six spans of the run differential leaders did.

Again with the fluctuations of competitive balance in mind, I took a more complicated approach, one that so taxed the limits of my Excel skills and my October-fried brain that upon digging up my spreadsheet from last year, I needed over an hour to rediscover how it all worked and even longer to update. Long story short, I drew upon an idea that harkened back to the 2000 Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein book, Baseball Dynasties: The Greatest Teams of All Time, which measured teams’ multi-year runs while accounting for the environments in which they played using Standard Deviation Scores (Z-scores). Neyer and Epstein measured how many standard deviations each team was from the league average in terms of both run scoring and run prevention rates, and then then added the scores together across three-year periods, which was a pretty advanced way of looking at things at a time when things like Pythagorean records were only starting to gain traction with an audience outside of OG Bill James readers.

I took a similar approach, but stuck with five-year periods and using winning percentages and run differentials (instead of splitting run scoring and prevention), which among other things avoids overcrediting large run differentials in high-scoring periods and dominant teams in expansion (or tanking-heavy) seasons. Again, I removed teams’ overlapping stretches. Not surprisingly, the Dodgers, who in their 2016-20 iteration ranked second to the Braves’ 1995-99 one, took over the top spot here as well:

Top 5-Year Spans by Standard Deviation Scores Since 1961
Rk Team Years Win% Win%Score Rdif/Gm Rdif Score Tot Score
1 Dodgers 2017-21 .636 8.99 1.50 9.93 18.91
2 Braves 1995-99 .626 9.67 1.07 8.57 18.24
3 Reds 1972-76 .626 8.68 1.10 7.73 16.42
4 Orioles 1969-73 .620 7.46 1.22 8.84 16.30
5 Mets 1986-90 .592 7.07 0.93 9.00 16.07
6 Yankees 1994-98 .607 7.63 1.00 7.42 15.06
7 Athletics 1971-75 .594 7.18 0.88 7.83 15.00
8 Athletics 1988-92 .600 8.04 0.66 6.30 14.33
9 Yankees 2007-11 .590 6.55 0.98 7.41 13.96
10 Cardinals 2001-05 .593 6.81 0.89 6.86 13.67
11 Phillies 2007-11 .584 6.57 0.76 6.56 13.13
12 Tigers 1983-87 .575 6.22 0.72 6.86 13.08
13 Yankees 1976-80 .607 6.86 0.94 6.20 13.05
14 Dodgers 1974-78 .586 5.99 0.93 6.73 12.73
15 Indians 1995-99 .596 6.7 0.85 6.00 12.70
16 Braves 2000-04 .595 6.57 0.78 5.82 12.38
17 Yankees 1961-65 .600 6.2 0.84 6.18 12.37
18 Yankees 2002-06 .614 6.72 0.88 5.63 12.35
19 Red Sox 2007-11 .574 5.45 0.88 6.90 12.34
20 Astros 2015-19 .594 5.56 1.23 6.41 11.97

Despite having a higher cumulative winning percentage than the 1995-99 Braves, this iteration of the Dodgers doesn’t score as high in their SD score on that front, though they closed the gap; the 2016-20 stretch’s .615 winning percentage yielded an 8.28 score. What powers the Dodgers to the top is their run differential score, which increased from 8.71 (second to the 1986-90 Mets’ 9.00) to 9.93. Interestingly enough, the 2017-21 Astros did not supplant their ’15-19 iteration here, with a combined score of “only” 11.66; even with the .614 winning percentage, the latter-day group scores at just 5.41 in terms of SD, and likewise their run differential of 1.34 per game scores at 6.25. All of which is to say that the methodology is doing what it’s supposed to do, which is account for the wider spread in a less competitive period.

Last year’s version of this article did have one more table, using the sum of each team’s rankings in the winning percentage, run differential, and standard deviation score categories — rankings before removing the overlapping sequences, that is. In that one, the 2016-20 Dodgers (eighth in winning percentage rankings before resolving the overlaps, first in run differential, and fourth in SD score) tied the 1972-76 Reds for second with a ranking sum of 13; the 1995-99 Braves (1st, 8th, and 1st in those three categories) had a ranking sum of 10. The 2017-21 Dodgers have a sum of 3 as they top all three categories, but without spending a couple more hours that frankly I don’t have at the moment due to other professional and personal obligations, I can’t republish the whole table while vouching for the correctness of the various pre-overlap rankings.

Still, I don’t think that detracts from the findings above. By some common ways in which we measure team strength during the regular season, the 2017-21 Dodgers have a legitimate case as the best five-year run of the post-expansion era, and can stand alongside more celebrated runs of yesteryear by the Braves, Reds, Orioles, Yankees, Mets, and A’s, some of which similarly won only one World Series in their respective spans, and all of which left indelible marks on baseball history in the form of great and colorful players (and managers) and memorable World Series. The Braves featured the Hall of Fame triumvirate of Glavine, Maddux, and Smoltz, plus Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones, and Bobby Cox at the helm. The Big Red Machine had Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and Pete Rose, plus Sparky Anderson in the dugout. The Orioles had Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, and Frank Robinson, led by Earl Weaver. The Yankees had Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Joe Torre, with Roger Clemens, Tim Raines, and Mike Mussina coming and going. The Mets had Gary Carter, Dwight Gooden, Keith Hernandez, and Darryl Strawberry, piloted by Davey Johnson. The A’s had Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, and Reggie Jackson, managed by Dick Williams for the first three of those years. For the Dodgers, Kershaw is headed to Cooperstown, and quite possibly Mookie Betts as well.

Like these Dodgers, most of those teams’ signature spans included one somewhat shortened season, whether it was because of the 1972 strike or the ’94-95 strike and lockout. The surrounding seasons help to legitimize their accomplishments as something more than small-sample flukes. While I realize that some people are skittish about the use of the term “dynasty,” I don’t think it’s out of bounds to use the term to apply to these runs. I feel the same way about the Giants’ three-championships-in-five-years run as well. The d-word can’t be reserved only for the 1936-39 Yankees, or the ’96-2001 Yankees, or sports talk show blowhards talking about Michael Jordan and Tom Brady.

Anyway, the 2017-21 Astros are in the picture as well, but given the aforementioned issues, I can’t determine their ranking or whether they surpassed the 2015-19 iteration (which ranked 11th last year). Perhaps that’s just as well. I’m not here to tell you that you have to accept at face value their on-field accomplishments from 2017-18 in light of all that we’ve learned about their skullduggery; we know that they had a standout squad, but measuring their true strength and quality is impossible because we can’t know the extent to which their shady efforts influenced the outcomes. That fact is all the more reason not to ding these Dodgers for having won “only” one World Series during this five-year run when the Astros’ efforts may well have swung the 2017 World Series. And as noted in the other tables above, even one World Series win during a great five-year run is a total hardly out of place among these teams.

To bring it back to the 2021 Braves, we now know that in winning this year’s championship, they knocked over two squads that were part of runs that — warts and all — rank among the best of the post-expansion era. That should only deepen the appreciation of their accomplishment. Maybe they’ll build a new dynasty of their own, though as Coach Washington might tell you, it’s incredibly hard.

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... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

Given the crazy pace the NL teams went on in the second half of the season, it’s a little surprising more peoples’ models didn’t have the Braves favored (538 did I think). An ELO model (like 538) for sure would favor the Braves, but so would a multi factor momentum model too (you’d think). At a certain point, everyone in the NL coming in red hot should juice the NLCS champs’ overall rating.

1 year ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

Two things can be true about the Braves. They are a fine team and a worthy champion who had a great postseason run. And they aren’t close to being the best team in baseball in 2021.

1 year ago
Reply to  marinmccoveys

True, but it would be nice if FanGraphs would at least consider the possibility that they’re the best team in the NL East.

FanGraphs Preseason Most Likely to Win NL East:

2018: Nationals, Mets, Phillies (Braves won)
2019: Nationals, Phillies, Mets (Braves won)
2020: Nationals (Braves won)
2021: Mets (Braves won)

See a pattern?

1 year ago
Reply to  JamesD84

To be fair to the FanGraphs 2021 preseason projection, it projected the Braves to go 88-74. The Braves went 88-73. The Mets were in first place for 91 days of the season and didn’t fall to third and stay there until the middle of August. If Jacob deGrom doesn’t succumb to injury, maybe he keeps them afloat.

In 2020, the FanGraphs projection on 7/22/2020 had the Nationals at 32.7-27.3, the Braves at 32.2-27.8, and the Mets at 31.8-28.2. The Nationals and the Mets underperformed, the Braves, as is typical, exceeded their projections.

I’ll know that there’s something wrong with the FanGraph’s projection system the day it starts projecting a preseason Braves win of the NL East. Either that, or it will be an omen for a bad season.

1 year ago
Reply to  hughduffy

Sure, all fair points. Now look at 2019, when FG predicted 83.5 wins and the team won 97, or 2018, when FG predicted 72.9 wins and the team won 90. Plus the near-unanimous postseason predictions of losses to the Reds in 2020 and the Brewers this year (granted, those were educated guesses by individuals and not the results of the model). As you say, “…the Braves, as is typical, exceeded their projections.” Four years in a row is a lot of exceeding, though.

1 year ago
Reply to  JamesD84

It is a lot of exceeding in four years. Some is due to rookies exceeding expectations and resurgent seasons by veterans. Some of that is due to Alex Anthopoulos’s trades at the deadline.

In 2018, in terms of things you could not reliably predict, you have Ronald Acuña Jr.’s rookie season, Ozzie Albies’s and Johan Camargo’s first full seasons, All-Star seasons from Foltynewicz and Markakis, a resurgent season by Anibal Sanchez, and rookie seasons from Jesse Biddle, A.J. Minter, Dan Winkler, and Max Fried. Then, at the deadline, AA adds Johnny Venters, Kevin Gausman, Brad Brach, and Adam Duvall. They received something like 23.5 rWAR from unexpected performances and rookies that year.

In 2019, you’ve got some expectations, so you expect Ronald and Ozzie to be good, but they improve about 1 WAR each. Max Fried becomes a 3 rWAR starter, Mike Soroka as a rookie has an All-Star season, Austin Riley comes up and mashes 16 dingers before turning into a pumpkin, and Luke Jackson becomes a useful reliever. Josh Donaldson has the resurgent season this year. But a lot of value gets added over the year. Dallas Keuchel gets signed in June, then AA gets Chris Martin, Shane Greene, and Mark Melancon at the deadline. Adeiny Hechavarria and Francisco Cervelli get signed as a free agent in August. Adam Duvall comes back in late-July and rakes. By my count, they received around 21 rWAR you couldn’t expect at the beginning of the season.

The preseason projections largely don’t like the Braves because they’re often exceeding their proven track record of previous performance.

The individual predictions often lean against the Braves because they value strikeout heavy pitching (2020 Reds/2021 Brewers) and discount that playoff pitching turns great offenses into good offenses, and good offenses into bad ones. The Reds pitching out struck-out the Braves 35-28, but the Braves offense outscored the Reds 6-0. The Brewers pitchers had 1618 Ks to the Braves 1417 Ks in the regular season, but the Braves pitchers had 48 Ks to the 33 Ks the Brewers pitchers had in the NLDS. The Braves outscored the Brewers 12-6 in the series.

At least FanGraphs gives the Braves a shot. PECOTA just loathes the Braves.

1 year ago
Reply to  hughduffy

The Braves had a stacked system, especially at AAA in all those seasons where the FG projections came up well short.

It’s a huge hole in their ability to make projections: a team with a barren farm doesn’t show up as much different than a team with a stacked farm.

You can’t predict breakouts, but you can guess that a team with a stacked farm is a lot more likely to have one than a team with a barren farm. Likewise, you can’t predict trades but you can predict that teams with stacked farms are more likely to make moves to improve via trade because they have more trade capital.

1 year ago
Reply to  hughduffy

This is good. My intuition was that most of the overperformance was from young guys playing better than expected- and you’d expect a bias there- but it’s not that.

1 year ago
Reply to  marinmccoveys

In a tournament game/ruleset, the best team is the one that wins the tournament- it’s a tautology,

As for the STRONGEST team, which is what I think you mean here, ELO had them as the second strongest team after the Dodgers, same as 538. Other ratings are going to disagree, it’s interesting to think of why.

1 year ago
Reply to  marinmccoveys

Actually they are definitively the best team in baseball in 2021.