At the close of business on July 20, the Braves and Nationals were exactly where they’d been for six of the previous seven days and for most of the season: tied. The two teams had been no further apart than 3.5 games all season long, continuing the two-headed competition that the NL East has been for the last several seasons since the Phillies stopped being competitive. (Your day will come, Mets and Marlins. Probably.)
At the time, our playoff odds still favored the Nationals to take the division simply because the projections considered them to be the better team, but it was easy to believe that the race was still a toss-up. After all, the Nationals were the big favorites in 2013, and they finished 10 games behind. They were the big favorites in 2014, and they weren’t doing all that much to back it up. I wondered last winter if we were overrating the Nationals coming into this year, and they certainly making it seem that way.
Just over three weeks later, the Nationals are holding a comfortable five-game lead in the NL East. Only one team in baseball has a higher likelihood of winning the division in our current playoff odds. The Nationals must have finally turned it on, right? Actually, no. They’re just 11-10 in the 21 games since. Ryan Zimmerman suffered another serious injury. Bryce Harper has been mediocre. Asdrubal Cabrera was their big trade deadline pickup. They haven’t suddenly woken up.
Instead, the Braves have gone on to drop 15 of their next 21. No team in baseball has won fewer games over that stretch. After losing all eight games on a west coast road trip, they’ve now lost three of their last four. They’re closer to the third-place Marlins than to the first-place Nationals. While the baseball world is busy watching what’s happening in Kansas City and Detroit, Atlanta is doing their best to hand this race to Washington.
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The Braves, right now, are basically a .500 team at 60-59. Their run differential is -3 after losing to the Dodgers 4-2 on Tuesday night. Do you know about Base Runs? You should know about Base Runs, which basically attempts to strip away some of the noise that can appear in actual run totals — things like sequencing, for example — to give a context-neutral accounting of expected performance. Base Runs pegged the Braves at 58-60 heading into Tuesday’s game, two games under .500. Pythagenpat has them at being .500. In reality, they are one game over .500. What this all says is that this isn’t really a performance that’s out of the realm of expectations. They look like an average team, and they’re playing like an average team.
That holds true if we break this down into the individual components of baseball, too. The non-pitchers in the Braves offense rank No. 19 in wRC+, somewhat below average. Their pitching, depending how how you want to measure it, has been around the back end of the top 10 — WAR says No. 9, RA9-WAR says No. 10 — which essentially evens out the offense. On defense, DRS says No. 16. UZR says a bit higher than that. Put together, there’s a whole lot of average here.
The biggest problem, obviously, is the offense, because the solid enough pitching can only do so much to make up for it. They’re no longer on pace to set the major league record for strikeouts, but were we to take that Base Runs chart and sort it by lowest expected runs per game, the Braves show up at No. 25. The rest of these teams aren’t exactly charging into the playoffs; that the Mariners have a shot says a lot more about their near-historic run prevention.
|2014 Base Runs|
There’s bright spots, obviously: the defense of Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons, the power of Justin Upton and Evan Gattis, and the general existence of Craig Kimbrel. But that production has all been required if only to make up for the anchors that have been Dan Uggla, B.J. Upton, Ryan Doumit, Ramiro Pena, Mike Minor and Luis Avilan. The bench, August Fagerstrom wrote a few days ago, is the second-worst in the NL. Again, average: combine hot water and cold water, and you end up with something lukewarm.
Of course, for most of the last month they’ve been considerably worse than average. In some ways, this is an expected correction. Remember how absurd the start of the season was for Atlanta, particularly the pitching staff performance after Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen were injured in the spring. Scrap heap pickup Aaron Harang gave up three runs in his first five starts. Qualifying offer refugee Ervin Santana allowed nine earned runs in his first six starts. That was never going to keep up, because it couldn’t possibly have kept up. Both have remained productive over the course of the season; obviously, neither has lived up to that standard. Since the team’s 17-7 start, they’ve gone 43-52. For months, they’ve been coasting on those banked wins.
But more than that, it’s just been particularly ugly of late. Over the last month, they are still the same 19th in non-pitcher wRC+, with a .245/.321/.358 line and particularly detrimental base running. This can’t even be blamed on Uggla, who played his last game with the team on July 8 and was replaced by rookie Tommy La Stella, who has been a considerable upgrade; the ranking is the same pre- and post-Uggla.. The entire offense over the last few weeks has basically been Heyward, J.Upton, and Freddie Freeman as Chris Johnson, Gattis and Simmons — before he missed most of a week with a sore ankle — have slumped terribly, and B.J. Upton has played even worse than he had been. (Not that Fredi Gonzalez has helped by allowing B.J. Upton to to hit first or second for 377 plate appearances, of course.)
The rotation, Minor aside, has still been performing, with Alex Wood in particular looking good. But the bullpen suddenly can’t stop walking people, and it’s led to some ugly sequences. On Monday, after the offense made Kevin Correia look like a reasonable major league pitcher, the bullpen and defense turned a 3-1 deficit into a 6-1 hole by putting up the following sequence: walk, strikeout, ground rule double, single, wild pitch, walk, throwing error, passed ball on strikeout, allowing runner to reach.
That’s one game, obviously, and just one sequence in that game. Surely you could find something similar for every single big league team this year. It’s just the kind of thing you don’t want to see from a team supposedly fighting for a division title. Considering how long it’s been since this team put a good stretch together, you wonder how much that amazing April influenced perception.
This is still a team with a good deal of talent, and Simmons should be back in the lineup in the next day or two. It can’t be as bad as it’s been, because they’re playing like the worst team in baseball, and they aren’t the worst team in baseball. The NL East race isn’t “over” yet, since the Nationals and Braves still have six more head-to-head games, Washington hasn’t played particularly well either and Atlanta can’t keep playing this badly for the rest of the season. It’s close, though. It sure seems close.