The Braves have their foot on the National League's throat and don't look to be letting up any time soon.
They're not the league's flashiest success story -- that's the Pittsburgh Pirates -- nor do they have anything approaching the in-season narrative of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who at one point a couple months ago were seriously considering firing manager Don Mattingly before the team got healthy and started winning games. What the Braves have done, however, is grab first place in a division that was supposed to belong to the Washington Nationals and not let go. They've spent exactly one day in second place this year, April 4, and have had sole possession of the division lead since April 7. Save for a brief scare in mid-May, no one's been within four games of them in months, and their lead is so impressive that the talk about the Nationals perhaps needing to get a Wild Card spot instead of win the division started at the All-Star Break.
The Braves were expected to be a good team -- almost everyone except the nuttier Phillies die-hards expected them to figure into the postseason picture somewhere -- but very few people outside the understandably biased city of Atlanta saw them essentially wrapping up the division with almost two months still to play (up 15.5 games going into Thursday's action and riding a 13-game winning streak). A significant part of their success can be attributed to the Nationals and Phillies stumbling hard, but the Braves are a dangerous contender on their own merits and should be much more dangerous in the postseason this time around, especially considering how they're almost guaranteed to avoid the coin flip "Wild Card Round."
The NL is the league of the pitcher this year, with the top five teams in terms of fewest earned runs allowed per game being the Pirates, Braves, Dodgers, Reds, and Cardinals. The Braves are second in that metric behind the Pirates despite having a bit of a mixed bag in the field defensively. Andrelton Simmons is elite at shortstop and Jason Heyward is extremely good in right field, but Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson on the corners are league-average or slightly worse, the Upton brothers are inconsistent in their respective spots in the outfield (-0.2 defensive WAR for B.J., -1.5 for Justin) and Dan Uggla can be embarrassing at times at second base. Brian McCann can do everything you want a catcher to do behind the plate, but his selling point is obviously his bat; Evan Gattis would probably be better off on an American League team as a DH. Reed Johnson and Jordan Schafer have seen time this season spelling the Uptons and Heyward during various injuries or performance issues, and while neither of those guys will hurt you in the field, they're not going to save runs like Heyward would.
That just highlights, then, how good the pitching staff has been. With the departure of veteran Tim Hudson to the disabled list after a particularly gruesome freak ankle injury at first base, Mike Minor has become the de facto staff ace, followed by Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen, with rookie Alex Wood and Brandon Beachy, recently returned from the DL himself, shoring up the back of the rotation. Minor probably won't see serious Cy Young consideration this year with Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, Patrick Corbin, Adam Wainwright, and maybe even Jhoulys Chacin of the Rockies in the mix. But he's having a career year (2.76 ERA, 150 innings pitched), partly by continuing to cut his walks while reversing a downward trend in his strikeout rate from last year. Minor is a control pitcher by trade and necessity -- his fastball sits low-nineties on his best days and his best non-fastball offering is a plus changeup -- and in the latter part of last year, things really started to click for him. He's carried that over into this season and should reach 200 innings for the first time in his career with relative ease while maintaining his good results.
The Braves had to decide before the season whether to include Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado in the Justin Upton trade, and it appears so far that Atlanta made the correct choice in keeping Teheran; like Minor, Teheran is striking out four times as many batters as he walks, is maintaining an ERA under 3, and should have a legitimate shot at 200 innings pitched this season. Delgado's also having a passable enough year for Arizona so far, but when you have a chance to get a talent like Upton and Delgado's the only prospect of note you're asked to send the other way, you make that deal 10 times out of 10.
The rotation falls off a bit after the top two; Kris Medlen hasn't been able to carry last year's performance over into this year, but no one, not even Clayton Kershaw, can be expected to put up back to back years of sub-2 ERA ball as a starter. Medlen is a league-average starter in terms of ERA this year and is nowhere near as unhittable as he was in 2012 -- his hits allowed per nine innings and home runs allowed per nine innings have both jumped up to where they were in 2010, when he threw just over 100 innings of slightly above-average ball before being lost to Tommy John surgery.
Paul Maholm has had a disappointing season (4.41 ERA in 118 1/3 innings pitched) that's currently on pause as he heals a bruised wrist on the 15-day DL; he's still striking more guys out in Atlanta than he did in Pittsburgh, but Maholm's always been a middle-to-back-of-the-rotation kind of guy with a high-eighties fastball and a mundane assortment of secondary pitches, the best of which is probably a somewhat loopy curve he has the tendency to leave up. With him and Hudson out, the Braves are turning to Alex Wood, who has delivered a stellar 39 1/3 innings of 3.20 ERA ball since he's come up, striking out more than a batter per inning and keeping the ball in the yard so far, and Brandon Beachy, who has gotten the doors blown off him in his first two starts since returning from injury: a 9.00 ERA in 10 innings. At this point, it's tough to tell where Beachy's true talent level lies since he's missed so much time due to injury. Is he the guy with amazing peripherals but mediocre results from 2011, or the guy with much more pedestrian strikeout-to-walk numbers but a great ERA from 2012? Beachy has struggled with his command during his return from Tommy John, both during his rehab assignment and during his first two starts with the Braves, leaving a number of pitches in parts of the strike zone where they're not supposed to be. His track record suggests that he'll be able to work through this, though, and the Braves are in a position where they can afford to give him major league innings to work on his issues.
Atlanta has one of the better pens in the league as well, and specifically the league's most dominant closer for the third straight season in Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel may never have another year as ridiculous as his 2012 -- considering the nature of his stuff and how it moves, it's hard to imagine him ever getting his walk rate that low again while maintaining his sky-high strikeout rate-- but the quality of the Braves team this year might get him up near the 50-save mark (he's at 36 with almost two months to go). Jordan Walden, the reliever with the odd hop-step delivery that the Braves managed to pry free from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Tommy Hanson, has provided his new team with a lot more value than Hanson has delivered for the Angels, and Luis Avilan is somewhat quietly turning in his second quality season in relief for Atlanta, this year as a lefty groundball machine.
On the hitting side, Atlanta's top two regulars by OPS this year have been Justin Upton and Chris Johnson, the two big bats that the Diamondbacks sent back in that aforementioned trade. Upton's had an up-and-down season, his hot tear to start the year cooling off considerably in May, June, and July, but overall his .848 OPS is right in line with his career average, .834. It's Chris Johnson, the everyday third baseman, that's been the surprise -- he's on his way to the best season of his career, fueled by a .339 batting average that's thirty points higher than his best previous season hitting for average (2010) and fifty points higher than his career average. This is, as might be expected, mostly an artifact of his .419 BABIP; Johnson is not a particularly speedy runner, and his infield hit percentage of 3.3 percent suggests he's not inflating that number by beating out a bunch of soft grounders. Johnson's hitting more line drives this year, but also more ground balls that are finding holes in the infield. Hitters sometimes have years like this, and the Braves will take something like that every time from a guy who was essentially the throw-in to make the Justin Upton deal work.
Two other guys having really good seasons at the plate for the Braves, McCann and Freeman, are both Braves organizational products; you'd like to see a bit more power from Freeman, who gets on base at a high clip (.389 OBP this year, .353 career) but probably won't break 20 home runs this season, but as a 23-year-old he still has time to grow into some more pop. Uggla, and centerfielder BJ Upton have been disappointing so far this year (although Uggla has 21 home runs). Simmons has an OPS of .653 (but as mentioned earlier, his glove makes up for the lack of offensive production). Jordan Schafer has done well in limited action, but he's a platoon bat that can't be realistically expected to take over for Upton as a full-time option in center, especially given the contract to which the Braves just signed him and the fact that he's still working his way back from a stress fracture in his ankle. Jason Heyward has dealt with injuries all season -- an appendectomy earlier in the year, currently a strained neck -- that have rendered him unavailable or ineffective for long stretches; he's still got an almost league average batting line to show for it. As nice a story as he is, Evan Gattis has cratered at the plate since his red hot start to the season (a .576 OPS in the second half so far) and is unplayable defensively if he's not hitting.
As a whole, the team has a massive problem with striking out; the Houston Astros lead the major leagues in the category -- they've already broken 1000 as a team -- but the Braves are second behind them, barely inching out the Mets. A team full of successful major league batters with high-strikeout approaches can be rather feast or famine; the Braves also have the fourth-highest number of home runs in the majors, but are 13th in overall hits and an alarming 27th in doubles. On whole they're a better than average offense (4.52 runs per game to the league average 4.20), but could be susceptible in the playoffs to teams with pitching that's in the same tier as theirs but who have more consistent offenses --St. Louis and Los Angeles specifically, but also Cincinnati if they manage to sneak in as a Wild Card.
That's where the Braves' ultimate concerns lie right now: the playoffs. They have one of the easiest remaining schedules in MLB, replete with games against their scuffling division foes (especially Philadelphia, which they play 10 more times) and bottom-feeders in the Central and West such as Milwaukee and San Diego. With the three good teams in the Central continuing to beat up on one another, they could get the best record in the NL. And yet, it's hard not to be apprehensive about this team in a short playoff series. In a three-man playoff rotation, Minor and Teheran can hang with anyone in terms of results, but the Dodgers, Reds, Pirates, and arguably Cardinals can assemble groups of their own that are just as good or better. Meanwhile, if the Braves' offense isn't hitting home runs it isn't doing much, and of the staffs least susceptible for the long ball in 2013, three of the current NL playoff favorites -- Dodgers, St. Louis and Pittsburgh -- are in the league's top ten, with the two Central teams taking the first and second spots.
The dream NLDS matchup for the Braves is probably the D-backs sneaking in as the second Wild Card and then knocking off the runner-up in the Central; suffice to say they'll be watching that race develop closely, and would much rather head to a park conducive to the long ball like Arizona's Chase Field instead of either of the home-run suppressing parks in St. Louis and Pittsburgh (it also helps that the D-backs simply aren't as good a team as those other two). But that said, the Braves are in a position to worry about other teams' playoff races in August instead of their own, and that's a very good place for a baseball team to be.