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September 26, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL East

The Surprise Wild Card Race

by Michael Jong

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As sports fans, we all love a good collapse. This may be because inherent to all good collapses are also good comebacks, and everyone loves a good comeback. Combine the nature of these dual concepts with the stakes of making it to the playoffs for a chance at the World Series, and you have an intriguing storyline to follow at the end of an otherwise dull 2011 stretch run. The Atlanta Braves were 8.5 games ahead of their closest Wild Card competitor, the St. Louis Cardinals, at the beginning of September. CoolStandings had them at a 97.8 percent chance of making the playoffs (96.4 percent chance of winning the Wild Card) that day using their “smart” mode assumptions. The Cardinals, on the other hand, had just a 4.3 percent chance of making the postseason. Flash forward to the present time, and the Braves and Cardinals are in drastically different situations. Since September 1, the Braves have gone 8-15 while the Cardinals have gone the opposite direction, posting a 15-7 record. The reversal of fortunes has put the Braves just one game ahead of the Cardinals for the Wild Card lead with only three games remaining.

This drastic change is reflected in the Playoff Odds Report. Through September 24, the Braves had an 88.8 percent chance of moving into the postseason, while the Cardinals were up to 11.2 percent. This change was most drastic during the past week—a week in which the Braves went 2-4 versus the three lower-ranked teams in the NL East while the Cardinals won five of seven games. Atlanta lost almost seven percent on their odds to make the playoffs this past week, while the Cardinals gained eight percentage points in their quest to thwart the previously untouchable Braves.
 

Historical Reminder
The Braves' recent struggles are actually reminiscent of another famous NL East collapse: the 2007 New York Mets and their division loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. The resemblance through 145 games is actually very strong.

Playoff Picture, Through 145 Games

2007 NL East

2011 NL Wild Card

Team

Record

CoolStandings

Playoff %

Team

Record

CoolStandings

Playoff %

Mets

83-62

99.4

Braves

84-61

97.3

Phillies

76-69

13.3

Cardinals

77-67

3.3

The Mets were seven games ahead of the Phillies through 145 games in 2007, but the Phillies actually had a decent shot of surpassing the two runner-ups in the NL West division race. On the other hand, the Cardinals were in much more dire straits this season given their placement in their divisional standings. Unlike the Phillies, the Cardinals were just as far away from the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers as they were from the Braves, giving them a low percentage to catch either team. For the frontrunners, it appeared that they were set for the playoffs, but things went downhill in a hurry afterwards.

Playoff Picture, Games 146-158

2007 NL East

2011 NL Wild Card

Team

Record

CoolStandings

Playoff % Δ

Team

Record

CoolStandings

Playoff % Δ

Mets

4-9

-17.5

Braves

5-8

-13.3

Phillies

10-3

+24.1

Cardinals

10-4

+12.7

Both the Braves and Mets suffered through similar problems in their 13-game stretch leading up to the third-to-last game of the season. Similarly, both the trailing teams also had to go through strong runs of baseball in order to make the race a close one. The Braves and Mets lost a similar amount of playoff odds in their losses, while the Cardinals gained only about half of the advantage the Phillies gained in 2007 because the Cardinals no longer have the chance to win their division. Still, this race felt complete only a month ago; indeed, this author was discussing the Braves' matchup with the Brewers as early as August 22. At that time, the Braves held an almost identical 87.8 percent chance of winning the Wild Card according to the Playoff Odds Report, but given their talent and a five-game lead over their closest competitor, it seemed a foregone conclusion.

Would a Braves collapse at the end of this season rank as one of the worst in the history of the game? According to CoolStandings, absolutely. The Braves held their highest playoff odds on August 23 following a 5-4 victory over the Chicago Cubs; the team was at a 99.0 percent chance of making the playoffs according to their system. If the Braves were to miss the playoffs, this would constitute the fifth-worst collapse, behind such teams as the 1995 California Angels and the aforementioned 2007 Mets.
 

What are they doing?
What went wrong for the Braves over this 13-game period? As we might expect, both offensive and defensive sides of the baseball were affected.

Braves, 2011

AVG

OBP

SLG

R/G

Games 1-145

.246

.311

.392

4.06

Games 146-158

.232

.302

.355

3.54

 

Braves, 2011

ERA

FIP

Games 1-145

3.40

3.39

Games 146-158

4.20

3.44

The interesting oddity lies in their short-term ERA/FIP disparity. This disparity could be due to any number of things, from abnormally poor defense from a squad that ranks a dead-middle 14th in baseball in defensive efficiency to untimely poor pitching with runners on base. In terms of peripherals, the Braves are not all that far off from their previous season pace, hence the very similar FIP.

Braves, 2011

K%

BB%

HR%

Games 1-145

21.5

8.4

1.9

Games 146-158

22.2

7.9

2.2

Whatever is causing this sudden underperforming of their peripherals, it could not have happened at a worse time. The team's hitters are in a slump noted for its drop in power (5.6 percent extra-base hit percentage versus 7.1 percent from before the 13-game slump), and the decreased run production is only adding to the problem. If the same Braves’ pitching staff is still performing for them, they would do well to show up to the next three games of the season.
 

Left on the plate
Making the challenge of maintaining their Wild Card lead is the difficulty of who is remaining on their schedule. The odds could not be further stacked against the Braves in that regard.

Atlanta Braves

St. Louis Cardinals

Opponent

TAv (Rank)

Fair RA (Rank)

Opponent

TAv (Rank)

Fair RA (Rank)

Phillies

.259 (16)

3.74 (1)

Astros

.247 (26)

4.79 (25)

While the Cardinals get the luxury of facing the Houston Astros—the bottom of the National League barrel—the Braves are rewarded with their division rivals and the team with the best record in baseball. In addition, the Braves will not be fortunate enough to avoid a healthy chunk of the Phillies' best pitchers, as they are scheduled to face both Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in the three-game series. In contrast, Houston will trot out a trio of Wandy Rodriguez, Henry Sosa, and Brett Myers to face the Cardinals' potent lineup.

The Braves could have avoided this end-season predicament altogether by winning the games they “should have won.” The team had 15 games against the Florida Marlins, New York Mets, and Washington Nationals—three teams that had little to play for in September and had 3rd-order win percentages below .500, yet they split an 8-7 mark against them. This was exacerbated by the three-game sweep the team suffered at the hands of the Cardinals in their only meetings this month. While the individual disappointments for the Braves this month were not egregious in-and-of themselves, they add up to a difficult month that has coincided with an equally strong month by their primary competitor. As a result, those little problems have snowballed into a large one that now threatens their playoff standing—something no one would have guessed would happen a month or even two weeks ago. It looks like baseball fans will have a playoff race to watch at the end of the season after all.

Michael Jong is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Michael's other articles. You can contact Michael by clicking here

Related Content:  Atlanta Braves,  Milwaukee Braves,  Braves,  Cardinals

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