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August 29, 2013

Skewed Left

Overlooked Atlanta?

by Zachary Levine

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Unwise words on the 2013 Atlanta Braves:

“There are fewer things that I think could go really, really wrong with this team than maybe any other team in baseball.” – Zachary Levine (hey, that’s me), Effectively Wild podcast, episode 143.

This sentence was uttered on my first appearance on the podcast, some 130-plus episodes ago, and since this seems to be the order of the universe, let’s count the things that have gone wrong for Atlanta since then.

By any or all of these accounts, it’s been a year of major setbacks for the Sun Belt’s favorite ballclub, but all they’ve managed to do is set the Braves back to being only barely the best team in baseball by record.

Perhaps a better way to phrase the intended sentiment, and one that would have been much more correct, is that the Braves were best positioned to survive things going wrong. They were such a complete team that despite suffering setbacks everywhere—on offense, in the rotation, and in the bullpen—they’ve still been one of the best teams in baseball everywhere.

Statistic

Number

NL rank

Behind

Runs scored/game

4.39

2nd

STL

Runs allowed/game

3.41

1st

--

Starters ERA

3.56

5th

LAN, CIN, STL, PIT

Bullpen ERA

2.40

1st

--

They have six positions producing at least two wins, according to our visual depth chart, tying them for first in baseball with (seriously) the Cubs. And their five three-win positions set them alone in all of the major leagues. No other National League team even has four.

But to say that there are some fears about how all these bad happenings will take their toll isn’t a straw-man argument. It isn’t some call for more respect from national columnists. The concerns come from a crowd that’s above all that.

The 80-52 Braves are lagging way behind the 77-54 Dodgers in the only place where perception really matters—the virtual halls of gambling. The online sports book Bovada lists the Dodgers as 8-5 favorites to win the National League pennant, and the Braves as a 3-1 second choice.

Adjusting for the house edge, here are Bovada’s translated percentages of their odds as of Tuesday afternoon’s listing:

Team

Odds

Adjusted percentage

Dodgers

8-5

32.2%

Braves

3-1

20.9%

Cardinals

4-1

16.7%

Pirates

9-2

15.2%

Reds

13-2

11.2%

Diamondbacks

33-1

2.5%

Nationals

66-1

1.2%

The Braves are much closer to the Cardinals, who are basically a coin-flip away from a coin-flip game, and the Pirates, who are on the tail end of that division race right now, than they are to the Dodgers—Atlanta’s peers in having a fairly secure home field advantage.

(As the customary disclaimer goes, odds are not a reflection of a team’s actual chance of winning, just how the house expects or wants to influence money to come in.)

Some of the difference is attributable to the recency effect. The Dodgers have been scorching hot—a weekend series loss to the Red Sox excluded—and are currently compiled differently than they were for most of their losses. The Braves, meanwhile, have been cruising. Check out the chart of the NL East standings and postseason probabilities from our new partnership with MLB.com. The Braves basically had this division won by Earth Day.

One looks to luck first, as we did here with the inverse for the Nationals. But Atlanta hasn’t been exceptionally lucky in the traditional sense. They’re actually underperforming their Pythagorean expected record. They’ve been a little luckier, perhaps, in the next order, with a batter BABIP six points above league average (led by Chris Johnson’s insane and unsustainable .407) and a BABIP against seven points below league average, but at least some of that is skill.

For the team with no real weak spots, the closest thing to one appears right now to be starting pitching. The bullpen, which survived its injuries, could go kaboom at any point because that’s what bullpens do, but Luis Avilan, David Carpenter, and Jordan Walden have more than made up for the losses.

But as the Dodgers and Braves seem primed to miss each other in the best-of-five first round, look at an ideal rotation for each team:

Game 1:
Clayton Kershaw vs. Mike Minor

Game 2:
Zack Greinke vs. Julio Teheran

Game 3:
Ricky Nolasco vs. Kris Medlen

Game 4:
Hyun-Jin Ryu vs. Brandon Beachy/Alex Wood

The effects of a top-heavy rotation have been overstated, as Ben Lindbergh found last year, but this appears to be bad matchup after bad matchup, resulting in a much wider gap than the seasonal statistics would suggest.

Las Vegas certainly knows which side of those matchups it’s collectively on, and by a much greater margin than would be intuitive from the records and the ease of the Braves’ march to a tough division title.

The Braves are an amazing story that probably hasn’t received enough recognition. If you ignored the divergence of the two teams’ fates that followed the Sid Bream play—that is, if you just looked at the players involved—they’re arguably as good a story as the Pirates. A batting title contender in Johnson, plus an out-of-nowhere Evan Gattis and reformed Jordan Schafer finding some bench roles. And then there’s Wood, a second-year professional who hadn’t been above Low-A ball until this season but has been an important part of the crew that’s helped overcome the injuries.

All the Braves lack is that best-team-in-baseball feel heading into the playoffs. Even if they cruise through 162 with the game’s best record, one of recent history’s power franchises will still be an underdog story in October.

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

Related Content:  Playoffs,  Atlanta Braves

5 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Matthew Avery

Even as an Braves fan, I feel like we're doomed. Part of that is just that this team has been very streaky. 32 games over .500 is great. But something like 27 of those came in the first two weeks of the season plus an enormous hot streak a few weeks ago. So sure, if you can go on one of those streaks, the Braves feel like they could win another 11 straight. But then you've also got the feeling that the .500 club might be what shows up.

And on top of that you've got the whole Heyward thing....

Maybe I'm just used to 95 win seasons coupled with first or second round playoff losses, but I think I would be pretty surprised if the Braves managed to make it to the series. I envision something like the Cardinals hitting .800 with RISP or something.

Aug 29, 2013 07:16 AM
rating: 2
 
danugglasforearm

The Braves still could easily win 95 games by going 15-15 the rest of the way with a schedule boasting only the Nats as an above .500 team. It doesn't matter how many streaks are involved, or how long a stretch of .500 baseball goes, it takes a talented team to win 95+ games. Kershaw and Greinke surely are more formidable than Minor and Teheran, but the fact that they would face a Braves team much more capable of scoring runs evens the scales a bit. There are no Juan Uribe's, Skip Schumaker's, AJ Ellis', or Mark Ellis' in the Braves' lineup. For every question mark with Heyward there's one for Kemp, too. I think they're just really evenly matched teams and it'll be an exciting series to watch, if they both make it that far. Allen Craig's RISP voodoo magic has to dissipate sooner or later, right? RIGHT!?

Aug 29, 2013 07:41 AM
rating: 3
 
gtgator

Agree. I'm also a Braves' fan and know all too well that the playoffs are a crapshoot. And while I would love to have Kershaw and Grienke on this team, SP is not the only part of a team that matters.
For example, the Braves have a better bullpen than LA. On offense, they've scored more runs and have a higher OPS. And they have a better defensive efficiency than LA. Basically, this team does things well that aren't "sexy". And they don't have any "flashy" players driving media coverage either. But there are reasons this team is on pace to win 98 games and it isn't two 11+ game winning streaks.
*IF* Heyward can return for the playoffs, then I think this team has a solid chance against anyone. If they can get Uggla and BJ to play at replacement level (instead of below replacement level), even better. That doesn't mean they won't get swept in the NLDS. But that is the nature of the playoffs more than the construct of this team.

Aug 29, 2013 07:59 AM
rating: 3
 
Matthew Avery

If we're talking just at the plate, I'd take Juan Uribe and Skip Schumaker over BJ Upton and Andrelton Simmons.

(Not really; I enjoy watching Simba at the plate, even if he pops out half the time. But it's not like there aren't holes at the bottom of the lineup. CF might be okay half the time if Jordan Schafer really has figured out how to hit RHPs, but Simmons derives all of his value from his glove.)

Aug 29, 2013 11:40 AM
rating: -1
 
danugglasforearm

He's got 12 homers at a position that produces very little power. He doesn't strike out, and as long as he can stop popping out to the infield, he should be a well above-average offensive SS.

Aug 30, 2013 07:46 AM
rating: 1
 
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