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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

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