Erratum from Monday’s column: I’d written that Paul Konerko wasn’t in the top ten in the AL in home runs or RBI. That should have been “top five.” In any case, given the weak pool of AL first basemen this year, he’s not a terrible All-Star selection. He’s just a mediocre one given the usual caliber of candidates.

Today, I’m thinking less about All-Stars and more about the Braves. In a strange year in the NL East, one in which the first-place team has played .600 ball but not outscored its opponents, and in which last place has often been held by a .500 team, the Braves find themselves in position to win their 14th division title in 15 seasons, 47-37 and 4½ games behind the Nationals.

It hasn’t been easy. Just past the halfway point of the season, the Braves have used 20 pitchers this year. A couple of weeks ago, they claimed a pitcher off of waivers who the .400 Giants didn’t want any longer. They have something like 26 hurlers on the DL, and might well start Craig McMurtry this week without anyone blinking an eye. Their two biggest offseason acquisitions, Tim Hudson and Danny Kolb, have been disappointments; Kolb’s failure could have been foreseen, but Hudson’s continued slippage from his 2003 peak, and his physical problems, have to be a concern for a team now committed to him through 2009.

Despite all that, no NL team–not even the Death Valley Nationals–has allowed fewer runs than the Braves.

The first place you look to for an explanation is to Leo Mazzone, to see what kind of miracles he’s wrought. There aren’t many to be found. Adam Bernero started the season on the Darren Holmes track, but has allowed 29 runs in his last 25 appearances and has been hit very hard, something even a good 35/12 strikeout-to-walk ratio can’t cover. A .352 batting average on balls in play explains some of that, but Bernero may just be the exception that proves the rule, the pitcher who even Mazzone couldn’t get 80 good innings from.

In fairness to Mazzone, he’s spent much of the year trying to get to know his pitchers’ names. Injuries to Hudson, John Thomson and Mike Hampton have decimated the rotation, forcing projects like Jorge Sosa to take regular turns. Kyle Davies and Roman Colon have been rushed up from Richmond, as well, making this the Braves’ most inexperienced staff in 15 seasons.

The rawness of the staff shows up in its unimpressive command. Braves’ pitchers have a 1.66 K/BB, 13th in the NL, a mark that would be their worst for a full season since 1990, and the team’s raw strikeout rate of 5.64 would be its worst since 1988. Not one Mazzone team has failed to strike out six men a game or post at least 1.75 strikeouts for every walk.

You can blame Colon, Davies and the rest of the raw young talent for the slip in command, and you’d be partially right. Braves’ pitchers who had little or no major-league experience coming into this season have 55 strikeouts and 39 walks to their name for a less-than-sparkling 1.4 K/BB. Moreover, the pitchers who you might call “Mazzone projects” have not been able to get with the program. Bernero has the good K/BB and nothing else going for him. Jorge Sosa has been able to keep runs off the board while posting a 1.2 K/BB. Kolb has been a disaster, but his 24/23 K/BB isn’t that much different that the 21/15 he had in 2004. Even Hudson, of all people, has walked 39 men in 85 2/3 innings, by far the worst command he’s ever displayed.

Yet the Braves still lead the NL in RA, are second in ERA, and seem set to ride their run prevention to October. Smoltz has been a big part of that, returning to the rotation as a legitimate #1 starter and providing innings. He’s had one bad start all year–his first–and after a dip around Memorial Day bounced back to throw 41 innings in his next five starts, allowing just seven runs and posting a 33/6 K/BB.

Smoltz has given up just seven home runs this season, and is allowing the league to slug just .341 against him. It’s in those figures that we begin to see how the Braves have kept the opposition off the board. As a team the Braves are allowing just a .403 SLG, fifth-best in the NL and second-best among teams that don’t play in flyball graveyards. Their ISO against is just .137, again among the best outside of New York, Florida and Washington. They’ve allowed 72 home runs, fewer than all but–wait for it–the Mets, Nationals and Marlins.

The Braves’ run prevention is based on their ability to avoid extra-base hits, an ability that is being exaggerated by the context of their games. The unbalanced schedule is a big part of this; the NL East, as Erik Siegrist pointed out, is a pitchers’ division outside of Philadelphia. That four of the division’s teams show up in the bottom five in the NL in SLG against and ISO against and home runs allowed reflects their home parks, but also all the games the Braves, Mets, Marlins and Nationals play in each others’ parks.

The bottom line is that the Braves, outside of Smoltz and Reitsma, aren’t pitching all that well. They’re being saved by a good defense, especially in the outfield, and a run context that’s among the lowest in the game. They’ve allowed a .334 OBP, 11th in the NL, and that figure is much more reflective of the work their pitchers have done than the runs or slugging numbers. This staff has been dancing on the edge for a while, and cannot be expected to sustain its league-leading performance without a dramatic improvement in its command.

Now, that’s not to say the Braves can’t still win the division. They’re hanging around despite not having Chipper Jones, and with Rafael Furcal having a career-worst season, and with Hudson and Thomson on the shelf. Only Andruw Jones is having an exceptional season. They’ll get a boost just from better health and some regression to the mean in the second half, and they have some depth from which to trade for a starting pitcher or a corner outfielder, both of which would come in very handy.

What they can’t go get is a #1 starter, which means that the single biggest factor affecting the Braves’ chances is Smoltz’s right arm. I have not actually been surprised by his performance to date; his effectiveness was never something I questioned, just his endurance. The Braves’ bullpen issues have led Bobby Cox to ride Smoltz harder than I expected him to, pushing him to a 245-inning pace in early July. Smoltz hasn’t done that kind of work since 1997, when he was 30 years old. Can he, at 38, sustain that pace and remain at the front of their rotation for three more months?

I figured Smoltz for 120 good innings, 20 in decline, and an early end to his 2005. If I’m right, the Braves finish fourth. If I’m wrong, and Smoltz keeps pitching through the end of the season, he could be the difference between the title streak ending and it stretching one more year. As someone who’s been a fan since he came up in 1988, it’s easy for me to hope I’m wrong.

I vowed, at one time, to keep picking the Braves to win the NL East until they failed to do so, then abandoned that promise and pegged them for fourth. Even though the Braves no longer have the talent to match the Phillies, Mets, or even Marlins, they’re ahead of all those teams right now, and they have an edge on the one team they’re chasing. The Adjusted Standings peg them as the division’s best team so far, and they have the best management team in place. If this is the trough in their cycle, it’s a bit scary to contemplate what’s going to happen when they begin moving up the charts again.

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