The 2010 Atlanta Braves have a long list of problems: Season-ending injuries to Chipper Jones, Kris Medlen and Martin Prado have weakened the starting rotation and starting lineup. Jair Jurrjens, who was struggling before he got hurt, may also be done. The starting pitching staff has struggled in September. Finally, the team is struggling to score runs.
But, none of these often cited problems has actually been the Braves' biggest problem in 2010. At the top of the list should be rotten luck. Luck, as has become apparent by mounting statistical evidence, is about the most important factor in baseball. And it hasn't been on the Braves' side this season.
Batting average on balls in play, fly ball to home run ratios and Pythagorean win-loss totals have exposed the random luck involved with baseball. Frankly, delving deep into modern statistical analysis can make baseball seem like an elaborate version of Uno. This season, the Braves have drawn a pair of Draw Fours: The Braves have won fewer games than they should have won and, conversely, the Phillies have won more games than they should have won.
Bill James' Pythagorean win-loss statistic determines how many games a team should be expected to win based on how many runs they score and how many runs they allow. So far this season, the Braves have an excellent run differential of +121, the best mark in the National League. According to Pythagorean win-loss, this should equate to a record of 93-66. However, the Braves are actually 90-69, three games worse. Meanwhile, the Phillies have lucked their way into two more wins than expected.
Add it all up and the Braves and Phillies should be tied atop the National League East, not 5 games back. The only Braves player with 5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) this year is Brian McCann. In other words it would take a second Brian McCann in the Braves lineup to make up for the Braves bad luck this season. The Braves have not lost even close to 5 WAR due to injuries this season, mainly because Jones, Prado and Medlen have been replaced with major-league quality players, not replacement-level players.
The good news is the Braves have actually been better this season than their record indicates. A strong case could still be made they have been the best team in the National League in 2010. While the Braves' other problems still linger, the wonderful thing about luck is it tells us absolutely nothing about what is going to happen in the future. Going into the playoffs, the Braves biggest problem of the season may just go away. And, who knows, maybe with some good luck in playoffs the National League's best team may overcome injuries and win a World Championship.