The 2012 Braves: Kings Of The Slugfest

Jason Heyward and the Braves are #1 when it comes to winning high-scoring games.

By outslugging the Phillies 12-6 last night, the Braves extended one of the more improbable current win streaks in baseball (right behind the Orioles' 12-game extra-inning win streak). What streak, you're probably wondering? Well, last night marked the Braves' 10th slugfest* of the year--and their 10th win.

* Arbitrarily defined as a game in which both teams score 6 or more runs

The Braves' 10-0 record in these offensive battles is far and away the best in baseball. The Dodgers, at 5-1, are next-best. (Oddly enough, the Dodgers are the last team to top the Braves in a slugfest, in an 8-6 win last September 2nd). After that come the Reds (5-2) and Cardinals (9-4). The Phillies are 10-5 in slugfests, but two of their losses--last night's and the crazy 15-13 game back in May--came against the Braves.

The 10-0 mark is especially impressive because most of the games have been very close, and/or have required the Braves to come back from large deficits. That 15-13 game is a good example (deficits of 6 and 4 runs, won in 11 innings). Then there were the two games against Colorado on May 4th and May 5th in which the Braves overcame big deficits. And of course, the king of them all, the 9-run comeback to beat the Nationals in 11 innings back in July.

In fact, the Braves' record in slugfests could be one of the best of all time. Only one team in the boxscore era (since 1918) has made it through a season without losing a slugfest, and that one--the 1919 Cubs--has a couple caveats. First off, it was over 90 years ago, and second, they only played 2 slugfests, winning both. Here are the top slugfest records of all time by winning percentage:

Year Team Slugfests W L Win% Finish
1919 Cubs 2 2 0 1.000 75-65 (3rd in NL)
1983 Phillies 13 12 1 0.923 90-72 (Lost WS)
1967 Reds 9 8 1 0.889 87-75 (4th in NL)
1944 Cardinals 9 8 1 0.889 105-49 (Won WS)
1970 Angels 8 7 1 0.875 86-76 (3rd in ALW)
1964 Reds 8 7 1 0.875 92-70 (2nd in NL)
1946 Red Sox 16 14 2 0.875 104-50 (Lost WS)
2011 D'backs 15 13 2 0.867 94-68 (Lost NLDS)

As you can see, these teams have a pretty good track record. Winning a lot of slugfests doesn't guarantee a team playoff success, obviously, but it can come in handy. For instance, last year's Diamondbacks lost in the first round, but they won the only slugfest in the series.

What lies behind these excellent slugfest records? Well, first off, luck: you can't go 10-0 or 14-2 in any sample of games without a huge amount of luck, no matter how good you are. But I doubt it's only that. Teams with particularly good--and deep--bullpens would naturally do better in high-scoring games, since the bullpens are all but guaranteed to decide such games. Also important, of course, is the potency of the team's offense. You can't win a slugfest without scoring a bunch of runs.

Finally, we have the more hard-to-measure effects, such as resiliency. I don't doubt that this would be the most popular explanation in the Braves' clubhouse (and broadcasting booth). Teams--especially good ones--love to believe that they are tougher than their opponents. The fact that we have no way of proving such a claim limits its effectiveness as an explanatory tool, but honestly, I don't doubt it. The only question is how much that toughness matters, and that question will likely never be answered.

At the very least, it'd be hard to argue that this Braves team has lacked resiliency in 2012 when there are so many counter-examples. Casting doubt on a negative is not the same thing as proving a positive, but it's the best we can do. And you are of course free to believe--as I do--that this team has some good qualities that can't be proven. (Just don't use such beliefs when making a purportedly logical argument!)

Before wrapping up, I should point out that there's a negative spin for this statistic. You could argue that, in games when the Braves' pitchers get hammered, the offense should score 6+ runs more often. Call this the "give up when behind" or "white flag" theory.

The main evidence for this theory is that the Braves have allowed 6+ runs 31 times and scored 6+ in just 10 of those games (32%). That's a bit less than the league average (34.7%). The Rangers, meanwhile, have allowed 6+ runs 33 times and scored 6+ in 13 of those (39%). The Nationals (6/16) and Yankees (11/29) are at 38%. Still, the sample sizes are small enough that those numbers don't mean much. Besides, there's more persuasive evidence against the White Flag Theory.

Taking another tack, the Braves' record is 10-21 when allowing 6+ runs. That .323 winning percentage may not seem like much, but it's nearly double the league average (.174) and miles ahead of the second-best Cardinals (9-24, .265). Maybe the Braves' offense hasn't started a particularly large number of comebacks this season, but when they have, they've always* come back to win. And when the pitchers have blown big leads, like in last night's game, the team has similarly always bounced back to get the victory. As a fan, you can't ask for any better.

* Well, there was the 7-5 loss to the Mets, in which the Braves trailed 7-0 at one point. But that was in the season's opening weekend, and it's the only time this year the Braves have scored even 5 runs and lost. Since then, the Braves are 45-0 when scoring 5 runs or more. Every other team has at least 3 losses when scoring 5+. The Rockies have 23.

In conclusion, I should make clear that the Braves aren't unbeatable in this situation. Close games are heavily influenced by luck, and as last night's game proved, even large leads can evaporate quickly. Chances are that the Braves will lose at least one shootout before the season is through, but what they've accomplished so far is both improbable and quite impressive.

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