The New Normal?
The last nine Braves games have all been exciting. Maybe too exciting. Five of the last nine were decided in the winning team’s last at bat. Four (including one of the last at bat games) were 1-0 nail biters. And the one that wasn’t either of these was a 7-5 wild finish that included runs in each of the last four half innings, a Kimbrel meltdown that gave us all sleepless nights and a thoroughly wacky Win Expectancy graph. Yikes. Is this the new normal?
Is the whole season going to go like this? It’s like the post-season and its only April. And against the Phils, Mets and Marlins? Now the Braves did win 6 of those 9 games, which is good. Very good. But I’m not so sure that lots of close games is a good sign for the season.
Over the years I have tracked the scores of Braves’ games and some basic game features, dividing them into categories to see if there was some measure of predictive value. At this point, I don’t think there is very much, apart from expecting the numbers to be closer to averages then extremes. But sometimes the data does offer some interesting markers or trends that reflect that team in that year and sometimes there are some simple expectations that can be established. For example…
Fewer Games Against Lefthanders.
Last year Atlanta faced fewer left-handed starters (41) then they had in recent years (they averaged 55 a year from 07-12). Considering the strong record last year in these games (25-16, .610) that may have been by design, with other teams less likely to start a marginal lefty against Atlanta.
That trend may be carrying over to this season, with the opposition so far only scheduling three starts by lefthanders. After you include the three righties that Cincinnati has scheduled this weekend, this is a very low pace of only 20 for the season. That’s half as many as last year and well below the recent average. Of course it may just be luck, just the make-up or the turn of the rotations faced so far, but with normally 30% of pitchers being left-handed you would expect more lefty starts.
As well as facing fewer lefties like last year, the good record against lefties has continued as the Braves have won all three of the opponent’s lefty starts this year. Okay, two of those wins were by scores of 1-0, so it hardly means the offense is strong against lefties (even though it is: 285/359/477) and maybe the rest of the league should be lining up lefties to face ATL. But they’re not. At this point, the number of lefty starts by the opposition is unusually low and something to watch in the weeks ahead.
Other markers in the data are difficult to relate to game scores or overall performance. Last year Atlanta was shutout a high number of times (17). This seems odd as the team won 96 games and the Run Differential was above average. But Runs Scored was below average so maybe there’s just not a strong link between shutouts and final record.
Close or Late.
But, the initial stand-out factoid from this year’s game results is the number of close and late games, like the last nine. This includes any game decided by one run or decided in the winning team’s last half inning. So far 13 of the 21 Braves’ games have been close or late, a pace of 100 such games for the season, which would far exceed totals in recent years.
These games have been exciting to watch, especially since the Braves are an outstanding 10-3 in these games, and they may be a sign of a strong bullpen and a strong bench. But over the years the record in close games tends to be worse than the final overall record, so maybe the current record is inflated by good luck in close games.
However, this doesn’t show in the current ‘Expected W-L’, which is the same as the actual record (14-7). But Run Differential (which determines Expected W-L) has been buoyed by the amazing starting pitching and the fact that Atlanta has only lost one game by more than two runs, the 4-0 home opener loss to the Mets and Bartolo Colon. Last April the offense was averaging ridiculous numbers. This April, it’s the pitching.
Obviously, the amazing pitching is driving this. It has kept the team in games where the offense has struggled. The pitching has kept these games close and given the team a chance to win. And the team has responded by winning late and close games at a very good clip. Of course, the starters cannot be expected to continue such dominance. At some point, the opposition is going to start scoring more, so the Braves’ offense is going to have to generate more runs to maintain the current Run Differential and high winning percentage.
Unfortunately, this is not a given. Like last year, the offense has continued being shutout at a high rate, with four shutouts so far, a pace of 31 for the season. This is very high and it is going to be very tough to win the division with that many scoreless outings.
Offense is down in recent years and maybe offense throughout the league is so suppressed that close games and high numbers of shutouts will be the new normal. If so, the strength of bullpen and bench will become more important and I would expect the division winners to have lower final win totals than in recent years. But it would still be unusual to have such a high rate of close (and exciting) games and I don’t expect the Braves to keep winning these games at such a high percentage.
This FanPost does not express the views or opinions of Talking Chop.