When I wrote a piece discussing what the Braves were looking at heading into what turned out to be a division-clinching series against the Phillies, I kept bringing up the date of August 1. It was an important date for sure since that was the beginning of the run that propelled the Braves to what was unthinkable not too long ago: A fourth-straight NL East title. It was also a day that ended in a loss for the Braves, as they dropped a 2-1 game against the Brewers. However, this was the final loss in that incredibly weird loss-win-loss pattern that the Braves had gone on since returning from the All-Star Break.
From that point forward, the Braves have gone 34-19 and have shifted from staring at a potentially lost season to getting ready for a fourth-consecutive Postseason appearance. August 1 was a real turning point for the Braves, but it wasn’t rock bottom. If you believe FanGraphs’ Divisional Title odds for the 2021 season, rock bottom for the Braves happened long before that.
June 16! Whew, what an awful day that was. I remember that night vividly because it was extremely frustrating to watch the Braves score 16 runs over two days and still come out losers in both games because they gave up 20 runs over that same span. At that point in the season, the bullpen was repeatedly bleeding runs in game after game, the Braves as a team were in a “Groundhog Day” phase of losing games, players were dropping left and right (either due to injuries or other, awful reasons) and things were just looking really bleak then. It also didn’t help that the Braves were eight games behind the division-leading Mets and were five games under .500. It was relatively early in the season, but it felt like we had been waiting for the Braves to “wake up” for a couple of months and it just wasn’t happening.
Nearly a month later, the season hit another awful low point. While the Braves did finish July 10 with a win to return to .500 and send their divisional title odds skyrocketing to a whopping seven (7) percent on the dot, it was also the day when Ronald Acuña Jr. went down with a torn ACL. His injury was a brutal blow and as I glumly wrote on here, it felt like a finishing blow. The Braves had been spinning their wheels in the mud all season and it really felt like they were going to keep on spinning those wheels without having their best player around in order to help propel them from the mess that they were in.
However, this part of the season ended up being a major turning point because while fans like me were crying gloom and doom, the Braves front office decided that this was the crossroads for the 2021 campaign. Despite having some pretty low odds to win the division, it was still doable since the Mets themselves had not completely taken flight yet. Atlanta’s mediocre baseball was somehow keeping them in the race, as they were still only four-and-a-half games behind New York when Acuña went down. With the trade deadline looming in the near future, Alex Anthopoulos and the front office got to work.
Once the smoke was clear, the Braves had added Joc Pederson (July 15), Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario, and Richard Rodriguez (all on July 30) to the fold. The initial trade for Pederson was pleasantly surprising just because it indicated which direction the Braves were going when they reached the aforementioned crossroads. Instead of packing it in and going home, the Braves were moving forward. It’s impossible to truly replace a MVP-caliber player like Ronald Acuña, but they were at least taking this opportunity to bring the outfield back up to snuff in Acuña’s and Marcell Ozuna’s absence.
While those deals may not have garnered major headlines league-wide, you can easily make the argument that the arrival of these five players basically saved the season for the Braves. Alex Anthopoulos had better receive serious consideration for Executive of the Year — his trade deadline moves were collectively a true game-changer for this season and they also didn’t compromise the farm system in a major way. Again, these weren’t splashy, headline-grabbing deals but he nailed every single one of those trades — each of those five of those players have make decent-to-large-sized contributions to this two-month run to the NL East crown and AA deserves plenty of credit for swinging these deals for Atlanta.
"I think it's incredible we won the division with everything we went through."@JeromeOnSports, @TwoSportman, @nickgreen20 and @PeterMoylan catch up with Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos to discuss the twists, turns and trades that defined the 2021 season. pic.twitter.com/y9eoRWvLfr— Bally Sports South (@BallySportsSO) October 1, 2021
Once the newcomers’ contributions to the outfield and bullpen mixed with the infield regulars collectively having a season for the ages at the plate, the Braves suddenly looked like a real team with an actual pulse again. When August 1 rolled around, the Braves themselves were ready to rock and roll and they proceeded to go on the run that got them back to the Postseason for a fourth-straight season. August 1 also coincided with something very important happening elsewhere in the division: The beginning of the downfall of the 2021 New York Mets.
First, let’s go back to Atlanta’s rock bottom date of June 16. On that day, the Mets beat the Cubs 6-3 to go eleven games over .500 and five-and-a-half games atop the East. FanGraphs had them at an 84.9 percent chance to win the East and it was hard to argue against New York’s chances at the time. The only thing close to an argument you had back then was to say that “it’s the Mets” and that calamity would eventually ensue. Still, that was very difficult to realistically envision seeing as how they were the only team over .500 in the East at that time.
That was still the case once the first day of August arrived, but FanGraphs was starting to sour on them by then. After losing to the Reds 7-1, their divisional odds dropped from a nice 69.4 percent to 65.7 percent. Still, the Mets had a stranglehold on the division for the vast majority of the season and usually when that happens, the leading team usually brings it on home.
Instead, the wheels completely fell off the wagon for New York starting with that ill-fated series against Cincinnati. They lost that game on August 1 and “fell” to seven games over .500, but were still four games ahead of the second-best team in the East. They went on to lose a scarcely-believable 19 of 25 games. By the time the infamous “Thumbs Down” series had arrived, New York had plummeted to five games under .500 and were now looking up at the Braves, who were seven games ahead of New York with a very nice 69-59 record.
The Mets had a brief revival after that media firestorm, but a shambolic September ensured that New York’s goose was cooked in 2021 and the Braves benefited massively from this. Simply put, the Braves would not be where they are right now had the Mets not suffered a historic collapse. Mets beat writer Anthony DiComo basically summed it up with this absolutely horrific stat for the Mets:
I have seen this statistic in several places today, and there is no better summation of the 2021 Mets:— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) September 27, 2021
No team in Major League history has spent as much time (103 days) in first place and finished with a losing record. The Mets are mathematically guaranteed to become the first.
There’s every possibility that the Braves would’ve finished in this neighborhood of wins even if the Mets didn’t collectively fold like a lawn chair. However, the Braves probably wouldn’t be celebrating another divisional title had the Mets simply been decent in the second half of the season. As the Braves were going in one direction at the crossroads that I mentioned earlier, the Mets went in the exact opposite direction and found themselves in the same mud that the Braves were in.
So while the Braves did get lucky that the Mets completely capitulated, the Phillies ended up being mediocre again, the Nationals punted on the season and the Marlins continued being the Marlins, the Braves made their own luck by staying the course and refusing to give up when things were really bad. The trade deadline deals basically saved the season for the Braves and put a jolt in the clubhouse that gave them the confidence to keep on going on the field.
The front office believed this was possible, so Brian Snitker and the coaching staff believed. When the coaches believed, so did the players. When the players switched on, the fans believed and really got behind the team. It’s not the whole story behind another divisional title for the Braves, but it’s a pretty big reason why this team is going to be taking a trip to Milwaukee next week.