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Starting Nine: The at times unlikely, impossible, improbable road to Braves’ fourth straight East title

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From an outfield down an MVP candidate and Silver Slugger to the fight just to get to .500, Atlanta’s run to another division championship included plenty of unexpected obstacles

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves
No team in franchise history had spent more time below .500 and went on to make the postseason than these Braves, who finally had a winning record 109 games into the season.
Photo by Adam Hagy/Getty Images

Winning four consecutive championships in anything should automatically disqualify calling it improbable, impossible, or unlikely.

But is there really any other way to quantify it? For the fourth straight season, the Braves were spraying champagne and partying in the waterfall beyond center field to celebrate another National League East crown.

They did it improbably. They did it impossibly. They did it in unlikely fashion.

“Four in a row is hard,” Freddie Freeman said Thursday after Atlanta beat the Phillies 5-3 to clinch the division. “I can’t imagine those 1990s teams and how they did all that. This is a great feeling. This is right up there with 2018 for me. This year had so many ups and downs and so many things could have derailed the season.”

A date with the NL Central champion Brewers awaits in the Division Series, beginning Friday in Milwaukee. There will be plenty of time to dissect that match up as the Braves bid to make up for last year’s League Championship Series exit, but before we flip the script to the postseason, let’s bask in all the ways this fourth East title seemed so far out of reach.

1. A lineup down Acuña and Ozuna

Ronald Acuña Jr. had never been better. He took the field July 10 against the Marlins ranking third in the NL and fifth overall at 157 wRC+, was fourth in the majors with a .990 OPS, fourth in slugging (.596) and tied for fifth in home runs (24). The 23-year-old rode those successes to more All-Star Game votes than any NL player. But it was all over when he suffered a nasty knee injury in Miami, his season coming to an end with a torn ACL. The Braves were already down Marcell Ozuna, who after a 178 wRC+, 1.067 OPS and NL-high 18 homers in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, was off to a rocky start with a mere seven homers, .645 OPS and 74 wRC+ through 208 plate appearances. He played his last game May 25 amid legal troubles. From Acuña’s injury through the trade deadline, the Braves ranked 26th in outfield wRC+, trotting out a collection of career sub-replacement level players. But in swooped general manager Alex Anthopoulos, remaking that defensive backfield with a collection of players with 30-homer seasons in Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler. Behind those additions, no NL outfield has hit more homers since July 31 and Atlanta is third in ISO (.240), Rosario rattled off a .955 OPS, Soler is at .848 and Duvall sits at .794. Pederson (.685) has had his struggles but has been credited with changing the clubhouse vibe — the man wore pearls, for God’s sake and looked like a boss celebrating in the outfield with Ian Anderson on Thursday night. When we look back at this season, no matter how its turns out, the ability to revamp this outfield and this level of success will be among the defining storylines.

2. A pitching staff without Soroka (and, for a time, Anderson)

After losing Mike Soroka three starts into 2020 with an Achilles injury, seemingly every conversation about the strength of the Braves rotation came with the caveat that it would be bolstered when the All-Star right-hander could make his return. It was a punch to the gut June 26 when the Braves announced Soroka had blown out his right tendon again, a complete re-tar that required another season-ending surgery. Meanwhile, preseason NL Rookie of the Year candidate Ian Anderson was nowhere near as dominant as his historic 2020 season and postseason before going to the injured list July 16 with right shoulder inflammation. The Braves would spend more than a month without his services. Charlie Morton and Max Fried did their part as the 1-2 punch the rotation needed — Morton posting a 3.39 ERA and 4.5 fWAR, while Fried became a certified ace with an MLB-best 1.74 ERA in 14 starts since the All-Star break — and Anderson returned Aug. 29 pitching to a 3.76 ERA in five starts since. But it’s been a top-five starting staff in the NL thanks in part to some more unpredictable contributions. Huascar Ynoa became Shohei Ohtani-lite with a 3.09 ERA, including five starts of two runs or less and homered in back-to-back starts, before breaking his hand May 16 punching a dugout bench. He’s had a 5.01 ERA since, but in his first six starts after his return had a 3.93 ERA. Then there’s Drew Smyly, who ultimately pitched his way out of the rotation with a 4.58 ERA and allowing 27 home runs, but the veteran righty made 18 starts from May 6-Aug. 21 and the team won 14 of them, including two stretches of six straight wins. Meanwhile, Kyle Muller made seven starts with a 2.43 ERA, and Touki Toussaint had a 2.86 ERA in four August starts. Muller and Toussaint are both at Triple-A now, and Ynoa’s last outing against the Padres (seven earned runs allowed over 4 2/3 innings) leaves some questions as to his postseason role, but Muller, Smyly, Toussaint and Ynoa all had their moments in helping this team overcome a full year sans Soroka.

3. Freeman’s MVP hangover

Since 2013, Freddie Freeman’s stat line has become somewhat predictable. He’d post a wRC+ north of 130 with an OPS above .900 and flirt with, if not surpass, 30 home runs annually. It was a certifiable head-scratcher when he followed up his first MVP with the worst first two months of a season he’d had in five years, posting a paltry 116 wRC+ (he’d been below that once through May since 2013) and a career-low .235 average. Call it an MVP hangover, or going into a contract year with nary a word between player and team in terms of negotiations that would keep the home-grown talent in Atlanta, but Freeman was just ... off. Since June 4, he’s tied with the Nationals’ Juan Soto for the majors’ second best average (.333), is eighth in the NL in OPS (.941) is 11 in wRC+ (147) and on Aug. 18 against the Marlins hit for the cycle for the second time in his career, playing his way back into the conversation for a second straight NL MVP.

4. Pedestrian expectations for Riley and Swanson

Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson had yet to produce a season in which they hit at or above league average, so what were the Braves going to get out of them in 2021? The major projections liked Riley, with Steamer giving him 103 wRC+ with 27 home runs and a .257/.321/.484 slash line. Swanson, meanwhile, was forecasted to hit .251/.323/.424 with 19 homers and 90 wRC+. Neither was expected to blow up and sub-league average expectations didn’t paint the picture of this lineup being at all daunting. This tandem has defined all expectations, with Riley a strong MVP candidate in hitting .303/.368/.532 with 33 homers, 105 RBI and 136 wRC+ and has gone deep 20 times since July 1 and leads the NL in that span with 68 RBI. Swanson stands at 115 wRC+ behind a franchise shortstop record 27 homers and a .249/.310/.451 slash line. The track records of Freeman and Albies set the stage for the Braves to have an infield for the ages — becoming the second group with a 25-home run hitter at first base, second, third and shortstop — and have Braves have hit the fourth most homers (122) from those positions and are third in OPS (.837) and fifth in wRC+ (119). That’s not possible without Riley and Swanson making the leap.

5. Losing d’Arnaud

Injuries are part of the game, the cliche tells us. But it did get ridiculous with the Braves. Before they had to figure out how to play without Acuña and Ozuna, or before they knew they’d lost Soroka once again, Travis d’Arnaud became the first casualty when he tore a ligament in his thumb May 1. With the Silver Slugger-winning catcher on the 60-day injured list, the collective of William Contreras, Stephen Vogt and Kevan Smith combined to make Atlanta 24th in catcher OPS .627 and 26th in wRC+ at 32 percent below league average. D’Arnaud wasn’t exactly following up his 144 wRC+ 2020 season with the strongest of starts, as he had a paltry 55 wRC+ through the year’s first month, but his value went beyond what he did at the plate in directing the pitching staff. It may have been a case of too much too soon for coveted prospect Contreras, who hit .204/.278/.387 in 44 games after d’Arnaud went down, but whatever the case, the Braves were missing the consistent presence of d’Arnaud behind the plate. He returned to hit above average in August (105 wRC+), and in all hasn’t been as big a threat as he was in 2020 — d’Arnaud has a 93 wRC+ since his return — but has been a steady improvement over what the Braves were dealing with during his absence.

6. Fighting just to get above .500

Six times the Braves tried to crack .500 and six times they failed. They reached .500 on April 10 against the Phillies, only to have their division rival spoil it the next day. Then on April 29, a 9-3 loss to the Cubs ended another bid. May 11 it was the Blue Jays who denied Atlanta that winning record; June 9 it was Philadelphia again; July 11’s setback came courtesy of the Marlins, and May 26 the Red Sox dropped the Braves back below .500. Finally, on Aug. 7, they followed a sweep of the Cardinals — something no team has done since against a St. Louis team that rode a 17-game winning streak to reach the postseason — by beating the Nationals 8-4 to finally get a winning mark. It took 109 games to make it happen, fueled by a second half in which Atlanta went 41-27, and has this team making some history now that its playoff ticket has been punched. The 1914 Boston Braves held the previous record for the longest any team in franchise history took to get over .500. That team, by the way, would go on to win the World Series.

7. The Mets’ ride atop the division

Revel in the Mets’ historic collapse all you like. Go ahead, because it was epic when you consider that (as MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo pointed out) no team has ever spent more time in first place than New York did at 103 days and finished the year with a losing record. It all makes for fantastic “where it started/how it’s going” meme but think about how it did start. Billionaire owner Steve Cohen vowed to make the Mets a force, trading for an ultimately plunking down $385 million on Francisco Lindor in a busy offseason. It seemed to be paying off when New York was up five games on July 9 and had taken down the Braves in four of their first five meetings and had Jacob deGrom looking like an NL MVP candidate as the best pitcher on the planet. He helped overcome a below-average offense as New York was the only division leader with a negative run differential, but without deGrom, the Mets faded, going 9-19 in August and are 10-16 in September going into this weekend’s series at Truist Park. Yes, the Braves’ rise up the division was fueled by some very strong second-half performances, but we also can’t discount the part the collapse of the Mets — who before this weekend the Braves had played just five time since July 1 — in paving the way for another East title celebration.

8. Bullpenning at its shakiest

Will Smith’s recent cardiac capabilities have become a major point of consternation as he’s faced the minimum three batters in just 10 of his last 30 appearances, but we’re still talking about a closer that’s tied for second in the game (and one off the MLB lead) with 37 saves. There was a time this season when the Braves’ bullpen issues were far worse than the drama Smith so often provides. In April, Atlanta ranked 27th in reliever ERA (4.76) and ended the first half with six pitchers who had appeared in 13 or more games and had ERAs over 4.18, including a returning 10.64 ERA in 13 games out a returning Shane Greene. On the season, the Braves are middle of the road, sitting 14th in ERA (4.00) and 18th in wOBA against (.309), but that doesn’t fully tell the story. In the second half, this group has the third best ERA (3.25) and is seventh in wOBA (.292). That’s included a team-best 1.84 ERA out of Tyler Matzek, a 2.43 from Luke Jackson — who, if we’re talking Braves Comeback Player of the Year candidates fits the mold after a 6.84 ERA in 2020 — and a surprising 2.03 ERA out of the bullpen via 27-year-old Jesse Chavez. There’s also the addition of Richard Rodriguez, another option with closing experience picked up at the deadline from the Pirates. It may not always be lights-out (sorry, to nitpick, Mr. Smith), but it’s a vast improvement over what was a liability early on.

9. Trading wins and losses in historic fashion

The Braves opened the second half of the season with a 7-6 loss to the Rays in 10 innings. A day later, they bounced back, beating Tampa Bay 9-0, only to drop the series finale the next day 7-5. On and on it went for 18 games, the Braves trading wins and losses to set an MLB record for the most consecutive games without a duplicated game result. It wouldn’t end until Aug. 4, when they won 7-4 against the Cardinals (the same series that set the stage to get above .500 and is looking more and more a turning point as we dissect this season). That record streak of a step forward and a step back would ultimately be wiped away though, because the fourth game in that run — July 19 against the Padres — was completed Sept. 25 in San Diego, a loss that technically gave Atlanta back-to-back defeats July 18 and 19. So long, history. It wasn’t fun while it lasted.