The Milwaukee Brewers did not play an 88-win team. The Los Angeles Dodgers did not play an 88-win team. If you’re not sure, you’re welcome to ask either what they think about the Atlanta Braves now. You’d probably get an answer too as both have had some unexpected free-time open up recently.
A common refrain this October has been the Braves are the weakest team in the playoffs, undoubtedly because they had the fewest wins of any postseason team. And that is true. The Braves’ 88-74 record was the worst mark of any of the 10 teams who qualified for postseason play. In fact, it was worse than a couple of teams who didn’t qualify for postseason play.
But how a team looks in April or how a team plays in May has very little to do with how a team looks and plays in October. Ask the 2019 Washington Nationals. A six-month season offers teams the ability to re-invent themselves on the fly. And the 2021 Braves took baseball up on that offer.
Two days before the All-Star break, the Braves had one thing going for them. Or really, two things. One, they had Ronald Acuña Jr, who looked like he was running away with the NL MVP, and two, they were playing in the worst division in baseball. After that day, those two things got cut down to one, as Acuña tore his ACL, was lost for the season, and for most people, the season along with him.
Over the next couple of days, Braves’ President of Baseball Ops Alex Anthopoulos made the decision he wasn’t ready to quit yet. He called the Chicago Cubs and told them he wanted Joc Pederson and needed a deal done before the second half started. They finalized an agreement and a clear message was sent to the clubhouse: We’re not done yet.
Two weeks later, Anthopoulos completed his transformation of the team with four trade deadline acquisitions: Adam Duvall, Jorge Soler, Eddie Rosario and Richard Rodriguez. In two weeks, Anthopoulos had remade the team’s outfield and added reinforcements to the bullpen. This is when the team that beat the Brewers was built. This is when the team that just dog walked the Dodgers came together. And if you look close enough, you’ll see this is not an 88-win team.
From the trade deadline to the end of the season, this Braves team went 36-19. Only one win behind the Yankees and Rays. Three wins better than Brewers. Five wins better than the Astros, who they’re about to face in the World Series, and seven wins better than the Red Sox. If you’re unaware, a 36-19 record is a .655 winning percentage, which over a full season is a 106 win pace. All week long, writers, reporters and fans all over the sport couldn’t understand why the Braves looked every bit as good, if not better, than the 106-win Dodgers. Maybe it’s because since August 1st, they’ve been playing like a 106-win team themselves.
And it wasn’t just wins. Since August 1st, you know which teams led the NL in fewest runs allowed? Here’s the top 3:
While all of baseball told Braves’ fan about how unbeatable Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Feddy Peralta were, or how dominant Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler, and Julio Urias were, somehow the masses missed the fact that Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson can pitch a little too. Morton and Fried specifically were both top 10 pitchers in all of baseball in the second half of the season. And over that same time period, Tyler Matzek and Luke Jackson both had ERA’s that started with 1.
While the whole world knew Milwaukee and LA’s run prevention was elite, the quality Braves’ pitching quietly slipped under the radar, cloaked in 88-win camouflage.
It was a similar story on the offensive side. From August 1st to the end of the season, the Dodgers were 1st in the NL with 92 HRs. You know who was 2nd? The Braves with 90 HRs. The Dodgers scored 283 runs after the trade deadline, tied for 3rd in the NL. The Braves? Also scored 283 runs, tied for 3rd in the NL. Austin Riley had a 138 wRC+ after August 1st. Eddie Rosario had a 135 wRC+. Freddie Freeman, 134. Jorge Soler, 131. But don’t worry, it’s just an 88-win team.
Slowly and inevitably, the Brewers Dodgers realized what the Phillies did against Nate Jones or Josh Tomlin in April doesn’t mean much when you’re facing Tyler Matzek or AJ Minter with a playoff game on the line. The maddening spring-time starts of Drew Smyly or Bryse Wilson aren’t exactly relevant when it’s the fall and Charlie Morton and Max Fried are standing on the mound. And when you need to get Eddie Rosario or Joc Pederson or Jorge Soler out to save your season, the offensive short-comings of Ender Inciarte or Cristian Pache or Kevin Smith or Alex Jackson from early in the summer aren’t going to mean much.
And let’s not even get started on what Austin Riley and Freddie Freeman looked like on opening day vs what they look like now.
From the moment Alex Anthopoulos finalized that Joc Pederson trade, through the trade deadline, to right now, the day before the World Series starts, the Braves have been one of the best teams in baseball. Between the talent that was added and the current talent realizing someone had to step up with the loss of Acuña, this group has played their asses off for going on 3 months.
And even if you want to use full season numbers, let’s not forget, the Braves had the 3rd best run differential in the NL, only behind the Giants and the Dodgers. Some unfortunate sequencing cost them wins they should’ve had but just by their ability to score and prevent runs, it was clear this team was real.
After being eliminated Saturday night, manager Dave Roberts told reporters “They outplayed us, plain and simple.”
Yes they did. Just like they did Milwaukee. It wasn’t a fluke. If you watched either series, you never once felt like the Braves didn’t belong and most of the time, you felt the exact opposite. They don’t have the depth that other teams do, specifically the Dodgers, but who does? A $250 payroll better buy you a little more depth than everyone else, otherwise what the hell are you doing? And the playoffs have become a war of a team’s best 15 or 20 players anyway. You go with your top three starting pitchers, four or five of your best relievers and 8-10 of your best positions players. And there, this Braves team can compete with anyone.
So just a a word of warning to the Astros, maybe ask your reporters not to start writing the “Oh this will be over in 5” nonsense the LA Times embarrassed itself with last week. Maybe come with a little respect.
Cause, yeah, the Braves won 88 games this year. But this is not an 88-win team.