On July 10th, Ronald Acuña Jr was tracking a fly ball deep in the right field corner when he jumped to make a catch, landed awkwardly, and tore his ACL. He was done for the season.
On July 11th, the Braves got beat by the Marlins, dropping their record to 44-45, and went into the All-Star break with their odds of making the post-season at a season-low 7.3%.
Here’s the chart for a reminder:
As we sit here on August 18th, six weeks later, the Braves are thriving. They’ve won 12 of their last 14 games, have vaulted into first place in the division, and now have playoff odds that look like this:
In the six weeks since they lost their best players, the Braves have increased their playoff odds 55%. They’ve moved from fluctuating between 3rd and 4th place, to sitting comfortably in 1st.
How in the world? How does a team lose a top 5 player in baseball and start to play better?
First, they play in NL East. On July, 12th, the New York Mets were 47-40 and the Philadelphia Phillies were 44-44. Just as a starting point, this was already advantageous to the Braves. Despite months of mediocre play, Atlanta was on 4.0 games back of the division lead. No team had run away from the pack, and this allowed the Braves to tread water, even after the All-Star break and not have to worry about digging to big a hole for themselves.
But since the break, the news has gotten even better. In the second half, the Phillies are 16-13 while the division-leading Mets are 12-20. They’re not leading the division anymore. The Braves over the same period are the inverse, 20-12. In the last 32 games, the Braves have picked up 8 games in the standings over the Mets and 3 games over the Phillies. Playing in a division that doesn’t have a great team offers plenty of second and third chances to right the ship. In the West or Central, Atlanta would’ve been buried.
But it’s not just the rest of the NL East being average that explains what’s happened the last 6 weeks. After all, the Braves are 20-12 in that stretch. How have they’ve done this while losing their MVP candidate?
The simple answer is other players have stepped up. And not just stepped up a little. Since the injury to Acuña, Austin Riley has 1.064 OPS and been worth 1.5 WAR. Dansby Swanson has a .983 OPS and been worth 1.7 WAR. Freddie Freeman remembered he’s Freddie Freeman and has posted a .976 OPS and been worth 1.3 WAR. You certainly expect Freeman to produce like an MVP candidate but getting that production from Riley and Swanson has changed the season for Atlanta. They built their team around getting elite production from Acuña and desparetly needed someone to fill that void when he went down. And not only has one guy done it, multiple guys have. Riley and Swanson being able to sit at 4 and 5 in the order and consistently do damage has changed the season.
And it’s not just the hitters who have stepped up. In six starts in the second half, Max Fried has 1.95 ERA. Charlie Morton has a 3.09 ERA in his six starts. Kyle Muller and Touki Touissant stepped up with some huge second half starts. Out of the bullpen, Tyler Matzek has a 0.00 ERA since the All-Star break and has changed the entire layout of the bullpen. Although shaky at times, Will Smith has a 3.46 ERA in that stretch, converting 8 of 10 saves. As a team, the Braves have the 4th best ERA in all of baseball in the second half at 3.38. If you’re down one of your best run producers, one way to make up for it is just give up less runs. It’s a zero sum game, every run you don’t allow is one you don’t have to score.
But it hasn’t just been hold over players that have increased their play, the talent level of the team has been increased. This is where we give full credit to GM Alex Anthopoulos. After Acuna went down right before the break and with the team playing so poorly, he had every reason to pack it in and get ready for 2022. In fact, there were plenty of people contemplating whether or not he should sell. Trade off Charlie Morton and some of the relievers to retool for next year.
Anthopoulos had none of that. Right after the injury, he immediately traded for OF Joc Pederson during the All-Star break. This helped stop the bleeding and at the very least, the Braves now had a respectable RF and leadoff guy in the wake of losing Acuna.
But Anthopoulos wasn’t done. On deadline day, the Braves GM swung three separate deals, bringing back OF Adam Duvall from Miami, OF Jorge Soler from Kansas City, and high leverage reliver Richard Rodriguez from Pittsburgh. The Braves had been playing almost exclusively back-up players and bench types in their outfield, not only because of the Acuña injury, but also after Christian Pache showed he wasn’t ready for the majors and Marcell Ozuna’s domestic violence arrest. In just a couple of weeks, Anthopoulos completely remade the outfield and consequently, the lineup by adding three legitimate bats. Since joining the team, Soler has 121 wRC+, Pederson a 116 wRC+ and Duvall a 92 wRC+ with strong outfield defense. For the bullpen, Rodriguez has been as advertised. He’s pitched 9 innings with Atlanta, has yet to give up a run, while supporting a 2.95 FIP. He and Matzek together have given manager Brian Snitker a RH and LH high leverage reliver to be utilized whenever the game situation calls for it and not just the 8th or 9th inning.
I’m not sure enough credit can be given to Anthopoulos. He completely changed the makeup of this team in a matter of weeks and did so without giving up any major pieces or prospects for the future.
There’s no way to replace a Ronald Acuña Jr on your team when he goes down. But playing in a weak division, having most of your team step up their performance, and having your GM go out and add the necessary talent is about as close as you can come. Combine all that with a friendly schedule and getting some injured guys like Travis d’Arnaud back, and it starts to become clear how the Braves have done what they’ve done the last six weeks.
The caveat to all this of course, is it’s only August 18th. They don’t hand out banners or trophies for what you’ve accomplished on August 18th. The Braves still have to finish this thing out. But give the entire organization credit. Acuña laying there in the outfield holding his knee on July 10th should’ve been the end of their season. No one would’ve blamed them if it was. But collectively, the decided that wasn’t going to be the case. And they’ve been one of the best teams in baseball since.