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Braves springboard back into contention with incredible August

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It took a great month to get back into the swing of things, but that’s exactly what the Braves delivered

San Francisco Giants v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

August 2021 was a monumental month for the Atlanta Braves. At this point, you know the contours of the story. It goes something like, the Braves were not very good, and then suddenly, they were! For me, part of the stark contrast had to do with a vacation I took (my first real vacation since the whole pandemic thing descended on us) in the middle of this month. When I headed out to the airport, the Braves were four games over .500 and had just clambered into a tie for the division lead after a few days of trailing. Playoff odds were around one-in-three, but their .517 winning percentage was the median in MLB. By the time I flew back, they were holding a four-game lead, playoff odds of three-in-four, and MLB’s 10th-best record while sitting 10 games over .500, which is right around where they were expected to be preseason. Of course, the overall arc of the month was far more dramatic than just this one week of change, but when your season has a week like that, the month was probably a pretty fun one.

Between July 31 and August 31, the Braves’ playoff odds increased by 57 percent. The next-closest increase in this span was below 40 percent (Yankees), the only team with a bigger swing in either direction was the Mets, whose loss was, of course, Atlanta’s gain. While the Braves’ playoff odds are currently a bit off their zenith (going 2-3 against the Dodgers and Giants while the Phillies win five in a row will do that), this has been a whiplash-inducing turnaround. In the past decade or so, the only ways teams whose playoff odds sat around 1-in-10 for much of the season were able to climb back into the postseason included long, hugely successful stretches, or collapses by the frontrunner. In August 2021, the Braves leveraged a mix of both to vault right back into the division lead. Can they maintain it? They have a good shot of doing so... but in a season that’s already caused wild swings in playoff odds, this may be anything but a copacetic finish.

In short, the Braves went 18-8 in August. That seems like it should be their best calendar month in a while, but not really: this same franchise had a 20-8 June in 2019, and even August 2019 was about as effective with a 19-9 record. One thing the Braves did very well, in the context of the results as shown below, is exceed game-by-game expectations in August.

That’s a lot of Ws.

Based on game-by-game odds, the Braves should’ve gone 15-11 or something. They were favored to any extent in 21 of their games, and while it’s pretty ridiculous to expect that to actually reflect a team’s record in any decent stretch, it’s notable that in each of the season’s first three months, the Braves finished with seven, seven, and five fewer wins than games in which they were favored, respectively. July had a tough schedule and the Braves matched their “favored games” total with wins, and August was a notable improvement over April through June in this regard.

One key note is that the turnaround didn’t really happen because of some specific thing. Through July, the Braves were 11th in position player fWAR, with a top-10 offense by wRC+. The pitching staff was more middling: 15th by rotation fWAR, 13th by relief fWAR, 13th by overall pitching fWAR. The team was 52-53, though its fWAR totals suggested it probably should’ve been like 56-49 instead. (A lot of dumb stuff happened that kept the Braves from having good results commensurate with talent, inputs, or even production earlier in the season.)

In August, the team’s position player value was just 15th (as well as 15th by wRC+), and the pitching basically stayed the same (10th in rotation fWAR, 16th in relief fWAR, 13th overall). Put their team WAR together and you get something that should have yielded a 14-12 month, but after all those months of dumb stuff, having things stack up in the Braves’ favor for once was nice. The net result, combining all five months played so far, is that the Braves’ current record is basically right in line with their WAR-wins, which is nice and tidy. Overall, given all the injuries, this isn’t a great team — just outside the top 10 in position player value and hitting, slightly above average in pitching — but that sort of top-10-ish roster is basically where the Braves were expected to be all along. If they can avoid dumb stuff in September, they should have a playoff spot. If the dumb stuff resurfaces, well... that’ll be a tough scrabble back to the postseason in that case.

But, back to August. It was a good month! We had a lot of fun.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for August 2021 Performance - Position Players

Austin Riley had a 159 wRC+ in August. What’s crazy is that that mark is actually only his fourth-highest among calendar months (fifth if you count seven PAs in August 2019, which, don’t). He actually hit better in July (181 wRC+), and did so in a much more sustainable, appropriate way:

  • July 2021 Riley: 14.9% walk rate, 19.3% strikeout rate, .450 wOBA, .409 xwOBA
  • August 2021 Riley: 2.6% walk rate, 23.7% strikeout rate, .414 wOBA, .354 xwOBA

So, why highlight Riley here? Because, well, remember what happened in July? With that .450 wOBA, Riley somehow managed a bizarre, soul-crushing -0.40 WPA. In fact, through July, Riley had a 136 wRC+ and -0.41 WPA on the season. Yet, like many things, balance was found in August, even if Riley’s performance actually declined a fair bit. Riley put up 1.11 WPA for the month. In 12 of the month’s 26 games, Riley had a WPA of 0.06 or greater; he had a WPA of -0.06 or worse in just three of them. Only ten players finished the month with more WPA; he narrowly edged teammate Ozzie Albies (just a 96 wRC+ in August) for that spot.

If the Braves are going to forge ahead to a successful season in September, they’ll need Riley to keep raking. But they’ll also probably need his results to matter the way they did in August — none of this July, historically bad timing for outs sort of thing.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for August 2021 Performance - Starting Pitchers

Joining Riley in the “top 10 WPA for August” club is teammate Max Fried, who is very much on a roll. Fried had a disappointing April and has largely been solid since, but the “solid” has been a mix of great outings and unfortunate ones. Yet, he rocked August — 32 ERA-/51 FIP-/68 xFIP- in five starts, including the first complete game shutout of his career. It’s been arguably the best month of his career, with August 2019 (79/54/63) being the only real competition. The Braves won each of Fried’s August appearances, and he had positive WPA (not just positive, but substantial) in four of the five.

Like Riley, the Braves are going to need Fried to keep this up for another month, without which the path to the playoffs could get dicier.

Totally Meaningless Ivan Award for August 2021 Performance - Relief Pitchers

As far as relief weapons go, I’m not sure if Tyler “Are we still calling him ‘Death Star’?” Matzek qualifies as a secret one at this point, but he was real good in August. He led the team in fWAR, had a pretty silly 20 ERA-/46 FIP-/85 xFIP- line in 13 appearances spanning 10 23 innings, and gave up one lone run all month. Sadly, that lone run led to a costly loss in Los Angeles on the month’s final day, preventing Matzek from carrying a clean slate through August, and snapping his 20-appearance scoreless streak. Matzek had eight shutdowns and just the one meltdown in August, and his usage now seems a lot more cemented towards higher leverage than earlier in the season (August average leverage = 1.75, which is super high, compared to an average-y middle relief-esque 1.01 earlier).

I’ll stick with the same theme — while I don’t trust Matzek or any reliever to actually do anything of particular use at any future point, the Braves are going to have a much easier September if Matzek is a loud-and-clear deterrent to opposing offenses, as compared to some alternative scenario where he falters or falls down the bullpen depth chart while maintaining this level of effectiveness.

Best Offensive Play and Game

Yeah, doubling up on these. You know what it is, an epic moment that probably won’t define the season, but could very much be the emblem of the Braves team that surged its way through August:

I get a kick out of the commentary on the video talking about how the Braves need to think about a tie before a win, because Albies certainly didn’t. In one fell swoop, he turned a likely loss into a sure win — the 0.825 WPA on the play is one of the largest for any Brave in recent history. And it’s not like he didn’t do anything the rest of the game, either, as he singled and scored the first run of the game and also walked in this one before his big walkoff blast.

Albies’ heroics sent the Braves into a first-place tie in the division for the first time since late April. Again, I’m not sure anyone has really talked about this moment as some kind of metaphor or emblem for the 2021 Braves, but it should be.

Best Run-Stopping Play

A day before Albies teed off on former Brave Lucas Sims, the Braves opened their series with the Reds, and had their one-run lead in jeopardy in the ninth. Will Smith, whose most recent appearance was a brutally-epic meltdown (more on that later), came on to seal the deal, and was not inspiring that much confidence — with one out, light-hitting Kyle Farmer knocked a one-out double. Smith then walked Eugenio Suarez to bring up pinch-hitter Mike Moustakas.

Things were stressful, and only marginally less so after Moustakas flailed awfully at two breaking pitches nowhere near the strike zone. On 0-2, Smith did leave a slider fairly elevated, but Moustakas ended the game on it anyway:

Most Dominant Starting Pitching Performance

Yeah, it’s Max Fried’s shutout. Of course it is. The first one for the Braves in what felt like eons (not eons, just a few years), it came against the Orioles.

The thing is, Fried wasn’t carving guys up left and right here. With a 4/0 K/BB ratio, Fried leaned heavily on his defense, and his 54 ERA-/87 xFIP- in this game were certainly not bad, but not exactly incredibly dominant or anything. By FIP, he had eight better starts in 2021 alone. By xFIP, it was middling (Fried’s season-long xFIP- is 85). Even by xwOBA, the .250 mark he allowed was good, but not great — he’s had five better starts this year (and amazingly, his next start against the Giants, has his lowest single-game xwOBA-against of the season; of Fried’s 22 outings this season, five of the six with the lowest xwOBA are his five August starts).

Most Dominant Relief Pitching Performance

We haven’t talked about the new additions much, yet. I know there’s some tendency to ascribe to them the team’s turnaround, but I don’t see it. They’ve provided a boost for sure, but it’s been proportional to the team’s overall performance. Adam Duvall, Jorge Soler, and Joc Pederson combined for about 1.2 of the team’s 3.7 position player fWAR in August, while taking up about a third of the team’s PAs. On a fWAR basis, Dansby Swanson (1.1 fWAR in August) and Austin Riley (1.0) have driven the bus; on a WPA basis, it’s been Riley and Ozzie Albies.

This is even more true for new relief addition Richard Rodriguez, who had a weird first month as a Brave. Rodriguez was second only to Matzek among Braves relievers with 0.86 WPA, tallying five shutdowns and no meltdowns. In fact, Rodriguez has given up all of one run as a Brave, and it came in a blowout. Yet, Rodriguez provided 0.0 fWAR in August due to a middling 104 FIP- (that came with a horrid 131 xFIP-). There’s more to be said about Rodriguez separately, as he might be pitching in a way that the usual walks-and-strikeouts paradigm sidesteps... but that aside, this blurb is supposed to be about dominant relief pitching performances and not trades or run prevention methods, so...

On August 11, that same game that Albies ended with his delicious walkoff, Rodriguez came on to pitch the top of the tenth, stupid ghost runner on second and all. He struck out Eugenio Suarez on four pitches. He got a grounder for out number two on four pitches. His last test was Aristides Aquino, and five pitches later, the Braves had a great chance to walk it off. They didn’t, and had to come from behind via Albies’ homer, but that was a neat outing in a close game for Rodriguez, featuring one of his five (yes, only five) strikeouts as a Brave so far.

Most Crushed Dinger

Weirdly, August was not the month of massive moonshots hit by Braves batters. Technically this homer-in-a-blowout by Freddie Freeman was the most obvious longball of the month, but it feels kind of underwhelming. It didn’t go super-far, it was close to being a foul ball, etc. There were a few that went further, and a few that were hit harder, but I guess this is the best combination. Usually it’s just more impressive, though.

With all that said, the Braves did let some opportunities pass them by in this great month. Let’s remember those, too.

Worst Offensive Result and Game

This was just real disappointing. Maybe the most disappointing thing of the season, now that the season itself isn’t that disappointing.

On August 24, the Braves looked like they were going to be swept in two games by the Yankees when Aroldis Chapman came on to pitch the ninth in a two-run game. But then, something odd happened. Chapman got two outs, but then melted down. He walked Ehire Adrianza, and nearly walked Albies, who beat out an infield single. Then he walked Jorge Soler, making it a one-run game. The Yankees swapped Chapman for Wandy Peralta with Freddie Freeman due up, and... yeah the Braves got swept in two games by the Yankees.

Had that ball gotten down, it would’ve only changed the standings by a game, but this was a reminder that everything is still not going to come up Milhouse for the Braves in 2021, August surge aside.

This was also not a great game for Freeman otherwise. He did have a walk and a hit, and scored the team’s first run, but was also thrown out at the plate (should he have been? sigh) and made another key out in a rally that saw another out on the bases.

Worst Pitching Result and Relief Pitching Performance

Between August 3 and August 22, the Braves only lost twice. That was their big rally up the standings. One of those losses, though, oh boy...

In the ninth inning, the Braves handed Will Smith a two-run lead over the Nationals. A walk and a double immediately threatened it, but there seemed to be a chance the Braves could still win without extra innings when Smith got Carter Kieboom to pop out to left. Luis Garcia followed with an RBI grounder, so all Will Smith needed to do was to get one more out to deliver a victory. The guy he needed to retire was catcher Riley Adams, a rookie with a -22 wRC+ (yes that’s a negative sign) in 35 PAs to that point.

Smith did not retire Adams. Instead, Smith allowed this to Adams.


Worst Starting Pitching Performance

Kyle Muller got my totally meaningless starting pitcher award for July, but it didn’t really last into August. He scuffled through a start on August 6 against the Nationals, and on August 12, things just completely fell apart. As early as the second, Muller could no longer throw his fastball with any degree of precision or effectiveness, which eventually led to a grand slam. The Braves inexplicably left him in the game for the third, and he was yanked after retiring just one of the next three batters. Josh Tomlin further torched Muller’s line and turned the game into a laugher, and Muller was sent back to the minors after the game.

All in all, Muller’s 2021 stint in the majors was successful and surprisingly so, but in August, he showcased why he was such a risk. The fastball issues came out of nowhere, apparently weren’t fixable in-start, and the Braves hung him out to dry in the hopes that he could right the ship. That’s deadly in what could be a close race.

Most Crushed Ball Allowed

This one was just... fwoom. Touki Toussaint has done okay despite the pivot to the sinker, but sinkers there don’t tend to be a good idea, even moreso than sinkers in general.

See you next month, when we’ll all be really happy or really sad or something.