The Braves clinched the National League East last season with five games to spare. They wrapped in 2019 with 12 games remaining and claimed the division in ‘18 with seven games left.
After splitting eight games at home with a collection of NL cellar dwellers, they may not be celebrating early if they manage to push the steak to four straight crowns.
Things are getting tight with a three-game lead over the Phillies and a daunting 10-game trip to the Pacific Time Zone ahead. But let’s not go full-on This Is Fine meme dog here. Atlanta remains atop the East and continues to get major contributions from its new-look outfield, which has three of the team’s top six wRC+s.
We’ll start there with this week’s Starting Nine, where one of those trade deadline pickups is putting his name alongside some of the top deadline acquisitions this team has ever had.
1. Soler reaching upper echelon of all-time Braves trade acquisitions
Atlanta has received strong contributions from each member of its recently acquired outfield corps — Adam Duvall has gone deep 13 times, Eddie Rosario has 147 wRC+ since his Braves debut and has homered four times and Joc Pederson has five bombs, a memorable catch and a walk-off on his resume — but let’s put a deserved spotlight, Jorge Soler. Among Braves outfielders with at least 50 plate appearances, Soler’s 134 wRC+ trails only Ronald Acuña Jr. (138) and his .921 OPS since the All-Star break is 11th among all outfielders. The outfielder is working on one of the top first acts of any position player acquired in franchise history. The measuring stick for any bat the Braves land at the deadline will always be Fred McGriff — as much for the absurdity of what happened at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium the day he joined the team in 1993 and what he delivered at the plate — with the first baseman producing a 1.004 OPS and 19 home runs in 68 games that season. Mark Teixeira was right there with the Crime Dog, though, homering 17 times with a 1.020 OPS in 54 games in 2007 and had 165 wRC+ his first after his arrival in Atlanta. Two years later, Adam LaRoche outdid Teixeira, hitting 89 percent above league average his first month with the Braves. That trio, Teixeria (1.020), McGriff (1.004) and LaRoche (.957) are the only qualified hitters that produced a higher OPS after being acquired by the Braves than the .884 that Soler is currently sitting on in a Braves uniform. Since the start of the Braves’ series against the Orioles (Aug. 20), the 29-year-old free-agent-to-be has a .943 OPS with seven homers and five doubles, that OPS the 14th best in the majors (minimum 100 PAs) in that span and 124 points higher than the next closest Braves player (Freddie Freeman at .819). He’s not making anyone forget about what the Braves are missing with Acuña — who was putting together and MVP-type season before his season-ending knee injury — in right field, but Soler is guaranteeing he’ll land on any future lists of the franchise’s top moves at the deadline.
2. Albies’ assault on extra-base history
Rogers Hornsby is the only second baseman to ever have more than 77 extra-base hits though their age-25 season. Ozzie Albies current pace will have him challenging the Hall of Famer’s record, and at a year younger than Hornsby was in 1921 when he had 83 XBH. Albies, who currently has 34 doubles, 28 home runs and six triples, and leads the NL with that total of 68, is on pace for 77 XBH (39 doubles, 32 homers and six triples). There have only been 15 seasons by a second baseman with 80 or more XBH, with the Blue Jays’ Marcus Semien is two away from expanding that number this season. At a minimum, Albies already owns the franchise record for extra-base hits at the position with 75 during the 2019 season, a number he’s well on his way to eclipsing. At a maximum, Albies may put his name alongside one of the greats in the game at any position in Hornsby with his penchant for producing XBH.
3. Dansby Swanson and Gold Glove defense
Can we talk about the absurdity that goes into defensive metrics? Dansby Swanson ranks 13th overall in defensive runs above average (6.7) and seventh in the NL, largely because The Fielding Bible’s Defensive Runs Saved metric has him at minus-4. That figure alone says Swanson is the worst everyday shortstop in the NL as the only player in the circuit that’s negative in that metric. But he’s also made the fourth-most out of zone plays (98) and the most total plays (223), is third in fielding percentage (.982) and has 11 fewer errors (nine) than Javier Baez (20) and three less than Trevor Story (12), two of the NL’s leaders per the Fielding Bible’s stats. He also made a double play that figures to be on every highlight reel we see of Dansby Swanson from here until eternity. A Gold Glove finalist a year ago — when he lost out to Baez — Swanson is putting together a defensive season that could see him return to that stage ... or not? While advanced metrics have made it more streamlined to gauge a player’s worth at the plate, this is another case of how confounding they can be when it comes to sizing up a defender.
4. Duvall joining ridiculous company with RISPY business practices
Make it 16 home runs for Adam Duvall with runners in scoring position, a number that is putting the outfielder in some pretty insane company as he keeps coming through in the clutch. He’s currently tied with 16 other plays since 1901 for the most RISP homers in a season, equal to six Hall of Famers (Johnny Bench in 1970, Jimmie Foxx in 1932, Lou Gehrig in 1936, Ken Griffey Jr. in 1996, Babe Ruth in 1929 and Frank Thomas in 2000) another player bound for Cooperstown in Albert Pujols (2002). The all-time record is 20, shared by Mark McGwire in 1998 and Jim Gentile in ‘61 at 20. Duvall’s 16 is already a record for any player who wore a Braves uniform during a season, passing up the 15 hit by Dale Murphy in 1983.
5. Rodriguez finally changing his gameplan
Something needed to change with Richard Rodriguez, and it looks like he may finally be flipping the script. His fastball usage since being acquired by the Braves was getting ridiculous, even for a guy who was throwing that pitch 87.1 percent of the time this season between the Pirates and Atlanta. Before Tuesday night against the Rockies, three of his last five appearances included fastball rates above his season average, with two at 90 percent of higher. That reliance proved a problem as he gave up four home runs and in three games, including two on Sept. 11 vs. the Marlins. Now he’s looking more like the Rodriguez of 2020, when he was fanning guys at a 63.6 percent clip with a slider, he threw 27.6 percent of the time. In facing Colorado, Rodriguez’s fastball came at 73.3 percent — his third-lowest rate since he was traded July 30 — as he offered his slider 26.7 percent of the time. He didn’t get a swing and miss on the pitch, but Rodriguez changing course with his selection is a step in the right direction.
Today’s Braves – Rockies Game has been Postponed Due to Inclement Weather and Unplayable Field Conditions: pic.twitter.com/fTfD0ZTzxc— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) September 16, 2021
6. Will they play 162?
The Braves are hoping the next time they’ll see the Rockies will be in 2022. No makeup date was set after Wednesday’s rain out, and with no common off-days for teams before the end of the regular season, there’s the possibility it could be played Oct. 4 if there’s a scenario in which Atlanta’s postseason status hangs in the balance. If the NL East is decided by that point, it will be the fourth time since MLB adopted a 162-game schedule in 1961 — taking strike-shortened and a pandemic-shortened season out of the equation — that the Braves didn’t play the entirety of the scheduled games, following 2002, 1989 and ‘88. The next few weeks Colorado will no doubt be rooting hard for the Braves. The Rockies’ last regular-season game is at Arizona on Oct. 3, and you have to think the last thing a team that’s 26 1/2 games out of the NL West wants is to follow that up with a flight across the country to play the next day.
7. The fifth element
From the department of These Things Have a Way of Working Themselves Out, Wednesday’s postponement did provide a positive for the Braves rotation. No longer will they have to figure out who would have taken the next turn as the fifth starter during the weekend series at the Giants. Ian Anderson — slated to start in the series finale vs. the Rockies — will now get the ball Friday in San Francisco with Charlie Morton and Max Fried to follow. But then what? Touki Toussaint is doing much to hold down a rotation spot — he has an 8.10 ERA in his last four starts and allowed four home runs — and Drew Smyly was cast off to the bullpen. Expecting Huascar Ynoa follows Fried and throws the opener against the Diamondbacks on Sept. 20, the Braves will still need to figure out what to do Sept. 21 at Arizona, in the suspended game that will be picked up Sept. 24 at San Diego (before they play that day’s regular-scheduled game) and the series-ender against the Padres. Maybe they go with a bullpen game, dip into the minor-league ranks with Kyle Muller or Kyle Wright or see if Smyly has had a chance to right the ship after a mental and physical break from starting. Muller may be due another chance after allowing two runs or less in all five of his starts since rejoining Triple-A Gwinnett in mid-August. Thursday’s postponement bought the Braves time, but how they fill that spot after Morton, Fried, Anderson and Ynoa is a problem that’s still going to need to be figured out, eventually.
8. Braves proving claustrophobic when it comes to close games
Last season, the Braves’ .667 winning percentage in games decided by two runs or less topped the NL. The year before that, they ranked third overall at .605. If they wind up missing the postseason this season, it may well come back to an inability to win those kinds of games. Atlanta’s .490 winning percentage is 20th, and they are at .451 in one-run games, suffering the second most losses (28) in the majors. The Braves’ 2.99 average margin of defeat is saved by only the Angels (2.45) from being the game’s lowest. Those narrow losses have been a major issue of late. Atlanta has played 12 games decided by two runs or fewer in the last 15 games and have dropped nine of them. Even if the Braves do stay the course and punch another postseason ticket, the intensity and close games are going to follow, with more than half of the games played from the Division Series-on last season were by two runs or less. How will this team respond?
9. Buckle up for a trip out West
Things are about to get very, very interesting with the Braves losing a game and a half off their division lead as they hop a plane to face the Giants and Padres (with the Diamondbacks in between). While Atlanta already took a series over the NL West-leading Giants last month, San Francisco has lost just three home sets since May 23 and trails only the Dodgers in the NL in wins at their park with 47. Meanwhile, the Braves have lost 18 of the last 25 games in San Diego and the past 10 years won series there three times (2011, ‘17 and ‘19). For those who saw the Braves leading the division by as many as 5 1/2 games on Aug. 27 and looked at those last two home series vs. the Phillies and Mets and thought “yeah, it’s going to come down to that homestand,” they just might get your wish.