Posted April 17, 2013

Braves will cool off eventually but all signs point to a deep run

Atlanta Braves
Atlanta Braves

Post-game celebrations have been a common sight for the Braves this season. (ZUMApress.com)

The Atlanta Braves entered Wednesday afternoon’s game against the Royals with a major-league-best 12-1 record. How impressive is that? They are one of just a dozen teams since the start of the 20th century to open a season 12-1 or better, the last being the 2003 Giants. Despite a 1-0 loss to Kansas City at Turner Field that dropped them to 12-2, the Braves still have a healthy lead i the National League East and have lived up to preseason projections that had them reaching the postseason for the second straight year and the third time in four seasons.

Here’s a quick look at the other 11 teams to match or exceed the Braves 12-1 start and their ultimate performance that season:

13-1 teams

Year Team Final W% Result
1918 Giants .573 2nd place
1966 Indians .500 5th Place
1981 A’s .587 Lost ALCS
1982 Braves* .549 Lost NLDS
1984 Tigers .642 Won World Series
1987 Brewers* .562 3rd place
1994 Braves .596 2nd place
2003 Giants .621 Lost NLDS

*started 13-0

12-1 teams that lost their 14th game:

Year Team Final W% Result
1911 Tigers .578 2nd place
1938 Giants .553 3rd place
1966 Orioles .606 Won World Series

With the exception of the ’66 Indians, the worst performance above was that of the 1982 Braves, who still went 89-73 and won the National League West. True, six of the 11 teams above missed the postseason (that includes the 1994 Braves, who were in playoff position when the strike ended the season), but that has as much to do with the strength of their competition and the relative lack of playoff spots as with their own performance.

Based on that history, Atlanta’s hot start at the very least suggests this is a team capable of winning 90 or more games, which should be enough to put them back in the playoffs (the Cardinals were the second wild card team in the NL last year with just 88 wins). That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. After all, the Braves won 94 games last year and in the offseason added the Upton brothers, B.J. and Justin, the latter of whom has powered Atlanta out of the gate by hitting a major league best eight home runs entering Wednesday.

There are, of course, small-sample caveats that must be applied to Atlanta’s hot start, and the realization that it lost key contributors Martin Prado (in the Justin Upton trade with Arizona), Chipper Jones (to retirement), and Michael Bourn (to free agency), players worth a combined 14.3 wins above replacement last year per Baseball-Reference, in the offseason. In addition, half of the Braves’ 12 wins have come against the Marlins and Cubs, two teams that entered the season looking like locks for last place and, thus far, have lived down to those expectations, going a combined 7-20 (.259).

On the other hand, Atlanta’s winning streak also includes a road sweep of the Nationals last weekend in which the Braves outscored the defending division champions 18-5. As that lop-sided series score suggests, the Braves are more good than lucky, and they boast an offense that may continue to churn out an average of five runs per game. The real catalyst behind their excellent play, has been the pitching staff, which has allowed just two runs per game. That, though, is where the correction is going to come. Last year, no team allowed fewer than the Rays’ 3.56 runs per game, a scoring rate 178 percent higher than what the Braves have allowed so far. The only question is how severe that correction is going to be.

Ironically, this is the same question I asked about this team heading into spring training. As I wrote then, Atlanta went 52-29 (.642) over the last 81 games of the 2012 season with Kris Medlen (9-0 with a 0.93 ERA in 12 starts and nine relief appearances over that stretch), Mike Minor (7-4, 2.21 ERA over his final 15 starts), Tim Hudson (10-3, 3.42 ERA), Paul Maholm (3.54 ERA in 11 starts after being acquired via trade) and Ben Sheets (3.47 ERA in nine starts) combining for a 2.65 ERA over 63 starts after July 4 and closer Craig Kimbrel posting a 0.55 ERA and 18.2 K/9 over his final 33 appearances.

Sheets has since retired and been replaced by 22-year-old rookie Julio Teheran, who has been the one sore spot in the Braves’ rotation, posting a 7.36 ERA in two starts, both games later won by the team’s bats and bullpen. The rest of those pitchers look as good or better as they did down the stretch in 2012, even Medlen, whose 1.42 ERA is still sparkling even if it is a small step back from his impossible-to-repeat performance down the stretch last year. Maholm and Minor, two pitchers who seemed locks to regress due to the former’s well-established track record of mediocrity and the latter’s luck on balls in play late last season, have combined to allow one run (charged to Minor) in 33 1/3 innings. Kimbrel hasn’t allowed a run yet this year, and the top six men in the bullpen have combined to allow just four runs in 33 1/3 innings (1.08 ERA). In that context, Hudson’s 2-0, 2.50 ERA start looks ordinary.

These scintillating starts aren’t sustainable, of course. Maholm won’t go the whole season without allowing a run, nor will Kimbrel, Anthony Varvaro or Cory Gearrin. Those are all small-sample numbers that won’t last, but then so is the Braves’ .923 winning percentage. The upshot is that neither Atlanta nor its pitching staff needs to be that utterly dominant for this team to not only get back to the playoffs, but to get deeper than it did last year, when iteffectively booted away the first-ever wild card game against the Cardinals (yes, it was the Braves’ errors, more than any umpiring decision, that cost them that game).

What the Braves have really shown us thus far is that there was more than luck involved in the performance of their pitching staff down the stretch in 2012 and that they are absolutely one of the best teams in baseball in 2013. As for exactly how close to the top of the heap they truly are, however, well, there are another 149 games left to sort that out.

UPDATE: This post was updated after Atlanta’s 1-0 loss on Wednesday afternoon.

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