In what is the most surprising baseball story of the year, the Atlanta Braves, despite having almost no national buzz going into the season, currently have the best record in the National League.
This, of course, is fantastic news for me. My earliest sports memories are almost all baseball ones, and they begin with the fantastic Atlanta teams of the 1990s and 2000s that won 14 straight division titles. They spoiled me, and tricked me into thinking that the Braves would field playoff-level teams every single year, stacked with Hall of Famers like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Chipper Jones.
Those days have been gone for a long time. Between then and now there’s been a lot of average to downright awful baseball. There was the blown 8 and half game lead in the Wild Card race during the 2011 season, the “Infield Fly Rule” game in the 2012 NL Wild Card Game, the Upton Brothers Atlanta teams in ’13 and ’14 that struck out a ton and weren’t all that likeable, and a three year record from ’15-’17 that was a ghastly 207-278.
This 2018 team is the one we’ve all been hearing about, the one the organization has been building since they blew everything up following Atlanta's disastrous 2014 season. It just looks like they arrived a year or two earlier than everyone thought.
A couple things have happened that not everyone expected:
1. Ozzie Albies is really freaking good
Yeah, not breaking any news here, but the man can flat out play. He’s my new favorite Brave, thanks to his powerful bat (he’s tied for the league lead in home runs, total bases, and extra base hits), his excellent defense, and the signature way his helmet always flies off his head as he attempts to stretch his single into a double. Never change Ozzie! He’s a sure-fire All Star and MVP candidate.
2. Nick Markakis is no longer a corpse
Markakis was the most frustrating Brave for me the last three seasons, mostly because I had no idea why he was on the roster. He wasn’t a home-grown guy, and Atlanta had no reason to throw money at him in the middle of their rebuild. Plus, he hadn’t hit over .300 since 2008, or had more than 23 home runs or 100 RBIs since 2009. The guy was in his early 30s and just seemed more washed up than King Theoden at the beginning of The Two Towers.
Which is why his sudden resurgence the first quarter of the season was totally unexpected. Did Gandalf kick in the door to Braves spring training and command Saruman to leave him? What else could possibly explain his .333 batting average, or league-leading 54 hits?
3. Freddie Freeman is probably the National League MVP through the first quarter of the season
If Albies isn’t the NL MVP, than it’s assuredly Freeman, who is the top ten in all of baseball in batting average, on base percentage, OPS, and RBIs. Freeman has always been a solid, borderline All Star, but he’s jumped to another level this season. I never feel like he’s going to get out in a big spot, and despite the fact that he runs without using his arms, he’s on his way to the best season of his career.
4. No major injuries (knock on wood)
Jesus, I feel stupid for even putting this out there. I swear, if Albies blows out his knee sliding into second tomorrow, I’m going to have a “who can slam their head into the coffee table the most times without getting a concussion” contest all by myself. Let’s just move on and pretend I never brought this up.
5. The best offense in the National League
Atlanta is tops in the NL in runs, hits, total bases, batting average, on base percentage, and slugging, all while having the second fewest strikeouts.
6. A young pitching staff that’s (mostly) held up
The Braves have the eighth best team ERA in all of baseball, and have posted the ninth most strikeouts and ninth best batting average against. The starters have been the real standouts, which has been a shock considering Atlanta had only two pitchers, Julio Teheran and Brandon McCarthy, who had more than 65 career starts entering the season. Mike Foltynewicz has had easily the best season of his career (2.87 ERA), and Sean Newcomb hasn’t allowed a run in his last three starts.
Not everything has worked out, of course….
1. Jose Bautista has been a giant disappointment
I don’t think anyone expected Bautista to be a 50 home run, 100 RBI machine like he was during his prime in Toronto, but to have him bat a paltry .156 with just 2 home runs and 5 RBIs in 11 games makes me wonder why he’s even been in the Atlanta lineup with any consistency. Plus, it’s not like he’s anything special in the field defensively. Are we sure Rougned Odor didn’t knock his brain loose when he punched him in the jaw two years ago this week? Bautista was fresh off 6 straight All Star games appearances and four 35 homer, 100 RBI seasons, but since the punch, the only thing that’s plummeted faster than his career is his batting average. He played 157 games in 2017, and hit 23 home runs, drove in 69 runs, and struck out 170 times. In 153 games in 2015, he hit 40 home runs, knocked in 114 runs, and struck out just 106 times. Not since Ron Artest has a fight altered a players career so significantly.
Side note: Odor-Bautista was the biggest sports fight since the Malice in the Palace, and the best in baseball since Pedro Martinez threw Don Zimmer to the ground by his bald head during the 2003 ALCS. The most incredible thing about it was the fact that Bautista got absolutely clocked and somehow didn’t collapse to the ground completely concussed. I’m fairly certain that if anyone punched me like that, I’d literally have stars swiveling around my head like a cartoon character.
2. They don’t have a reliable closer
You can never have enough arms on a baseball team, but the biggest flaw on this Atlanta team is the fact that they don’t have anyone they can consistently trust to get 3 outs in the 9th inning. Arodys Vizcaino isn’t good enough; he couldn’t get outs on Tuesday night against the Cubs and blew another save. A.J. Minter looked shaky as hell in Monday’s game against Chicago, as he loaded the bases and walked home a run by hitting a batter. I don’t think the closer they need for the postseason is anywhere on this roster, though some people seem to think right handed Dan Winkler has potential to be the guy. This is all assuming he can stay healthy, of course. Winkler has already had Tommy John surgery, and he missed most of 2016 and ’17 with a broken elbow. I’d see what he has in that role, but I’d also be looking around the trade market to see if I could add someone. This all assumes Atlanta themselves thinks they’re contenders. Which leads us to our next point….
3. I’m not sure the Braves think, or want to be, contenders this season
Again, this season has been totally unexpected. I think the Braves assumed they were going to suck again, as did most people, and that’s why they left a few holes on their roster. If I were them, and I was the best team in the National League a quarter of the way into the season, I’d be going for it. Why? Because sports is weird, championships are nearly impossible to come by, and you never know when you’ll be in this situation again. In 2012, the Washington Nationals entered the postseason with the best record in the National League, and were considered to be the World Series favorites. If anyone was ever going to go all out for a championship, it should’ve been that team, right? Wrong. In September, the Nats decided to shut down their young starter Stephen Strasburg for the rest of the season after he’d reached the innings restriction they placed on him due to the fact that he’d had Tommy John surgery the year prior. It was a mistake then, and it was proven so when the Cardinals eliminated them in the NLDS. Look, I’m not saying they definitely win the World Series with Strasburg, but he was also one of their best starters that year, and a guy capable of a big outing if you needed one. But they pissed it all away, I guess because they assumed they had a young team, and that they’d be in this position for years to come. And sure, while they’ve been to multiple postseasons since then, they still haven’t won a playoff series. Maybe things turn out differently in 2012 if they had him. We’ll never know.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are another example of this. OKC made the Finals in 2012 a year or two earlier than anyone expected, and were favorites to get back to their in 2013 as the season began. Or, at least they should’ve been the favorites, until they stupidly decided to trade their third best player and, at the time, sixth man James Harden, to Houston, basically because they didn’t want to pay him in at the end of the year when his contract expired. There was no reason they couldn’t have just held onto him for all of the 2013 season and pushed all in for another run at the title. But they didn’t, I’m assuming because they thought they’d been so lucky in the draft that they’d just be able to draft another Harden that they could pay next-to-nothing for the next couple of years. This, of course, worked out horribly for them. Harden became an MVP candidate with the Rockets, and the Thunder never made it back to the Finals after the trade. Russell Westbrook got hurt in 2013, which torpedoed their chances; they lost to the Spurs in the 2014 Western Conference Finals; Kevin Durant broke his foot in 2015; and the 2016 team blew a 3 games to 1 lead against the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Four years, no rings, and a waste of the first half Durant’s and Westbrook’s career. You had all three of those guys before their primes? That should’ve been MULTIPLE titles. But it wasn’t, all because they were too cheap.
Which brings us back to Atlanta. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, next season, or in ten years. Freeman could break his leg in ten places, Albies could stop suddenly stop hitting, and Ronald Acuna Jr. could just be another Jason Heyward. When you’ve got a chance for a title, you have to go for it. You can’t assume you’ll be back next year, or have the same shot again, no matter how bright you think your future is. Because it can change in an instant. Which is why they should be active buyers on the trade market the next few months. I’d be taking any bullpen arms they could get. Go for it!
Regardless of what happens, this is definitely the most fun and loveable Braves team in years. Fans always gravitate towards the home grown guys, because there’s a sense that they’re really “our guys”, and not a bunch of hired guns. This Atlanta team is full of “our guys”, and it’s been a great first month and a half. Here’s to hoping it continues.