We are two games shy of the halfway point of the season. After 79 games, the Braves are 45-34 and leading the NL East.
What have we learned so far? Freddie is the best hitter in the league. No surprise there, but the big difference over last year is that when he got hit on the hand, it didn’t break; that may be the biggest factor in the team’s success. Kakes is improbably having a career year at age 34. Flowzuki is (are?) improbably replicating their success of a year ago. Ozzie is a star, improbably leading the league in extra base hits. Folty and Newk have both taken big strides forward. Anibal Sanchez, when healthy, is pitching like it’s 2013. Dan Winkler, even with a couple of shaky outings recently, has been as good as any reliever in the league.
Will the Braves sustain this success in the second half? How the hell should I know? We’ve already cited Yogi for the difficulty of prognostication. Really, though, this Braves team is especially tough to predict. There aren’t that many veterans with proven track records. And you know, even proven veterans can surprise. See, e.g., Markakis—he was the most consistent hitter in the league for several years; nothing great, but you knew what you’d get. And now, for at least half a season, he’s better than he’s ever been.
But the big uncertainty is the young players. Will Albies keep this up? Until the last several games, he was in a slump, then he catches fire again. Will Newk and Folty maintain their success? I don’t know about you, but both of them keep me on the edge of anxiety in every start—but the results are terrific. Is Swanson the hitter he was in 2016 and in April 2018? Or the hitter he was in 2017 and May 2018? Is Camargo’s new plate discipline for real, and when his BABIP luck turns he will be an .850 OPS guy? Or is he really just a ,240 hitter with a little power? And what will Acuna do going forward now that he’s back? (that’s the one I’m most excited to see)
How predictive is that fact that the Braves are 11 games over .500 and in first place? Let’s look at some other Braves seasons. I looked for ones in which the record was pretty similar after 79 games. The 2011 squad was 44-35; as you may recall, they finished 89-73 and just missed the playoffs. That was the awful September collapse year—81-55 on 9/1, but they went 8-18 the rest of the way. The year before, in Bobby’s last year, the Braves were 46-33, finished 91-71, and made the wild card.
One season with an identical record to this year after 79 games was 1993. The difference is that the Braves were way behind the Bonds-led Giants. But they traded for Crime Dog, the press box burned, and after a thrilling pennant race they won 104 games and the division by one game. I don’t expect the 2018 Braves to go 59-24 the rest of the way, but fortunately they won’t need to. Many have compared this year to 1991 (you know, terrible for several years, but all of a sudden a young team gets good). The 91 team was 39-40 at this point. That happened to be the exact time that the team went on a tear, making up nine games in the standings in a couple of weeks. They had a second half of 55-28. Again, that shouldn’t be necessary this year to win the division.
Here are a couple of cautionary tales. The 1983 team was 48-31, but had a miserable last five weeks and finished 88-74, just out of the playoffs. Similarly, the next year they were 43-36, but finished the season 80-82 (and cost Joe Torre his job).
The 1982 division winners were 49-30 after 79 (thanks largely to the 13 game streak to start the season), and finished 89-73, which was just good enough to edge the Dodgers. You might assume that they limped across the finish line, but actually, after losing 19 out of 21 in August, the team had a strong September to come from behind to win. That team is the ultimate in proving that streaks of a couple or three weeks don’t by themselves determine success or failure in a long season.
What do we glean from this? Just the obvious, I suppose. It’s a long season, and fortunes can turn pretty dramatically in a few weeks, in either direction.
How many of us on this board predicted that the Braves would be this good? Well, I looked back at the predictions post and thread from last March, and Coop and Adam R deserve credit for predicting the Braves to win the division—but there may have been a good bit of tongue in their cheeks as they typed.
By the way, here is what I wrote in that thread:
“Look, I know the Braves’ win total is likely to be somewhere in the 70’s. But it’s March, and I’m entitled to dream big dreams (see,e.g., UMBC over UVA). In my dream, it’s 1991 all over again. The starting pitching is dominant (Folty, Newk, Gohara, Fried make dramatic leaps forward, McCarthy is this year’s Leibrandt), the defense is much improved over last year,and several hitters have career years.
I’ll see your 91 or 92 wins, Coop and Adam R, and raise it. 94 wins!…Or none of that could happen and they win 67.”
I’ll stand by my preseason prediction. They will win 94 and the division, or maybe they’ll win 67. The good news is, at the halfway point the former is a good deal more likely than the latter. I’m doing my best to enjoy the ride and not worry too much about Snit’s game decisions or AA’s trade intentions.
Very tough stretch of games coming up, starting Friday evening in St. Louis. We’ll have a better idea of where we stand at the All Star Break in a couple of weeks—or will we?