The Braves are 54-41, in first place by six games. On the other hand, they’re also 5-5 in their last 10 games, 11-9 in their last 20, 15-15 in their last 30, 21-19 in their last 40, 27- 23 in their last 50, 33-27 in their last 60, 38-32 in their last 70, and 41-39 in their last 80. Without mentioning anything unlucky, it’s possible to say the following two things: 1) the Braves are a good team that is very likely to make it to October, and 2) the Braves are a flawed team that is benefiting from an extraordinarily weak division.
So, who am us, anyway? (The title was stolen from an old Firesign Theater line.)
First, it’s easy to see who we’re not. Before the season, you could predict that the Mets and Marlins wouldn’t be much good. Both teams traded their best players to the Blue Jays: Dickey from the Mets and Reyes, Johnson, and Buehrle from the Marlins. (The Blue Jays didn’t manage to get better, but the Marlins and Mets certainly managed to get worse.)
The Phillies were old and have gotten older, and catastrophic injuries to Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard were another nail in the coffin. They still have some good players, particularly Hamels, Lee, the emergent Domonic Brown, and Zombie Chase Utley. I won’t count them out till the stake is through their heart, but they’re more likely to play spoiler than to be a wild card.
That leaves the Nationals, and if you think the Braves offense has been frustrating, just be glad you haven’t been rooting for them. A few little things have gone wrong: Bryce Harper missed a month after crashing into a wall, the bullpen ERA is three-tenths of a run higher this season than last season, Danny Espinosa tried to hide a broken wrist for nearly two months while struggling to hit his weight, Dan Haren has been off most of the season. But they’ve gotten creditable performances from rookies Anthony Rendon, who seems to have Wally Pipped Espinosa, and from Taylor Jordan, filling in for a disabled Haren. The first-half Nationals have been less than the sum of their parts. I wouldn’t count on that remaining the case all year.
To this point, the Nationals and Phillies have been very top-heavy teams: some stars are performing very well, but others have performed very poorly or failed to stay on the field. The Braves have benefited from a much more balanced roster, with few exceptional performances but a large number of good enough ones.
Generally speaking, the stars are all flawed in one way or another, but they compensate for their flaws in other ways. Andrelton Simmons is having a Francoeurian year at the plate, but he is very possibly the best defensive player in the majors. The Upton-Upton-Heyward outfield all have contact issues and swing through too many fastballs, but they compensate with power and arm strength, and Jason Heyward is one of the best defensive outfielders and baserunners in the National League.
Dan Uggla strikes out a ton and plays poor defense but hits a bunch of homers and walks a lot. (My favorite description of him at the plate comes from W.C.G., who correctly noted that he “is a spiderweb-on-the-elbow tattoo away from actually being 2007 Andruw Jones.”) Chris Johnson plays brutal defense, but he’s done nothing but hit all year. Of course, Freeman and McCann are the All-Stars — hard to complain about them.
It’s similar when it comes to the pitching staff. Both Minor and Teheran have terrific strikeout to walk ratios, but they are occasionally undone by the longball. Kris Medlen is great when he can find his command but that only happens about half the time. Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm are both tightrope walkers.
Generally, the part-timers have been better, on both sides of the ball. The bullpen has been terrific, partly because, since Gearrin’s demotion, just about every man in there throws 95. Luis Avilan and Anthony Varvaro are tightrope walkers, but they still throw bullets. Walden, Carpenter, and Wood have all been terrific, and while Kimbrel hasn’t been the Kraken of 2012, he’s still Craig Kimbrel.
The bench has been wonderful, though strangely it has suffered a great deal more attrition than the starting lineup. Jordan Schafer and Ramiro Pena were having career years before a broken ankle and a torn labrum took them out of commission: Schafer will be out at least another month, and Pena’s out the rest of the season. Evan Gattis was having a Yasiel Puiglike rookie campaign before an oblique strain cost him a month. And at least by rate stats, Gerald Laird — the third catcher, now that both McCann and Gattis are healthy — is having by far the best season of his career.
What’s more, the organization has enough depth to be able to compensate for these injuries and more glancing blows to the starting lineup, as the Braves have been able to cycle in Reed Johnson, Joey Terdoslavich, and Jose Constanza, with Paul Janish playing the Rafael Belliard role as a defensive caddy shortstop when Andrelton Simmons needs a breath.
Now, it is a strange thing, and not entirely a good thing, when your bench is a doing a better job than your starters. It is not at all a good thing when commenters on this board can ask with a straight face whether Jordan Schafer ought to start in the playoffs over the brand-new $75 million center fielder. If I told you before the season that B.J. Upton would have a worse season than Jordan Schafer, I doubt that you would have concluded that the Braves would lead their division by six games at the All-Star break. Yet here we are.
The thing is, because so many Braves starters have underperformed, the team isn’t exactly likely to regress. In fact, it would not be surprising if the Braves started to experience better luck in the second half, and those players started to bounce back. There is some chance that Chris Johnson will regress; there is at least as good a chance that Heyward, Upton, and Upton will do far better than they have done so far. There is some chance that Avilan will melt down, or that David Carpenter’s arm will fall off, but there is at least as good a chance that one of two things will happen: Either a) Medlen will remember where the strike zone is as a starter, or b) Brandon Beachy will pitch at least as well in the rotation as 2013 Medlen while Medlen takes the place of our least effective reliever. Either way, the staff would add a very good piece.
There is no ultimate hedge against injury. So all of this has to be caveated appropriately. But still: the Braves are a good team, and though individual players have done better or worse than predicted, they have more or less performed as expected. They have a .568 winning percentage, which translates to 92 wins over a full season. That’s pretty much about what you’d have thought before the season.
Because of its evenly balanced roster, not reliant on any single player, this team is well built for the regular season. Of course, the postseason is a whole other story. But we’ll cross that bridge if and when we come to it.