The 2014 Atlanta Braves are, as Sam pointed out here, very probably one of the five best teams in the league. Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs’ Cool Standings give us something like a 64% chance of making the playoffs, either by winning the division or taking one of the two Wild Card spots, and that seems about right.
This is a really weak division in a really weak league, and the Braves have a very good shot at limping into the playoffs. The Giants and Brewers are looking like paper tigers, the Pirates aren’t as lucky as they were last year, the Cardinals and Dodgers are good but not transcendent, and the Nationals are their own worst enemies. In that company, the Braves can’t exactly hold their heads high, but they can certainly hold their own.
It’s not the most exciting team to watch, I’ll give you that. Andrelton Simmons followed up arguably the greatest defensive season of all time by being merely the best defensive shortstop in baseball, and Jason Heyward came into his own as something like Mike Cameron: transcendent defense, tons of strikeouts, and the occasional walk and occasional homer. (This is high praise. Cameron was always one of Mac’s favorite players, and he’s from LaGrange.) And then… well, Chris Johnson sucks, B.J. Upton sucks, Justin Upton’s good but streaky, Evan Gattis is good but injured, our bench is a tire fire, and Dan Uggla got 145 unholy plate appearances before the Braves called up Tommy La Stella and got treated to the rare pleasure of seeing what a league-average second baseman looks like.
The pitching staff has done yeoman’s work. The Braves’ 3.36 team ERA is pretty impressive, especially considering that three separate Braves starters have gone down with Tommy John surgeries, and Mike Minor missed a month and really hasn’t been right all year. For that matter, neither have Luis Avilan nor David Carpenter, and those were three of our best pitchers last year.
Julio Teheran is an All-Star, though, and no damn wonder. He’s 23, and seven years after we signed him in high school, he’s put the team on his back and carried us. Freddie Freeman has been about the only person we can reliably count on to be the Offense, and Craig Kimbrel has been the same old Kraken. Thus far, those three have been $210 million well spent.
But no dollar was better spent than the million they paid to Aaron Harang, the miraculous 36-year-old Big Handsome, who has given the Braves 19 starts of above-average work after posting a cumulative 4.41 ERA and 90 ERA+ from 2008 to 2013.
Now, far be it from me to throw cold water on all of that or to say “Regression” or anything so churlish as that. But there is a reasonable chance that Harang will not be quite this good in the second half. To wit:
April-May: 11 starts, 3.29 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 71/19 K/BB
June-July: 8 starts, 3.83 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 24 K/25 BB
That is what you’d call a trendline in the wrong direction. But absolutely everything that Harang has given the Braves has been a gift. After losing three pitchers to TJ, Harang has been the innings-eater that they paid him to be, and the stopper they’d never dreamed he could be. Sure, he hits the wall in the 7th inning and Fredi really ought to have a quicker hook with him, but nitpicking his performance is a bit like nitpicking a $20 bill that you found on the street. This guy is found money.
And so is Shae Simmons, who has basically been 2013 David Carpenter, even while 2014 David Carpenter has basically been 2003 Roberto Hernandez. (AKA Boom-Boom Bobby.) In all, the bullpen was very shaky until Fredi realized that he couldn’t ever rely on Avilan or Carpenter, and started giving as many meaningful innings as he could to Simmons and Jordan Walden. Juan Jaime and Ryan Buchter have also had promising cups of coffee, and it’s a good bet that we’ll see more of them in the future, particularly if David Hale spends any more time in the rotation.
That said, Hale has had a wonderful year so far, though his 25/23 K/BB is really hard to swallow; his success is largely driven by an unsustainably low homer rate. Still, it’s been very nice to see his success. I just hope we don’t have to look this gift horse in the mouth.
Alex Wood, on the other hand, has answered the questions about whether he’s an above-average major league starter. He is. He strikes out nearly a man an inning, keeps his walks down — not as well as Teheran but decently well — and can crank up his fastball to 94 when needed, which combined with his deceptive motion can get on hitters in a hurry. Through 163 1/3 career innings, he actually has a slight reverse platoon split — .665 OPS against righties, .701 against lefties.
The big questions for the second half:
1) Is Chris Johnson capable of being at least a league-average hitter?
2) Can the Braves bring themselves to jettison Uggla and actually get a decent bench bat?
3) Can Aaron Harang and David Hale manage to hold down the fifth starter position for the rest of the regular season?
4) Will any or all of Simmons, B.J. Upton, and Heyward improve on their first-half performance? If not, can the Braves score enough runs to remain competitive?
5) What the hell is wrong with Mike Minor?
This is a pretty good team, and the odds are pretty good that they’ll play on past the 162nd game, at which point anything can happen, or so we’re told. Anyway, that’s why they play the games.