After a rare (for them, at least) series against the Nationals that didn’t result in a win, the Atlanta Braves are just 38-37, 1.5 games behind Washington in the National League East. Atlanta’s run differential for this season has dropped to -14, better than just four teams in the NL. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with the Braves?” or “when will the Braves get on the right track?”, maybe we should consider a completely different possibility. Maybe we should be asking if the 2013 NL East champions are even a good team this season, or if they’re just another middle of the pack team that will finish around the .500 mark.
Last year, the Braves were a dynamo in the National League. They won 12 out of their first 13 games, spent all but one day during the 2013 season in first place, and never had a division lead of fewer than four games after May 20th. This season, things are a little different. They finished their April with a 17-9 record, just like they did in 2013. But after the year began to fall apart before April was even over. After topping out at ten games above .500 a walk off win over the Reds on April 27th, the Braves have struggled their way to a pathetic 21-30 record, better than only the Rockies and Padres in the National League. Since that admittedly arbitrary endpoint, the Braves have been outscored by a mind-blowing 45 runs, worse than every team in baseball aside from the walking disabled list that is the Texas Rangers.
Since that date I mentioned, Atlanta’s offense is hitting .241/.303/.364. Their once-stout pitching staff has a 4.00 ERA. As a team, you can win with a poor offense or a poor pitching staff, but not both at once. The only thing that the team has consistently done well this season is play defense, but much of that success has come from Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons, overcompensating for the shoddy glovework of players like Chris Johnson and Justin Upton.
The Braves have nearly the same lineup as they did in 2013 – the only changes made were the installation of Evan Gattis behind the plate full-time, and a rotating cast of characters (now headed by Tommy La Stella) taking Dan Uggla’s place at second base. Atlanta’s bench is also pretty similar, with the only major change being Ryan Doumit replacing Gattis. Comparing the performances of the Braves hitters from 2013 to 2014 isn’t a task for those with weak stomachs – every player aside from Gattis and the Upton brothers are having worse seasons. And the improvements from the Uptons haven’t even been substantial – B.J. has gone from “wretched” to “bad”, while Justin has gone from “good” to “very good”. The performances from Chris Johnson and Uggla have cratered. Heyward and Simmons and much worse than a year ago. Freddie Freeman is slightly worse after a white hot start to the season. Everything that could go wrong with the Braves offense has gone wrong. Their offense hit cumulatively hit .249/.321/.402 last year, which was just outside the top ten mark in baseball. Including their hot start in April, the Braves are hitting just .242/.303/.376, which is just outside the *bottom five* in baseball. Oh, and save the talk about strikeouts – they were third in baseball last year, and are fourth this year.
Things appear more dire on the mound. Atlanta kept their heads above water in April despite both Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen needing Tommy John surgery, while both Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd started the year on the DL. Aaron Harang, Ervin Santana, and David Hale performed admirably (and surprisingly) to start the year, but have been different stages of bad since. Harang has a 5.46 ERA in ten starts since striking out a season-high 11 on April 23rd. Santana has a 5.96 ERA in eight starts since tossing seven shutout innings against the Cubs on May 10th. Since being banished to the bullpen after his excellent start on April 26th, Hale has a 3.91 ERA and has walked more hitters than he’s struck out. Meanwhile, Minor has a 4.20 ERA in ten starts since coming off the DL, and Floyd shined in nine starts with a 2.65 ERA…but broke a bone in his elbow in his last start, likely ending his season. The lone consistent highlight is Julio Teheran, who continues to get hitters out by any means necessary.
Atlanta’s bullpen remains strong, but it’s also taking hits lately. Set-up man David Carpenter is on the DL with a strained biceps. Another set-up man, Jordan Walden, missed a month with a strained hamstring. Middle reliever Luis Avilan has gone from LOOGY to dependable seventh inning guy back to LOOGY, allowing a .366/.468/.450 line to right-handers this season. Craig Kimbrel has already blown as many saves and allowed as many runs as he did all of last season. Atlanta’s current bullpen features an unfathomable four rookies – and that doesn’t even include Gus Schlosser and Ian Thomas, who started the year in the majors before getting sent back to AAA.
I think it goes without saying that there is a lot that has gone wrong with the Braves this year, and their performance hasn’t matched their talent level. But sooner or later, we need to consider that maybe, just maybe…this isn’t a great team. They’ve been as many as seven games above .500 on just three days since May 1st. They haven’t been five games above .500 in two weeks.
Things also look bleak when you glance at their season series with the Nationals. The Braves hold a 7-3 advantage over Washington this season, but still sit 1.5 games behind them in the NL East. Over the last two years, the Braves-Nationals season series has determined the NL East. Atlanta went 13-6 against the team last year, and won the division by ten games. In 2012, the Nationals prevailed 10-8, and won the division by four games. Over the last three seasons, if you strip out their games against each other, the Braves are 200-152 while Washington is 204-147. Their games against each other have been the difference as to who advances to the Playoffs as NL East champion. But while the splits in 2012 and 2013 are more even, they aren’t this year – the Braves are three games under .500 when playing teams other than Washington. The Nationals are eight games over against non-Braves teams. If Atlanta can’t improve on their 10-11 record against the Marlins, Mets, and Phillies, how they do against Washington won’t matter at all, especially when you consider that the Nationals are 14-6 against those three clubs and have won five of seven series.
I’ve gotten a bit off track here, but the point remains – Atlanta is underperforming across the board, and at this point in the season, I’m not sure if continuing to make excuses will do any good. They had a monumental chance to bury the Nationals after Bryce Harper went on the DL on April 26th. They’ve instead lost 4.5 games in the standings to Washington, a team missing its best offensive player. When you also consider that Ryan Zimmerman, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez have all missed significant time for the Nationals over the first three months of the year, the fact that Atlanta couldn’t take advantage and gain some ground is awful news for them going forward. There are no reinforcements coming for the Braves, and the Nationals are almost back to full strength. One and a half games never felt like more of a chasm than it does now.