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The Braves Got Hot Fast, And They Might Stay That Way

The Atlanta Braves are, as they say, “ahead of schedule.” Going into the season, we commended their young talent base but gave them just a 15 percent shot at making the playoffs, figuring that they’d need another year of rebuilding before truly making the leap toward contention. Fast-forward a month, however, and Atlanta is blowing away those expectations: Against a difficult schedule, the Braves are 19-11 and occupy first place in the NL East — one and a half games clear of the New York Mets, who they just swept in a three-game series. So far, at least, the Braves’ future appears to be now.

Even so, statistical algorithms such as FanGraphs’ rest-of-season projections and our own Elo system aren’t fully convinced. The former only has the Braves winning at the majors’ 21st-best clip over the rest of the season, while the latter is barely more optimistic, with Atlanta ranked 14th in the big leagues in terms of Elo. The stats are optimized for prediction, of course — but they have blind spots, too. So, a couple of days into May, is it too soon to call this a breakout year for Atlanta?

Certainly Atlanta has played at an elite level over the first month of the season. On top of its impressive record (a 103-win pace over 162 games), the Braves rank1 fifth in the league in Pythagorean winning percentage2 and third in wins above replacement per game.3 This isn’t merely a case of an outclassed team getting lucky by squeaking out close wins and moving up the standings; the Braves have come to their record honestly.

Although Atlanta’s pitching (12th in WAR) has been more or less average — which actually represents a big improvement over last season’s 24th-ranked showing — the highlight of the 2018 Braves season thus far is a lineup that’s generating 5.6 runs per game, easily the most in the National League. First baseman Freddie Freeman ranks as one of the best hitters in baseball after a month of play, while 21-year-old second baseman Ozzie Albies has been a revelation. Albies was already way ahead of the curve as a rookie last season (he had a 112 OPS+, one of the best marks ever by a 20-year-old rookie), and he’s made major strides as a power hitter, upping his slugging percentage from .456 last year to .603 this season. (Granted, his elevated rate of homers per fly ball is sure to regress — but his hard-hit ball rate is up, too.)

With all the attention on prospect Ronald Acuña Jr. going into the season, Albies was the one who got off to the red-hot start while Acuña was toiling in the minors (thanks to some service-time chicanery by the Atlanta front office). Now that Acuña and Albies are both in the majors together, the Braves have one of the most exciting young position-player duos we’ve seen in a long time. Not only were Acuña and Albies the two youngest players in MLB at the time Acuña was called up,4 but the duo also became the youngest pair of teammates to homer in the same game since 1978 when each went yard against the Reds on April 26.5

Throw in a renaissance year from veteran right fielder Nick Markakis (151 OPS+), much-improved hitting from former top prospect Dansby Swanson and the late-career blossoming of 34-year-old catcher Kurt Suzuki at the plate (133 OPS+ over the past two seasons), and it’s no surprise the Braves’ scoring is up more than a full run per game compared to a year ago. The only question is how much of the team’s sudden improvement will persist for the remaining five months of the regular season. And that’s where the advanced metrics’ lack of faith in Atlanta’s breakout gets especially complicated.

According to research by myself and others, it takes about 70 games before observed results from a season in progress reach even a 50-50 balance with preseason expectations, in terms of how much weight each deserves when assessing a team. The Braves have played less than half that many games so far this year, which probably goes a long way toward explaining why the statistical projections haven’t budged much off of Atlanta’s relatively bearish spring-training predictions. The past data says you can’t read too much into a month’s worth of results.

However, that premise was designed to hold true for all teams as a group. What happens when we look at a smaller group of teams, especially just the ones that have as much breakout potential as the Braves? Atlanta went into the season with Baseball America’s top-ranked farm system and currently has the eighth-youngest roster in baseball (if we weight each player’s age by their wins contributed this season.6)

To get a sense for whether this matters, I looked at all teams since 19847 who were coming off a sub-.500 season but had a better-than-.500 record in April. Over the rest of the season, teams in that group who were both among MLB’s 10 youngest and went into the year with a top-10 farm system (again, according to Baseball America) ended up winning 2.7 more games over the rest of the season than Elo would predict.8 By comparison, all other teams won roughly as many games as Elo thought they would.9

Young, talented teams tend to build on hot April starts

Actual vs. expected rest-of-season wins (based on Elo) for teams who were below .500 in previous season but above .500 in April, by average age and farm-system ranking,* 1984-2017

Win share
Team Type NO. teams Prev. Season April, current season Rest-of-season Wins vs. Exp.
Top 10 in age and farm 25 .450 .605 +2.7
All others 134 .447 .591 -0.1

*Team age is ranked from youngest to oldest, so a top-10 team would be among the 10 youngest rosters. Excludes the strike-shortened 1994 and 1995 seasons.

Sources: baseball America, retrosheet

That difference is just on the border of statistical significance, but if it holds true for the Braves, it would imply that they’re due to win more than expected based on their pessimistic win projections at FanGraphs and in our Elo interactive — and those extra wins could be enough to elevate them from a mid-80s win tally (sketchy territory, playoffs-wise) to a number closer to 90 wins (a much safer bet for making the postseason).

That could be a huge step for an Atlanta club still trying to fill seats in its shiny new suburban stadium. These aren’t the old Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine/John Smoltz Braves, of course, but there’s real potential building in Atlanta right now. We’ll have to see where it takes the team — and how long it takes before the sabermetric indicators pick up on it.

Footnotes

  1. This and all following 2018 stats are up-to-date through Wednesday’s games.

  2. Essentially, the winning percentage we’d expect the team to have based on its runs scored and allowed.

  3. Averaging together the WAR metrics found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  4. In the couple weeks since, yet another Brave has joined the majors and sandwiched himself between them in the youngest-player rankings: Pitcher Mike Soroka. That’s right: Atlanta has each of the three youngest players in baseball right now.

  5. Oddly, the last time it happened also featured two Braves (Glenn Hubbard and Bob Horner) going deep against the Reds. Go figure.

  6. For this metric, I couldn’t use straight-up WAR, since the averages would be skewed for teams like the Marlins and Orioles, who barely have any WAR across their entire roster. Instead, I added back in the replacement-level wins generated by each player’s raw playing time to get an estimate of total wins created, then weighted every team’s age by that number.

  7. The earliest season for which I have data about farm-system rankings.

  8. Using the same rest-of-season projection method I used here.

  9. Specifically, they won 0.1 fewer games than expected.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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