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The Braves Turned A Lost Season Into A Championship

After a season when things seldom came easy, the Atlanta Braves finally changed that script for good on Tuesday night, dispatching the Houston Astros 7-0 to clinch their first World Series crown in 26 years. The title was a culmination of one of the most mercurial campaigns by any champion, but the Braves also proved an old cliche true: The MLB season is a marathon, not a sprint. And in the end, Atlanta’s credentials landed them in the same conversation with the franchise’s previous champions — even if very few thought they would come anywhere close just a handful of months ago.

With their World Series victory, the Braves completed one of history’s greatest championship turnarounds. Atlanta was still under .500 on the season as the calendar turned from July to August; they seemed to remain on the periphery of the playoff picture thanks only to the mediocrity of the division-rival New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies. But from August onward (including the postseason), the Braves won 66.2 percent of their games — a 107-win pace per 162 — to overtake their rivals and march through the postseason.

Because of this, the 2021 Braves now own the distinction of the MLB champion with the most time spent below .500 during the season, having been underwater for 101 game days in total this year. Only one other champion was even close to Atlanta in that regard — the 1914 Boston Braves (of all teams), who were under .500 for 90 game days that year. Against more modern teams, these Braves crushed the marks held by the 2003 Florida Marlins and 2019 Washington Nationals:

The Braves completed a historic turnaround

All-time World Series champions with the most total game days spent under .500 during the regular season

Year Team Max Games Under .500 Last Game # Under .500 Game days Under .500
2021 Atlanta Braves 5 107 101
1914 Boston Braves 16 90 90
2003 Florida Marlins 10 83 72
2019 Washington Nationals 12 79 67
1924 Washington Senators 4 52 42
1969 New York Mets 5 45 41
1979 Pittsburgh Pirates 6 42 39
1991 Minnesota Twins 7 49 37
1906 Chicago White Sox 5 50 36
1973 Oakland Athletics 4 55 30
1925 Pittsburgh Pirates 5 31 29
1926 St. Louis Cardinals 5 49 26
2002 Anaheim Angels 8 31 25
1935 Detroit Tigers 7 25 24
1964 St. Louis Cardinals 3 95 19

Atlanta’s game that started on July 21 was completed on Sept. 24 and is not counted in the games under .500.

Source: Retrosheet

But this wasn’t the case of a fluke team merely catching fire at the right time and riding that hot streak to a title. The version we saw down the stretch run and the postseason was more in line with how experts thought the Braves might perform all season — even though they did it with a slightly different cast of characters than expected. Every baseball fan now knows the story of Atlanta rebuilding its outfield with in-season trades after losing its best player, Ronald Acuña Jr., to a torn ACL in July. But the Braves also became the second team ever to see each of its starting infielders hit at least 25 home runs; they were three Dansby Swanson homers away from becoming the first all-30-HR infield ever. And through all the ups and downs, Atlanta still boasted the sixth-best pitching staff in baseball during the regular season by wins above replacement.1

In other words, the Braves had no shortage of talent, and they maximized it in October (and November), when the games mattered most. They handled the dangerous Milwaukee Brewers in a four-game NLDS, outlasted the most stacked roster in baseball — the Los Angeles Dodgers — in six for the NL pennant and mostly kept the scary Astros lineup in check during the Fall Classic. While Houston exploded for seven runs in Game 2 and nine in Game 5, it was also shut out twice and scored just one run per game in its losses. Over the whole series, the streaky Astros (who had finished the regular season with a .783 OPS) were held by Atlanta’s pitchers to a .596 OPS — and a .184 batting average with runners in scoring position (down from .341 in the ALCS) — which helped provide the difference in a series that looked as close as can be on paper.

After the win Tuesday night, Atlanta’s Elo rating rose to 1570 — up 36 points from where it was at the end of July. That left them within 7 points of the final Elo for the 1995 Braves, winners of the franchise’s previous lone title since moving to Atlanta in 1966. That team possessed a staggering amount of talent both on the mound (Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine) and at the plate (Fred McGriff, Chipper Jones), and its overall era was largely viewed as a disappointment for winning “only” a single title. In turn, those letdowns — along with incidents like the Falcons’ Super Bowl meltdown in 2017 — helped fuel Atlanta’s status as the most championship-starved city in major pro sports. Back in July, my colleague Santul Nerkar and I found that Atlanta teams had run 4.75 championships under what we’d expect from their sheer number of seasons fielding MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL and WNBA teams since 1980.

To break that drought, all it took was a team that was under .500 with a couple of months left in the regular season. And despite the impending free agency of team heart-and-soul Freddie Freeman, there could be more to come with Acuña returning from injury and many key players either young or locked into favorable contracts (or both). Improbable as it was this year — and yes, the Braves’ World Series odds were down to 2 percent as July became August — it was also the perfect ending to a season that wasn’t about how the champion started, but how it finished.

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  1. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from and FanGraphs, for which you can download data on GitHub.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.