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This Rotation Isn’t ‘Vintage Braves,’ But Atlanta Is Making It Work

It may have been in Major League Baseball’s new best-of-three wild-card round, but the Atlanta Braves’ series victory over the Cincinnati Reds last week was a long time coming. Going into these playoffs, Atlanta hadn’t won a postseason series since defeating the Houston Astros in the 2001 National League Division Series. The 19 intervening years saw Atlanta transition away from its division-streak era — led by three aces and plenty of other icons — through a period of three brief postseason bids with Jason Heyward and Brian McCann leading the way, and finally ahead with the core of this current club: Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies.1

Now that it has ended its series-win drought, Atlanta is hoping to march even deeper into the postseason. And our prediction model gives the Braves the second-best chance to make the World Series of any NL team … trailing only the juggernaut Los Angeles Dodgers. (Small detail!) If they do it, Atlanta will have to lean on one of the most untested rotations ever, but one that proved to be an unexpected strength against Cincinnati — and a lineup and bullpen that are sure to provide plenty of help, too.

The Braves’ biggest Achilles’ heel all season has been starting pitching. Although lefty Max Fried had an excellent season, putting up 2.2 wins above replacement2 (the equivalent of 6.0 in a 162-game season) with a 7-0 record and a 2.25 earned-run average, the rotation as a whole was hampered by injuries and other problems. With Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels sidelined for nearly the entire season — and 2019 starter Mike Foltynewicz banished from the active roster for poor performance early on — Braves starters collectively produced just 4.2 total WAR this season, which ranked 27th in baseball. Heading into the division series against the Miami Marlins, Atlanta finds itself staring at a cobbled-together rotation consisting of Fried, a pair of rookies — Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright — and an as-yet-unknown fourth option, if necessary.

Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, this isn’t. (Not yet, at least.) In fact, Atlanta is rolling with what’s possibly the least accomplished rotation in modern postseason history. Among Fried (5.8), Anderson (1.2) and Wright (-0.4), Atlanta’s presumptive top three have produced 6.6 total regular-season WAR in their careers going into the playoffs. Among teams that used at least three starters in any postseason since MLB’s playoffs first expanded in 1969, no other rotation boasted a top three with fewer lifetime WAR going into the playoffs:

Atlanta’s starters don’t have much experience

Fewest total career regular-season WAR (going into the postseason) for a playoff team’s top three starters, 1969-2020

Season Team TOP THREE STARTERS Total WAR
2020 Braves M. Fried, I. Anderson, K. Wright 6.6
1984 Royals B. Black, C. Leibrandt, B. Saberhagen 10.8
1976 Royals D. Leonard, L. Gura, A. Hassler 12.5
2012 Athletics B. Anderson, J. Parker, T. Milone 14.2
2007 Rockies J. Francis, J. Fogg, U. Jimenez 14.9
2011 D-backs I. Kennedy, D. Hudson, J. Collmenter 15.0
2010 Rays M. Garza, D. Price, W. Davis 17.3
2015 Astros D. Keuchel, C. McHugh, L. McCullers 18.0
1984 Padres E. Whitson, E. Show, M. Thurmond 18.5
2019 Rays C. Morton, T. Glasnow, D. Castillo 18.7
1970 Pirates B. Moose, D. Ellis, L. Walker 19.1
2013 Pirates F. Liriano, C. Morton, G. Cole 19.1
2011 Rangers C. Wilson, C. Lewis, D. Holland 20.4
2012 Orioles J. Saunders, J. Hammel, M. Gonzalez 20.6
2009 Twins C. Pavano, N. Blackburn, B. Duensing 20.8

Among playoff teams that used at least three starters in a postseason.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs, Baseball Databank

That’s a little unfair to the Braves’ trio because their pitchers didn’t have the benefit of a full schedule in 2020. But even if we prorate the 2020 WAR of Fried, Anderson and Wright up to 162 team games, they would come in with a total of just 12.6 — which would rank them third on the list above. Either way, it underscores just how little established starting pitching Atlanta can count on as it tries to mount a deep postseason run.

Not that it was apparent against Cincinnati. Fried and Anderson combined to strike out 14 Reds batters (walking just two) over 13 innings during the wild-card round, part of a dominating performance that saw Braves hurlers allow zero total runs in 22 innings. (Game 1 was a 13-inning marathon that Atlanta eventually won, 1-0, on a Freeman walk-off single.) Though Cincinnati wasn’t an elite hitting team during the regular season, finishing 23rd in weighted runs created plus (wRC+), it was still impressive to see the Braves’ patchwork staff limit Joey Votto, Jesse Winker and company to a .169 average and a .411 OPS while holding them scoreless in the series. For longtime Braves observers, it might have even brought back memories of Atlanta dismantling Cincinnati’s lineup en route to the 1995 World Series.

Braves manager Brian Snitker is hoping his young starters can replicate that effort against a Marlins offense that rated as subpar (18th) by wRC+ during the regular season — though one that produced a slightly above-average .711 OPS against the Chicago Cubs in a wild-card sweep. But he is also cognizant he may need to ask a lot of his bullpen going forward. It may even require a performance in the manner of the San Diego Padres’ nine-reliever victory in Game 3 of their wild-card round last week against the St. Louis Cardinals.

“I’d be very confident we could put something similar to that together,” Snitker told reporters when asked to compare bullpen strategies with what San Diego did. And Atlanta did have the majors’ third-best bullpen by WAR during the regular season. Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Tyler Matzek, Grant Dayton, A.J. Minter, Chris Martin and Darren O’Day each posted ERAs under 2.80, which is roughly 70 percent better than league average. But managing their workload will nonetheless be tricky, given the rotation’s uncertainties.

“I think the bullpen is going to be a challenge, just trying to spread it out to keep guys available,” Snitker said. “Realistically, guys could go four out of five [days]. It’s the playoffs. I probably wouldn’t like to do that, but we might have to do that.”

Fortunately for Snitker, the Braves’ lineup remains his team’s greatest strength. Atlanta missed out on leading MLB in runs scored by a single run, finishing with 348 to the Dodgers’ 349. Over a full, 162-game season, Atlanta’s tally extrapolates to 940 runs, which would have been the most in franchise history since the Boston Beaneaters scored 1,008 in 1893. Four members of the 2020 Braves’ starting lineup — Freeman (187), Acuña (159), Marcell Ozuna (179) and Travis d’Arnaud (145) — had wRC+ marks of 145 or higher (meaning they hit at least 45 percent better than average), and three more members — Albies, Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall — were at least above average. Although Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer, the NL ERA leader, and company kept Atlanta’s hitters in check for most of Game 1, they broke out late in Game 2 to seal the series.

That outburst was sparked by a mammoth home run from the underrated Ozuna, an ex-Marlin. And Atlanta’s hitters should be as dangerous as ever this week against Miami, the same team they scored a mind-boggling 29 runs against on Sept. 9.

We currently give the Braves a 71 percent chance of advancing past the Marlins into the NLCS. Of course, if they make it, there is a 73 percent chance the Dodgers will be waiting for them. Famously, the Dodgers haven’t won a World Series since 1988, while the Braves won it last in 1995. But that was also the lone championship won by any of Atlanta’s major pro sports teams3 in the more than 50 years since the Braves moved from Milwaukee and the Falcons were added to the NFL. Sneakily, Atlanta has been building one of the most underperforming sports resumes of any big-league city, and that’s without even getting into how its teams have lost at times. Talent-wise, this Braves team is one of the strongest entries in the Atlanta sports canon during that drought. Now, all it needs to do — easier said than done — is keep winning, for once.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Want to feel old? Acuña was 3 years old when Chipper Jones and company were winning that 2001 series.

  2. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, for which you can download data every day this season.

  3. Sorry, Atlanta United and MLS.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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