On Saturday, the Atlanta Braves learned that only one among them — closer Craig Kimbrel — had been named an All-Star. On Sunday, they lost in Philadelphia and saw their lead over Washington in the National League East, which had peaked at 7 1/2 games, shrink to four. Somehow it all made sense.
A team as talented as the Braves shouldn’t have to make do with one All-Star — there’s still a chance Freddie Freeman could be elected by fan vote — but really, who beyond Kimbrel or Freeman has had an All-Star season? Chris Johnson hasn’t played enough for his numbers to register; the folk hero Evan Gattis is on the disabled list. Prior to Monday’s outing in Miami, Mike Minor had seen his ERA climb from 2.44 to 3.15 in the course of four outings. Justin Upton, April’s player of the month, had hit three home runs and batted .219 since.
If we go by FanGraphs’ WAR (wins above replacement) rankings, only one Brave ranked among the top 80 everyday players in the majors and that one — shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who’s 57th — made it on the strength of his defensive work. Only one starting pitcher — Minor, who’s 30th — ranked among the top 47.
When we see such tepid individual marks for members of a first-place team, the glass-half-full response is to say, “Boy, how good will this club be when everybody gets it going?” But when that team has played more than half its games, it becomes harder to see the glass as half-full. We wonder instead: “What happens if this team never truly gets it going?”
Said Frank Wren, the general manager: “We’ve played solid but not spectacular ball for everything except the first two weeks. We’re going to have to play better than we have in the first half.”
Also this: “I’m a big believer that run differential points to the relative strengths of teams, and ours is up there with the best teams in baseball. But we don’t play that way every night.”
(The Braves outscored opponents by 76 runs through 88 games, the second-best differential in the National League and fifth-best in baseball. The Nationals had been outscored by 10 runs this season.)
Three weeks ago, this correspondent noted that the Braves’ strength was their depth. They’ve since seen three key bench players — Gattis, Ramiro Pena and Jordan Schafer — lost to the DL. So long as Pena and Schafer were making galvanizing cameos and Gattis was doing his Paul Bunyan act, the Braves could override the early failings of Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. But now the bench, at least until Gattis and Schafer return, has become a liability.
For the first couple of months, the Braves rose or fell on the well-timed home run. When they got it, they won. When they didn’t, they were odds-on to be shut out. That has begun to change. Heyward has started to hit. Brian McCann has, too. The Braves have risen to eighth in the National League in batting average — that’s up from 10th nine days ago — and to second in on-base percentage. (Still first in homers, walks and strikeouts.)
They’re getting more men aboard — 71 hits over the past six games. Trouble is, they lost four of those games. (They’re 12th among 15 NL teams in batting with runners in scoring position.) As of Monday morning, they’d lost 14 of the past 25, having gone 5-13 against sub-.500 opposition over that span. Given a chance to put serious distance between themselves and the Nats, who were 42-42 as of July 3, the Braves flubbed it.
The reasons the Braves seized first place in April were Justin Upton and starting pitching. The rotation hasn’t been quite as good lately — not terrible; just not as good — but could be bolstered by the deferred return of Brandon Beachy. The Upton issue is more pressing. For all the hand-wringing over his brother’s struggles, it’s the younger Upton who was imported to anchor this batting order.
In April, we saw why the Braves were so keen to land Justin Upton. In the weeks since, we’ve seen why Arizona was willing to trade him. As of Monday, he’d struck out only one fewer time than his brother. Since May 25, B.J. Upton had driven in 11 runs to Justin’s 10, with four homers to Justin’s one.
Justin Upton finished fourth in the MVP voting two years ago. Two months ago, you’d have sworn he’d finish no worse than fourth this time. But he awoke Monday tied for 32nd in the National League in RBIs — tied with Uggla, of all people, and Uggla actually has hit more homers.
Through 88 games, Upton was on pace to drive in 72 runs with 28 homers, which would be a pedestrian yield given his skills and his flying start. Said Wren: “He’s had a rough time for a month or so getting back on track. But he’s a good player and I think he’s going to figure it out. I think we’ve seen signs of that.”
(The Braves saw more signs Monday night in Miami. Justin Upton tied the game with a sacrifice fly in the sixth and, hours later, gave them a lasting lead with a two-run double in the 14th.)
Wren also said this: “But that really goes to the whole. We’ve got to be more consistent as a team. That’s going to be the thing that puts us over the top or holds us back.”
That’s fair to say. Still, not all Braves are weighted equally. For a while, Justin Upton’s slide was overlooked because he had the bravura April and because both outfield partners were batting under .200. It can be ignored no more. He remains the Upton who matters more — and the Brave who matters most.