The Braves have won 370 games over the past four seasons, more than any other National League team. By way of contrast, the St. Louis Cardinals have won 361 games and the San Francisco Giants 348.
Here, however, is the difference: The Giants won the World Series in 2010 and 2012; the Cardinals won the Series in 2011 and are embroiled in another. The Giants have won six postseason rounds since 2009; the Cardinals have won six rounds plus the 2012 Wild Card game at Turner Field. The team with the league’s best record over those four seasons has gone 2-7 in playoff games.
As we ask “why,” we stress that there might not be a “why.” Postseasons, as you’ve heard, are difficult to handicap. Still, we’re duty-bound to try. We start with the issue of the No. 1 starter.
Even Frank Wren, who as general manager assembled this team, concedes the Braves don’t have one. But Detroit’s Justin Verlander was beaten 1-0 in Game 3 of the ALCS and Max Scherzer, who will win the American League Cy Young award, took a no-decision in Game 2 and a loss in Game 6. The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, who will win the NL Cy Young award, was 0-2 against the Cardinals in the NLCS.
It’s better to have a Kershaw or a Verlander than not, but it isn’t as if the Braves have had substandard pitching. In each of the past three regular seasons, they’ve had a lower team ERA than the eventual NL champ. (Granted, the sight of Adam Wainwright, whom the Braves shipped to St. Louis in 2003 for a season’s worth of J.D. Drew, starting Game 1 of the Fall Classic is a cruel reminder of what might have been.) And the strength of the Braves’ bullpen — which has ranked third, first, second and first in ERA among NL teams the past four years — has all but overridden the absence of an ace.
The Braves’ pitching has been very good; the hitting has been less so. They don’t want for power, having launched more homers than each of the past three NL champs. But the Braves have scored fewer runs, had a lower on-base percentage, hit worse with runners in scoring position and struck out more often than each of the past three NL winners.
Yes, this is 2013, when everybody strikes out — the Red Sox whiffed a record 52 times against Detroit’s starters in the ALCS, and somehow they won the thing — but K-rates, according to Rany Jazayerli of the website Grantland, might have become the closest thing to a postseason predictor.
Writes Jazayerli: “Joe Sheehan noted that since 2009, about the time strikeout rates spiked throughout baseball, the team that struck out fewer times during the season won 22 of 28 playoff series. So far this October, the team with the better strikeout rate has won four of six series, meaning the team that makes more contact has gone 26-8 over the past five postseasons.”
Each of the past three NL champs has finished first or second in fewest strikeouts; the Braves have twice finished fourth from the bottom and this year tied for last. The past three NL winners have finished first, fifth and first in hitting with runners in scoring position; the Braves have finished ninth, 15th and seventh.
Sabermetricians tend to believe there’s no such thing as clutch hitting. But, as Albert Chen of Sports Illustrated has noted, the Cardinals set a record this season by hitting an astonishing .330 with runners in scoring position at a time when batting coach John Mabry made that area a point of emphasis.
Writes Chen: “In the early days of spring training, the St. Louis coaching staff held situational hitting tournaments, assigning points to players for moving runners from second to third or for getting hits with the infield in. Every so often Mabry would have his hitters imagine how a postseason series in October could end: ‘Men on second and third — bring ’em home, and we win the pennant!’”
Sure enough, the Cardinals won the pennant. Do the Braves — who have had four hitting coaches since 2009, most recently the tandem of Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher — ignore the concept of situational hitting? Heavens no. But the Cardinals weren’t built on the home run — they finished next-to-last in the league in homers — whereas Wren constructed a lineup of big swingers and big missers. The Braves led the league with 181 homers over 162 games; come the playoffs, they managed one in four games.
We can’t quibble with the results from April through September: The Braves won 96 games and took their first division title since 2005. And we must remember that, for most baseball men, the regular season is the true measure. (Oakland general manager Billy Beane was famously quoted in “Moneyball” as saying, “My (expletive) doesn’t work in the postseason.”)
But the Braves have stamped themselves as a playoff-caliber team, and if they want to do more than qualify, they might consider what seems to work once you’re there. They might want to strike out less. They might want to hit more singles. They might want to try a nuanced approach.