A month into the season, we wondered if the Atlanta Braves’ rotation could approximate the level of what had become an outstanding everyday eight. Here’s what that rotation just did on the homestand that ended Sunday – worked 36 innings while yielding 17 hits (eight against Brandon McCarthy) and two earned runs (both against McCarthy) and issuing six walks against 38 strikeouts.
The Braves lead the National League in runs and are second in OPS, but only Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis are hitting above .273. Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies and Ender Inciarte are under .260. Ronald Acuna hasn’t played since Memorial Day, though Charlie Culberson has done stellar work in his stead. Still, the Braves averaged 5.2 runs per game in March/April and 4.5 in May; they’ve averaged 4.1 in June.
And it hasn’t mattered. The Braves are playing .600 ball in June, slightly up from the .593 of March/April and the .586 of May. They lead the NL East by 3½ games, which is the biggest lead in any of MLB’s six divisions. They’re tied with Milwaukee for the league’s best record. They’re 42-29, and that’s the first time they’ve been plus-13 in wins/losses.
Now for the fun part. The biggest lead the worst-to-first Braves of 1991 held was two games – on the season’s penultimate day, the Saturday of the famous clinching. Those Braves didn’t reach plus-13 until Aug. 23, which was 121 games in. These Braves did it in 71.
The reason this team is 3½ up on Washington is the same reason the ’91 team chased down the Dodgers: The rotation turned killer. The Braves’ starters have the second-best ERA among NL clubs and the third-best in baseball.
Hitting got the Braves off to a flying start; whether they hold first place until October will be a function of pitching. There are enough arms to fill out a more-than-competitive rotation. Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb should be All-Stars. Anibal Sanchez and Mike Soroka have been splendid in limited duty. The questions are Julio Teheran, who just worked his best game of the season Sunday, and McCarthy, whose 1.493 WHIP suggests he’s living on borrowed time.
Assuming Foltynewicz returns without fuss from his time on the disabled list – the advent of the 10-day DL essentially means a starter skips one turn – the Braves will have to pick someone as their No. 5 starter. I can’t imagine anyone watching Soroka and believing he’s not ready to work every fifth day, and I see no case for McCarthy over Sanchez (ERA of 1.93, WHIP of 0.96).
The wild card is Teheran, the team’s Opening Day starter five years running. His FIP (fielding independent pitching) is terrible – it’s 5.27; McCarthy’s is 4.61 – and nine of his 14 starts have yielded a Game Score of 60 or worse. (Game Score is a Bill James creation; the baseline is 50.) And yet: Teheran on Sunday posted a Game Score of 80, was his best since he beat Justin Verlander 1-0 in the final game at Turner Field.
Sunday saw Teheran coming off his own DL furlough. He was throwing his fastball at 92 mph, which hasn’t happened much lately. He struck out 11 in six innings, exiting with a no-hitter. It marked the second time in five days that a just-activated Brave carried a no-hitter through six. In the first instance, manager Brian Snitker allowed Soroka to start the seventh but pulled him after two batters, the first of whom managed an infield single. Snitker said afterward that Soroka wouldn’t have been allowed to go nine even if the no-hitter had held, which has become the way of the world.
Arms are precious. Soroka isn’t yet 21 and, after his layoff, wasn’t in full rotation mode. He’d thrown 64 pitches through six innings, which isn’t oppressive, but the Braves were leading only 1-0. The dynamics were different Sunday. Teheran had thrown 95 pitches over six innings, which is a bunch. He has had his share of twinges this season – back, thumb and, on Sunday, an ankle – but not yet an arm. That game was 2-0 when he exited. Snitker can be a beat slow in replacing his pitchers, but in these two instances he was spot on.
As nice as a no-hitter would be – the Braves have had only three since moving to Atlanta – but there’s more at stake here than one shining moment. This team is playing for something. Baseball Prospectus assigns the Braves a 57.7 percent chance of making the playoffs, which is 0.9 percent better than the Nationals. (Remember when we mentioned that such projections would begin to reflect increasing reality around the 70th game? The Braves are at 71.)
We’ve seen teams eschew the concept of starting pitchers, choosing to shotgun relievers over nine innings. That’s because some teams can’t find five starters. The Braves no longer have that problem. They’ve got six, and that’s without dipping beyond Soroka into the minor leagues. If Teheran holds up his end and current events don’t turn out to be a mirage – with arms of the caliber of Foltynewicz, Newcomb and Soroka, there’s no reason to believe they will – this team has the starting pitching to carry it into October. (Bullpen is another issue.)
I’ve liked this team since Opening Day. I like it more with every week. I see no reason the Braves can’t win the East. (Note that the Nats’ Stephen Strasburg is again on the DL.) I can envision an NLCS matching these guys against the Cubs. Maybe I’m getting carried away – that sometimes happens – but I really don’t think so.