Phase 1 is surprise: “The Braves are winning again! It’s a miracle!”
Phase 2 is skepticism: “The Braves, winning again? Fool’s gold. Wake me up when toe meets leather.”
Phase 3 is uncertainty: “They’ve looked really good for almost two months, so maybe they are really good. But they blew another lead against the Cubs, so maybe they’re not. Mr. Kotter, I’m so confused!”
Phase 4 depends on the Braves. They’ll either stay good or slip back, and whatever the case some among you will be able to say, “Told you so.” But here’s what one observer – i.e., me – is telling you now: They won’t slip back.
This is not, I emphasize, a Braves-win-it-all-this-fall prediction. I believe they have a real chance of making the playoffs and a decent one of winning the National League East. I’m aware that, if you play your way into October/November, anything can happen. But the trend with teams rising from full-blown rebuilds– essentially we’re talking Cubs and Astros – is that a first postseason run is required before making/winning the World Series. As encouraged as I am by this team, I’m trying to be pragmatic.
But that’s the point: I’m massively encouraged, and you should be, too. Yes, this is baseball, where not everyone who hits .400 for 2-1/2 weeks hits .400 over a season. (Actually, no one will hit .400 over a season again. ESPN’s Sam Miller explains why.) I expected these Braves to be a .500 team, give or take, which in and of itself would have been a big ol’ bounce from 72-90. Through 41 games – 25.3 percent of a season – they’ve been much better than that.
They don’t look like a rebuilding team anymore. They look like one that’s close to rebuilt. This is a good-looking roster. The Braves rank first among MLB clubs in batting average, first in the NL in runs, on-base percentage and slugging; they’re seventh in the majors in ERA. They’re 6-3 against the Phillies, 5-1 against the Mets, 3-3 against the Nationals and 2-2 with two blown leads against the Cubs. They haven’t been outclassed by anybody – let’s call the Giants’ SunTrust sweep a blip, seeing as how San Fran lost its next six games – and them holding the NL’s best record and best run differential after 41 games is reason to believe this isn’t some trick of the light.
We’ve mentioned that statistical projections – and what are stats if not pragmatic? – can lag reality. This is demonstrated on FanGraphs. The very useful site offers its own projections, which are updated daily but remain a function of preseason modeling: Those show the 2018 Braves finishing 82-80 with a 23.4 percent chance of making the playoffs. FanGraphs also offers a projection based only on what has happened over these 41 games: It has the Braves going 94-68 and winning the NL East by two games over the Nats.
Are there liabilities? Sure. Brandon McCarthy has gone south, figuratively speaking, in a New York minute – 23 hits and 14 earned runs over the past 8-1/3 innings. Arodys Vizcaino no longer seems the closer of the future, or even for next week. Apart from two nicely timed home runs, Jose Bautista is 3-for-35. Ronald Acuna has seen his batting average slip from .417 to .263 in two weeks. (Remember the bit about nobody hitting .400 for long?)
These, however, are issues even the big boys have. The Dodgers are missing Corey Seager, Justin Turner and Clayton Kershaw. Among Astros, only Jose Altuve is hitting .290. The Cubs’ Yu Darvish and Jose Quintana have ERAs above 5.00. The Indians have blown six of 13 saves. The Yankees’ Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are each on pace to strike out 200 times.
The point being: The Braves now have baseball problems, which isn’t the same as a dearth of talent. Side-by-side comparison time. Here was the lineup from their game in Kansas City on May 15, 2016: Tyler Flowers, Freddie Freeman, Chase d’Arnaud, Daniel Castro, Gordon Beckham, Ender Inciarte, Mallex Smith,Jeff Francoeur (!) and Matt Wisler. Nick Markakis DH’ed. The Braves lost in 13 innings to fall to 9-27. Fredi Gonzalez was fired two days later.
The lineup Monday against the Cubs: Kurt Suzuki, Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Johan Camargo, Bautista, Acuna, Inciarte, Markakis and Mike Foltynewicz. Yeah, I’d call that a difference. Even Markakis is way better the Markakis of previous Braves seasons. This isn’t yet the best lineup in baseball -- Dansby Swanson is on the disabled list; Bautista is a stopgap -- but it’s among the most gifted. It was no shock when the 2015 Braves went from 42-42 on July 7 to 67-95 at season’s end: That was a team playing way above its head even before John Coppolella started selling. This bunch is to that crew as Dikembe Mutombo is, vertically speaking, to Muggsy Bogues.
I can see these Braves flattening out and finishing around .500, but I can’t see anything worse than that. I can also envision some midyear roster augmentation -- Job 1 for Alex Anthopoulos: a closer, perhaps Kelvin Herrera of K.C. -- that pushes them to 90 wins or above.
That would lift this team and its audience to a new and giddy place. Phase 5 is arrival, and it’s getting closer with every week.