Why the Atlanta Braves are no longer the favorites in the National League

Assessing the Braves after the first month of the season

Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves
Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves / Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves/GettyImages
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In the month of April the Braves wasted no time asserting their dominance. They capped their spectacular run with a series victory over the top team in the AL at the time, the Cleveland Guardians. However, since the series with the Mariners began, the Braves have been on a small slide.

Since then, they have ceded the top spot in the NL East to their bitter rivals, the Phillies. Should this be alarming? Short answer, no. Every team goes on slumps. Bad days and losing streaks are just a part of baseball, but for anyone who watched last year’s Braves, this might be a head-scratcher. The question that lingers in the back of every Braves fan is: what is the difference between these two Braves teams?

Disclaimer: All statistics reflect totals at the time of writing on 5/7.

Comparing the 2023 Braves to this year's squad

When you look at the two lineups, they are very similar. And while the Braves’ record is still very good, this year’s team doesn’t have that same feel as the one that won 104 games. This is because of two differences: offensive production and starting pitching.

Last season’s lineup was firing on all cylinders in relentless fashion. If this season’s Braves lineup seems to be a far cry from last year’s, it is because most of their key sluggers are struggling at the plate. Ronald Acuna Jr, Matt Olson, and Austin Riley each consistently produced at a phenomenal level putting up astronomical numbers in their 2023 campaign.

This year, they have collectively hit 8 HR while their batting averages suffer (Acuna’s .267 AVG is still fair, but far below last year’s .337). Olson, the reigning home run king and Braves record breaker is currently hitting under .200. The main force behind what is keeping the Braves alive and thriving (other than Marcell Ozuna, whose bat has been carrying the Braves offense) is the starting rotation.

The rotation has been able to put together quality starts allowing their offense to take full advantage. In any case, while players have down years, it would be difficult to fathom if the entire heart of the Braves lineup doesn’t start hitting like they did last year or at least to some degree. With talents like those of Acuña, Olson, and Riley, it’s only a matter of time before they figure it out. Hopefully it comes sooner rather than later. Regardless of what it seems, the Braves are still on pace to win 103 games.

That brings us to the topic of the postseason. Even with offensive struggles from key players, the Braves continue to win at a rate greater than .600. As annual postseason contenders with a great record, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them there again this season. However, when they get there, they will be greeted by an assortment of highly talented teams. It may be a little too early to pick out favorites to win the fall classic, but it is never too early to assess a team’s ability to do so. With that said, do the Braves have what it takes to blow past the competition?

How the Braves stack up

Championship teams usually share a set of traits that are commonly seen in the postseason. Among the most important are a high slugging percentage, a high on-base percentage, and great pitching. Most every championship team didn’t start the year ready to play a World Series game. Rather, they moved players, replacing weakness with strength and reinforcing the strengths they already had. To get an accurate picture of the Braves’ postseason viability, we need to assess their weaknesses as well as any position where they could use improvement.

Let’s start with the Braves offense. It is no secret that the Braves have a daunting lineup. The first five players in their order each hit 30+ HRs last year. This tied a record set by the 2019 Minnesota Twins. In total, the 2023 Braves hit 307 HRs, again tying the 2019 Minnesota Twins for the all-time record. Their .276 AVG also topped the MLB last year. However, this year is different.

Collectively, they have hit 33 HR (20th in MLB) with a .256 AVG (4th in MLB). Their batting order contains a significant number of weak spots. Seeing as how some of these weak spots are occupied by some of the best players we’ve seen in the game of baseball, it is fair to assume their numbers will recover at some point. The same can be said of Orlando Arcia and Michael Harris II, who have fallen into slumps of their own recently but have shown they are much more capable than their results give them credit for.

It would also be unfair to mention their sub-par numbers this year without mentioning that they are great defenders. With this in mind, it wouldn’t make any sense for the Braves to change what has worked so well in the past. Beyond that, any other criticism of the Braves lineup would be nitpicking as the Braves are stacked with talent. But for the sake of nitpicking, we could visit one position that is seeing below average production.

This would be in left field which is platooned by Adam Duvall and Jarred Kelenic. There is still plenty of time to see if they can improve. Both Duvall and Kelenic at times have shown they are capable of great things, but if the struggle continues, the Braves may want to add a full-time left-fielder that can produce at a higher level before the postseason as any weakness in the lineup can spell disaster.

Lately, it seems as though they are coming around which hopefully is the case. But even if they don’t, the batting order shouldn’t be a major concern. This year’s Braves might not own the best batting average or highest home run total in the MLB when the season ends, but if their slumping sluggers start hitting as they did last year, they’ll be hard to beat.

When looking at the Braves pitching staff, you might notice it’s good, but not great. They are ranked 11th overall with an ERA of 3.67. The most unfortunate part of the Braves’ season thus far has been the loss of Spencer Strider, last season’s strikeout leader. Even worse is that Strider was extremely effective against the Phillies, who have eliminated the Braves from two straight postseasons in frustrating manner. Since 2022 until this year, Strider has posted a 2.06 ERA vs the Phillies.

Luckily, the Braves acquired Reynaldo Lopez over the offseason in what was probably the best steal of the year. Since the beginning of the season, he has gone from 5th starter to ace with a 1.53 ERA. In the postseason, having three or four reliable starting pitchers is essential. The Braves currently have four viable options: Lopez, Fried, Sale, and Morton.

This may not look like the strongest rotation, but these pitchers have proven they can provide quality starts and each of them have had moments of greatness (Lopez has had several). Right now, it’s too soon to tell if acquiring another quality starter would prove crucial in winning a championship, but it may be a smart move to ensure they stack up well to the competition.

The main problem with the Braves’ pitching staff is the unreliability of their bullpen. They currently maintain an ERA of 3.41, ranked 9th in the MLB among bullpens. On paper, it doesn't look that bad, but in the postseason, this comparison is meaningless as the other bullpens and pitching staffs in general will likely be great. In postseason games, teams need reliable arms in late innings to lock down games. At this point, the Braves do not have a lockdown bullpen. It may be a very smart move should they acquire one or two quality arms.

As it stands right now, the Braves don’t appear to be a championship team. Both the Phillies and Dodgers appear to be better set for a postseason run, especially after the 3-game sweep at the hands of the Dodgers. Last year, the Braves seemed invincible, but even then, they lost 3-1 to the Phillies. Still, the Braves aren’t too far off. Two or three smart moves could mean the difference between elimination and a trophy should their formidable offense resurface in time for the postseason. It's a long season so fans shouldn't be hitting the panic button quite yet.

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