Even after they lost Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to elbow surgery, I’ve operated under the belief that the Atlanta Braves would be a playoff team. I thought the absence of two starting pitchers would relegate them to wild-card status, but so far they’ve fooled me. (Not for the first time, and surely not for the last.) And now we’re on the far side of Memorial Day, which serves as the season’s first checkpoint, and we find them leading the National League East by 1 1/2 games.
Given the in-flux nature of their rotation and the out-of-it state of their offense, they’ve done nicely enough. But, as general manager Frank Wren suggested nine days ago, they’ve also missed a chance to distance themselves from their divisional brethren. Because the Braves pitch so well (second-best ERA in baseball, trailing only Oakland), they still look like a playoff team. Because they hit so little (third-fewest runs scored, shading only Cincinnati and San Diego), they’re no lock to finish first.
Baseball Prospectus assigns the Braves a 58.7 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 45.4 percent chance of winning the East. FanGraphs’ projection models are a bit kinder, giving the Braves a 68.7 percent shot of qualifying for October and a 48.9 percent shot of not landing in the reviled wild-card game.
Back in March, when the Braves were scurrying to throw together some sort of rotation, they’d have taken those odds in a Lake Buena Vista minute. But their April was so indescribably good — they were 17-7 and held a 3 1/2-game lead over the second-place Mets with two days left in the month — that a 1 1/2-game lead on May 28 qualifies as a retreat. They’ve played five games under .500 for the past month.
Some of that was inevitable. The pitching was never going to get any better than in April. But the Braves had to think they’d start hitting, and they haven’t yet. That’s why Monday’s loss to the last-place Red Sox was such a downer: The Braves managed six runs, which they’d done only four times since April 19, and still lost.
That Miami holds second place in the East is no great challenge. Without the great pitcher Jose Fernandez, the Marlins won’t hold up over 162 games. We’re already seeing Milwaukee and Colorado slide in the standings, and we’ll soon see the Fish take a dive, as it were. At issue is whether Washington, which just saw Adam LaRoche return from the disabled list but remains without Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Gio Gonzalez, will get healthy and whether that slightly dysfunctional team will ever again play to its apparent gifts. The threat in the East remains the Nats, but we’ve been saying that for a while, haven’t we?
Eyeballing the rest of the league standings, St. Louis has steadied — you knew it would — and should win the Central. San Francisco and the surging Dodgers appear the class of the West. The Braves are done with the first two, having gone 2-4 against the Cardinals and 1-5 against the Giants. Those 12 games against playoff-level opposition served to undo much of the fine work of April.
The season’s first month ended with the Braves holding the second-best record (behind Milwaukee) in the majors. As of this morning, they have the eighth-best record in baseball and the fourth-best in the National League. Yes, we’ve seen some slippage. They’re still a good team, but they really do need to hit more.