When you lose 19 of 20 games; when you lose 12 in a row at home; when you go six calendar weeks between victories over a plus-.500 team; when you go 15-47 since July 7 … when you do all of that — and the Atlanta Braves have done all of that — it’s natural for folks to wonder if you’re actually trying to win. Sure enough, folks are wondering.
R.J. Anderson raised the question on Baseball Prospectus. On Grantland, Ben Lindbergh assessed the state of the race to the bottom of the National League East and wondered if there was a sure-thing No. 1 prospect — a Bryce Harper, say — who’d be worth his weight in tanking. (Apparently there isn’t.) On Baseball Prospectus’ Effectively Wild podcast, Lindbergh and BP editor Sam Miller discussed the Braves at length and wondered, you know, if they’re actually trying to win. (The podcast’s title gives away the ending: “Why Don’t Bad Teams Tank in September?“)
I’ll concede that, if the Braves were trying their hardest to lose, the results couldn’t be much different than they’ve been. Over the season’s first 84 games, the Braves played .500 ball, meaning they won one of every two games. Over the past 62 games, they’ve played .242 ball, meaning they’ve won one of every four. As noted in this space, they could become the first team in baseball history to lose 100 games after being .500 so deep into a season. (They’ll need to go 5-11 over the final 2 1/2 weeks to do the deed.)
That said, I’ve seen little to indicate that the Braves are indeed losing games on purpose. They’ve haven’t shut down Shelby Miller or Julio Teheran. They’ve haven’t benched Freddie Freeman or Nick Markakis. And here, at least to me, is the capper: The average age of the Braves’ starting eight position players in Tuesday’s game against Toronto was … 30 years and one month. (And they did, wonder of wonders, win that night.)
If you find that heartening — our heroic Braves aren’t tanking after all! — maybe you shouldn’t. That a team this bad is trotting out five position players over 30 in a September game tells us that this organization isn’t a-swim in close-to-major-league-ready non-pitching prospects. (We note that the great hitting hope Hector Olivera will turn 31 next year.) That’s scary. And if you’re trying to win and still losing, that tells us only one thing: You’re terrible.
Terrible teams don’t get better overnight. Maybe by 2017 the young pitching will have kicked in and the Braves will have landed Yoenis Cespedes as a free agent and Olivera will have turned into George Brett if not Mike Schmidt. But guys like A.J. Pierzynski and Nick Swisher surely don’t have much left, and on this woebegone team they’re among the brighter lights.