The Atlanta Braves have made history, sort of, by not making history. With Tuesday’s victory, they forfeited any chance of losing 100 games. Had they lost 100 — there was a moment when such ignominy seemed not just possible but probable — they’d have been the first team ever to lose 100 after being at .500 (42-42 on July 7) so far into a season.
So: Mission accomplished, sort of. This still has been the Braves’ worst season since 1990, the year before everything got better, but with this slight finishing kick — they’ve won five in a row at Turner Field, where not long ago they lost 12 in succession — they’ve all but assured themselves of not finishing with baseball’s worst record. (Philadelphia is three games behind with four to play.) They might not even finish as second-worst, Cincinnati having lost 11 in a row in a masterful show of tanking for draft position.
Another mild encouragement: The young pitchers, on whom everything rests, have stabilized after a horrid patch. Matt Wisler has worked three quality starts in his past four outings. Williams Perez has worked four in five. Wisler’s ERA has shrunk to 5.11, Perez’s to 4.78 — still not good, but better.
The bad news: Barring a late spate of 15-run games — not likely; the Braves have scored two runs in each of those five consecutive home victories — they’ll finish last in baseball in scoring. That’s last after finishing next-to-last in 2014. That’s last having redesigned their offensive approach. They’ve succeeded in not striking out; indeed, they have the fewest whiffs in the National League and the second-fewest in baseball. They’ve also succeeded, if that’s the word, in not hitting home runs.
The Braves need four homers over the final four games to break 100 for the year. Miami, which has the second-fewest home runs among the 30 major-league teams, has 116. Last week, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs noted that the Royals have become one of great put-it-in-play teams ever, but here we see that there’s a difference between putting the ball in play and making something of it. The Royals, who’ve struck out the fewest times, are second in the majors in batting average and sixth in runs. The Braves, who as noted have fanned the second-fewest times, are 19th and last.
Oh, and for those who worship at the altar of on-base percentage: The Braves rank 17th in that category — not nearly last — but their batting order has been so flimsy as to negate the effect. The Braves’ slugging percentage is .358. Philadelphia has the second-worst slugging percentage at .380. Again, they’re not just last in a key offensive category but last by a lot.
And here’s the really chilling part: The ages of the Braves’ starting position players against Washington on Wednesday were 32, 30, 31, 38, 34, 25, 26 and 26. The great hitting hope Hector Olivera will turn 31 two days after Opening Day 2016.
The offseason emphasis has to be on acquiring more bats, there being so few in this farm system, but the Olivera trade was surely the Braves’ way of saying they didn’t believe the bats available in free agency would be affordable and/or advisable. (Two of the three biggest names — Heyward and Justin Upton — just left; the third is Yoenis Cespedes, who powered the Mets to the National League East title and thereby inflated his price but who turns 30 in two weeks.)
If you’re looking for improvement in 2016, you’d start with the young pitching, which carries the possibility of getting better. I’m not sure these everyday players are apt to do that. For all the fuss over Cameron Maybin (who’ll turn 29 on Opening Day, FYI) and his “breakout” season, the cold truth is that he’s hitting .266 with 10 homers and 58 RBIs. His WAR value is 0.5, down a tenth of a point from his final season in San Diego.
Maybin remains a journeyman center fielder. The Braves have no left fielder. Nick Markakis has three home runs and a WAR value of 1.6. (Jason Heyward’s was 6.2 last season and is 6.4 this year.) Olivera has shown promise but is a major gamble. Jace Peterson started nicely but fizzled; he also has a WAR value of 0.5. A.J. Pierzynski — who had three of the team’s four RBIs in the two wins over the Nationals — will turn 39 on Dec. 30. That’s 75 percent of the everyday eight.
Credit the Braves for not losing 100 games, but I wouldn’t stage that parade down Peachtree just yet. For all the creativity John Hart and John Coppolella have displayed in acquiring young pitching, their redo is barely half-done. There’s a reason Shelby Miller has an ERA of 3.15 but hasn’t won since May 17. The team around him stinks.