The Braves are a halfway decent team, OK? But this is not 1991

A reality check named the Astros. (AP Photo/Richard Hamm)

For an hour or so Tuesday, all things seemed possible: Freddie Freeman was back and the biggest crowd in the brief annals of SunTrust Park had gathered and the Braves were within a game of .500 and it was the Fourth of July and … hey, was this 1991 all over again or what?

Giddiness soon took a hike. The Braves fell 13 runs short of winning. (Biggest loss in STP history.) There were fireworks afterward, but the game itself was a damp squib – and a reality check.

(Wednesday’s game was only marginally less bad. The Astros won 10-4. They outscored their hosts 26-8 over two nights. They had 35 hits and 14 doubles. The three men atop their lineup — George Springer, Jose Altuve and Josh Reddick — were a collective 18-for-31 with 15 RBIs. Carlos Correa, their best player, sat out Game 2 with an injured thumb. We say again: The Astros are really, really good.)

Yes, the Braves had surged to 40-41 at the season’s numerical halfway point. They’d done so against a schedule ranked at MLB’s weakest. They’re second in the National League East, but it’s a distant second – as of Wednesday noon morning, they trailed the Nationals by nine games – in a terrible division. If we go by ESPN’s Relative Power Index, the worst teams in the majors are NL Easters: Mets No. 28, Braves No. 29, Phillies No. 30.

Historians among us note that the aforementioned ’91 season saw the Braves reach the All-Star break at 39-40, 9 ½ games behind the Dodgers in the NL West, 4 ½ back of second-place Cincinnati. Those Braves came within a run of winning the World Series.

Difference was, those Braves had spent every day from May 3 to July 6 at or above .500. They’d led the division May 13. They were within a half-game of first June 1. The All-Star break found the worst-to-first Braves at their nadir; they’d lost seven of nine. They came off their intermission and swept four games from St. Louis at the same time the Dodgers were losing four in Montreal. Just like that, the Braves were within 5 1/2 of L.A. They wouldn’t trail by more than six again.

Those Braves had two Hall of Fame pitchers, the 1991 NL batting champ and MVP in Terry Pendleton and the 1990 rookie of the year in David Justice. They also had the 21-year-old Steve Avery, who outpitched even Tom Glavine and John Smoltz over the second half. Lousy for nearly a decade, the Braves were primed to get good. It started to happen in the first half of ’91; it did happen in the second.

The 2017 Braves aren’t nearly so far along. They’re moving faster than we (and they) imagined, but this is not yet a playoff club. Freeman’s claim that this team “was built for the long haul” ignores the obvious: Many of these guys were hired to be traded by the deadline. They do have a nice-looking batting order, but we saw the difference Tuesday between nice and, in the case of the rampaging Astros, top-shelf.

The Braves were 16-12 in June, a month that saw them rank 12th in the majors in both runs scored and team ERA. For the season, they’re 21st in the former category and 23rd in the second. Granted, having Freeman back and having gotten rid of Bartolo Colon will help both indexes. Many folks have forgotten about Sean Rodriguez, but his swifter-than-anyone-anticipated return should offer another jolt. But enough to make a real difference in the standings?

Both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs gave the Braves a 2.7 percent chance of making the playoffs as of Wednesday morning. Both projected the Braves to finish 76-86, which would represent a 7 ½-game improvement over last season. As cold as that might sound, it still seems about right. (After Rodriguez was injured, I adjusted my original prediction of 80-82 to 77-85.)

Those 16 runs Houston hung on the Braves on the Fourth only inflicted one loss. Still, the effect was jarring. For the first time as a big-leaguer, Sean Newcomb was overmatched. At the moment, nobody else is as good as the Astros, but the teams upcoming on the Braves’ schedule are no slouches.

From May 1 through July 3, Braves played 11 games against teams now above .500. (They went 6-5.) From July 4 through Aug. 3, they’ll play 19 of 26 games against teams above .500; three of the sub-.500 games will involve the Cubs, the reigning champs who are somehow 41-42. Strange things happen in baseball, but this team being even in cosmetic competition for a playoff berth come Aug. 1 seems too much to ask.

The aim here isn’t to rain on anyone’s parade. (The Braves have seen way too much rain at SunTrust already.) But be honest: Can you really imagine this club winning 90 games? For postseason purposes, that number is important, seeing as how the Rockies, current holders of the second wild card, are on pace to win 92. The East-leading Nats, who face the Braves this weekend in D.C., are on pace to win 96.

In the grand scheme, a July sag mightn’t be so bad. It would bring clarity. It would allow general manager John Coppolella to do a bit of selling without having to worry about wrecking his team’s playoff chances. As much as we’d like to believe in the precedent of 1991, these Braves aren’t as good as those. This year is not that year.

Reader Comments 0

12 comments
sea8491
sea8491

If the Braves could sign an ace (Number one legitimate pitcher) and then the Braves could keep Folty, Newcomb & Teheran, nice rotation.  In addition, Get a real closer.

Keep Admas at first and play Freeman at thrid.  Freeman is simply a stud, could perform nicely anywhere.


Some sya a cathcer is needed, both catchers have performed nicely, clutch hitting


The above scenario produces 90+ wins


Signan ace, a real number one pitcher

ATLAquarius
ATLAquarius

Agreed...this team is not there yet and I'm not sure that the farmhands are either

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@MaybeMaybeNot At least let the kid finish his rookie year before bringing up the word bust. Is Kyle Swarber who had big hits for the Cubs in the World Series now a bust since he has been demoted to AAA. I guess you would have called John Smoltz a bust in July of 1991 when he had a 2-11 record. Geez , give Swanson at least 700 MLB at bats and 162 games before calling him a bust. A .250 12 HR SS , would not exactly be a bust. But Swanson has had to deal with the high expectations of  the front office and the stupid face of the franchise silliness. 

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@MaybeMaybeNot @Buschleaguer Yeah Swanson is on a pace to make 28-30 errors this year. And he may not reach 12 HR's or bat .250 in his "Rookie" season. But labeling a player a bust at the All Star Break of his "Rookie" season , to me seems to be a little premature.But if he is a bust, at least the Braves have Inciarte to show for the Smith trade. 

blevins1491
blevins1491

Jaime Garcia has zero trade value. Matt Adams is a one-month wonder, like Uggla in 2011. SS is a .225 hitting, no-glove rookie. Markakis is a one-tool player. Jim Johnson is a shaky closer. Braves will win 75-80 games, and that's all we should expect.

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@blevins1491 Trade em all and start over , this team sucks. Bunch of no talent bums most should be in AA or out of baseball all together. It's a miracle they have won one game much less 40.

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

Pitching. Hope those kids are developing quickly, they are needed here.

Berserker
Berserker

The big, HUGE difference between '91 and this team is the '91 team was third in the majors with a 3.49 ERA. This team is 24th with a 4.71 ERA. That doesn't mean they can't get better in the second half, though.

But, honestly, did anyone seriously think this was going to be the Braves year? I think getting to .500 would be a huge accomplishment. Maybe, they have a chance for a wildcard.

gwatl
gwatl

I've always enjoyed your writing and analysis, Mark, but lately your columns are just too depressing.  We get that the Braves and Hawks are not true contenders and it remains to be seen how the Falcons will cope post-Super Bowl collapse.  That said, there has to be some Atlanta sports topic to break up the constant string of columns summed up as "if you have any hope, give it up now."  Atlanta United maybe?

whydoyouwannaknow
whydoyouwannaknow

@gwatl I don't think you should interpret Bradley's article as all gloom and doom. There's no doubt the Hawks are undertaking a "ground up" overhaul, and the Braves are still a few critical pieces from serious contention, i.e. starting pitching and the pen (26 runs in two games vs. Astros). The Falcons staff and players are all saying the right things regarding this upcoming season after last years debacle in that last game (I shant speak its name), but results on the field remain to be seen. You could call it despair or being realistic. That said, go AUFC!


Jonathon Smith
Jonathon Smith

They don't have to be the 91 braves. What's unique when considering their chances is that Rocky team you mentioned . Thats not the Cards or the Giants or which ever legit contender over the past few years you want to name but rather a team who is a great candidate to be a pretender themselves. So its reasonable to think the braves could catch them even if they sell at the deadline.