It's now official: the Atlanta Braves are 2019 NL East champs. Let's see what got them there.
If you decided to take a night off from watching the Atlanta Braves on Friday night… oh boy.
On Friday night, the Braves hosted the San Francisco Giants in what is the team's last series at home, the final weekend at SunTrust Park.
However, the Braves wasted no time and took care of business in Game 1, shutting out the Giants and clinching the NL East.
Folks, that's back-to-back division titles and the Braves 19th overall — tying the New York Yankees for the most since this whole division thing started, in 1969.
If you haven't already, check out all the great content on the site, including relations on the Braves' big win:
- James Kunkle's reaction to the Braves' win
- Alan Carpenter's three takeaways from Friday night
- Jake Mastroianni on the Braves' unpredictable season
A perfect clincher
For what I'm about to delve into, Friday night's division-clinching win couldn't have been more perfect. The Braves demonstrated almost every topic that we're about to examine in this piece.
It's almost like a season's worth of team attributes just busted out for one single game… and what a game it was.
The Braves-Giants game on Friday may not have been a close one or even all that interesting, but the components that have created this exciting and dominant team were on full display — the same features that made a division-winner out of the 2019 Atlanta Braves.
We know last season the Braves came out of nowhere and benefited from some underwhelming play inside the division. The Washington Nationals choked, the New York Mets were the Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies were still rebuilding.
Now the 2018 Braves didn't just get lucky, that team pitched well and played great defense, and because of countless other reasons they were able to bring home a division title.
But how did they do it this season? How did the Atlanta Braves win the NL East in 2019?
And even the Nationals — who would've been fine on paper even if they did nothing — traded for a staff-ace in most rotations, starter Patrick Corbin. I mean for goodness sakes, their starting staff consists of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Corbin!
But it's not about what a team looks like on paper or how popular additions to the team are. Sure, the Braves made some moves that got us all excited, but in the end, the team still must go out and play the games.
TRere are five primary reasons the Atlanta Braves were able to do it again this year - winning their second division title in-a-row. You could argue the exact order or importance for these five reasons, but each one was crucial in getting the Braves where they are today.
Let's take a look…
#5. Good health
It always feels like your favorite team suffers the worst injury luck, but trust me the Braves have been extremely fortunate this season in regards to overall health. Sure there have been a few tough ones involving key players having to miss for a while, but most of this team is still predominantly intact.
Season-long health is a pretty important factor in winning a division.
According to an early August piece by FanGraphs' Jay Jaffe, the Atlanta Braves had the third-fewest injury days in the majors up to that point in the season, at 398 days.
For perspective, the 15th-most injury days came from the Chicago Cubs (835) while the most was and still most likely is the New York Yankees, with 1,765 days.
Another way to look at this: in early August, the Braves were averaging roughly 30 days per IL stint. The Yankees? Roughly 70 days per stint.
Obviously this is September and there have been more injuries since that article — the Braves were at 11 then and are now at 24 total IL stints for the 2019 season — but regardless, the Braves are still doing rather well.
Four players went down in the month of August:
Of those four August injuries, Inciarte and Webb are still shelved, while Riley missed right at a month and McCann missed just 10 days.
None of those listed players have returned and it's possible neither of them will… but, and not too sound too insensitive, none of those four players are everyday starters (yes, Charlie is VERY important as a utility-player).
So even since that FanGraphs write-up, the overall health of the team has carried on strong.
Mike Foltynewicz looks to have made a nice recovery and is finally getting in his groove at the perfect time. Nick Markakis' fracture appears to have completely healed and hasn't slowed him down so far.
Dansby Swanson's made a full recovery from his July ailment. McCann is still in one piece after serving not only that August IL stint, but one in April as well.
I realize there's still more season left (and postseason) and don't worry I'm knocking on a piece of wood as I write this, but the 2019 season has been an excellent year regarding injuries and when this campaign is over, great health should be credited as a huge contributing factor to the team's division title.
#4. Stronger bench
Remember the 2018 season and the lack of thump off the bench for the Atlanta Braves? It was even more apparent in last year's NLDS versus the LA Dodgers.
There just wasn't enough spark once the Braves turned to anyone outside of the regular nine.
I looked at all individual player-seasons of all Braves hitters with 250 plate appearances or fewer since 2017, then sorted by OPS. By far, this season has seen the best part-time performances over the last three seasons.
Eight of the top-15 player-seasons by a Braves' part-time player have come this season, while three came in 2018 and four in 2017.
Here are the top-5 Braves' part-timers so far in 2019 (via OPS):
- Francisco Cervelli (1.297),
- Matthew Joyce (.873),
- Adam Duvall (.862),
- Adeiny Hechavarria (.853) and
- Ender Inciarte (.740). [Yes: oddly enough, he qualifies for this 'part time' list]
- Overall: .925 OPS
If you're worried about sample-size, don't worry, 2019 has still been the Braves best season as far as bench-player performances.
Here are the top Braves' bench-players sorted by PA (in order of Plate Appearances):
- Johan Camargo (248 PA)
- Ender Inciarte (230 PA)
- Matt Joyce (218 PA)
- Charlie Culberson (144 PA)
- Adam Duvall (105 PA)
Those five above have been good for a .773 OPS.
Granted, Inciarte's situation is a little different in that he's been injured, plus he's not really a part-time player. So if we substitute him with the next player under .250 PA we get outfielder Rafael Ortega. Ortega's drops that overall OPS down to .735 — still much better than the last few seasons.
Here's the last two seasons' most-used bench players plus their OPS:
- Ryan Flaherty (182 PA / .590 OPS)
- Preston Tucker (142 PA / .714 OPS)
- Adam Duvall (57 PA / .344 OPS)
- Peter Bourjos: (47 PA / 603 OPS)
- Jose Bautista: (40 PA / .593 OPS)
- Total: .568 OPS
- Ozzie Albies: (244 PA / .810 OPS)
- Jace Peterson: (215 PA / .635 OPS)
- Adonis Garcia: (183 PA / .620 OPS)
- Rio Ruiz: (173 PA / .590 OPS)
- Danny Santana: (152 PA / 602 OPS)
- Total: .651 OPS
But you probably didn't need numbers to see this. It has been rather obvious.
Matt Joyce has been a blessing as he's filled in when needed. Johan Camargo has had a tough year but seemed to possibly be turning things around until he got hurt.
Charlie Culberson is Charlie Culberson… seemingly always able to give a solid at-bat and play strong defense.
And then there's Adam Duvall, who brought his power-bat from Gwinnett and slugged five home runs in his first six games once called up to the Atlanta Braves in late July. He's still doing just fine.
The Braves should feel much better about their chances heading into this year's postseason. The added depth will give manager Brian Snitker a few more options and, more importantly, keep the team flowing in the event that there's an injury.
This season's strong bench should most definitely go down as one of the more important contributing factors to the team's success.
#3. The fantastic bullpen
Yes! The bullpen. The weakest position-group on the team at one point in the season has been one of the reasons this Braves team won its division.
Don't get me wrong… this year's bullpen isn't one of the best Braves' bullpens. So far, the 2019 bullpen has the 25th-worst ERA (4.29), given up the most home runs (85) and allowed the 7th-most walks (241) in franchise history.
But, it's all about what this year's bullpen is doing NOW.
After a wonderful month of June for the Braves, everything quickly went downhill as we entered into July. In fact, the Braves went from one of the best bullpens to one of the worst. Just like that:
- 2.59 ERA (Best/lowest in MLB)
- 3.76 FIP (3rd-lowest)
- 9.41 K/9 (11th-highest)
- 2.92 BB/9 (3rd-lowest)
- 1.05 HR/9 (t-8th lowest)
- 1.4 fWAR: (4th-most)
- 5.76 ERA (3rd-worst in MLB)
- 5.90 FIP (highest)
- 8.64 K/9 (8th-lowest)
- 5.64 BB/9 (highest)
- 1.80 HR/9: (6th-highest)
- -1.0 fWAR (lowest)
As we have seen, August wasn't exactly great but much better than July. The Braves' bullpen was below-average in ERA (4.89), though light years better in terms of walks (2.74 BB/9) and home runs allowed (1.37) — finishing the month ranked 4th-best and 11th-best in the majors those categories, respectively.
The month of September has been a success and it's a good thing, as the Braves' bullpen has allowed the team to ultimately win the division.
The Braves' relief core are currently carrying a 4.02 ERA, and while that mark isn't June-like, it still ranks in the top-half of the majors at 12th-best.
This month's Braves are doing a solid job preventing walks as well, currently sitting at 3.35 BB/9 — 10th-best in the majors and 4th-best in the Senior Circuit. It appears the 'pen may be settling in, maintaining a performance between its August numbers and July ones.
The disastrous fall of the bullpen in July could've easily ruined the Braves' 2019 season and it would've if it came a month or two later. However, with some reinforcements provided by the GM and probably just some plain luck, this team did a complete 180-degree turnaround.
So yes… one of the reasons the Atlanta Braves won the division was because of its bullpen — a part of the team that just as easily could've caused them to lose it.
#2. Added power to the lineup
Even with the league-wide surge in home runs — through Friday MLB had hit 6,436 homers, 331 more than the next highest total in ALL of 2017 — the power aspect of the Atlanta Braves lineup still deserves a lot of credit.
Just because this season will go down as an all-time franchise high in home runs doesn't mean the Braves just automatically benefited… they still had to keep up with the rest of the league.
The 2003 season has long been the Braves' most powerful season, as the team belted 235 total home runs that year. But this season the lineup blew that record away, already tallying 241 long balls in just 155 games.
You may think, 'so what… every team is hitting ridiculous amounts of homers'.
Yes, but so far only two other NL teams have hit more than the Braves — the Dodgers and Cubs — a couple of teams that have made it a habit in terms of competing for championships.
Alan wrote about this last week, but this season the Braves could possibly finish with three 40-homer players... something only done 3 times previously.
(After Friday's win)
That alone illustrates just how powerful this lineup has been in 2019. What's more is that those three help make up the first four batters in the batting order. The Braves have been amongst the best when it comes to homers hit at the top of the order.
- 1st batter: 42 homers (most in NL)
- 2nd batter: 27 homers (t-5th most)
- 3rd batter: 40 homers (2nd-most)
- 4th batter: 38 homers (t-3rd most)
All of this power at the top of the lineup has allowed the Braves to slug so many first-inning homers, which in turn has allowed the team to jump out in front of teams.
The Braves have scored 98 first-inning runs this season — the 4th-most first-inning runs in the NL. It's always hard on opposing teams when they find themselves down early in the game, especially right out of the gate.
Also, while the Braves may be great at hitting homers in the opening inning of a game, the team has been even better when slugging homers late in the game. The Braves' 22 ninth-inning home runs are second-most in the NL, behind only the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Braves have never been this good at hitting homers in the 9th inning — in 1957 the Milwaukee Braves hit 19 last-inning homers, the second-most in franchise history.
All of this power and the Braves ability to score in a hurry are things the team hasn't had in the past. Opposing pitchers must be careful when they face this Braves' lineup, especially the first handful of batters.
#1. A stable and solid rotation
I think we may take for granted just how consistent the Atlanta Braves rotation has been in 2019. And I'm not just talking about performance either.
There are currently zero Braves' starters on the IL. NONE! That alone is amazing.
The Braves have been fortunate enough to use its original starting rotation for most of the year, as only Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman have dealt with a stint on the injured list, and Gausman isn't even on the team anymore. That rarely happens.
But while we're here, let's look at performance.
The Braves' starting rotation has really turned it on in the 2nd half of this season: Julio Teheran has been more consistent; Foltynewicz is in the process of completely turning around his rough start to the year; Mike Soroka is still pitching like a Cy Young candidate; and Dallas Keuchel is almost a guaranteed quality-start.
Max Fried is the only Braves' starter that has pitched to an ERA above 4.00 in the 2nd half (4.19).
Just look at how great Folty and Soroka have been in the 2nd half of the season:
- Folty: 9 starts, 53.2 IP, 6-0, 2.35 ERA
- Soroka: 13 starts, 80.1 IP, 4-3, 2.80 ERA
Stability and great health in the first-half of the season has allowed the Braves' rotation to strive here in the 2nd half.
When looking at only numbers compiled in the latter half of the 2019 season, the Braves currently rank amongst the best in the National League when it comes to starting rotation performance:
- 29 starting pitcher wins (1st in NL)
- 364.2 innings-pitched (4th-most)
- 2.91 walks-per-nine (t-5th fewest)
- 1.21 home runs per nine (5th fewest)
- 3.60 ERA (5th-best)
All of that has resulted in the Braves starting rotation accruing 5.7 fWAR so far in the 2nd half of the season — the 6th-most in the NL and third-most in the NL East.
Not Done Yet
But that's not all... the rotation is getting even better.
In the month of September, Braves' starting pitchers have lowered the group's ERA by 0.19 points (3.41 ERA) and their walks-per-nine by 0.13 points (2.78 BB/9). A lot of that can be credited to Folty's improvements, but the point is that the Braves' rotation is trending up at the perfect time.
Like a team's bullpen, a poor starting rotation can absolutely wreck a season. It doesn't matter how many runs you score, if you cannot prevent them than it's going to be near impossible to win.
Other than Soroka, the Braves' rotation hasn't exactly been flashy. Heck, even Soroka himself isn't flashy with his 7.16 strikeouts per nine in 2019.
However, the group has consistently went out and given the Braves a chance to win night after night, and that in itself can give a team a huge advantage when attempting to win a division title. The Braves can count on each rotation member... Nos. 1 thru 5.
The stability and consistency of the Braves' rotation has probably been the most important feature of this season's team, and will be once they start postseason play.
As I mentioned in the first slide of this piece, these reasons or keys to the Braves winning the NL East in 2019 can be reordered by importance. But without all five of these features, there wouldn't have been any champagne on Friday night after that win over the Giants.
The Braves just need to keep it up. I've already got ideas on 5 reasons the Atlanta Braves won the 2019 World Series piece. I hope I get to write it!
What were the reasons or keys that you think made the Atlanta Braves NL East champions? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.