Braves Are Under Pressure to Be an All-Time Great Team

4 months ago 53

Are the Braves closer to the 1927 Yankees or the 2001 Mariners? The postseason will decide whether this loaded Atlanta team will become famous or a footnote. By establishing themselves as the clear favorite to win the World Series, the Braves will take the most pressure into the postseason.

It’s not just that the Braves are on pace to win a franchise-record 107 games, even after losing two straight home games for the first time in two months this weekend against the White Sox. It is how the Braves are winning—with historic dominance.

Atlanta leads the major leagues in home runs and ERA. Only four teams have ever done that: the 2020 Dodgers (won the World Series), 1944 Cardinals (won the World Series), ’27 Yankees (won the World Series) and ’15 Phillies (lost World Series). The Braves have a chance to be historically great.

There is no doubting Atlanta’s firepower. The Braves’ lineup features seven regulars between ages 22 and 29—the sweet spot of their careers—all with the security of long-term deals. Nobody’s wondering where they will be next year or what numbers they need to take into arbitration.

But if you want to find where Atlanta may be vulnerable, look at its pitching on the IL. Max Fried, Kyle Wright, A.J. Minter, Nick Anderson, Dylan Lee and Jesse Chavez all should be back in these next two months or so. But GM Alex Anthopoulos may want to trade for some pitching insurance policies to guard against setbacks.

It’s not a major worry, especially with Fried getting through two sharp rehab starts. Having waxed the NL Central through 92 games, the Braves need only to get healthy and guard against being bored. According to manager Brian Snitker, coasting for this team is not an option.

I asked him what he finds most impressive about how well his team has played:

“Just the consistency and how they go about it,” Snitker says. “They don’t get caught up in all the hoopla and all that kind of stuff.

“They just come in, and they’re like boring pros. And they prepare. They trust the process and play. They enjoy playing. They enjoy competing. There’s no take anything for granted. They prepare for today’s game as good as a group as I’ve ever seen.”

To explain the Braves, you must start with where Snitker starts his lineup: Ronald Acuña Jr., who is on pace to join Ty Cobb as the only player since 1900 with 70 steals and an OPS greater than .950.

Acuña has attempted 50 stolen bases in the first 92 games and been successful on 43 of them. When I ask Snitker whether he’d prefer the outfielder to slow down on the bases to better preserve his body for October, the manager says, “I don’t care. It’s up to him. I think as he gets older guys back off naturally, but he’s young and healthy now.”

Ronald Acuña Jr. slides into a base underneath a White Sox players’ leg

Acuña became the first player in the history of the American or National Leagues to have at least 20 home runs, 40 stolen bases and 50 RBIs before the All-Star break.

Acuña is still only 25, but he’s been an All-Star four times and has led the league’s All-Star voting three times. More people buy his jersey than that of any other player. His career is peaking. He has cut his strikeout rate in half, from 24% to 12%. His right knee is fully healed from ACL surgery in 2021.

“I think in a lot of ways he’s grown,” Snitker says. “Having a child. Being a father helps guys mature. Personally, I think when guys get hurt like that, they see how fragile this really is and they appreciate things more and they don’t take things for granted.

“I saw that in spring training when he changed. He did. Right away he was kind of just ... he was different. He was healthy and he loves to play baseball. You could see there was that little bounce in his step.”

Acuña, Sean Murphy, Matt Olson, Ozzie Albies and Orlando Arcia are having the best seasons of their careers. Austin Riley is heating up. The home runs are piling up—which Snitker ties to the new rules.

“I think it’s just a combination of guys maturing and having really good at bats,” Snitker says. “I haven’t looked, but we’re hitting more singles than we did.

“And it’s because of the shift [ban]. They’re probably having better passes because they’re not trying to hit the ball over the shift. I really believe that. I I love that, too. I didn’t know how I’d like that. I love that. The fact that we’re not shifting, singles are part of the game again, and you can go first to third on base hits.”

The Braves own the best kind of offensive profile for postseason baseball: They hit home runs and they don’t strike out. They have improved from 27th in strikeout rate last year (24.6%) to ninth this year (21.5%). As a 101-win team last year and defending champion, Atlanta saw an early exit in its first-round series while striking out 43 times in four games against the Phillies’ power pitching.

“We’re not trying to hit home runs [this year],” Snitker says. “I don’t know that we’re so into the launch angle. We’re just having better at bats. We’re not striking out as my team. Because we used to be either a strikeout or a home run. We were playing a game at Wrigley last year, and it had been like a half hour before either team put a ball play.

“I told [bench coach] Walt [Weiss], ‘They need to give all these people their money back. This is boring as hell.’ Sit and watch both teams strike out? And that’s what we did. It’s just gross and it’s hard to live like that. And now we’re better.”

The Braves are the clear team to beat this postseason. But so were the Dodgers last year—and they didn’t make it out of the NLDS.

Last year Atlanta sent Fried, Wright, Strider and Charlie Morton to the mound against the Phillies, who had won 14 fewer games that season. Fried, Strider (showing too much rust) and Morton gave up 13 runs in just 7 2/3 innings. And just like that, the Braves were done.

The 2001 Mariners won 116 games and led the majors in ERA. They were not a home-run-hitting team, but they did lead the majors in runs. They lost the ALCS to the Yankees in five games as Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina held them to six runs in their four losses.

More recently, in full seasons, the 2019 Astros (107 wins), ’21 Giants (107) and ’22 Dodgers (111 wins) entered the playoffs with the most wins and fell short of the championship. The postseason is littered with the failed dreams of would-be greatness.

Snitker says of his players, “They’re still young, but they’re experienced. They’re young veterans. They’ve played the most high-pressured games that you can play. They’ve been to the NLCS, the division series, the World Series. ... They’ve been through everything.”

Well, almost. This October, they will face a new pressure: the kind that comes from being the clear-cut best team in baseball. It is the pressure from expectations. The pressure of knowing there is a very wide gap between being remembered as an all-time-great team or just another very good one.

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