The Atlanta Braves have been absolutely awesome the past couple weeks, if you haven't noticed. A 12-game winning streak following Tuesday night's 2-1 win over the Nationals has allowed them to leave the rest of the NL East in the dust.
This begs the question: Should we consider the Braves as World Series favorites based on their recent dominance, or dismiss it and emphasize their prior three-month stretch of inconsistency?
Despite a fiery 13-2 start to the 2013 season, a lot went wrong early on.
Remember how Atlanta's outfield had the potential to be one of the best ever? The supreme athleticism, past production and relatively young ages of Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton and Justin Upton made it seem like a safe bet that they would be worth at least 10 wins above replacement. Many analysts had them penciled in for even better performances, and understandably so.
Here's what this trio accomplished from 2010-2012 (WAR via Fangraphs):
|Jason Heyward||.849 OPS, 4.7 WAR||.708 OPS, 2.0 WAR||.814 OPS, 6.4 WAR|
|B.J. Upton||.745 OPS, 3.8 WAR||.759 OPS, 3.9 WAR||.752 OPS, 3.1 WAR|
|Justin Upton||.799 OPS, 2.6 WAR||.898 OPS, 6.1 WAR||.785 OPS, 2.1 WAR|
Funny how baseball works.
Coming off a career year, Heyward stunk in April. He batted an anemic .121 through 17 games before an appendectomy sent him to the disabled list.
Dealing with enormous pressure after inking a five-year, $75.25 million contract, B.J. endured a humiliating start of his own. He was striking out as often as anybody in baseball and facing the threat of demotion as his struggles continued into June.
In stark contrast, the younger Upton was challenging franchise records with a season-opening power surge, which included six home runs through seven contests and elevated the Braves to first place. They've been there ever since, but hardly because of Justin. The 25-year-old saw his name disappear from MVP and All-Star discussions as his offensive numbers plummeted, particularly against right-handed pitching.
Fortunately, the Braves have been carried by several unlikely sources of production.
Third baseman Chris Johnson, an afterthought when the Justin Upton trade was completed in January, leads the National League in batting. After years of inexplicable mediocrity against left-handers, he entered Tuesday with a .963 OPS against them. A .425 BABIP assures that Johnson's numbers will regress, but maintaining his excellent line drive rate should prevent anything too dramatic.
Former janitor Evan Gattis solidified the catching position while Brian McCann recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. Gattis doesn't have a strong case for NL Rookie of the Year anymore, but manager Fredi Gonzalez ought to be thrilled to have a such a slugger available off the bench.
Most importantly, the pitching staff has smoothly adjusted to major losses. Luis Avilan masterfully sets up for Craig Kimbrel like Jonny Venters used to, and coming off a frustrating campaign at Triple-A, Julio Teheran has deepened the starting rotation. Because of him, the front office didn't need to panic in response to Tim Hudson's fractured ankle.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Braves moving forward.
For one, Kimbrel is the best reliever in baseball. That cannot be disputed. Dating back to the 2011 All-Star break, the right-hander has racked up 240 strikeouts with only 43 walks in 137 innings, converting 94 of 103 save opportunities (91.3 percent).
Justin Upton has woken up from his slump, recording at least one hit in each game since July 27. Between him, Gattis, McCann and Dan Uggla, it's awfully risky to leave a fastball up in the strike zone, as each of them can send one into the bleachers with ease.
Then we have Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons, who used to be two of the most underrated players in the entire league. Now, most of us have been made aware of Freeman's surreal 1.168 OPS with runners in scoring position, and Simmons' unprecedented defensive excellence (via Christina Kahrl, ESPN.com).
Rotation depth is yet another strength of Atlanta's now that Brandon Beachy is back from Tommy John surgery. If the Indiana native can find any semblance of his 2012 form (2.00 ERA, 0.96 WHIP in 13 GS), he and Mike Minor (2.76 ERA, 137 K in 150.0 IP) will be an imposing pair to face in any playoff series.
With less than eight weeks left in the regular season, the Braves will not only cruise toward a postseason berth, but to the No. 1 record in the Senior Circuit.
Consider their remaining schedule. This team won't play another game west of St. Louis, which means no long flights or major time-zone changes messing with players' biological clocks. Moreover, only two more series—seven games total—will come against opponents with winning records.
The extraordinary cushion separating the Braves from the Washington Nationals will provide ample opportunity to rest stars down the stretch.