The Atlanta Braves send us into the Senior Circuit section of the 2021 MLB Betting Guide. It was surprising to see the Braves win the NL East with minimal resistance during the 60-game sprint, as the New York Mets fell extremely flat and the Philadelphia Phillies couldn’t get out of their own way again.
The Regression Monster found the Washington Nationals, as many expected. It was actually the Miami Marlins that provided token pressure, finishing four games back with a -41 run differential. The Marlins even made the playoffs and bested the Chicago Cubs in the Wild Card Round before getting eliminated by the Braves in the Division Series.
Suffice it to say that things didn’t play out as I expected in the NL East, but the Braves won their third straight division title for the first time since winning 11 in a row from 1995-2005. Atlanta even won a playoff series for the first time since 2001. A lot of playoff disappointments could have really disappeared had the Braves finished off the Los Angeles Dodgers after taking a 3-1 lead in the NLCS.
Teams like the Braves are usually some of my favorites from a season win total standpoint. I like when really good teams have quiet offseasons while those around them make big splashes. The Braves added Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. They lost Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall. That won’t move many needles.
Teams that don’t do anything in the offseason fall out of favor in the court of public opinion. The Mets made a couple of big moves, including the acquisition of Francisco Lindor. The Phillies appeased Bryce Harper and probably outbid themselves for JT Realmuto. The Nationals traded for Josh Bell, signed Kyle Schwarber, Brad Hand, and Jon Lester.
The Braves? Well, they did very little in the grand scheme of things. The pitching was very pedestrian in the 60-game sprint, but the offense was among the best in baseball. A top-10 offense and a mediocre pitching staff was enough in 2019 to win 97 games and fly over the season win total.
Sometimes status quo isn’t a bad thing, though. The Braves have an excellent core group, with or without Mike Soroka, who will hope to return sooner rather than later from a torn Achilles tendon. Atlanta was first or second in several different offensive categories and even underachieved a little bit by the alternate standings metrics in the 60-game sprint. Maybe that will simply serve to balance out some of the negative regression signs coming out of 2019.
Are the Braves a better team? Are the Braves a worse team? I went into 2020 with a look on the over, citing the Pythagorean Win-Loss and BaseRuns records as reasons why the line was sitting at 90.5. I firmly believe the Braves would have been good enough to go over that.
With another year in the books and a similar win total number, let’s see where I stand now.
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win NL East
|Team||Odds To Win|
|New York Mets||+140|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+74 (5.95/4.72)||+96 (5.26/4.67)|
|3rd Order Win%||34.5-25.5||89.1-72.9|
|Record in One-Run Games||11-6||28-16|
Additions: Jake Lamb, Jason Kipnis, Nate Jones,Ehire Adrianza, Charlie Morton, Drew Smyly, Abraham Almonte, Guillermo Heredia, Phillip Ervin, Travis Demeritte, Victor Arano, Jack Mayfield
Losses: Jeremy Walker, Adam Duvall, Charlie Culberson, Tommy Milone, Tyler Flowers, Adeiny Hechavarria, Nick Markakis, Scott Schebler, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Cole Hamels, Felix Hernandez, Mike Foltynewicz, Darren O’Day
It has been a pretty boring offseason for the Braves. They signed Charlie Morton, gave Drew Smyly what felt like an exorbitant amount of money, and then reunited with Marcell Ozuna with a four-year deal. The Braves really didn’t need to do a whole lot.
They did lose some outfield depth and also a few bullpen pieces, but have plenty of in-house options to fill those roles and signed Will Smith prior to the 2020 season.
Offseasons that are light on news tend to be viewed as a negative, but I see it as a positive. The Braves didn’t need to do a whole lot, so they really didn’t. Great work at the minor league levels has created a lot of organizational depth and they’ll be tapping into that.
|Batting Average (BA)||.268 (2nd)||.258 (9th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.349 (1st)||.336 (7th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.483 (2nd)||.452 (8th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.355 (1st)||.332 (7th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||120 (3rd)||102 (10th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.322 (1st)||.305 (9th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||24.4% (21st)||23.3% (18th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||10.2% (9th)||9.8% (3rd)|
Well, hello there, Atlanta Braves. After being a top-10 offense in 2019, the Braves burst onto the scene in a big way with a huge 2020 campaign. During the shortened season, the Braves were a top-three offense in most categories. They led the league in wOBA, which is a big deal. The realigned schedule may have helped, as the Braves had the luxury of not running into too many pitcher’s parks, but the Braves made a lot of quality contact and even stood out despite a couple of missed weeks from Ronald Acuna Jr.
Freddie Freeman is a perennial MVP candidate and Marcell Ozuna was an outstanding addition. Between the two, the Braves got 31 homers and a batting average of right around .340 with an OBP in the .450 range. Both guys walked at a high rate and made a ton of high-quality contact. The Braves were second to the Dodgers in average exit velocity and a big reason why was because of the performances of Freeman and Ozuna.
I’m not entirely sure if the huge BB% spike from Acuna is legit, but we know the power is after 41 HR in 2019. He stole fewer bases in 2020, but made up for it in other ways and also played well defensively on a team that needed it because some of the other outfield options struggled.
With Freeman, Ozuna, and Acuna in the lineup, the Braves should be set up well to score runs again. Travis d’Arnaud also made a ton of hard contact and hit well enough to offset what was a lackluster defensive profile. Where I wonder about the Braves is with guys like Dansby Swanson, who had his best offensive season in the small sample after being a below average hitter the previous three seasons. He is only 27, so maybe the hit tool finally came alive, but a .350 BABIP was a major factor in his career-best .345 OBP and his .274 batting average. He actually struck out more and walked less than the season prior.
Will Austin Riley figure it out? Is Cristian Pache ready for the bright lights? What about Drew Waters? Is Ozzie Albies going to go back to a 116 wRC+ instead of a 103 wRC+?
Freeman was on a career year pace with the best exit velocity of his long tenure with the Braves and also hit highest walk rate by far. He will regress. He’ll still be a well above average contributor, but I’d expect a return to his normal numbers. The same is very much true of Ozuna, who had one major outlier in 2017, but the majority of his seasons have been around a 110 wRC+. I wouldn’t be shocked if this is the new normal for Acuna, or at least something like it, but a drop-off is fair to expect.
While I believe that the Braves are a very good team and didn’t really need to do a whole lot with their lineup or position player group, this is one of the things that scares me. You never want to take a season for granted. I’m sure that the Braves front office and analytics department knows the data. They know that what Freeman, Ozuna, Swanson, and, to some degree, Acuna did last season could very well be career outliers.
On the other hand, there probably is more staying power to what the Braves have done than what I’ve said here. I expect BB% to drop around the league. The Marlins had a 10.2% BB% as a pitching staff, but were the only team that the Braves regularly played that had a really significant walk rate issue. The Braves didn’t really get that lucky in BA-xBA as calculated by Statcast. They were five points better than expected. That was the 10th-highest number, but it wasn’t some grand outlier like what we saw with a team like the Mets, who were 16 points better than expected.
Sometimes this will happen when you look at a team’s offensive profile. There is a lot of give and take. There are some players that may regress in a negative way towards the mean, but other players are likely to positively regress towards their mean. All of it has a way of balancing out.
The Braves were fourth in fly ball percentage. They were third in line drive percentage. They were first in LD% in 2019 and 14th in FB%. I can’t help but think that this is a team that has put a priority on hitting for power by elevating the baseball, which is the correct strategy in today’s game.
If I had to project where this lineup ends up, I’d say somewhere between last season and 2019, so anywhere in that 4-8 range across a lot of offensive categories. Some guys really overperformed relative to their career numbers, but the Braves seem to have the right approach and the right batted ball approach with high exit velocity numbers will always produce results. They make a lot of high-quality contact.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||4.46 (15th)||4.20 (10th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||4.42 (13th)||4.39 (14th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.63 (19th)||4.42 (16th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||22.2% (23rd)||22.3% (18th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||9.7% (18th)||8.8% (18th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||70.6% (18th)||73.8% (10th)|
If the Braves pitching staff doesn’t get back on track, the offense will have to keep up its 2020 pace to contend with an improved NL East. To be fair, Mike Soroka was hurt in his third start with an ugly Achilles injury that took away the remainder of his season. The loss of Soroka was big because he was a guy that posted a 2.68 ERA with a 3.45 FIP and a 3.85 xFIP in 29 starts in 2019. He was limited to 13.2 innings in 2020.
We’ll see when he is able to come back from the injury, but when he does, I would expect him to perform close to his 2019. He’s an extreme ground ball guy for the most part and the Braves are pretty good at three of the four infield positions. Maybe we even see an additional spike in strikeouts from Soroka once his command fully returns.
Max Fried is the real deal. Over 281.1 innings, Fried has a 3.52 ERA with a 3.69 FIP. The Braves did something really special with him last season. After HR/FB% marks of 20% in each of his first three seasons, his HR/FB% went down to 4.9% in the short season. He sacrificed some strikeouts to get there, but Fried was in the 98th percentile in average exit velocity against, 98th percentile in Hard Hit% against, and 93rd percentile in xSLG.
Those numbers in 2019 for Fried? 33rd percentile in exit velo, 27th in Hard Hit%, and 68th in xSLG. Fried went from 39.1% of batted balls at 95+ mph down to 23.8%. Two subtle changes took place. The first is that Fried worked up in the zone more with the fastball. Instead of pitching to the middle of the plate, he made an adjustment and worked up in the zone. The second was that the Braves reworked his pitch usage. Fried threw fewer four-seam fastballs and worked in more sliders and sinkers.
The improved arsenal led Fried to go from a .316 BA and a .459 SLG on his fastball down to a .198 BA and a .309 SLG. He gave up 12 home runs on 277 batted ball events on that pitch in 2019. He gave up one on 65 in 2020. Smart teams are doing this. They are altering arsenals and getting pitchers to locate up in the zone with the fastball more often. Pitchers used to be instructed to pitch down in the zone all the time. The best way to counter hitters trying to get under the ball to elevate it? Pitch to a spot where that is hard to do.
While Fried was a big success story in that regard in 2020, I would expect that Braves to do some special things with Ian Anderson, who has more strikeout upside than Fried while still having similar ground ball rates. Charlie Morton is another guy that induces a lot of grounders. He’s coming off of a bit of a down year with the Rays, but so long as the 37-year-old is healthy, I see no reason why he can’t bounce back.
Drew Smyly only made seven appearances for the Giants, but had tremendous success with a 3.42 ERA and a 2.01 FIP. I thought it was insane that the Braves gave him $11 million very early in the offseason, but they must have isolated something.
The Giants have been working on the spin rates for their pitchers. Smyly saw some big spin rate gains relative to his career marks, so I’d presume that is what they are buying. I’m less sure about that, but spin rate is important. Tight spin means late break and pitches with high spin rates are typically much harder to barrel. Beyond Smyly, Kyle Wright is probably not going to have a big year, but the Braves will get Soroka back and also have guys like Bryse Wilson, Tucker Davidson, and Touki Toussaint ready and waiting.
Atlanta will have another quality bullpen this season. Shane Greene and Mark Melancon were first and second in appearances and both guys are gone, but this is a really deep unit. The emergence of former starter Tyler Matzek and the return to health and productivity from AJ Minter were two huge developments last season. The success of guys like that allowed the Braves to move on from some of the higher-priced veterans.
There are a few worries here and there. Will Smith had uncharacteristically bad command last season. Luke Jackson had awful control. Those are two guys that were great in 2019, though. The Braves should have a lot of leads this season and have the right kind of bullpen to hold those.
All in all, I think this pitching staff improves across the board. The imbalanced schedule put Atlanta up against a lot of quality offensive teams. The only team in either East Division to finish with a below average wRC+ was the Marlins. Even the Orioles were better than league average. The Braves should get a respite by playing all 14 NL teams instead of the four in the division and then just the AL East in interleague.
Positives & Negatives
Depth is a huge factor in my season win total handicapping. While the Braves lost some of it from last season, they’ve done such an excellent job on the developmental side that I fully anticipate this team to have a lot of very good players. You have some stars and scrubs types of units out there that would be dead in the water if a star player went down. I’m not saying it’d be easy if Freddie Freeman or Ronald Acuna Jr. went down, but the Braves are better equipped than most teams for those types of things.
Bullpens are so vitally important. In the current era of Major League Baseball, I don’t think anybody worth his or her weight as an analyst glosses over bullpens, but I don’t think they are properly accounted for in season win total markets. There is truly something to be said about a bullpen that can protect the vast majority of its leads. It goes a long way in the betting process for me.
Atlanta Braves Pick & Prediction: Over 91.5
We’re not really paying much of a premium on the Braves here. Their season win total line last season was around 90.5 and I see nothing that would suggest they are worse than that this season after I was interested in the over. However, I won’t be putting a bet on this one.
The division looks to be a bit stronger all the way around and any negative offensive regression without something positive on the pitching side could be problematic. I do still think that the Braves win the NL East, but I also think that we could see a situation in which the top four teams in this league all win a decent number of games and maybe it only takes 93 or 94 games to win it.
This is not a team that I want to bet against. This is not an organization that I want to bet against. Acuna Jr. is a legitimate NL MVP candidate this season and I’m a big believer in what the Braves did with Fried and how they could translate those things to a guy like Anderson or maybe even teach an old dog like Morton some new tricks.
If the Mets hadn’t gotten better and I didn’t like another over in this division more, I would be interested in the Braves going over the total. For now, it is a pick in the Guide and one I may revisit as Opening Day approaches.