It’s safe to say that everyone expected the Atlanta Braves to be pretty good this year with the addition of B.J. and Justin Upton. After all, last year they did finish a close second to the Nationals with a 94-68 record. However, this year I believe 100 games is a virtual lock. Why is it a lock? Players playing to the back of their baseball card. The Braves have 4 players that have not begun to play to the level of the previous career averages.
Why is that important? The Braves are out in front of the Nationals and Phillies and this is with those 4 players hitting well below their career averages.
B.J. Upton, Justin Upton, Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward are all hitting below their career averages. Let’s take them case by case.
OF Justin Upton is hitting .248 thus far this year while his career average is .275. He is also a player that usually has a better 2nd half than first. As the lineup improves, he should see more pitches to hit in the 3 hole.
2B Dan Uggla is a career .250 hitter that is currently struggling to stay above .200 (.202 as of July 5). Also a better 2nd half player you can expect him to pick up 20-30 points on his average. Hopefully, he cuts down on his NL league 106 strikeouts.
1B Jason Heyward is a curious case. While his early career average is .256, you expect more than the .225 he is giving you so far. You’d also expect him to be hitting more home runs (6 thus far). Luckily for the Braves, Heyward has historical had a very big July and August.
CF BJ Upton’s struggles have been the most puzzling. Upton is making $12 million this year and is hitting a paltry .172 despite a career average of .249. Of course, Upton is transitioning from the AL to the NL which is no easy task. As he learns the NL pitchers and see them a 2nd and 3rd time around, he should have a much better 2nd half.
Contributions From Everywhere
Besides the excellent pitching, the Braves are getting significant contributions from unlikely sources.
With Brian McCann and Evan Gattis at catcher, they have combined for 18 HR and 50 RBIs. If they were one person, they would give Buster Posey a run for his money as the NL All Star catcher. McCann is also a great pitchers’ catcher for the staff.
And how about that 3rd basemen, Chris Johnson? Very few times do you see a player step in for a retiring player like Chipper Jones and play so well.
When Don Mattingly left the Yankees, when Cal Ripken left the Orioles, or when Barry Larkin left the Reds, their replacements had a hard time performing their first seasons.
Johnson doesn’t seem to be rattled but the challenge as he is hitting .332 thus far with only 6 errors at 3B and 1B.
Another major check in the Braves favor is their remaining schedule. Besides 9 games with the Brewers, Cubs and Padres, Atlanta will see the Marlins 10 more times and the Mets another 9.
That is 28 games out of a remaining 70+ games against some very poor baseball teams. They also get the Ryan Howard-less Phillies 13 more times.
Their closest NL East competition is likely the Washington Nationals. The Philadelphia Phillies have an aging lineup and their pitching will not hold up (also just lost Ryan Howard for 6-8 weeks).
The Nationals, on the other hand, can pitch. They have a good bullpen and a legitimate closer. However, their lineup is suspect (2nd to last in On Base Pct and 3rd to last in Batting Average) and they’re tied for 27th in most errors committed in all of baseball.
So, how do the Braves blow through the rest of the National League?
The biggest threats outside their division, will be the two teams with a better record than the Braves right now, the Pirates and the Cardinals. Let’s take them one at a time.
Pittsburgh Pirates – Let’s face it, we can all don’t understand how this team is doing it, especially with that lineup. Looking a bit at the schedule does help it come into focus a bit better.
The Pirates have played the division “rival” Milwaukee Brewers 13 times and the Cubs 10 times already. Those are 2 teams that are both more than 10 games below .500.
The Pirates are pretenders and will fold in August.
St. Louis Cardinals – The Cardinals are an interesting story. They have a good many players playing well above the back of their baseball cards – both on the pitching staff and in the lineup. (I still want to know how Carlos Beltran (36) is playing the outfield every day as 3 years ago he had trouble taking at-bats).
A return to the average will see the team struggle down the stretch as some of their weaknesses are exposed (closer, aging outfield).
The Braves won 94 games last year and every team in their division was better last year. They will feast on the NL East and break the century mark in wins for the first time since the 2003 season.
Lock it up!