How did it come to this? This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not after the litany of costly injuries, a serious off-the-field incident, and an identity that seemingly, for a while, was reduced to only really hitting home runs. They hadn’t even reached the .500 mark until game 88. But then the trade deadline rolled around and the unthinkable occurred.
Not to channel my inner Al Pacino, but just when you thought they were out, they pull themselves back in because the Atlanta Braves are on a clear course to rule the NL East once more. In fact, put it in the books now. The Braves are a lock to win the NL East for the fourth consecutive year in a row.
The Braves Are a Lock to Win the NL East: Trade Deadline Winnings
First off, let’s tip our hats to general manager Alex Anthopoulos for a sneaky good trade deadline performance. Not many people thought too much about acquiring guys like Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario, and a highly underrated Richard Rodriguez. While some of them are either former all-stars or all-star caliber players even, none of them necessarily have fit the superstar mold. Therefore, due to the team’s previous collective disappointing play and the costly absence of multiple superstar-caliber players, this deadline was thought to be likely good, not great at best.
I, myself, thought that, and I, like others, was wrong. Since the trade deadline, the Braves have rattled off a 19-7 record that’s featured a nine-game winning streak during mid-August, largely attributed to these moves. They are currently in the driver’s seat of the division and are here to stay. Sorry New York Mets, but injuries and inferior offensive play have come back to bite you badly. And Sorry Philadelphia Phillies, but Bryce Harper and Zack Wheeler aren’t enough consistency to keep yourselves afloat.
Soler, for instance, was a shockingly pleasant surprise for Braves fans. Yes, just a couple of years ago, he scorched 48 home runs and knocked in 117 runs for the Kansas City Royals. But since that eye-opening 2019 campaign, there has been a precipitous decline in both power and contact, where this year was at its worst for Soler with 13 home runs and a .192 average through 94 games. Then Soler approached his final 10 days with the Royals and a new dynamic was established that carried over into his tenure with the Braves.
Through 26 games, he’s hit .281 with eight home runs and 16 RBI, notching a .391 OBP to boot. He’s been sensational in particular on fastballs, slugging .732 in July and .630 in August. Duvall, himself, has echoed the impact of Soler with not just an effective bat that’s delivered seven home runs and 20 RBI since his return to Atlanta, but a glove that’s saved eight defensive runs out in left field this year as well.
And Rodriguez. My goodness was Rodriguez exactly what they’ve been looking for to aid their bullpen woes. I’m going to go ahead and take credit with my previous trade deadline options article for the suggestion of Rodriguez joining the Braves. (In all probability, it’s highly unlikely that Anthopoulos was perusing the suggestions of some “rando” like me.)
But I digress. Rodriguez has been sensational for them out of the bullpen with just two earned runs through 14 innings pitched thanks in large part to his fastball. Sure, he doesn’t strike out a ton, but his cheese has refused to allow hitters to either hit comfortably to reach base or walk at the very least.
The Braves Are a Lock to Win the NL East: Offensive Cohesiveness
It’s also hard to believe that the decisions made at the trade deadline didn’t create a reverb effect for this team in their lineup. Over the past 30 days, the Braves have racked up the eighth-most runs in the league, the fifth-highest slugging percentage, and the third-highest homerun totals. Freddie Freeman, specifically, is back folks, and when I say back, I mean MVP-caliber back. Not to say he wasn’t playing remotely well prior to the break, as his homerun power was still visible, but Freeman had underwhelming results from the plate, especially from a contact perspective.
Through June 11, Freeman was only hitting an uninspiring .228 average with a just as uninspiring .442 slugging. Since then though, from fine-tuning his approach at the plate on fastballs and breaking balls, he has been lethal. Through the subsequent 69 games, he’s accounted for 14 home runs and a slash line of .355/.428/.565. On the season, Freeman has 28 home runs with a .296 average, and .390 OBP, and his pace doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon.
Joining him for MVP-candidate conversation is Austin Riley? No disrespect to Riley, who I had a lot of faith in to have a bounce-back year in 2021 from his respectable rookie campaign in 2019, but it’s hard to say I foresaw this. With a slash line, himself, of .303/.375/.536 and 28 home runs and 80 RBI on the season, this man has been on another level, in particular since July 24. Riley has torched opposing pitching against just about everything that has come his way for 13 home runs, .372 batting average, and .708 slugging within that span of 34 games.
There were some people declaring this would be a “prove it” year for Riley, and he certainly responded in dramatic fashion by stepping up with a spectacular year from the plate.
Let’s not forget Dansby Swanson too with the power he’s added at the plate has certainly been very welcoming, tallying 12 of his 25 home runs this season and delivering a .313 average over the last 51 games.
The Braves Are a Lock to Win the NL East: Pitching Woes Cured?
As you can see, in so many facets of their game, this team has found a way to hit their stride, but maybe there has not been a bigger shock than the stride they’ve hit on the mound.
Despite losing previous Cy Young Award candidate Mike Soroka to a re-torn ACL, this pitching has turned a corner and turned it fast. Going back to even the all-star break, the Braves have been formidable from their rotation on the mound, surrendering the fifth-lowest ERA, the seventh-lowest WHIP, and the sixth-lowest opposing average in all of baseball.
Ian Anderson and a post mid-June Charlie Morton have been very solid 1-2 punch. Morton, in particular, has returned a stifling 2.85 ERA in his last 13 starts with 98 strikeouts and an opposing .187 batting average that has been helped greatly by his imposing curveball.
But the emergence of Max Fried honing his command can not be understated. Fried has had an up and down season, but over his last eight starts, he has been suffocating opposition for a 1.90 ERA and a .212 batting average that’s reminiscent of his spectacular 2020 season.
Fried features a five-pitch repertoire, and each pitch has seen a respectable decline in opposing average over the last month with the exception of his curveball. That curveball, might I add, was already allowing a measly .111 and it’s only shot up to a .216 in this past month of August. Coupled with the fact that Fried has only allowed one homerun in his last five starts, there’s a lot to feel invigorated about Fried who has brought his ERA down from what was previously an above-five not long ago, to nearly a sub-3.5.
Did I mention that not only has Touki Toussaint returned to the rotation, but triple-digit throwing Huascar Ynoa too? After a self-induced injury due to frustration following a poor start against the Brewers, their potential future ace in Ynoa is back with his fastball/slider combo that continues to mesmerize.
Even the bullpen has shown dramatic signs of improvement. I’ve already talked about Rodriguez’s impact, but let’s not slight Luke Jackson and Tyler Matzek who have been sensational, especially Matzek as of lately. Matzek has allowed only five hits and zero runs in his last 20 appearances of 17 total innings pitched. It certainly hasn’t hurt either to see the resurrection of AJ Minter’s season, who had previously been demoted, as he’s now brought his season ERA below four from his last seven scoreless appearances.
Results like this from their rotation, from their bullpen, and supplemented by their newfound discipline at the plate should bolster the outlook for this team to secure the NL East when it’s all said and done in 2021.
The Braves Are a Lock to Win the NL East: Their Next Roadblock
Yes, this team in all likelihood could be facing an uphill battle come postseason time. After all, even despite having their recent stretch of success, it has come against some inferior competition in the National League like the St. Louis Cardinals, the Washington Nationals, and the Miami Marlins.
But at 10 games above .500, this team should be commended, and this season should count as a major win for both manager Brian Snitker and the franchise as a whole. The moves they’ve made, the resilience they’ve embodied, it’s all led to a team that previously lacked identity now attaining one that they should wear on their sleeve proudly. To overcome what they have is a tall order to fill and most teams shy away from this level of adversity. But not the Braves.
It doesn’t get any easier though from here on out as we enter the month of September with the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres looming nearby. And if they really want to continue to prove the doubters wrong, it starts with how they fare tonight against arguably the NL and World Series frontrunner: the Los Angeles Dodgers.