Over the last two seasons, the Atlanta Braves have been ridiculously successful. In 2020, they were one game away from advancing to the World Series. In 2021, they overcame a slow start to the season and lifted the Commissioner’s Trophy after dispatching the Houston Astros.
But the question remains: which team was better?
While the 2021 Braves did win the championship, that does not necessarily mean they are better than any team that did not win the championship. Most of baseball boils down to matchups between teams, and some teams match up with other teams better. Upsets are upsets for a reason.
Despite just one year passing between the teams, there is little in the way of continuity. Max Fried was a star pitcher for both teams. A chunk of the bullpen were holdovers from both seasons. Ozzie Albies did miss about half of the 2020 season, but he would play at approximately the same level in the event of a series between the two teams.
Ian Anderson would most likely play at approximately the same level although his numbers were slightly better in 2020. Either way, his dominance in the postseason carried over from both seasons.
In Favor of the 2021 Braves
These Braves made plucky moves at the deadline to bolster talent in the outfield particularly. Joc Pederson, World Series MVP Jorge Soler, and Eddie Rosario had critical moments throughout the playoffs that propelled the Braves to the World Series. While none of them are superstars in their own right, they are all effective players in the situations that required them to be effective.
In addition, Austin Riley exploded onto the scene with a dominant 2021 season. He has put himself in the conversation of being a top-five third baseman, and he has improved dramatically with the bat in his hand. His 2020 season was quite poor by his current standards.
While the 2020 Braves lacked a true ace pitcher capable of striking out 10 or more each time he came to the mound, the 2021 Braves have Charlie Morton. While Morton did get injured in the opening game of the 2021 World Series, he would be available if these two teams squared off.
In Favor of the 2020 Braves
The 2020 Braves had immense star power. It begins with the MVP of the league Freddie Freeman. Freeman had an explosive 60-game campaign for the Braves en route to the MVP, leading the NL in slash line stats for most of the season. Additionally, the Braves had the services of Ronald Acuna Jr. Acuna did play in about half of the 2021 season, but he would be unavailable for a potential playoff series. In 2020, he was one of the five or so best players in baseball.
The 2021 Braves did lose Mark Melancon in free agency, and he had a great season with the San Diego Padres. While Will Smith ended up posting many saves for the Braves in 2021, Melancon is likely slightly better as a closer. Smith was incredibly effective during the playoffs, however.
The 2020 Braves also had Marcell Ozuna manning the designated hitter role. Ozuna won two out of three legs of the Triple Crown, and he finished among the leading vote-getters for MVP. He played about 50 games for the Braves in 2021 before getting injured and going through off-the-field issues.
Dansby Swanson had a moderately better season in 2020, but his year-to-year play would likely be similar in the course of a simulation. Adam Duvall also falls into this category, but he only played half of the 2021 season with the Braves. He had a similar performance in a similar number of plate appearances, however. Huascar Ynoa was slightly better in 2021, but he pitched just one inning in the playoffs.
A seven-game series will be simulated using whatifsports.com. The 2020 Braves will host the series because they had a superior regular-season winning percentage.
There will be no designated hitter rule in effect because the website tracks Atlanta as a National League team.
Both teams will employ three starters. The 2021 Braves will use Morton, Fried, and Anderson. The 2020 Braves will use Fried, Kyle Wright, and Anderson.
Both teams will deploy their lineups from Game 1 of their opening-round series. As mentioned, there is no designated hitter role, so Ozuna will move to left field. Duvall will play in right field, replacing Nick Markakis. The pitcher will bat ninth, moving Riley up to the No.8 hole.
Soler, playing in right field, will lead off. Freeman, Albies, and Riley follow in their normal positions. Duvall bats fifth and plays in center. Rosario comes next while playing in left. Travis d’Arnaud, Swanson, and the pitcher spot round out the order.
Acuna will lead off while playing center. Freeman follows with Ozuna in the three-hole playing in left. The clean-up hitter is d’Arnaud. Albies, Duvall in right, Swanson, and Riley follow with the pitcher spot batting ninth.
If the two teams played in real life, the 2021 Braves would likely have a slight advantage because of their depth and previous experience. However, having two superstars at full strength (Freeman and Acuna) will likely propel the 2020 Braves to a victory in the simulated world.
The 2021 Braves got off to a hot start, scratching seven runs across Fried. They tacked on two more in the seventh before exploding in the eighth to take a 15-1 lead. The 2020 Braves went out with a whimper, but Duvall did hit a three-run home run to help trim the lead to 15-5 in the bottom of the ninth.
Morton and 2021 Riley had excellent days. Morton pitched six innings of one-run ball, and Riley drove in five runs.
Game 2: 2021 Leads 1-0
Game 2 was more of the same with the 2021 Braves scoring six runs in the third and three runs in the ninth. Soler and Duvall hit home runs to help the cause while 2021 Fried got the win.
Even in the loss, 2020 d’Arnaud drove in three runs and hit a home run.
Game 3: 2021 Leads 2-0
Both versions of Anderson had nearly flawless starts. 2020 Anderson pitched seven scoreless frames, striking out nine batters. 2021 Anderson struck out seven over seven, but he allowed one run. That run proved to be insurmountable as the 2021 Braves mustered no offense.
Ozuna polished off the victory with a three-run home run in the ninth to extend the lead from 2-0 to 5-0.
Game 4: 2021 Leads 2-1
After a hot start, Game 4 settled into what would be one of the best games in World Series history if it were a real game. The 2020 Braves opened the scoring with a two-run double from d’Arnaud in the first.
In true 2021 World Series fashion, Soler “crushes” (whatifsports terminology) a solo shot. Albies lined an RBI single before being driven home by Duvall. A sacrifice fly from d’Arnaud made it 4-2 for the 2021 Braves before the end of the first.
The game became a pitcher’s duel before Morton slipped a two-out single past 2020 Shane Greene to extend the lead in the sixth.
After scoreless innings in the seventh and eighth, the 2020 Braves have one more shot. Smith enters the game and unravels. He walks Duvall and allows a double to Swanson. After a productive groundout, the lead is down to 5-3. Smith walks Adieny Hechavarria before striking out Acuna. A.J. Minter enters to allow the tying runs. After a scoreless bottom of the frame, the squads head to extras.
The 2020 Braves get runners on in the 10th, 11th, and 14th, but they fail to convert. A 2021 Swanson walk in the 14th provided some life, but Pederson whiffed to end the inning.
The 2020 version of Swanson lofted a two-out double of his own in the top of the 15th, but Riley struck out to end the half of the frame.
Josh Tomlin entered in the bottom of the 15th, the seventh pitcher for the 2020 squad. Soler stepped to the plate, took two pitches, then sent pitch No.3 to orbit. The 2021 Braves won 6-5.
Game 5: 2021 Leads 3-1
2020 Freeman opened the scoring with a solo shot in the third. However, the Wright dam burst in the fifth. He walked the 2021 version of Swanson, surrendered a hit to Fried, and walked Soler. He walked 2021 Freeman (scoring a run), bringing up Albies. Albies proceeded to send a ball into the Chophouse for a grand slam.
2020 Duvall scratched a run across in the top of the sixth, and an Ozuna RBI single made it 5-3. However, a productive groundout by Soler tacked on an extra run in the bottom of the eighth.
Smith entered the game in the ninth facing perhaps the most difficult threesome of hitters in baseball. He worked Acuna into a ground ball. He got Freeman to fly out. Three pitches later, 2021 d’Arnaud was sprinting to the mound with strike three in his mitt.
While this was just one simulation, it was useful to see how the two iterations of the same team interacted. The 2020 Braves were close to tying up the series in Game 4, but Soler saved the day and would likely win the series MVP.
The debate between the 2020 Braves and 2021 Braves may never end, but fans across Braves Country are hoping the best has yet to come. With Acuna and Mike Soroka coming to the 2022 roster, the Braves could turn this one-off article into a series.
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Main image credit Embed from Getty Images