Prior to the 2010 season, no one could have predicted that in late June the Braves would be 14 games over .500 and leading the National League East by 2.5 games over the Mets and a seemingly impossible 5.5 games over Philadelphia. Many expected the Braves to be a contender in 2010, but are they THAT good?
No. They aren't.
At the end of action on May 14th, the Braves were 17-18 and in last place in the NL East, 4.5 games behind Philadelphia. Since then, they have been helped by a few factors that have nothing at all to do with their own team, including...
-The schedule. Between May 14th and June 20th the Braves are 25-10, good for a .714 winning percentage (for reference, the Yankees were 103-59 last year, which is a .635 winning percentage). In that time, the Braves have played 16 games against the Diamondbacks, Pirates, and Royals, against whom they went 12-4. Against major league (ouch) clubs over the same stretch, Atlanta was 13-6, which is good, but not off the charts.
-The Phillies. In not trying to take anything away from Atlanta, one has to acknowledge that the Braves' making up 10 games on the Phillies in five weeks has as much to do with one team playing horrifically as it does one team playing great. Over the same May 14- June 20th time period, the Phils are 14-19, and have struggled mightily to score. The Phils also played 16 games against San Diego, Boston, Minnesota and the Yankees while the Braves were off killing the Royals. Jimmy Rollins, undeniably the engine that makes the Phils go, appeared in exactly five of the 33 games since May 14th.
Looking over the Braves' production in 2010, you have to wonder how they are 42-28. They have two starting pitchers (Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson) who are above average, one guy hitting over .300 (Martin Prado, .339) and one real power threat in Troy Glaus (14 HR, 55 RBI). Most of their everyday lineup is average to middling, and Jason Hayward has come back to earth since a hot start and is completely neutralized by left-handed pitching (.230, three home runs, 25 strikeouts in 74 at-bats). I also think Martin Prado is more Junior Spivey (made his only All-Star team in 2002 at age 27) than Davey Lopes (became a regular at 28 and started in the majors for a decade). Omar Infante and Eric Hinske, the bench players with the most at-bats, are playing way over their heads too (hitting 48 and 55 points higher than their career averages, respectively).
The real strength of Atlanta's team this year has been its bullpen, which boasts some gaudy numbers from the likes of Billy Wagner, Takashi Saito and Jonny Venters. But how long will those numbers hold up from the 38-year Wagner and 40-year old Saito, not to mention that Venters hasn't made his second loop around the league yet.
The Braves can't run away and hide in any race because they're offense and starting pitching aren't good enough. Their most productive offensive players are playing well over their heads right now, and you can't trust any starting pitcher they have not named Hanson or Hudson. They're also relying too heavily on a couple of players (mainly Glaus and Saito) with too checkered an injury history to not expect a breakdown.
I think the Braves are a good team, I really do. I think they'll be in a race for the playoffs, and could make some noise if they get in. But I think that if they do win the NL East, it will have more to do with what the Phillies don't do than what the actually Braves do.
Around the League...
- A.J. Burnett got ripped for the second start in a row on Monday night in Arizona. Burnett has shown yet again that he will always remain what he is, which is a maddening pitcher who is great at times, and horrible at others.
- Ubaldo Jimenez is pretty good. But if you read Baseball Prospectus, he's no better than he's ever been, and is probably getting a little bit lucky. I think he probably is getting a little lucky with how things have been going, but I also think you can make some of your own luck when you throw 99 with hard downward movement.
- Jimmy Rollins is due to be activated from the DL (again) today. Here's hoping he's healthy and effective the rest of the season, as he's only played 11 games thus far in 2010.