COMMENTARY | The Atlanta Braves' 2013 season has been full of surprises, injuries, and even some bean-ball controversy. But, most important, the season has been a success.
As they stroll comfortably toward the finish line of their first division title since 2005, here are five reasons why the Braves are built for a World Series run, not just in 2013 but also for the next several years:
Lineup full of game-changing power threats
If everybody gets healthy for October, the Braves will feature a lineup that includes Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, and the struggling but still dangerous Dan Uggla. And depending on how Fredi Gonzalez plays Evan Gattis, who recently mashed the longest tater of the major league season off of Cole Hamels, they will either have another masher in the outfield or artillery support off the bench. That is a lot of home run potential, giving this team the proverbial puncher's chance. Opponents are going to have to earn every out against this club.
Elite young pitching rotation
The Braves' top three starting pitchers as this point in the season are not only putting up peak performance at the right time, but they also have an average age of just under 25 years old. Mike Minor is the staff ace at age 25. Julio Teheran has been an outstanding No. 2 pitcher at the ripe age of 22. And Kris Medlen, at the grizzled and arthritic age of 27, has given up only 15 runs over 49 innings since the beginning of August. Over that span, he also happens to have a terrific 45:7 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
The starting rotation performance has been outstanding regardless of what metric is used. By team ERA, they are the third-best starting rotation in the National League since the All-Star break. The group's 3.65 ERA over that stretch is behind only the Reds at 3.30 and the Dodgers at an outrageous 2.44. According to Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), a stat I prefer over ERA, they fare even better. FIP is adjusted to appear similar to ERA, and the Braves' 3.36 mark is again third in the league behind the Pirates and the Dodgers.
While none of these three fit the mold of a typical lights-out ace, all have been outstanding and are not showing any signs of slowing down during the stretch run.
(All stats courtesy of the indispensable FanGraphs.com as of September 10, 2013)
The lack of a true, lock-down ace would possibly be a big liability for most playoff bound teams. But there's only one team that has Craig Kimbrel.
Kimbrel anchors a bullpen pieced together in the wake of serious injuries to two of the major players from last year. The innings and performance from 2012 Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters have been ably replaced by Jordan Walden, Luis Avilan, Anthony Varvaro and Scott Downs. In most games, a lead after six innings is going to be good enough. The ability to shorten a game this way is a huge advantage.
Great defense ... or really just Andrelton Simmons
What makes the Braves' pitching staff so scary for opposing hitters is that, short of putting it over the fence, there's some doubt about any hit ball becoming a hit. The Braves have given up the fewest runs against this season, and are the only team in the majors that has not yet allowed 500. A lot of this can be credited to the unbelievable shortstop play of Andrelton Simmons.
Watching Simmons this year has been one of the most enjoyable and consistently rewarding experiences for Braves fans. In his first full major league season, he has played such transcendent defense at the shortstop position that the ongoing culture war between stats geeks and people who role their eyes at the stat geeks is suspended when discussing his play. The advanced metrics and the "Sweet Moses did you just see that?" metrics are matching up perfectly. He's managed to win my heart by knocking in 15 home runs this year on top of his generational defensive ability. He's a truly special player, and, hopefully, you'll all forgive me for gushing.
Looking to 2014
This team is easy to get excited about for the 2013 playoffs, but the strengths at play this year are especially exciting because of the construction of the roster. These are incredibly talented guys, almost all of them young and on the rise and under team control. There will be very few holes to fill in the offseason, though one of them might be replacing the irreplaceable Brian McCann behind the plate. That kind of roster consistency is going to be key to this potential run.
Now, one only has to speak to a Washington Nationals fan about getting too excited for a dominant stretch before one tempers down his or her excitement. But this Braves club might be at the beginning of a special run.
Patrick Richardson is a longtime follower of the Atlanta Braves who started playing t-ball right as Atlanta's record-setting run of division titles began. He is an amateur but enthusiastic sabermetrician.
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