How the relentlessly competent Braves reasserted control over the NL East

Remember when that one-time NL East favorite lost its MVP contender to injury, looked upon its options and decided to simply risk despair?

Both the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets have been without their best players for more than a month. Their responses to the crises, though, explain how their fortunes have flipped in a way that must feel all too familiar to Mets fans.

In the days following Ronald Acuña Jr.’s season-ending knee injury on July 10, the Braves were at serious risk of fading from the playoff race entirely. With him, on July 9, they were one game under .500 but had a 14.3% chance of making the playoffs, by FanGraphs’ playoff odds. The day after his injury, still a game under .500, their odds had dipped to 8%.

All the while, all-world Mets ace Jacob deGrom has been on the shelf since July 7. Still, when Acuna went down, New York boasted a relative stranglehold on the league’s most middling division, a three-and-a-half game lead and 76.8% playoff odds. Projection systems can only work based off what they know, though. At the time, deGrom was far more likely than Acuña to return this season in some capacity.

In the public consciousness, another assumption supporting the Mets’ status as the NL East frontrunner was baked in: Contenders that lose significant production usually make moves to offset the loss.

As it turns out, only one really did.

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 07: Jorge Soler #12 of the Atlanta Braves reacts with Freddie Freeman #5 after hitting a solo home run in the first inning of an MLB game against the Washington Nationals at Truist Park on August 7, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

Braves bested Mets at trade deadline

Count this summer as another demonstration of the relentless competence that keeps the Braves (at least) one step ahead of the splash-and-flash Mets and Philadelphia Phillies.

Riding an eight-game winning streak heading into Sunday's action, the Braves have surged to a five-game division lead, and are now -300 favorites to take the NL East at BetMGM. Reigning MVP Freddie Freeman is batting .357 with four homers in August and shortstop Dansby Swanson has joined third baseman Austin Riley in the breakout brigade, batting .361 with 17 RBIs this month.

The Mets, who clung to favorite status for most of the year, are now +900 long shots in the division — having swapped places with the Braves in less than a month. The Phillies briefly took a turn in the top spot as well, but we're going to focus on the huge swing between the preseason darling Braves and the midseason kings of Queens.

Atlanta’s advance can be traced to July 30, the day of MLB’s trade deadline. In a tightly packed race for one playoff spot, the division crown, the Braves and Mets essentially made different calculations about how to best invest in seasons dramatically marred by injury. Atlanta had a barren outfield, while New York needed reinforcements in the starting rotation that had carried it to that point.

From July 11 through the trade deadline, Braves outfielders hit .236/.272/.387, good for the fifth-worst offensive production in the majors by FanGraphs’ park-adjusted wRC+ metric. So GM Alex Anthopoulos made shrewd, if small, moves to fill those gaping holes with serviceable major-league talent. Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler and Adam Duvall have walloped 11 homers for Atlanta, with Pederson and Soler both running on-base percentages above .360. Since the deadline — voila! — the Braves’ outfield production is not only above average, it’s better than what the Mets or Phillies have gotten. To make that upgrade, they gave up very little in the way of prospect capital. (They also acquired reliever Richard Rodriguez and outfielder Eddie Rosario, who has yet to play for them, for virtually nothing.)

In a mirror image that the Mets front office — led by acting GM Zack Scott and president Sandy Alderson — apparently failed to recognize, New York’s beleaguered rotation had a 5.21 ERA in the 18 games without deGrom leading up to July 30. There was serious doubt about Taijuan Walker’s ability to sustain his tremendous first-half numbers (through no fault of his own, he was both unaccustomed to pitching this much and likely to regress results-wise). And everything about Carlos Carrasco’s time in New York so far made it clear he shouldn’t have been counted on for innings. Yet the Mets added only Rich Hill and Trevor Williams (who they demoted to the minors and have started only once).

They still have a 5.09 rotation ERA since deGrom last pitched, 21st in the majors. That particularly won’t cut it for a team that has struggled to score all season.

New York did add Javier Baez from the Cubs, a big name whose whiff-prone bat provided a marginal upgrade at best. In Pete Crow-Armstrong, they gave up by far the best prospect either team expended.

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 19: Starting pitcher Taijuan Walker #99 of the New York Mets reacts on the mound during a break in the action after giving up a run to the Los Angeles Dodgers during the fifth inning at Dodger Stadium on August 19, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
The Mets did little at the trade deadline to add pieces around Taijuan Walker and bolster a starting rotation that is missing Jacob deGrom. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

How the Braves stay ahead in NL East

Adding to the slingshot effect that has carried the Braves to a five-game division lead (and seven-game cushion over the Mets) was the likelihood they would make up ground anyway. Through July 29, the Braves had the best run differential and expected record in the NL East despite their actual 51-52 record. Their numbers to that point said they were playing like an 88-win team, while the Mets had the underlying performance of an 81-win team.

It’s possible the Mets’ deadline is a tale of good intentions gone awry, or a particularly unfriendly pitching market, but this juxtaposition is really difficult to miss. As Mets front office staffers complained to reporters about other teams’ high asking prices, the Braves patched their holes three or four different ways while giving up little of value.

There are other factors, to be sure. No one in Queens could have foreseen Michael Conforto’s nosedive, and there’s little credit to be doled out to anyone except the players for Swanson’s RBI onslaught or Jeff McNeil’s frustrating down year. But the reality is, the Mets were in a position of relative strength in late July and simply needed to add protection against catastrophe to point themselves toward the reward that is a playoff appearance. As has become abundantly clear to new team owner Steve Cohen, they did not do that.

It was never guaranteed that the Braves would catch fire as they have over the torrid winning streak — they’re 14-3 since July 31 — that vaulted them into the NL East catbird’s seat. And it’s not guaranteed that they will hold on, or that underperforming Mets bats won’t click into high gear. But when you look at what these rivals did to steel themselves for the 2021 stretch run — and the chances they gave themselves at paying off adversity-filled campaigns with a series in October — there is little doubt that the Braves outflanked the Mets.

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