It’s the Atlanta Braves.
Quietly and with little fanfare, the Braves have opened the season 14-8, good enough to put them tied for first in the NL East with the red hot Washington Nationals. They’re first in the NL in runs scored, and with the upcoming series against the slumping Phillies, Rockies and Cubs ahead, they’re poised to take sole possession of that lead. All of which leaves us with one question: how are these Atlanta Braves doing it?
What it isn't:
It’s not their pitching staff. Other teams are hitting a healthy .271 against Braves pitching, leaving them near the bottom of the MLB barrel. Starters Tommy Hanson and Mike Minor are doing acceptably well, and Brandon Beachy has proved a godsend, improving on his rookie season with a 1.05 ERA in this first month of 2012. But that’s where it ends. Randall Delgado has been ineffective and Jair Jurrjens has been downright terrible. Craig Kimbrel’s been getting saves, but his WHIP is through the roof, and only half the middle relief corps has proven able to find the plate.
What it is:
Who's the key performer that the Braves will need to rely on to win the East?
No, what’s really carrying this Braves squad is the combination of speed and veteran leadership. Michael Bourn and Jason Heyward each provide a real scoring threat every time either one is on the basepaths, and Bourn’s .344 average to date has to be pleasing manager Fredi Gonzalez. Martin Prado and Brian McCann are entering their seventh and eighth-straight years with the Braves, respectively, and Chipper Jones is—as always—at the clubhouse. This year—his 19th in the bigs and with the Braves—may be his last, but there’s no question that seeing No. 10 at third base has proven to be an anchor for this Braves squad.
Finally, let’s not forget about Freddie Freeman. Another member of the 2011 rookie class, Freeman has proven his worth as an everyday first baseman. Despite being just barely in his twenties, Freeman has nonetheless shown his ability to play pro defense at first and hit major league pitching. Most amazing, though, is that no one yet has started calling him by the moniker that should rightfully be his birthright: Captain Marvel, Jr. (In the old comic book series, Freddy Freeman was a wheelchair-bound newsboy who attained super powers—and the mantle of his idol’s second—when he spoke the name of Captain Marvel). Perhaps if he can manage to get his strikeout totals down, he’ll earn the title.
All in all, fans in Atlanta have much to look forward to in 2012. And if Chipper can pass on all his knowledge before he leaves, the Braves might once again return to their legacy days of the previous two decades.