It may be something of a misnomer to call the 2012 Atlanta Braves underrated. At 60-45, the Braves are tied for the fifth best record in all of baseball, and are consistently ranked between five and 10 in most official Power Rankings. It's clear that most pundits expect the Braves to continue winning and compete for one of five available playoff spots. What is not clear, however, is that anyone is giving them much of a shot—even as a dark horse—to go all the way and win their first World Series since 1995.
There are several reasons why the Braves may be overlooked compared to some of the other playoff contenders, some more salient than others. Of course, the Braves have just as good of a shot—if not a better one—as anyone else in the field, which makes them the biggest sleeper pick to win it all in October.
One reason the Braves may not be a popular pick to go all the way is their abysmal history in the playoffs. Sure, they have been one of the most successful regular season teams in the past two decades, ringing up a .579 winning percentage since their run of success began in 1991 (in the same time span, the Yankees are .582), complete with six 100-win seasons and 14 (consecutive) division wins. Riding their regular season success to 15 playoff appearances in 20 years, the Braves have won the World Series only once, lost it four times, and been knocked out in the first round seven times. Since 2000, the Braves have made the playoffs seven times, and only made it past the first round once—taking just one game from the Diamondbacks in the 2001 NLCS. The Braves' playoff struggles make it hard to pick them to play deep into October, no matter how great they seem to be playing in the regular season.
But any Braves fan who has been watching this year will tell you that this is a much different squad than the one that took the field in the early 2000s. Gone is the hubris that comes with being part of a decade-long division-winning tradition. Long gone is the untouchable trio of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz. In their place is a crew of scrappy, young, talented hitters and pitchers who are looking to define their own legacy in Braves history. You can see their energy on the field, and you can feel their desire to make everyone forget what happened last September.
Speaking of last year, the historic meltdown may be another reason experts are reluctant to pick the Braves for a playoff run. No matter how well they play in August, it won't erase the memories of bullpen futility and anemic hitting that opened the door for an incredible postseason run by the St. Louis Cardinals. But in Fredi Gonzalez' second year as the Braves' manager, he has greatly improved his bullpen management. In 2011, an absurd innings load on their trio of ace relievers (lovingly dubbed O'Ventrel) made them severely ineffective in September—one major reason for their collapse. This year, they are on pace to throw a combined 50 fewer innings, with the excellent Kris Medlen and Cristhian Martinez helping to pick up the slack.
Putting aside history, however, there are still issues with this year's squad that have pundits concerned. Chief among these issues is their relatively poor record against potential playoff opponents thus far this season. The Braves have compiled a 18-19 record against the Nationals, Reds, Pirates, Cardinals, Giants, Dodgers and Diamondbacks this season, and did not fare particularly well during their brutal interleague schedule, going 8-10 against the Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles, Yankees and Red Sox. Comparatively, the Nationals are 26-21 against teams in the playoff hunt (including their interleague games).
However, this is really only concerning until we put it into historical context. As of August 3, 2011, the Cardinals were 15-22 against potential playoff teams. The Giants in 2010? 25-31. And it isn't just the dark horse WS winners that have found more success against good teams in October than April, May, June and July—the 2009 Yankees were 22-28 on August 3, and the 2008 Phillies were an abysmal 22-30. This is clearly not a stat that has prevented teams from making deep October runs in the past.
Another major concern with the 2012 Braves squad is their lack of star pitchers. If you look at the recent Series winners, they have been anchored by at least one definite ace (Carpenter, Lincecum, Sabathia, Hamels, etc.). In the case of the 2010 Giants, their stellar starting pitching was good enough to overcome a truly terrible offense.
The Braves, meanwhile, have a collection of pitchers who are either several years past or several years from their prime. Their inability to acquire an ace at the trade deadline has many worried that they won't have the depth or the dominance necessary to win 11 games in October. However, the Braves' starting pitching situation is not as dire as some might believe. Tim Hudson has been excellent this season, at 10-4 with a 3.49 FIP, and Tommy Hanson has demonstrated his potential to be an ace-caliber pitcher. Despite terrible numbers and a dreadful first half, Mike Minor has been nothing but solid in his last five starts, and Randall Delgado has at least as much—if not more—potential as a big game pitcher for the Braves. Ben Sheets and Paul Maholm add both depth and experience to a fairly young rotation, and will allow Minor, Delgado and Jair Jurrjens to contribute in relief roles if necessary. Kris Medlen's solid starting performance was encouraging, and his ability to contribute in any inning will no doubt be key in October.
The Braves have also been knocked for their lack of a true "superstar," but this is by far the least substantive of any critique against them. The Braves have six hitters with a WAR (per Fangraphs) above two, while the Nats, Reds and Giants have seven such players combined. The Braves have two players (Michael Bourn and Jason Heyward) who have each quietly compiled 4.5 WAR—the Nats, Reds, Pirates, Cardinals, Giants, Dodgers and Diamondbacks can boast only three such players among them (Andrew McCutchen, Matt Holliday and Joey Votto), and none play for the same team. The Braves have one of the most potent lineups of any NL playoff contender, with multiple players who can—and do—deliver the big hit on any given night. They are a dangerous crew that could give any playoff opponent reason to worry.
The final reason that the Braves should be considered an exciting sleeper pick in October is that they have something extra to play for: one more World Series ring for their team leader, Chipper Jones. Jones won his first and only World Series in his rookie year, and has been part of many talented, but ultimately disappointing Braves teams since then. He has been resurgent this year, racking up 2.8 WAR (per Fangraphs) in just 266 plate appearances. He has a squad of young talent surrounding him and learning from the best, ready to carry the torch of excellence in Atlanta when he retires at the end of the year. Once the Braves lock up a playoff spot, they will turn their focus to making sure that the last game of Chipper's illustrious career is a win.
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