Led by the power of Justin Upton and a deep, professional pitching staff, the Atlanta Braves are off to the hottest start in baseball this month. At 15-5, they have played .750 baseball, leading the league in run differential (+42) and doing it despite injuries and inconsistent play from players expected to be major contributors to their every day lineup.
After falling in the inaugural one-game Wild Card Playoff last fall, expectations are soaring in Atlanta. As fans wonder how good this current team can be, comparisons will naturally be made to the best Braves team in history: the 1995 group that captured a World Series championship.
If the 2013 version of the Braves can play .625 baseball over the course of a full season and capture a championship, they'll secure their place in history alongside the 1995 Braves.
For now, let's look at how how comparable the rosters truly are, where their strengths lie and what weaknesses separate a champion from just a good team off to a hot start.
When Jason Heyward returns and finds his groove, Freddie Freeman retakes his spot as the everyday first baseman and Brian McCann emerges to team with Evan Gattis as a powerful catching tandem, it's likely that the 2013 version of Atlanta's offense will be far superior to the lineup trotted out through 1995.
While the 1995 Braves had five hitters post OPS+ marks above 100, including future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones and borderline candidate Fred McGriff, they also allowed Jeff Blauser and Mark Lemke nearly 1,000 plate appearances of well below average offensive production.
As a team, the 1995 Braves were balanced in the power department—four players hit at least 20 home runs, none topping 30—but only hit 168 as a team over the course of the strike-shortened 144-season.
Expect that number to be easily surpassed by the 2013 group. Led by Justin Upton's quest to break the single-season team home run mark, Atlanta has five or six everyday players that can top the 30 home run mark for the season.
While the offense is better in 2013, a philosophical shift has clearly taken place in Atlanta and around the sport. The 1995 lineup featured just one player, Blauser, who struck out 100 times. Meanwhile, with power comes whiffs in 2013. Expect up to seven, or, in other words, every regular player except Andrelton Simmons, to strike out more than 100 times this season for Atlanta.
If the nod on offense belongs to the current outfit in Atlanta, the pitching advantage clearly belongs the 1995 group.
Led by Greg Maddux's all-time great season (1.63 ERA, 7.87 SO/BB, 260 ERA+, 0.81 WHIP), the 1995 Braves featured, along with Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, past and future Cy Young winners atop the rotation. As a team, despite receiving league average effort over 58 starts from the back-end of their rotation, Atlanta posted an ERA 23 percent better than league average.
What this current Braves team lacks in all-time great arms, they make up for with depth and sturdiness throughout the rotation. Tim Hudson, once a Cy Young caliber piece, is still good enough to win consistently. Kris Medlen and Mike Minor, though still proving themselves, have shown flashes of excellence. Julio Teheran, a potential future ace, can provide better than league average innings while growing into a future top-of-the-rotation arm.
Then there's Paul Maholm. A finesse lefty, without high-end strikeout stuff, was expendable to the Pirates and Cubs over the past few seasons. Now? In the blink of an eye, Maholm's turned into one of the most effective arms in the sport.
The 2013 Braves can't come close to matching the 1-2-3 punch of the 1995 group. However, as a full rotation, factoring the impending return of Brandon Beachy this summer, they could turn out to be deeper. Come October, it's likely they'll wish they possessed the top heavy group, though.
Ironically, both bullpens are headlined by powerful right-handed closers as good as anyone in the sport. Craig Kimbrel is the best closer in the sport right now. While history remembers the fall of Mark Wohlers more than the rise, he held that title at one point in the mid-'90s.
The rosters are different, but the talent was evident then just as it is now.
If you are looking for the major differences between the 1995 world champs and the upstart group of today, look to past success, competition across the division and and the manager leading the way in the dugout.
While the current Braves have experienced three straight seasons of at least 89 victories, they have not yet tasted any success in postseason play. In fact, factoring in their losses, all on their home field, which sent them packing in each of the last three seasons (2010 NLDS, 2011 Game 162, 2012 NL Wild Card), there is reason to doubt the ability of this team to get over the hump before October.
Two decades ago, there wasn't any doubt about Atlanta's ability to play in and succeed in October. In 1995, it was all about finishing the job and finally winning the World Series.
After losses in the '91 and '92 World Series, the Braves fell to the Phillies in the '93 NLCS. Considering that the '94 postseason never occurred, those Braves were coming off three straight trips to at least the NLCS and knocking on the door of a title. In 1995, it was World Series or bust. In 2013, a division title and trip to the NLCS would be a very, very successful season in Atlanta.
As the current day Braves jump ahead of the Washington Nationals in the NL East, we're reminded of their stiff competition in the division.
On the other hand, the 1995 Braves didn't have to worry about a single team in their division breaking .500 or even 70 victories. Winning the division by 21 games allowed Bobby Cox to set his rotation, rest players and prepare for a World Series run. It's unlikely Fredi Gonzalez, especially with the caveat of avoiding a one-game playoff, will have that luxury in September.
Teams change. Eras change. Expectations change. Payrolls change (Atlanta was 4th in baseball in '95, 17th in '13).
Yet, come October, pressure and scrutiny on the manager will intensify.
Fredi Gonzalez is a good manager, but hasn't amassed the resume or garnered the respect of Bobby Cox in Atlanta.
This Braves team has the ability to play in October and succeed on the big stage. Talent will guide them there. It's going to be up to the manager to help achieve some of the success which the '90s group ultimately did.