The Atlanta Braves spent much of this season in first place in the NL East, but their struggles in the second half, combined with a surge from the Washington Nationals, has them hoping to stay competitive for a Wild Card spot.
In their quest for a playoff spot, what factors might help the Braves along the way? More importantly, are there any X-factors that are critical for the Braves to return to the postseason?
Let’s take a look at three big X-factors that will determine the Braves’ fate in this year’s pennant race.
A center fielder who can hit
There’s been a lot of criticism of B.J. Upton, and most of it has been deserved. Last year, in his first year with Atlanta, Upton was only kept from being the worst player in the majors because of the extra-horrible that Dan Uggla displayed.
This season has not been much better. Perhaps it’s safer to say that B.J. hasn’t been as bad yet.
Last year the Braves at least got some above-replacement level production in center field from Jordan Schafer, but he was not able to replicate that production this year. Schafer was cut loose by Atlanta, and his replacement, Emilio Bonifacio, has not been good since coming over from the Chicago Cubs at the trade deadline (.566 OPS with Atlanta).
This season, Braves center fielders are dead last in batting average, dead last in on-base percentage, dead last in slugging percentage…they’ve put up the worst offensive numbers in the majors at the center field position. Most of that has been courtesy of B.J. Upton.
When looking for an X-factor to help a team in a playoff hunt, a front office will usually look to make a trade. But just as effective is a player suddenly catching fire and putting up above-average numbers.
That player could be B.J. Upton—he’s certainly paid like a player who should be posting better than average numbers. This may seem like a long shot, but a couple of weeks ago Mike Minor couldn’t pitch his way out of a wet paper bag and now he’s taking no-hitters into the eighth inning. Players can and do figure out a flaw in their game all the time.
An MVP and/or Cy Young candidate…or two
Just as a player having a bad season can suddenly figure things out and turn their season around, a player having a good season can also discover a new gear and enter elite territory. Think of the MVP season Chipper Jones had in 1999. He was having a good season, then found another gear in the second half (especially against the New York Mets).
Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward have all found that extra gear in the past 30 days. Each batter is hitting above .300, and each guy has scored double-digit runs and driven in double-digit runs. Justin Upton has been the best of the three, driving in 27 runs with a slash line of .327/.419/.622. That has beat writers and national baseball analysts talking about J-Up entering the MVP discussion.
Mike Minor has apparently figured out what was plaguing him for the middle part of the season, and is back to pitching like an ace. Ervin Santana is once again pitching like he did to begin the season, when he started his Braves career 4-0.
Both Minor and Santana, as well as Julio Teheran, are all capable of pitching like top-of-the-rotation starters. While no one is going to out-pitch Clayton Kershaw this year, there’s no shame in gunning for second place.
Freeman finished fifth in MVP voting last year, thanks in large part to a September in which he slashed .380/.449/.620. Another run like that from a player (or two) would definitely be an X-factor for Atlanta.
Pitch like it's April
The Braves pitching staff posted a 2.59 ERA in April. The major league's average ERA this season is 3.77. The chart below shows the Braves staff ERA, team record for each month this season and their rank among all major league pitching staffs.
|Month||Record||ERA||MLB ERA Rank|
Atlanta’s pitchers have done their job; ranking in the top half in ERA every month but one, in which they barely missed. The pitching staff does not seem to be Atlanta’s problem.
Yet still, a major factor in the Braves making a run at a playoff spot will be their continued good pitching. If they remain league-average or better, then the team has a chance to stay in the race.
Of course, if they return to their otherworldly form from April, then that becomes a definite X-factor; one that could propel the team to a more advantageous playoff seeding.
Nothing will come easy for this Braves team like it seemed to last year. Atlanta faced little competition in the NL East and got unexpectedly good performances from several players.
This season, average pitching and average hitting won’t cut it. The Braves are going to need an X-factor or two to propel them to a postseason spot.