It's hot in Atlanta, where temperatures are breaking records and the reigning World Series champions just can't lose.
After failing to launch with a 23-27 record in April and May, Atlanta's title defense has blasted all the way off in June. Brian Snitker's club has won 14 straight to trim its deficit to the New York Mets in the National League East from 10.5 games to 4.5 games.
We'd like to thank Atlanta for making good on our prediction that it would turn things around eventually, but now it's time for a new "buy or sell" question: Will Atlanta now go on to leapfrog the Mets and capture a fifth straight division title?
You can find the short answer to this question by skipping down to the section marked "Verdict." For those who prefer the long answer, just keep reading.
The Case for Buy
Let's start with a basic assumption that Atlanta always was supposed to be good in 2022.
Not exactly a reach, to be sure. The club didn't Marlins it after winning its first World Series since 1995, after all. It notably replaced 2020 NL MVP Freddie Freeman with All-Star Matt Olson at first base and boosted its payroll by nearly $50 million over 2021.
At the outset, FanGraphs gave Atlanta a 23 percent chance of winning the division and a 68 percent chance of making the playoffs in any capacity. Though neither figure denoted them as the NL's best team, the Braves were clearly going to be...well, there's that word again: "good."
This wasn't the case right away, and even Ronald Acuna Jr.'s return from a torn ACL on April 28 didn't change much. Atlanta went just 15-16 in 31 games after he came off the injured list.
As for what's changed since then, Acuna is as good a place as any to start.
The 24-year-old has had a big hand in the winning streak, putting up a .918 OPS and going yard four times. He even single-handedly erased an early deficit on June 7 against the Oakland Athletics, homering twice to make it 2-2 en route to an eventual 3-2 win.
Yet it's not just Acuna who's been carrying the load offensively for Atlanta in June. In fact, he's been one of the team's colder hitters.
The sustainability of the performances at the high end is obviously suspect, but there's no denying the talent at play here.
A healthy Acuna is one of the best players in baseball. Austin Riley is a superstar in the making at third base. Adam Duvall, Travis d'Arnaud and Dansby Swanson have been known to get hot. And while we don't really know what William Contreras and Michael Harris II are just yet, the former used to be one of Atlanta's top prospects and the latter is the best prospect the team has right now.
Besides, the overall effect passes the smell test. Atlanta's offensive dominance in June is most evident in its league-leading totals for home runs (35) and barrels (58). This is essentially a return to normalcy after Atlanta finished last season ranked third in the former and fourth in the latter.
Lest anyone think it's all about the bats, right-hander Spencer Strider wasn't wrong when he said this after he paced Atlanta to its 14th straight win Wednesday: "Everything seems to be clicking right now. Top to bottom."
One part of the "everything" is a pitching staff that's really turned things around in June, specifically in the arts of racking up strikeouts and avoiding walks:
A big key here is the swinging strike. Atlanta pitchers have gotten those at a 14.1 percent clip this month, easily topping the New York Yankees' 13.0 percent for the best in MLB. Strider himself has been a major contributor. Or, more accurately, his fastball has been:
Strider has used his heater to dominate with a 1.76 ERA in three starts this month, and Kyle Wright and Max Fried haven't been far off his pace. The three hurlers have a 2.13 ERA in nine starts and are therefore showing they can be every bit as good as the trio that Fried formed with Ian Anderson and Charlie Morton last year.
As for the bullpen, well, it's now the "Arm Barn" instead of the "Night Shift." Otherwise, there's no real difference between what the team got from its top relievers last October and what it's getting from them now. Snitker has called on newcomers Kenley Jansen and Jesse Chavez, returnee Darren O'Day and holdovers A.J. Minter, Will Smith and Dylan Lee 33 times in June, and they've produced a 1.06 ERA over 34 innings.
Oh, and let's not forget the defense.
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Defense was a quality that Atlanta found late in 2021, with its transformation happening right around when it started shifting more. The gloves are once again coming on strong in June, wherein Atlanta ranks fourth with five outs above average. Shifts are once again a factor, as the infield is shifting about three percentage points more often in June than it did through May.
It goes—or should go—without saying that the Braves are not going to continue to win every game they play. But nobody can say they've just been scraping by throughout the streak, nor can anyone say they've been playing above their heads.
What they've been doing is becoming what they have been and were supposed to be again: a leading contender for the NL East crown.
The Case for Sell
Then again, it's easy to win games when you're playing exclusively against teams that are very good at losing them.
Atlanta's 14 wins have come against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals. Their combined winning percentage is .394.
Atlanta isn't yet done with said soft spot. Up next are the Chicago Cubs, who are 23-39 overall and mired in a nine-game losing streak. It thus won't be a major surprise if Atlanta's winning streak reaches 17 by the end of the weekend.
After that, though, things get tough. Atlanta will host the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers at Truist Park for seven games and will then head to Philadelphia to take on the similarly red-hot Phillies. And so it will go for the rest of their season, for which FanGraphs puts their remaining opponents' projected winning percentage at .509.
Whereas Atlanta is just 12-14 in games against winning teams, the Mets have hardened themselves with a 25-15 record in such games. Atlanta still has to play them 15 times.
Plus, the Mets are also in the middle of a success story. They're 17-9 since May 18, a date which coincided with Max Scherzer's oblique strain and the arrival of an especially difficult slice of the club's schedule. Those things could have broken the Mets. They have not.
And now, their schedule is set to get a little easier and their roster stands to get a whole lot stronger. In the coming weeks, both Scherzer and fellow multi-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom are due to return:
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.<a href="https://twitter.com/Ken_Rosenthal?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Ken_Rosenthal</a> on deGrom & Scherzer's return from the IL: <br><br>"For deGrom we are looking at July. For Scherzer, best case scenario probably late June. But I suspect probably longer than that." <a href="https://t.co/2pPQeuRG7s">pic.twitter.com/2pPQeuRG7s</a>
For Atlanta, the news on the injury front isn't as positive. Even if he hadn't been a particularly hot hitter during the winning streak, it still hurts quite a bit to lose Ozzie Albies for the next few months with a broken foot. That's a two-time All-Star and Silver Slugger they'll be missing.
What's more, Atlanta also has some slumping players worthy of concern.
Though he's still a key cog in the lineup, the slump (i.e., .694 OPS) that Olson has been in since April 24 serves as a reminder that slugging types aren't always consistent. Nor are slugging lineups, as Atlanta knew all too well as it put up a middling 97 wRC+ through May.
On the mound, Anderson and Morton have a combined 5.23 ERA for the season and an even uglier 6.33 ERA in June. Both of their trademark pitches (the changeup for Anderson and the curveball for Morton) have actually done more harm than good.
It's easy to ignore red flags like these during a 14-game winning streak, but that doesn't mean they aren't there. And in time, they could doom Atlanta.
Look, at the heart of this discussion is a simple question: Can Atlanta not only be as good as the Mets down the stretch, but better?
As good, maybe. But to believe Atlanta will be better than the Mets requires believing that the former has only just begun the peak of its season and that the latter is already finished with its own. The Mets have been lucky enough for this door to be open a crack, but it isn't falling off the hinges.
The Mets have an exceptionally strong backbone in an offense that's more multifaceted than Atlanta's. Pete Alonso supplies the power, while everyone else more so works on the team's MLB-best .335 on-base percentage and likewise MLB-high .287 average with runners in scoring position. Synergy like that simply plays.
By far the biggest area of concern in Queens is the volatility of the Mets pitching staff. The looming returns of Scherzer and deGrom only cut against this concern so much, as both are old and well-traveled enough to remain high-risk for injury. Tylor Megill is certainly not old and well-traveled, but he's already been on the injured list with biceps tendinitis and may be due for another IL stint after exiting his Thursday assignment with shoulder discomfort.
Yet the Mets' saving grace may reside in their 14th-ranked farm system. Not in the sense that they have a host of talented, MLB-ready arms down there, but rather in that its collective talent could be useful on the trade market. In, say, deals for pitchers of interest such as Frankie Montas and Tyler Mahle.
It was, of course, at last year's trade deadline that Atlanta's World Series run began in earnest. But it won't be so easy to pull off similar scores for guys like Jorge Soler, Eddie Rosario and Joc Pederson. The budget seems tighter, and there won't be much in the farm system once Harris loses his prospect eligibility. As it is, it's only the 25th-best in MLB.
But even if all this makes the Mets out to be the better horse in our eyes, it's hard to imagine this race ultimately being won by any more than a nose. If it's Atlanta's nose that crosses first, told-ya-sos will be in order.