Why are the Braves better than expected? Will it stick?

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Nobody reading this website needs to be told the Braves have done better than expected over the first six weeks of this season. Las Vegas set the Braves win total at 73.5 wins and just 34 games (20.97%) into the season, the Braves already have 20 wins (27.21% of their win total) and are on pace for 95 wins. Like the 2015 Astros, it appears the rebuilding Braves got good a year early. But how have they gotten these results? And will it stick?

To answer the question of how they’ve gotten here, let’s look at the pre-season projections put out before the season and how the players have performed thus far.

Batters

PlayerSteamerZiPSAverageCurrentPace
Nick Markakis0.2-0.10.051.67.6
Ronald Acuña Jr.12.21.600.67.0
Freddie Freeman4.23.84.001.46.7
Ozzie Albies2.12.72.401.36.2
Dansby Swanson1.31.71.5014.8
Kurt Suzuki0.60.60.600.83.8
Ryan Flaherty00.20.100.73.3
Jose Bautista0-0.1-0.050.13.3
Ender Inciarte2.42.72.550.41.9
Johan Camargo0.90.20.550.31.4
Preston Tucker-0.1-0.2-0.150.31.4
Tyler Flowers1.40.81.1000.0

Pitchers

PlayerSteamerZiPSAverageCurrentPace
Sean Newcomb1.821.900.94.3
Mike Foltynewicz1.41.31.350.52.4
Julio Teheran1.31.71.500.10.5
Brandon McCarthy1.91.21.550.10.5

Obviously, most of these players, if not all of them, will fall off the pace they’ve set in the early going. And we’re doing this knowing that we’re still working with a small sample size that is naturally going to be skewed, but I thought it would be valuable to include the pace column so you could see how much they were currently outperforming their pre-season projections, as it is difficult to see when looking at their current numbers. Also of note, Flaherty and Tucker won’t see the same playing time going forward, and the sample sizes for Acuña and Bautista are even smaller than the rest due to their recent call-ups.

It’s clear to see the Braves have gotten a lot more out of some of their players than any of the projection services could have predicted. When nearly all of the team has equaled their expected WAR output in 1/5th of the season, you’re obviously going to see better results on the field than expected. In addition to the players in the chart, the Braves have gotten unexpected contributions from Shane Carle (0.7 fWAR) and Dan Winkler (0.6 fWAR) at a time their bullpen really needed someone to step up and be a stabilizing force.

Will it stick?

As alluded to above, it’s easy to see that some of these players are going to fall off their current pace. By how much, we can’t be sure, but I feel you will see some players step up and pick up some of the slack left by a current player outperforming their projections. Ender Inciarte is a prime candidate to contribute more as the season goes along. Anything that Nick Markakis, for example, drops off, I would expect Inciarte to pick up. Inciarte has been a 3-win player both seasons he’s been with the Braves. There’s no reason to believe he won’t come closer to 3 wins than his current 2 win pace by the season’s end, even if most of the added contributions is just through defense alone.

While the offense is outperforming expectations, a lot of the players in the Braves lineup are good players and the overall total output should remain close to the same. The pitching staff is a bit different and harder to forecast. As small as the sample sizes are with the batters, it’s even smaller for the pitchers. We’re looking at a 6 or 7 game sample for those starting pitchers and that’s a far cry from the 30-32 they need to make for a full season. FanGraphs WAR uses FIP as their main component, which is already more of a predictor stat than a direct measurement of on the field performance. For this, we have to feel good about the pitcher output remaining fairly true, but we are dealing with small sample sizes for each of these starting pitchers so anything can change on that front in a single game or two.

So far, Sean Newcomb has been outstanding and Mike Foltynewicz has been better than good. Can either of them continue pitching this way? Newcomb is currently a top 20 starter in baseball when ranking qualified pitchers by FIP. Even the people that are bullish on him eventually becoming a front of the rotation starter couldn’t have seen it coming so quickly. And while it’s hard to feel great about Folty right now coming off his last start, his overall body of work this season has been extremely solid. If those two can continue to provide the Braves with a solid 1-2 punch, I feel like the sky is the limit for this team. It’s a big if for both of them, and right now, you have to feel better about Newcomb making it stick, but they’ve both shown enough in the early part of the season to be hopeful about what’s to come.

The other guys in the rotation should remain steady. While McCarthy and Teheran don’t offer a ton of upside, they’re players that you can look at their career numbers and get a good idea of what they’ll provide for your team. Health going forward will be a big factor in McCarthy’s contributions to the team. If healthy, he should finish somewhere around a 2-win pitcher. Teheran is what he is at this point. He’s a pitcher that is going to get you 190 innings and hopefully have more useful games than bad. So far this season, Teheran’s strikeouts are up over his career numbers, but his walk numbers are falling behind his career totals. In all likelihood, Teheran is going to end up being around the same 1.1 win pitcher he was for two of the last three seasons. There is a slight chance he gets the walk numbers in order and turns in something closer to the 3.2 win season that came between them.

Mike Soroka and a collection of young kids are poised to take the 5th spot and any spot starts going forward. There’s a lot of upside in play here, but when dealing with rookie starters, it’s best to expect replacement level production out of them and take anything above that as a bonus.

What we do know about this team is that they have so far played one of the harder schedules in baseball and own a National League-leading +43 run differential. Both of those are good signs to tell you this is going to stick. Baseball Reference’s Simple Rating System, which uses both of those components to determine how much better a team is than an average team gives the Braves a 2.0 score, a number leads all of the major leagues. This means the Braves are two runs better than an average team. While they may fall off their current 95-win pace, the Braves SRS ranking tells us that, for at least right now, they are the best team in baseball based on the schedule they’ve played and how they’ve performed on the field. In reality, the Braves Pythagorean Record (an expected record based off a team’s run differential) states they should be 21-13, not 20-14, at this time, so in terms of luck, they’ve actually been a little bit unlucky.

The schedule hasn’t been friendly to the Braves, not just in terms of the teams they’ve had to play, but also where they’ve been playing. The Braves haven’t had a good homestand yet this season. The longest they’ve been at home is a pair of two-series homestands. Before they play their next home game, they will have played 25 road games compared to just 15 home games.

Right now, all indicator signs point to this being real for the Braves. Their schedule should get easier as the season goes on—they still have 19 games remaining with the Marlins—and they’ll have a decent amount more home games than away games the rest of the way. There may be some points in the season—like last weekend against the Giants—where you see things go south, but as long as the Braves don’t let one of those series sink them into a 3-10 stretch, they should come out of it okay.

The biggest thing I’m focusing on is just trying to have fun enjoying this team. What was once thought of to be a weak NL East has actually turned out to be a strong NL East, with the Braves and Phillies being a lot better than most had expected. Even being a good team may not be good enough to come out of this division as a playoff team. It’s been a long time since the Braves gave us a team to enjoy and I’m not going to let the fact it’s a young season keep me from having fun with what I’m seeing right now. Whether this team ends up being a playoff team or not, it’s important to enjoy the fact the rebuilding window appears to have closed and we’re getting closer to another long run of Braves success. Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña Jr. are going to be here for a long time, and with that, the fun is just beginning. This team was supposed to be a year away. If they get it done a year early, that’s just a giant bonus.

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