No one, not even John Hart, could have predicted that the Braves would win their first two series of the year, let alone sweep one of them. But here they are at 5-and-1, at the top of the NL East. Is this a sign of things to come this season, or just one good week of baseball in an otherwise predictably poor rebuilding year?
Two things have fueled the Braves hot start — timely hitting and great relief pitching.
So far the team doesn’t have someone like Justin Upton hitting home runs in nearly every game like they did in 2013, when the team got off to a 13-and-2 start, in large part thanks to his nine home runs over that span. This season the formula at the plate has been one of good hitting with runners in scoring position — which is one thing the front office actually said they were focusing on this offseason.
The Braves have been one of the three best teams hitting with runners in scoring position in the season’s first week. They own a slash line of .383/.431/.574 with RISP, and (surprisingly) no home runs. Compare that to the Nationals’ .179/.233/.205 mark with RISP.
On the mound the Atlanta pitchers have posted the majors’ lowest ERA at 1.83, thanks to a bullpen that has allowed only one run, and just 2 of 12 inherited runners to score in 20.1 innings — the second-best bullpen ERA in the majors at 0.44.
In the world of small sample sizes neither of these two things — timely hitting nor great relief pitching — will likely continue throughout the season.
As baseball always does, the season will come down to a collection of individual performances. Get enough good ones and unexpected ones, and the team will do better than the experts think. Get too many bad ones, and the team will underachieve.
One of the big reasons the 2013 Braves ran away with the NL East was because guys like Chris Johnson, Evan Gattis and Andrelton Simmons hit better than anyone expected them to. When all of those guys struggled in 2014, along with most of the rest of the lineup, the team struggled to win games.
Certainly a renewed emphasis on situational hitting will help the team put a few more runs on the board, but that alone will not be enough to right the offensive woes of 2014, and the predicted deficiencies of power in this year’s lineup.
The Braves have had good bullpens and good pitching rotations for the last couple of years, but this year’s exceptional start will not be sustained. Getting the Luis Avilan of 2013 versus the Avilan of 2014 will make a huge difference. Getting dominant performances from Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli, who each had ERAs over 4.00 last year, will help a Kimbrel-less bullpen exceed expectations. Still, the rest of the pen is an unknown assemblage of rookies, Rule 5’ers and minor league free agents. How much can really be expected from this group?
This hot 5-and-1 start certainly makes it seem like great things are in store this year, but can timely hitting and dominant relief really continue for an entire season? If there are enough of these great individual performances, then the 2015 Braves could do more winning than most people think. The problem is that the team needs these aberrations in historical performance from a lot of places in the lineup, in the rotation, and in the bullpen. Perhaps too many places for sustained winning to be plausible.
Enjoy the first week. Enjoy the winning while it lasts… because it probably won’t. This was a good week in a season that may not have many good ones.