Braves have navigated an unpredictable journey
Questions still remain even in midst of seven-game win streak
ATLANTA -- With a little less than half the season remaining, one could surmise that despite currently sitting atop the National League East standings, the Braves have actually underachieved this season. Others could opine that they have actually overachieved given the doom that was predicted when Atlanta lost two members of its starting rotation less than 24 hours apart in March.
Regardless of your take, it would be quite difficult to dispute the belief that the Braves have spent the past three months navigating what has been a surprising, maddening and unpredictable journey. Now, it remains to be seen where these twists and turns will leave them once October arrives.
There are a number of questions that need to be answered as this season's second half unfolds. Among them are…
What should be made of Atlanta's current seven-game win streak?
It is easy to glance at this winning streak and discount it because it has been compiled against the Phillies and Mets. But let's not forget that this same Phillies club completed a three-game sweep in Atlanta just two weeks ago. And more importantly, before going 9-1 while playing their past 10 games against the Astros and the two aforementioned NL East opponents, the Braves were 18-20 against teams that currently have a losing record.
So yeah, the Braves have done what they were supposed to do during this stretch. But…
Have they actually provided signs that this successful run is a sign of things to come?
Given that the Braves have held relatively steady all season, and currently own the game's fourth-best ERA, all potential improvement-related topics should center on an offense that has generated more runs than only the Padres and Cardinals this season. The Braves hit .242 with a .679 OPS through June 22 -- their lowest marks in both categories through 75 games since 1989. During the 10 games that have followed, they have hit .235 with a .670 OPS.
When you look at these similar numbers and the difference in average runs scored (3.6 through 75 games and 4.3 through the past 10), there's reason to assume the difference is the number of timely hits. But they were batting .246 with runners in scoring position before hitting .193 in these situations during this 10-game run.
So, this recent success must be a product of B.J. Upton moving to the leadoff spot?
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has never given a clear reason as to why he moved Upton and his .276 on-base percentage to the top of the lineup. This is simply because he did not have a legit reason. Like many other managers over the years, he just decided to take a chance on something that did not necessarily make sense. Upton has hit .270 with a .308 on-base percentage in the nine games he has batted in the leadoff spot. These small sample size numbers might not be jaw-dropping, but….
The bullpen's recent work has been quite impressive.
The biggest difference with the Braves over the past couple of weeks has been the fact that their bullpen has once again become quite reliable. It is not a coincidence that this turnaround came in conjunction with Jordan Walden coming off the disabled list and regaining his successful groove. Some of the credit also has to go to the incredible emergence of Shae Simmons and the steadiness of Anthony Varvaro, who has continued to be reliable since being placed in high-leverage situations more consistently.
As the Braves went 8-14 from May 26-June 18, their relievers produced a 5.19 ERA, and took credit for seven of those losses. But the bullpen has been much more reliable of late, producing a 1.15 ERA during the team's current 11-3 stretch.
Now that the bullpen is providing promise again, is the rotation strong enough?
With Julio Teheran, the Braves have a legitimate frontline starter who is capable of matching up against the game's best starting pitchers. Mike Minor showed his October potential when he beat Zack Greinke in last year's NL Division Series. But like Ervin Santana, Minor has experienced a lot of disappointment recently. While Santana is at least coming off two consecutive solid starts, Minor has really only been impressive in one of his past five starts.
It seems unlikely that the Braves would be willing to pay the price it would take to get David Price, or any of the other front-line starters who might be available by the end of the month. But if Minor and Santana continue to prove inconsistent over the next few weeks, this mindset could at least be altered to the point where the club begins shopping for starting pitching.
So, have the Braves underachieved, despite the fact that they are in first place?
Every single member of the Braves clubhouse knows they squandered an opportunity to gain a comfortable division lead while the Nationals dealt with significant injuries suffered by a number of their key players. At the same time, they have to feel fortunate that they have a half-game division lead despite going through a stretch in which they won just 19 of 47 games (from April 29-June 18).
As he has once again proven to be one of the game's most exciting players, Jason Heyward has positioned himself to garner a number of top defensive awards at the end of the season. From an offensive perspective, he has hit .270 with a .760 OPS in his past 67 games. Just imagine where those numbers might be if he was not currently hitless in his past 29 at-bats against left-handed pitchers.
Heyward's struggles against southpaws could be influenced by the effects of the fact the right side of his face was dented by a fastball thrown by Mets left-hander Jon Niese in August. Or maybe he is simply providing the reminder that like Freddie Freeman, he is still prone to some growing pains.
Freeman started this season in impressive fashion and then hit .240 with a .672 OPS during the rough 47-game stretch the club encountered. But the 24-year-old first baseman has hit .357 with a 1.010 OPS in his past 18 games.
If Freeman can remain hot and Justin Upton avoids experiencing a swoon that lasts through the summer, the Braves can certainly do more than they have done on the offensive end thus far. But at the end of the day, their hopes of winning another division crown will be determined by what they receive from a rotation, that needs Santana and Minor to be much more reliable than they have been.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.