I scour the facebook landscape for the best commentary on the Atlanta Braves. Well, not the best, but the strangest. And in a great many of these wonderful, level-headed exchanges, I, and other crazy bastards like myself, have provided this irrefutable fact. The Atlanta Braves are in first place.
I even looked it up. Yep, the Nats, after beating the Diamondbacks, are 38-38. The Braves, after beating the Royals, are 45-33. According to math, a foreign concept, that comes out to a six game difference. And that six-game cushion is pretty consistent. Sometimes, it trickles down to 4.5 games, sometimes it rises to 7.5 games. But generally, Atlanta has not had to worry too much from their NL East rivals that their division lead was in jeopardy. They took over sole possession of first place on April 7th, or after game number six, and have yet to wake up one sad morning with someone else in first.
But…but…wait…ESPN said, and Harold Reynolds said, and everyone was sure that the Nationals were going to be THE team in the National League East. Surely, the best chance for Atlanta to head back to the playoffs was via the one-game playoff.
Why the continued ownage by the Braves over the NL East? Well, the Marlins are horrible and Jeffrey Loria probably should be publicly flogged. The Mets are just cute. Sometimes, they win. Often, they lose. But they are just so cute the way they try to play baseball even though it seems like its the first time they ever have. Some make the mistake of bringing up the Phillies. I don’t know why a team that won 81 games last year (and lost 81), was one of the oldest teams in the league, and simply got older in the offseason was considered a challenger for the NL East crown. Was is Chase Utley’s inability to get through a day without a limb falling off? Maybe it was the fact that Ryan Howard appeared in The Office‘s final season. I don’t know why that would help, but on the other hand, I don’t know why anyone thought the Phillies were going to turn it around despite no noteworthy pickups.
BUT…the Washington Nationals were going to be the team that ran away with the division. And they still might. It is, after all, late June. However, considering the Nationals have a been a game from .500 (over or under) or right at .500 for six straight games and an astounding 15 of 16 games, I just wonder if they are ever supposed to be the team people assumed they would be. I get it that Bryce Harper has been injured with self-inflicted wounds, but are they off from where they are supposed to be? Gio Gonzalez is reverting back to a pretty good pitcher, but he wasn’t the worldbeater he pitched like last year. Tyler Clippard continues to be very lucky, but he’s not the fireballer he was last year. And Ross Detwiler is figuring out that if you throw two pitches and pretty much at the same speed, your success is often short-lived. What it boils down to, and why the Nationals, like the Braves, have been shut out a good deal of times is that their offensive players are not performing like they expected.
Unlike Atlanta, however, it’s not really that the Nationals are under-performing. They are just reverting back to the mean. Denard Span has been healthy this year for the most part, a stark contrast to recent seasons, but his production is minimal. However, its not because of a huge negative turn in his BABIP or something like that. Basically, he’s just not the guy who, in 2009, posted a 10.4 BB%, a .359 wOBA, and a 3.9 WAR (that was muted because of a bad UZR number despite that he is, and remains, a solid defender in center). His walk rate is a little down this year, but not much. His ISO is down from last year, but in line with his 2010-11 numbers. His K-rate is a little up, though not much to believe it’s anything more than a mild adjustment. And yes, what concussions have done to his numbers can’t be truly stated. However, he’s about what you would expect. A strong fielding player with a bat that does not threaten.
Adam LaRoche homered today, his eleventh and his power is considerably down, though he tends to heat up later in the season. His BABIP is also down so he probably will get better. But he went from a 2.2 career-best WAR to 3.4 last season. It should have been expected that he was due for a fallback season. Jayson Werth seems always hurt, though he was very durable from 2009-2011. And while his walk rate is down along with his ISO, even if they revert back closer to his career norms, he doesn’t seem capable of getting his Phillies years production back. Though, to be honest, we all know the park had a little something to do with that. He’s also became a liability in the field, turning in negative UZR’s in three of the last four seasons. Are we to expect the 34 year-old to get better? Really?
Oh, but Ryan Zimmerman was the face of the franchise and he has underperformed? Again…has he? Zimmerman has steadily went from a defensive force to a liability over the last four seasons. He again is terrible and some have flirted the idea of dealing LaRoche, moving Zimmerman across the field, and putting the youngster Anthony Rendon at third. Let’s be clear, though. Zimmerman, while he striking out a bit more than usual, is about on target with his recent numbers. He’s just so awful in the field that his WAR is getting muted.
But Kurt Suzuki (hasn’t been good since 2009)…But Wilson Ramos (can’t stay healthy)…But Roger Bernadina (really?)…okay, I grant you that Danny Espinosa has significantly under-performed, but he’s always been a stronger defender than a hitter.
So, no, the Braves haven’t been lucky that the Washington Nationals have been awful. The Nationals are a good team with a couple of superb ballplayers, a true Big Three in the rotation, and a great closer. However, simply math should have been enough to cause people to wonder if the Nationals were truly the NL’s best team entering 2013. In fact, considering how much the Braves have under-performed, that six game cushion is lucky for one team. The Nationals. If Atlanta truly gets rolling, and I believe they will sooner rather than later, the Nationals better hope for some of that 2012 magic if they hope to get to the playoffs.
In the one-game Wild Card playoff, of course.