When Do We Stop Giving the Braves the Benefit of the Doubt?

The Atlanta Braves haven't looked like the same dominant team lately. At what point do we start to doubt their chances to make a run in 2024?

Orlando Arcia #11, Ozzie Albies #1, Austin Riley #27 and Matt Olson #28 of the Atlanta Braves talk against the Philadelphia Phillies during the eighth inning in Game Three of the Division Series at Citizens Bank Park.
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - OCTOBER 11: Orlando Arcia #11, Ozzie Albies #1, Austin Riley #27 and Matt Olson #28 of the Atlanta Braves talk against the Philadelphia Phillies during the eighth inning in Game Three of the Division Series at Citizens Bank Park on October 11, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

The Atlanta Braves have been so dominant over the last couple of years, we almost take the fact that they have to play the regular season for granted. Atlanta is expected to win the NL East every year, and then enter October as one of the prohibitive favorites to win it all.

This year, the Braves have some real competition, as the Philadelphia Phillies have shot up to the top of the standings and are looking like the best team in National League, if not in baseball.

Still, no one expects the Braves to miss the postseason or be any less of a threat to make a run to the World Series because of their track record. And that is despite the fact that they have lost the reigning MVP in Ronald Acuña Jr. and the preseason Cy Young favorite, Spencer Strider.

Yet, if you have been paying attention to the latest goings on in Atlanta over the last couple of weeks, the Braves have been far from the juggernaut we have come to expect.

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On May 14th, the Braves completed a stretch where they had won six of seven games, starting the month with a 7-4 record. They were 26-13 at the time. Since then, they have gone 9-15.

During that span, the Braves have lost two separate four-game series to the Washington Nationals, a team who typically would have given them no trouble at all in the past. That includes dropping three games in a row to Washington over the weekend, after the lowly Mets had swept the Nationals just a few days prior.

Even with their recent string of losses, the Braves are still sitting comfortable atop the Wild Card heap with a 35-28 record, but they are closer in the standings to the Nationals and Mets than they are to the Phillies atop the NL East.

We are always quick to give the Braves the benefit of the doubt, and rightfully so, but is there more that meets they eye with their struggles?

What Happened to Their Record-Setting Offense?

Since May 15th, the Atlanta Braves have a .658 OPS as a team. That ranks 22nd in Major League Baseball. They are hitting .226/.282/.376, with a collective 85 wRC+. The Braves rank 20th in home runs and 23rd in runs scored during that span.

Remember, this is a team that overwhelmingly had the best offense in baseball last season. Their hitters sported a team slash line of .276/.344/.501, with an MLB-best 125 wRC+. They also led the league in both home runs and runs scored by a wide margin.

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Now losing Acuña is a massive blow to this team, there is no way around that, but the rest of the lineup is relatively unchanged from last year. Substitute Jared Kelenic and Adam Duvall for Eddie Rosario and Kevin Pillar, and it is basically the same team.

Looking specifically at this stretch where the Braves have struggled, what you will find is just two hitters who have been above average. Marcell Ozuna, who has been on a different planet all season, currently leading the National League in home runs (18), RBIs (55) and wRC+ (175).

The other hitter who has been good as of late is Matt Olson, who is hitting .272/.313/.467, with four home runs and a 118 wRC+ in his last 24 games played. Even though he has been above-average, that is a far cry from the production the Braves got out of Olson last year, when he led MLB with 54 home runs and 139 RBIs.

Even worse, Michael Harris II and Austin Riley have been downright awful compared to their track records. Riley is hitting .230/.301/.347, with just three home runs in 50 games. His 86 wRC+ trails his career-mark by nearly 40 points.

Harris got off to a slow start last year too, but is currently batting .248/.293/.354, with an 83 wRC+.

You can add Adam Duvall, Sean Murphy, and Orlando Arcia into the bucket of underperforming Bravos, and after getting off to a great start in 2024, Travis d’Arnaud has started slumping as well.

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When you look at the expected data, the Braves are not even really getting unlucky. Outside of Ozuna, Harris, d’Arnaud and Olson, none of the Braves players have an expected batting average better than their actual batting average, and no one outside of those four has an xBA over .250.

Riley and Duvall appear to be leaving some slug on the table, but overall this is just a Braves team that is not impacting the baseball anywhere close to how they were in 2023.

Can it Get Better?

When you are talking about players with the track record of the Braves regulars, such as Olson, Riley, Harris and Albies, there is certainly plenty of hope that Atlanta can turn things around. There has been no evidence of that up to this point this year, but these guys are too talented to remain in a slump for the next four months.

Riley dealt with an intercoastal strain early in May, which sidelined him for over a week, although the Braves never opted for an IL stint. There could be some lingering affect of that injury that is impacting him, as he is a far better player than what he has shown up to this point.

Last year, Harris hit just .174/.260/.266 through his first 34 games. Then the calendar changed to June and he got back to being the player we saw in his Rookie of the Year season in 2022. Across the final 104 games, Harris hit .326/.352/.535, with a 136 wRC+.

The Braves can expect their regulars to turn things around, and will likely be aggressive supplementing their roster at the deadline, where they will try to replace Acuña the same way they did back in 2021. That year, it resulted in a World Series title.

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Do the Braves Have Any Problems on the Pitching Front?

When you look atop the Braves rotation, it is hard to poke many holes in a quartet of Chris Sale, Max Fried, Reynaldo Lopez, and Charlie Morton. Sale, Lopez and Fried have all made bids to be considered for the All-Star game, while Morton is sporting a solid 4.12 ERA on the season.

Dig a little deeper though, and you will find that Morton has pitched to a 5.84 ERA over his last five starts. Considering the fact that he is 40 years old, it is fair to have a bit of skepticism about Morton moving forward, although he is definitely not a chief concern at the moment.

Instead, the issue is finding a competent fifth-starter, which is something the Braves have struggled with ever since Strider went down. The latest man up was rookie Hurston Waldrep, who made his MLB debut on Sunday.

Unfortunately the top prospect struggled mightily in that debut, giving up seven earned runs in less than four innings, as he now sports an unsightly 17.18 ERA. Time will tell if the 22-year-old will get some run in the Braves rotation, or if this was just a cameo for Waldrep.

Considering Morton’s age, the injury concern with each of their left-handed aces in Sale and Fried, as well as the question mark that is Lopez being stretched out as a starter for the first time since 2019, and this Braves rotation’s outlook is very murky to survive the 162-game marathon.

Luckily for Atlanta, they have one of the best bullpens in baseball, which is currently trailing only the Dodgers in the National League when it comes to ERA. This bullpen has kept the Braves from blowing the games they have in hand, which can explain how they have kept their heads above water despite all of their struggles elsewhere.

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Still, there is more doubt with this team right now than we have seen since the first half of 2021.

Will history repeat itself, where the Braves pull themselves out of an early-season hole and prove to be the best team in the NL East, and eventually in all of baseball?

Possibly, but the road is not as clear now as it was back then.

When Should We Worry About the Braves?

Let’s finally answer the initial question from the headline of this article. When do we stop giving the Braves the benefit of the doubt?

If you remove the team’s track record and put the circumstances in a vacuum, it is hard to look at the Braves the same way that they are regarded right now. A team that loses their top pitcher and top hitter is not supposed to be able to overcome that as easily as pundits have suggested the Braves could.

There is good reason for that based on track record, but that can only take Atlanta so far.

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This a team that is collectively struggling in a major way offensively, while having a starting rotation that is one injury away from being in big trouble. They also have a team ahead of them in their own division that has the best record in the National League.

The injury to Acuña may be similar to 2021, but the landscape is nowhere near as favorable to the Braves right now. They are surely going to play better than the sub .500 team they have been for over three weeks now, but improvements need to be made (either internally or externally) if the Braves are going to make a run.

Alex Anthopoulos is widely regarded as one of, if not the best, executive in the sport, but he has his work cut out for him at this trade deadline. The Braves will need to add an impact starter to both their rotation and their lineup if they want to be a threat in the National League, but those pieces don’t come cheap.

Only to make matters worse, the Braves farm system is not in great shape right now, so they can be outbid in any trade, particularly from their chief NL rivals in the Dodgers and the Phillies.

The Braves have earned their reputation of being one of the best-run franchise in baseball, as they have won the NL East six-straight years and have won more regular season games than every team except for the Dodgers since 2022.

With all of that said, this just might not be the Braves year. And at a certain point, if things continue how they have been going, the benefit of the doubt will wear thin for a team that entered 2024 as one of the two favorites to win it all.

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