Braves continue to roll through the MLB

Ronald Acuña and Orlanda Arcia share a high five as Arcia comes in from scoring a run against the Detroit Tigers. The Braves went on to win in a nailbiter 6-5. // Photo courtesy of Gregory Shamus

On Aug. 12th, the Atlanta Braves started Allan Winans, a part-time substitute teacher, against the New York Mets. He tossed seven scoreless innings, and the Braves won by a score of 21-3.

The Braves currently lead the MLB with a record of 78-42, but their game against the Mets is a mere example of how that record might not even do them justice. In 2023, the Braves can seemingly do no wrong. “Good” is too trivial of a word to describe this lineup; they are putting up numbers not seen in nearly fifty years.

Their team OPS, a metric that measures effectiveness of getting on base and hitting for extra bases, of 129 is tied with the 1976 Cincinnati Reds, one of the most prolific offenses in baseball history. The Braves rank first in home runs, runs-batted-in (RBIs), batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Any discussion of the offense’s success starts with the tandem of outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. and first baseman Matt Olson. After tearing his ACL in 2021 and a down season in 2022, Acuña is better than ever. He is on pace to be the first player in MLB history to score 35 home runs and steal 75 bases but also ranks second in hits and batting average while leading the league in on-base percentage at .418. These stats are a big part of why he is statistically the most valuable offensive player in baseball, with an offensive wins-above-replacement (WAR) of 6.2. It is easy to see why he is the favorite for the National League MVP.

The Braves’ other National League MVP candidate, Olson, has been a resounding success since Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos acquired him from the Oakland A’s in 2022 as a replacement for fan-favorite superstar first baseman Freddie Freeman. Olson and his 43 home runs are in a tight race with Angels’ superstar pitcher and  designated hitter Shohei Ohtani for the MLB home run crown. Olson’s ability to score his teammates — he leads the league in RBIs — is key to the Braves’ huge offensive innings. Other than Ohtani, he has been the best power hitter in baseball with a slugging percentage of .605. While Acuna makes contact and wreaks havoc on the basepaths, Olson’s big bat sends him to home plate.

Even if opposing pitchers can limit Acuna and Olson, they still contend with star third baseman Austin Riley and 2022’s rookie sensation outfielder Michael Harris II. Both started the season slowly but have rounded into form during the summer. In June and July, Harris had a staggering .374 batting average, .398 on-base percentage and .638 slugging percentage, while Riley racked up 14 home runs and 21 RBIs on a .287 batting average and .638 slugging percentage. Replacing longtime shortstop Dansby Swanson, 2023 All-Star shortstop Orlando Arcia has the second-highest OPS among National League shortstops. As the best catcher duo in baseball, Sean Murphy and Travis d’Arnaud provide offensive production and good framing for Atlanta’s pitchers. They lead the league in weighted runs-created (wRC+), a measure of offensive production considering external factors like ballpark size and league trends. Murphy has hit 22 home runs, the 3rd most among catchers. Furthermore, up-and-down designated hitter Marcell Ozuna has had a bounce-back campaign with a .251 batting average and 24 home runs. 2021 postseason hero Eddie Rosario is experiencing a scorching-hot August, especially in a series-clinching four-hit performance recently against the San Francisco Giants. Bottom line — big performances can come from anywhere in the Braves lineup.

It is unfair to have a lineup of this caliber in combination with the Braves’ pitching core. Although not historically dominant like the offense, the starters and bullpen are chock-full of talent. Both their starting rotation and bullpen rank in the top-five for earned-run-average (ERA), strikeouts per nine batters and WAR.

A one-two combo of Max Fried and Spencer Strider ranks among the best in baseball. Strider leads the MLB in strikeouts on the back of his dangerous fastball-slider combo. Fried has posted a good 3.38 ERA since returning from a forearm strain, but his 2.48 ERA in 2022 and lethal curveball suggest he could return to his elite form soon. In his 17th season, the 39 year-old Charlie Morton has struggled with walks but still sports an effective curveball and solid ERA of 3.54 across his 22 starts. His recent series against the Yankees showed the devastating pitching he still has, handling reigning American League MVP Aaron Judge on just three curveballs. Bryce Elder has broken out as an All-Star this season with a 3.46 ERA, although he hasn’t been quite as sharp since the All-Star break. That is before mentioning the return of 2021 World Series hero Kyle Wright, who adds even more depth to the rotation.

In the bullpen, Joe Jimenez, AJ Minter, Kirby Yates and Raisel Iglesias are all quality relievers although not individually elite. Iglesias has been excellent as the team closer with 24 saves on the season, while Yates has been hot in the second half with a 1.98 ERA, albeit some recent struggles. Minter is not at his 2022 form amidst injury struggles and inconsistency but can still turn in good performances in the eighth inning to set up Iglesias. Jimenez has been a strikeout machine, recording 54 strikeouts against 13 walks.

There is still a whole month of the season before playoff baseball in October, so it is fair to question whether the Braves can continue firing on all cylinders. Decline from Morton and Elder, bullpen struggles and a slump from Rosario or Ozuna are very possible and could prove problematic. 

The Braves have too much talent for any of those events to derail their season. Slight drop-off in September should be expected, but the offense should remain elite and the pitching stable. Atlanta has no competition for the division title, so they will not have to play from behind like they did in 2022. Make no mistake, this Braves team will be judged in October. They are entirely capable of making a World Series run; anything less is a