The Braves: Lurking Tigers or Sleeping Dragons

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Consider this scenario: A defending division champion, off to a disappointing start, struggles to a 14–18 record after the first month of the season and appears to be dead in the water. But a furious rally ensues and the team wins enough games through the dog days of summer to retain its crown as division champion.

Sound familiar? It should. That was the script followed by the 2004 Atlanta Braves. As of last Wednesday, this year’s edition of the Braves had gotten off to an identical 14–18 start, and after yesterday’s 8–1 pounding at the hands of the Nationals, they stood six games out of first place. Will the 14-time defending NL East champions recover, or is it going to be different this time? Is it premature to think that the new-look Mets have a chance to finally end the Braves’ historic run of dominance?

Since the advent of multidivision baseball in 1969, there is a slight difference between the final results of teams that started 13–19 as opposed to those who began 14–18. Basically, the 13–19 teams, on average, never quite made up that one-game difference.They finished with a cumulative .467 winning percentage while the 14-18 teams played
.475 ball. That works out to about a game and a half over the course of a 162-game schedule.

If the Braves were guaranteed a .475 winning percentage in 2006, it would be lovely news for a NL East Division grown weary of Atlanta dominance. They’re not, of course, but it is interesting to examine teams that have begun things the same way. Looking back through major league history, of the 26 teams that started 14–18 and won 87 or more games the previous season (the Braves won 90 last year), only two managed to improve the following year.

The 1978 Pirates went 88–73, got off to a 14–18 start in 1979, but went on to win 98 games and go all the way. The Cardinals won 93 games in 2001, won 14 of their first 32 the following year, and rebounded to win 97. The other 24 clubs, though, averaged a decline of 11 games from the previous season when they got off to a 14–18 start.

Let’s examine this from another direction. How many games is it going to take to win the NL East this season? The Braves managed the feat with those 90 wins last year. Usually, 90 or 91 wins is enough to win any division other than the AL East, where the Red Sox and Yankees play for higher stakes. Excluding the strike years of 1981, 1994, and 1995 (but not 1972, since the full schedule was nearly completed), 100 teams have begun a season 14–18. Of those, only eight — less than 10% — managed to win at least 90 games.

How do this year’s Braves compare to those eight teams (and, for good measure, a team that went on to win 89 games) in terms of run differential at this point?

The most compelling aspect of this comparison is that none of the teams on the list has done what this year’s Braves have managed to do, namely post a positive run differential in spite of a 14–18 record. True, it is still early enough in the season that a differential one way or the other can hinge on the outcomes of one or two games. In the case of this year’s Braves, last Sunday’s 13–3 drubbing of Jose Lima and the Mets was followed immediately with a 10–2 beatdown of the Marlins. The 18-run difference in those two games was enough to put the Braves on the positive side of the ledger — something the Phillies couldn’t boast even after winning nine games in a row in the first two weeks of May.

While precedent appears to suggest that the Braves are in for a long season, their run differential (191 for, 176 against) hints otherwise. Atlanta has lost 11 one-run games so far this year, the most in the majors. The Mets, meanwhile, have the secondbest record in one-run games tied with Houston and behind only Cincinnati. It is unlikely that these extremes will continue to play out as they have during the first fifth of the season. As those numbers move toward the middle, the Braves should be able to make up ground on New York and Philadelphia.

The Braves have spent the past week playing Florida and Washington and have an opportunity to wipe their feet on the divisional doormat Marlins with four more games beginning tonight. A Fish-sweep will complete the trip back to .500 — one which began the day of Lima’s first start for the Mets. If they beat the odds that most 14–18 starters haven’t and storm back to win their 15th consecutive division crown, the Mets might have to look back in regret at their decision to invite Lima to spring training in the first place.

Mr. Baker is a regular writer for Baseball Prospectus. For more state-ofthe-art commentary, please visit www.baseballprospectus.com.


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