The 12-16 start and the circumstances surrounding it put the Braves in an uncomfortable position
At the start of the 2019 season, the Braves were in a bit of a strange place. They were fresh off a 90-win season and a division title, one that had them finishing with the biggest division lead in the National League. That 2018 wasn’t fluky in the more-wins-than-should-have-been-garnered sense, as the team actually underplayed its run differential by two games, and had over 40 team fWAR — basically an 88-win team. Yet, ahead of the 2019 season, they were faced with projections like this:
Despite finishing 13 games ahead of the Mets, the Braves were projected to finish slightly below them in the standings… in fourth place.
Of course, you know how this all played out. In the early going, the Braves only managed a 14-15 mark through April, which made the projections look more right than a forecast of a repeat division title. On May 9, the Diamondbacks walked off on A.J. Minter, giving the team a four-game losing streak and an 18-20 record. On May 14, after Mike Foltynewicz was blown out by the Cardinals, they sat at 21-21, and with nearly a fourth of the season in the books, the playoff odds for those Braves were basically right where they started. That was about it for the doldrums, though. Those 2019 Braves reeled off a four-game winning streak, had a later eight-game winning streak that took them from two back in the division to 2.5 up, and never looked back. For some people, the interpretation was one of the Braves rescuing their fortunes, buckling down and improving to repeat as division champs after a disappointing start. For others, there wasn’t any rescue needed: the Braves were the better team, and it was just a matter of time before they clambered up to the top of the division.
(Amusingly, the 2019 Braves, who finished with 97 wins, outplayed their run differential by six games, and had below 39 team fWAR, more like an 87-win team. Despite their success being way less unexpected than the 2018 team, they were arguably worse as a team but for the final win tally.)
Why bring any of this up now? Really, for just one reason. Think back to 2019, before the Braves played a single game, before they were swept in Philadelphia to open the season. What did you think of that team? You didn’t necessarily have to agree with the Fangraphs playoff odds, of course, but they’re a useful benchmark.
By contrast, think about the Braves coming in to the 2021 season. Now coming off three straight division titles, the preseason projections were generally far more favorable.
However you slice it, second place, 88 wins and 64 percent playoff odds are a much more comfortable place than 83-84 wins, 38 percent playoff odds, with three of the four teams in the division projected for a higher win point estimate. And yet, here’s what happened since:
Yes, today is the first day of the 2020 season during which the sun rises to playoff odds below 38 percent for the Braves. It’s the first point at which, by this measure, the outlook for the season is more grim than it was ahead of the 2019 season. That’s far from great… after all, as of the start of May 3, 2021, no team has shed more in playoff odds than the Braves since the start of the season. The Twins are the only team in a similar misery bucket, “better” off by a teeny-tiny decimal. The Rays and Cubs are the only other teams with double-digit percentage losses in playoff odds to this point as well.
So, how did we get here? Well, losing games. Duh. But that’s not quite what I mean. There are a few factors in play.
One of the big ones is that the team right now is not exactly the same team as was projected preseason. The injuries have piled up, and projection-wise, Travis d’Arnaud being out for an extended period is a big blow. The projection systems do give “rest-of-season win percentage.” Before the Braves started the year, it was .543 — basically to match the 88-win preseason forecast. Right now, it’s just .524 — an 85-win team. That’s a pretty big shift in and of itself; if the projections knew about the injuries that were going to pile up, the preseason forecast would’ve been moved down before the season started. But, instead, the Braves are triple-whammied a bit: the team’s talent level is now lower, the team’s banked a bunch of losses against its talent level, and there are fewer games in which they can make up the deficit.
Further, while all of 2021 is firmly in “small sample size” territory, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t minorly move the needle, the way new information always does, at least as far as the projections were concerned. Let’s take a very extreme case, Drew Smyly. Before the season, the Fangraphs Depth Chart projections had Smyly as providing 1.4 WAR over 116 innings (see here: https://blogs.fangraphs.com/2021-positional-power-rankings-starting-rotation-no-1-15/). Since then, estimates about the run environment have changed, so you can’t quite forecasted ERA/FIP to now-forecasted ERA/FIP, but you can compare WAR, where Smyly is now forecast for 1.0 WAR over 113 future innings. That’s not a huge gap, but combine that with other strugglers-so-far like Marcell Ozuna (from 3.3 WAR in 616 PAs to 1.9 WAR in 504 PAs) and you get the idea. The balance of performance so far has been worse than projected (duh, that’s why the Braves have lost a bunch of games), so that affects the future forecast, however marginally.
(I should note here that I’m not sure I really agree with appreciable swings in forecasts based on around five weeks of play. But they are being factored in to the playoff odds changes irrespective of my agreement or disagreement. This could be a small point of optimism; if you think that this really shouldn’t be a feature of playoff odds, at least not this early in the season, then the outlook is somewhat better!)
The other big thing driving the playoff odds drop is that just like the Braves have gone off-script and foundered a bit, other teams have done the opposite. Not in the division, sure — the NL East has been a mess so far. But the rest of the NL hasn’t been quite so mired in failure.
One of the reason why the Braves had fairly comfortable playoff odds coming into the year was that despite two on-paper juggernauts in the same division, and the Mets having a much better projection than the Braves, that was about it. The NL Central had three teams forecasted to be mediocre, none of which seemed to pose a threat to securing a Wild Card/Lightning Round spot. That meant that as unexciting as it sounds, all the Braves had to do to clinch a postseason berth was just beat out teams like the Phillies, Nationals, and maybe the Giants. If they outperformed expectations (or the Mets faceplanted) and they won the division, great! But if not, the fallback plan was a comfortable slide into a one-game “playoff” in San Diego.
Yet, here’s what’s happened so far instead:
- The Cardinals are 16-12. Even though they’re projected to play below .500 ball going forward, their banked +4 margin over the Braves gives them the same current end-of-season win expectation of 82 wins. That cuts the Braves’ margin for error down a bit. The Brewers lead the division at 17-11; while the Braves aren’t competing with both of these teams since one will take a division spot if things hold, it’s still a worse situation than if all of the teams were around .500.
- The Giants actually lead the NL West at 17-11 at this point. Not really expected to contend this season, that’s still a sizable gap to flag down. While the Giants’ current win expectation is still below .500, it’s another pain point.
- The Mets, Phillies, and Nationals, well… they haven’t really done anything. They haven’t face-planted, they haven’t gone on a tear.
In other words, the backslide into a Lightning Round spot is a lot less comfortable now. There’s a ways to go yet, but rather than just having to stave off whichever of the fringy contenders broke out, the Braves now have multiple (still somewhat blunt and measly) daggers pointed at their spot. Up until yesterday’s loss, they still had the fifth-highest playoff odds in the NL; that’s not even true anymore, as the Cardinals have moved somewhat ahead despite a worse outlooking for the season’s remaining games.
In the end, none of this really means anything concrete. It’s just a way of gauging the possibilities in the future, relative to the present. Even talking about this feels a little off the mark, given what we saw in 2018, when a team with miniscule playoff odds took baseball by storm. But the Braves are in a tougher spot than when they started the season for sure at this point, and their 12-16 record justifies a greater feeling of unease than one might have had coming into the 2019 season.
However, it’s not all bad. As noted above, the playoff odds of the 2019 Braves dipped to below 24 percent after the season-opening three game sweep, and were as low as 31.8 percent on May 9. The team took off afterwards. This one can too. The NL playoff picture is still fairly easy to disrupt, and the division has been only slightly less moribund compared to the Braves themselves. This is still a team with a lot of talent: even accounting for injuries and underperformance, it’s still expected to be the fourth-best team in the NL from here on out. It’s just a matter of actually converting all of that into wins, and doing it again the next day, and the day after that. Maybe we’ll see what we saw in 2019. Maybe not. Stay tuned.