‘They’re the best, and it’s not even close’: MLB execs on how to beat the Braves
Does the road to a 2023 World Series title run through Atlanta?
The Braves boast baseball’s best record. They are battle-tested, having won a championship just two years ago.
They also have the respect of their peers.
“They’re the best [team in baseball], and it’s not even close,” one rival general manager from within their own division said.
But being the best is no guarantee come October. When the Braves visit the powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers this weekend for a juicy, early September battle, they’ll face one of the teams MLB insiders say has the best chance to beat them in the postseason.
Ahead of that four-game set, ESPN asked 10 executives three questions about the Braves: What makes them so dangerous? Do they have any weaknesses? Which teams have what it takes to knock them out of the playoffs?
Here is what they told us.
What makes the Braves so dangerous?
There’s plenty to choose from here. The Braves’ bats lead MLB in batting average, on-base percentage, home runs and OPS. On the mound, they’re first in the National League in overall ERA — and in bullpen ERA, too. Led by Ronald Acuna Jr., who is on the cusp of baseball’s first-ever 30/60 campaign, they’re a top-10 team in stolen bases.
“They can beat you in every phase of the game,” one NL executive said. “The length of their lineup is as good as I can recall.”
Atlanta has seven players with at least 20 home runs, three more than the next closest team. Its 7-8-9 hitters lead MLB in batting average, slugging and OPS. But being able to do damage from the top to the bottom of the lineup is only half of what impresses high-ranking baseball officials about the Braves’ offense.
“They’re balanced, with power from both sides of the plate,” one executive said. “Right-handed, it’s Acuna, [Austin] Riley, [Marcell] Ozuna. Left-handed, it’s [Matt] Olson, [Eddie] Rosario, [Michael] Harris [II], and then [Ozzie] Albies is the switch. He’s better from the right side, but still has 23 home runs from the left.”
While leading MLB in overall OPS, the Braves also rank first in OPS against both right-handed and left-handed pitchers. Their .862 OPS when they have the platoon advantage is 45 points better than the next-closest team (Dodgers, .817)
One executive broke down what Braves hitters do against certain pitches and the value that brings to run scoring:
• Against breaking pitches: .250/.307/.462, with a run value of 50 (first in MLB)
• Against pitches 96 mph and above: .265/.359/.441, with a run value of 10.4 (fourth in MLB)
• Against off-speed pitches: .251/.302/.438, with a run value of 14 (eighth in MLB)
The Braves likely won’t go very far in the playoffs on offense alone. But their starting staff has talent — and previous playoff success.
“Spencer Strider, Max Fried and Charlie Morton’s stuff and experience are arguably as good a 1-3 as anyone has in a short series, and [Bryce] Elder has emerged as a consistent, reliable starter as well,” another executive said.
Fried has made only 10 starts this season because of injury, but he would rank third in the NL in ERA if he qualified, while the other three pitchers rank fourth, seventh and eighth. For context, the last time an NL team had four (qualified) starters in the top 10 in ERA in a season was the 2011 Giants, a team that had won the World Series the year before, and would win again in 2012.
As for experience, the Braves have eight hitters who have played in 20 or more playoff games, and seven pitchers who have thrown at least 20 innings in the postseason. They have plenty to draw on for October.
One executive summed it up this way:
“I think they are dangerous because of their lineup depth. They’ve got nine guys who can beat you offensively every single night. And they can do it in a number of different ways — they hit the homer, run the bases, etc. It would be difficult to imagine them having a weeklong, teamwide slump. So they should be able to score runs regardless of who is hot at that moment in time. There truly is not a safe lead. It will be really hard to keep them down for that many games.
“Plus, they can pitch. Their starting rotation is top-heavy, which is exactly what you want in the postseason. They can roll out a top-of-the-rotation kind of starter in each of the first few games of a series, so they can match up with anyone.”
Do they have a weakness?
The Braves can’t be great at everything … can they?
“[I’m] nitpicking [here],” one executive said. “Hard-throwing bullpens usually step up in the postseason for the winner, and the Braves’ bullpen ranks 28th in number of pitches 96 mph or above.
“Nitpicking” is the key word. The bullpen showed up in several answers, the closest thing to a “weakness” rivals could find.
“Maybe you can get to their middle relief,” one American League executive said. “If they get down early and throw a minus reliever, you might be able to extend a lead. But that’s any team.”
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Atlanta’s bullpen has a 4.24 ERA prior to the seventh inning, ranking 16th in MLB. For comparison, from the seventh inning on, they have a 3.14 ERA, tied for second. Their inherited runners stranded percentage is just league average.
There is one other area to nitpick. Their stars play every day. Acuna, Riley and Olson, for example, have played in all 131 Braves games this season.
“Their weakness is probably a result of their strength,” another executive said. “Which is that their bench players really haven’t played much this year, because their regulars play every single day. If they have to rely on their bench at critical points in a series, it’s hard to predict how that might go.”
Which NL team is best equipped to beat them in the playoffs?
Executives focused on two teams, saying the Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies have the best chance at taking out the Braves. Several respondents, however, added the Milwaukee Brewers to the mix. They’re the hottest team in the NL. The case for them comes down to three names.
“Now that [Brandon] Woodruff is back, the Brewers are as good as anyone else in the NL,” one executive said. “[Corbin] Burnes, Woodruff and [Freddy] Peralta have been doing it for a while. And their offense is better now that [Carlos] Santana has joined them and [Rowdy] Tellez is back. Why not Milwaukee in a short series?”
The Big 3 for the Brewers have appeared in a total of 18 playoff games — the same amount Morton alone has in his career — but the key for them is how they’re pitching down the stretch. The trio has a combined 3.12 ERA in August, which is when Woodruff returned from an injury. As he rounds into form, Milwaukee could be formidable.
“I would take Milwaukee behind the Dodgers,” one executive said. “Woodruff’s injury might be a blessing in disguise. They did fine without him and he’ll be fresh. More fresh than [Aaron] Nola and [Zack] Wheeler who carry the load for the Phillies.”
Another executive agreed: “If it’s a five-game series, the Brewers’ rotation of Burnes/Woodruff/Peralta can beat anybody.”
Still Milwaukee remains almost everyone’s third choice. One executive picked Philadelphia to win the pennant for the second straight season.
“The Phillies, with Wheeler/Nola at the top of the rotation and their slugging lineup can change games quickly,” he said. “They did it before and can do it again with this group.”
Philadelphia showed just how dangerous it can be at the plate in August, outhomering the Braves by a wide margin while setting a franchise record for long balls in a single month. It’s led to the best August OPS by any team in MLB.
“The Phillies have the hardest-throwing bullpen in baseball [based on total number of pitches above 96 mph] and have the power bats to get hot,” another executive said.
The Phillies beat the Braves in four games last October, but that doesn’t make them more dangerous for Atlanta than the Dodgers, according to several executives.
“The Dodgers’ talent, experience and consistency give them the best shot at taking a playoff series,” one executive said.
Another dove into the numbers.
“The Dodgers share a lot of the same hitter run value numbers vs. pitching as the Braves, and have more hard-throwing relievers, who are successful [in October],” he said. “The Dodgers are ranked first in pitcher run value when a pitch is 96 mph or above.”
Essentially, the Dodgers rank second to the Braves in most offensive categories, averaging 5.6 runs per game compared to Atlanta’s 5.8. But their pitching injuries have piled up, leading to just the seventh-best ERA in the NL. Then again, Clayton Kershaw just returned from injury and looks as good as ever.
“I think the Dodgers’ overall 26-man roster depth is probably better than Atlanta’s, so I would think they have the best chance against them in a long series,” one executive said. “And they are a team that knows how to win, can take a punch, and has a tremendous home-field advantage.”
Said the executive: “That would be one heck of a series.”