Are the 2021 Braves better than the 2020 Braves?

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Last year’s run during the pandemic shortened season was magical when magic was desperately needed… until it wasn’t. The Braves smashed the Dodgers on their way to a 3-1 lead in the NLCS as they looked to clinch their first World Series berth since 1999. But unfortunately, the perennial favorites in the National League eventually flexed their muscles and pulled out three straight close wins on their way to raising the Commissioner’s Trophy. It was a brutal way to end the season, but it gave fans a lot of hope looking towards the future.

That hope quickly faded over the course of the first half of the 2021 campaign. From Mike Soroka‘s injury to Marcell Ozuna‘s arrest to the inconsistencies on offense and out of the bullpen, and eventually Ronald Acuna’s torn ACL, the Braves season was on a one-way track to nowhere. Then… the trade deadline happened.

It started with Joc Pederson, who helped keep the Braves afloat in July. The other acquisitions happened on deadline day, as Anthopoulos added Eddie Rosario, Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall, and Richard Rodriguez. It wasn’t the blockbuster deals some fans were hoping for, but they’ve been extremely effective, helping the Braves turn the tables on the rest of the NL East. Just a few weeks ago, Atlanta was five games back and floundering, but an incredible month of August has flipped the division on its head, as the Braves now lead by 4.5 games.

I really never thought these words would come out of my mouth once Ronald Acuna went down. Then again, I also didn’t expect the Braves to have a 4.5-game lead on August 24th. Regardless, I think it’s now fair to question if this 2021 team, even without Acuna, is better than the 2020 squad. It sounds crazy, but I don’t think it will once we dive into it.

Before I get started, I want to preface this by saying that I am in no way implying Acuna is some sort of detriment to the team. He’s arguably the best player in the game, and I think he would have run away with the MVP if he were healthy. With Acuna, this Atlanta roster can hold a candle to anyone in baseball, even the loaded Dodgers. I’m merely making the argument that I believe the Braves have improved in so many areas around Acuna in 2021 that their roster is actually better constructed this season to win a World Series.


2020 Braves

  1. Ronald Acuna (CF)
  2. Freddie Freeman (1B)
  3. Travis d’Arnaud (C)
  4. Marcell Ozuna (DH)
  5. Ozzie Albies (2B)
  6. Dansby Swanson (SS)
  7. Adam Duvall (LF)
  8. Nick Markakis (RF)
  9. Austin Riley (3B)

This is how the Braves lined up for Game 1 of the NLCS. I chose this because it was the last lineup the Braves had at full strength. If you remember, Adam Duvall injured himself in this game and was declared out for the rest of the season. Now, let’s take a look at the 2021 Braves lineup.

2021 Braves

  1. Ozzie Albies (2B)
  2. Jorge Soler (RF)
  3. Freddie Freeman (1B)
  4. Austin Riley (3B)
  5. Dansby Swanson (SS)
  6. Adam Duvall (LF)
  7. Travis d’Arnaud (C)
  8. Joc Pederson (CF)
  9. Pitcher’s Spot

Obviously, it’s a little different because there is no universal DH, but let’s compare. Losing Acuna was a massive blow, and there’s absolutely no replacing his production. Not having Ozuna also hurts, but I think there’s an argument to be made that the rest of the Braves lineup around them has improved enough to make up for their absences.

Most notably, Austin Riley has gone from a below replacement level player to a legitimate NL MVP candidate. Dansby Swanson has also blossomed into one of the best shortstops in the game since the middle of May. Over his past 87 games, he’s recorded 20 homers and an .887 OPS. That’s nearly a 40 home run pace over a full season. The argument can also be made that this version of Ozzie Albies is significantly more productive than last year’s. After all, Albies missed a lot of time last season with a wrist injury.

Joc Pederson can never replace Acuna, and Jorge Soler isn’t a substantial upgrade over Markakis, but I do think Anthopoulos did a fantastic job by adding some major pop to the lineup before the trade deadline. One through eight in the order can change the game with one swing. In fact, there’s a real chance that every player in the Braves lineup records 20 home runs this season. That’s the name of the game in the modern MLB, which is why I believe this lineup is fairly similar to the group that finished just one run shy of the World Series in 2020.

The Rotation

2020 Braves

  1. Max Fried
  2. Ian Anderson
  3. Kyle Wright
  4. Bryse Wilson
  5. Robbie Erlin/Tommy Milone?

I mean, what do I even have to say about this. Max Fried was an ace last season, and Ian Anderson turned out to be a savior in his first taste of Major League Baseball. Thank God, too. Because if not, this group would have been toast. This is one of the worst rotations I’ve ever laid eyes on. Wright and Wilson were two inconsistent messes, and don’t even get me started on Robbie Erlin and Tommy Milone. They have to be two of the worst starting pitchers in Braves’ history.

2021 Braves

  1. Max Fried
  2. Charlie Morton
  3. Ian Anderson
  4. Drew Smyly
  5. Huascar Ynoa/Touki Toussaint/Kyle Muller

This group may lack a true superstar on top. Fried hasn’t been as reliable as he was in 2020, but he’s been dominant of late. They’ve also suffered from some injuries. However, from top to bottom, this group can hold a candle to any in baseball.

Charlie Morton has proven to be a steal in free agency. Anderson has been injured of late, but he was as consistent as they come before suffering a shoulder injury. Drew Smyly started slow, and he’s not the greatest at going deep into games, but he’s been very solid over the last few months, and the Braves seemingly never lose when he’s on the mound. However, the three guys in the fifth slot are what should have fans the most excited. Ynoa and Toussaint have been electric, and even Muller proved to be much further along than most people expected. All of them have given the Braves great innings, and it’s why I wouldn’t be shocked if Brian Snitker went to a six-man rotation once Anderson returns.

Of the three phases, this is where the differences stand out the most. It’s unbelievable the 2020 Braves got as far as they did with their rotation. That is an absolutely atrocious group. This season’s, on the other hand, is elite. They’ve been lockdown all year long, and it will give them a fantastic chance to get over the hump and go to the World Series this time around.


2020 Braves

Closer: Mark Melancon

Set-Up: Tyler Matzek, Chris Martin, A.J. Minter

Others: Will Smith, Shane Greene, Darren O’Day, Grant Dayton, Josh Tomlin, Jacob Webb

2021 Braves

Closer: Will Smith

Set-Up: Richard Rodriguez, Tyle Matzek, Luke Jackson

Others: A.J. Minter, Chris Martin, Jesse Chavez, Josh Tomlin, Edgar Santana

I don’t think there’s any question about it. Last year’s bullpen was superior to this year’s. However, I’m not sure if it’s by as much as people think, especially recently. Will Smith isn’t as bad as he’s made out to be. He may give up baserunners and cause all of Braves Country to lose their breath more times than they can count, but he has gotten the job done in the ninth as well as anybody. As long as he walks off the mound with a win, that’s all that matters.

Richard Rodriguez has been a much-needed addition and has taken over a lot of the high-leverage situations. Matzek is once again one of the most dominant relievers in the game and has been absolutely unhittable for over a month now. Luke Jackson has been just as hot, and while most Braves fans don’t want to admit it, he’s been one of the better relievers in baseball in 2021.

After that, it gets a little scary. Minter and Martin have regressed significantly from their standout 2020 campaigns, but I’m hopeful both could return to form down the stretch. Jesse Chavez and Edgar Santana have actually been pleasant surprises, but I don’t think I would trust them very much in the playoffs. Lastly, Josh Tomlin likely won’t occupy a roster spot for much longer once Ian Anderson returns.

As a group, the 2021 Braves are probably a Mark Melancon away from having as strong of a bullpen as they had a year ago. Still, this is a good enough relief core to get the job done, especially with how much better the starting rotation is. The Braves will also likely move one or two members of their starting rotation to the bullpen in a potential playoff series, which should make this unit even stronger.


Realistically, we won’t know the answer to this question until the season ends, but I did want to prove a point with this exercise. I feel like there are a lot of people who forget just how many flaws last season’s team had. They started Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, and A.J. Minter in three straight NLCS games. That’s not a recipe for success. The Braves may have lost their best player and another key piece in Marcell Ozuna, but Alex Anthopoulos did a great job improving the rotation over the winter, and he’s made the proper adjustments at the trade deadline to give this team a chance at a World Series title.

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