Braves flex their muscles over first month of the season

Braves Ronald Acuña

Based on their results from April, the Braves must be tired of coming back in the division every year. They’ve begun the 2023 campaign about as well as anyone could have imagined, winning 18 of their first 27 games and opening up a three-game lead in the competitive NL East. It’s been impressive, but it doesn’t even feel like their record is doing the Braves performance justice.

For most of the season, Atlanta has been without several key contributors. As things stand now, three starters — Travis d’Arnaud, Raisel Iglesias, and Orlando Arcia — are on the IL. And that doesn’t even include Max Fried, Kyle Wright, Michael Harris, and Collin McHugh — who have all spent time on the IL at one point or another. At no time have the Braves been anywhere close to full strength, and they’ve still looked like the best team in the National League during the first month of the season.

It all begins with the rotation. This group looked like one of the best units in baseball coming into Opening Day, and they’ve been masterful since getting healthy.

Let’s begin at the back and work our way up. Bryce Elder has established himself as a major-league talent. He may not have powerful stuff, but he limits his walks and knows how to pitch, which has led to a 2-0 record with a 2.17 ERA through his first five starts.

Charlie Morton is a guy I pegged as a bounce-back candidate prior to the season. He had an up-and-down 2022, which was due in large part to his inability to keep the ball in the yard. However, the stuff never stopped generating a ton of whiffs, so I figured he’d be in for some positive regression, even at 39-years-old. So far, that’s been the case. Morton has nearly cut his home runs per nine innings in half, leading to a 2.76 ERA over five starts.

Then there’s the two stallions at the top who are both looking like Cy Young candidates. The talk of the league has been Spencer Strider following his eight innings of shutout ball with 13 strikeouts. He features the most strikeouts in baseball along with the highest strikeout rate to go along with his 1.80 ERA. Many analysts are calling him the next Jacob deGrom, and he might not even be the best pitcher on his own team.

Max Fried suffered a minor hamstring injury on Opening Day, but all he’s done in his return is toss 16.2 innings of shutout baseball. His ERA is a remarkable 0.45, and the eye test backs it up. Fried somehow comes back every season better than he was a year ago, and if the trend continues, I don’t see how he doesn’t win his first NL Cy Young… unless his own teammates gets in the way.

When you have four horses like that, and I didn’t even talk about Kyle Wright, who won 21 games last year on his way to a top-ten finish in the NL Cy Young race, you’re going to win a lot of games, especially with an offense like the Braves.

Despite dealing with some injuries and inconsistencies, the Braves lineup ranks fourth in Major League Baseball in OPS led by the favorite to take home the NL MVP in Ronald Acuña Jr. Matt Olson is off to a better start in his second year with the Braves, and Sean Murphy has come as advertised in his first month in Atlanta. The return of Ozzie Albies has also provided a tremendous boost, and this group will only get better with Michael Harris and Travis d’Arnaud back in the fold. I see no way the Braves don’t finish the season inside the top-five of nearly every offensive category.

This is a special group. The Braves are elite in all areas, and they have the depth necessary to withstand injuries, which are inevitable over a 162-game season. There won’t be many lulls over the next five months, and even when there are, they will be followed quickly by lengthy stretches of winning, as they did several times throughout April.

Photo: Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire

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