As our own Chase Irle noted earlier this week, the Braves are built rather well for a shortened 2020 season. A combination of pitching depth and a young core that has now been together for several years are just a few reasons why the Braves are one of the favorites to win the NL East this season. And that’s not just my belief, FanGraphs‘ ZiPS projections came to the same conclusion on Wednesday as the site released an updated version of its projected standings:
2020 NL East ZiPS Standings
- Braves— 34-26
- Nationals— 34-26
- Mets— 31-29
- Phillies— 30-30
- Marlins— 24-36
The Nationals hold better odds at winning the division and the World Series, pacing the Braves by less than a percentage point in both scenarios. Still, according to each team’s projected W/L record, the two sides are about as equal as they come. And with the Mets and Phillies only behind by a handful of games, it’s safe to say the NL East should be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball in 2020.
Recent 60-game starts for the Braves
With absolutely zero precedent for such a shortened season, it isn’t easy to imagine just how a 60-game regular season would play out for the Braves. Completing roughly 40% of a full-season makes for some rather small sample-sizes, and unless you pay a lot of attention to the standings in early June each season, you probably have no idea how the Braves usually fared during their first 60 games. We’ll go into more detail in a minute, but here’s the Braves’ record and place in the standings through the team’s first 60 games in each of the last five seasons:
- 2019:33-27 record / 2nd place (0.5 GB)
- 2018:35-25 record / 1st place (up 0.5 G)
- 2017:27-33 record / 3rd place (11 GB)
- 2016:18-42 record / Last (18.5 GB)
- 2015:29-31 record / 3rd place (2.5 GB)
As you can see, save for the 2016 season, the Braves have started quite well in recent years, and very well in the last two seasons. That makes a ton of sense, given the Braves’ recent run of contention began with a surprise 2018 campaign in which they made it to the NLDS to play the LA Dodgers. The three seasons before that were rebuilding years, so a rough start would somewhat be expected.
However, the focus should perhaps be on the last two seasons, for they’re the most recent and feature a majority of the current crop of players. I’m not saying the Braves’ performance during its first 60 games in 2018 and 2019 should be entirely indicative of what’s to come in 2020… but it could at least give us an idea of what to expect. Let’s break it down year by year, starting with 2018:
Braves 60-game splits (2018)
Last season was a statement year for the Braves and featured a whopping 97 wins, but you could make a solid case that the team’s 90-win 2018 season was even more impressive.
From 2015-19 the Braves’ 2018 campaign featured the most wins through its first 60 games, but it also included one of the best stretches for the team’s offense. Through June 4 that season — with 60 games completed — the Braves as a team ranked third in the majors in runs (297), third in AVG (.260), ninth in wRC+ (100) and tied for tenth in home runs (69). Thanks to Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Nick Markakis, the Braves’ offense also ranked fifth in the majors in offensive WAR (10.5), and the lineup’s line drive rate, WPA, and CLUTCH rating all ranked within the top-10 as well.
Top Hitters thru 60 games (2018)
- Freeman— .328 AVG, 9 HR, 151 wRC+, 2.5 WAR
- Albies— .263 AVG, 14 HR, 114 wRC+, 2 WAR
- Markakis— .331 AVG, 7 HR, 138 wRC+, 1.8 WAR
At the time, the offense was also led by Tyler Flowers and Dansby Swanson, who were both enjoying a solid start to the year. Flowers was hitting .277 through 20 games, to go along with a 141 wRC+, while Swanson had a .263 AVG and 96 wRC+ in 45 games.
And it wasn’t just the lineup carrying the Braves through those first few months of 2018. The team’s pitching was dominant, thanks to what wound up being a career year for Mike Foltynewicz, as well as incredible starts by Sean Newcomb and reliever Dan Winkler. Through those first 60 games the Braves ranked seventh in the majors in overall pitcher ERA (3.61) and fourth in pitcher wins (35):
Top Pitchers thru 60 games (2018)
- Foltynewicz— 12 starts, 5-3, 2.22 ERA, 10.43 K/9, 1.6 WAR
- Newcomb— 11 starts, 6-1, 2.73 ERA, 1.4 WAR
- Winkler— 26 G, 0.74 ERA, 12.95 K/9, 1 WAR
Those sure were some good times for Winkler. But it was also a strong stretch for guys like veteran starter Brandon McCarthy and reliever Shane Carle. The former was 5-2 through his first 12 starts, while the latter was pitching to a 1.97 ERA in 26 relief appearances.
All in all, the 2018 season was an incredible year for the Braves, though those first 60 games created the team’s momentum. The Braves kicked off the season by winning six of their first nine games against the Phillies, Nationals, and Rockies, concluding a 60-game stretch that featured a five-game winning streak and three, three-game winning streaks. The Braves finished each of the first three months of the schedule with a winning record, going 2-1 in March, 14-10 in April, and 17-12 in May, wrapping up their first 60 games with a plus-58 run differential (282-224).
Sure, the Braves were clearly overmatched against the Dodgers in October, but that 2018 season was one we’ll never forget… and it was kicked into motion thanks to the team’s performance during their first 60 games.
Braves 60-game splits (2019)
The Braves may have gotten everyone’s attention in 2018, but everything came together during the 2019 season, even if the team’s first 60 games were a tad less impressive.
Again Freeman was the Braves’ leader on offense, though this time former top prospect Ronald Acuna was there to start the year, and recently-signed Josh Donaldson quickly made his presence known (granted, JD did have a bit of a slow start). Overall, through their first 60 games the Braves ranked within the top-ten in the majors in AVG (t-6th), hard-hit rate (4th), line-drive rate (1st) and BABIP (t-7th), however, the juiced ball made for a rather wide-open run environment throughout the big leagues:
Top Hitters thru 60 games (2019)
- Freeman— .310 AVG, 15 HR, 149 wRC+, 1.9 WAR
- Acuna— .281 AVG, 11 HR, 116 wRC+, 1.6 WAR
- Donaldson— .253 AVG, 8 HR, 115 wRC+, 1.2 WAR
Like the previous season, Swanson was off to a hot start, and in 2019 he played every one of the Braves’ first 60 games, hitting .266 with a big jump in power (12 HR). Also — around that time of the season — recently-promoted Austin Riley had only been in the majors for 18 games but had already slugged nine homers and was holding on for dear life to a .324 AVG and incredible 174 wRC+. Those moments witnessing Riley driving balls out of the park with his parents in the stands were some of the best images from the Braves’ 2019 season.
Meanwhile, former top prospect pitcher Mike Soroka was starting up his breakout season for the Braves. He was hands-down the leader of Braves pitching during those first 60 games, but Kevin Gausman and Max Fried were also laboring through some great outings:
Top Pitchers thru 60 games (2019)
- Soroka — 9 starts, 6-1, 1.41 ERA, 1.8 WAR
- Gausman— 11 starts, 2-4, 5.56 ERA, 1.1 WAR
- Fried— 12 starts, 7-3, 3.68 ERA, 1 WAR
It ended up being a breakout year in 2019 for reliever Luke Jackson as well. Through his first 26 games, he struck out 12.74 batters per nine and carried a 3.03 ERA. Also, in his final season with the Braves, Julio Teheran put together an impressive first couple of months (and 2019 season altogether). In his first 13 starts, he managed a 3-4 record with a 3.28 ERA.
A second-straight division title was a sign that the Braves were finally back, but in 2019, it was the big moments that made that season special. Comeback wins and remarkable performances by the Braves lineup (especially the nos. 1 thru 4 hitters) brought the team closer than ever. SunTrust, now Truist Park, was rocking every night.
And it’s interesting because the Braves’ start to the 2019 season wasn’t quite as magical as the season prior. They dropped their first three games to the Phillies, and in those first 19 series of the team’s first 60 games, the Braves were swept four times. However, the opening set against Philadelphia was followed by seven wins in eight games versus the Cubs, Marlins, and Rockies, and after 60 games, the Braves had pulled off two four-game winning streaks and four different times won three in a row. Unlike the first few months of the 2018 season, the Braves weren’t blowing teams out, and through 60 games in 2019, their run differential sat at minus-6 (274-280). Still, last season was all about the end result, and it’s hard to complain about 97 wins and another NL East flag.
Despite the Braves’ recent success during their first 60 games of the season, it’s impossible to know how 2020 will go. The first 60 games of the upcoming season will feature an entirely different set of circumstances, and this year it won’t be labeled as just the “start.”
The Braves and the other 29 MLB teams will have just 60 games to put together their best run, despite a global pandemic and a safety protocol that will enforce numerous alterations to the players’ everyday lives. However, if the last few seasons are any indication, the Braves certainly know how to bring it in the first 60 games.