Nobody expected the Braves to really compete for the NL East divisional crown as soon as this year. Coming into the 2018 season, the Braves opened at 8/1 odds to reclaim their thrown as division champions, with the Nationals being heavy favorites at 2/5. At some point, however, the Braves were bound to start being competitive. With a wave of blue-chip prospects on the cusp of the major leagues, Atlanta made a statement in the first half. The Braves are back.
From Opening Day, 2018 has been a year to remember for both players and fans a like. Nick Markakis got it all started with a three-run walk off home-run to cap off a five run comeback for the first win of the season. That would be a sign to come for Markakis, who deservedly got his first All-Star nod in his thirteenth major league season. The long-time Oriole leads the Braves in batting average (.323) and hits (120) heading into the break.
By May 1st, the Braves had captured first place. Several comeback wins and contributions from unlikely sources highlighted a first half that saw Atlanta sit in first for over two months. Charlie Culberson earned the right to be called Mr. Clutch with two pinch-hit walk off homers in the same week. His play in the absence of the injured Ronald Acuna Jr. was not only productive, but in some ways inspiring to a young team that consistently demonstrated throughout the first half they they would never give up.
No lead proved to be safe against Atlanta, stemming from an offense that has been one of the National League’s best from wire to wire. In 2017, the Braves hit for a .263 average. That number was good for fourth in the National League, yet Atlanta finished 11th in the league in runs scored.
This year, the Braves sit at fourth in the league in runs scored, and that improvement can really be attributed to two reasons. Despite hitting only .258 as a team, slightly worse than in 2017, Atlanta has put together a much more powerful lineup that has 101 home runs going into the break. Secondly, nobody has been better with runners in scoring position. They sit at first in the National League with a .279 average in those situations.
A high-powered offense may have not been expected, but is not shocking considering the amount of potential some of their young bats have. The most improvement has come from their pitching staff. Even mired in a slump of sorts, the Braves have a team ERA of 3.83 (5th in the NL). That is almost a full run better than last year when they finished 12th in the NL.
And perhaps the most exciting thing about this starting rotation is they might have finally found their one-two punch. Mike Foltynewicz went 7-5 with a 2.66 ERA on his way to his first all-star appearance. Folty’s new found slider has become a go-to pitch and allowed to him to take his game to the next level. At times, he has pitched like the best pitcher in baseball, and he possesses that potential, but he needs to fine tune his control and go deeper into ball games to take that next step.
Second-year starter, Sean Newcomb has also dazzled his way to becoming a fan favorite. The 6’5″ left-hander that Atlanta got in return for Anderlton Simmons has cemented himself as one of the top pitchers in the rotation. Like Folty, Newcomb has a tendency to walk too many and get into high pitch counts, but if the Braves want to go anywhere this season, they will have to rely on the arms of these two.
The bullpen has had it’s fair share of ups and downs. Highs include Arodys Vizcaino at the back end, saving fifteen of seventeen opportunities and posting a 1.65 ERA so far. The downside is Vizcaino just went to the 10-day DL for the second time this season due to “shoulder inflammation.” Hopefully he can return as soon as possible after the All-Star Break.
Lefty, A.J. Minter has slowly transitioned into the set up man for Atlanta and rightfully so. Minter throws absolute fireballs to the plate and has the potential to be a closer in the future.
Lows include, Sam Freeman’s increasingly frustrating inability to throw a strike and the last month for Dan Winkler, who started out the year as well as anyone.
Now 52-42, the Braves sit in second place in the NL East, looking up at the Phillies by a half of a game and leading the Nationals by five. The Braves odds to win the division have gone all the way up to +175. A disappointing losing stretch has left a sour taste in the mouths of Braves Country, but this team has exceeded all expectations, and been one hell of a fun one to watch.
Here are the top 3 moments of 2018 so far:
3) Charlie Culberson’s pinch hit home-runs in the same week
Two walk-offs in the same week? That’s enough said.
— FanDuel (@FanDuel) May 28, 2018
— Today in MLB (@TodayintheMLB) June 3, 2018
2) Ronald Acuna Jr. go ahead blast in New York
The kid came through with one of the biggest hits of the season when he snuck one over the short porch in his first ever game at Yankee Stadium. There is no doubt Acuna has a bright future ahead of him.
P.S: Acuna Matata! Get your shirts at the link below.
1) Nick Markakis’s Opening Day blast
How could this not be number one? It’s Opening Day, the Braves come storming back from a 5-0 deficit, and Nick Markakis puts the dagger in Philadelphia, the one team ahead of the Braves in the division. It was one of those games you turn off early because Aaron Nola was pitching so well, but the Braves sent a message from the start you are going to have to compete the full nine innings.