As the All-Star break finishes up, the Atlanta Braves are looking to start the second half of their season strongly. After experiencing some surprises in the first half, the team held a 42-45 record during the week off and sit in second place in the NL East. Here's a list of VAVEL USA's midseason grades for the team.
Transactions Grade: A-
This section provides quite a few highlights of the Braves’ season so far. The trade for first baseman Matt Adams is the most notable one, however, with Atlanta acquiring him in May from the St. Louis Cardinals. The season looked pretty bleak after star first baseman Freddie Freeman broke his wrist, but Adams’ arrival has helped the Braves out more than most fans probably imagined.
He’s filled an important positional gap on the roster while providing crucial offense to a team desperate for a power hitter without Freeman. At the halfway mark, Adams holds a .292 batting average with 35 RBIs and 13 home runs, which is the second most homers on the team behind Freddie.
His contributions have been so important that Atlanta management moved Freeman to third base after he came off the disabled list just to keep Adams’ hot bat in the lineup. His trade has likely been the main highlight of the season and it looks like general manager John Coppolella got a steal from the Cardinals.
Another exciting transaction for the Braves was the debut of one of their top pitching prospects, Sean Newcomb. The 24 year old's debut provided fans with the first look at some of the pitching talent acquired in their trades throughout the franchise’s rebuilding period, and he has given Atlanta fans a taste of his potential.
Through his last two starts were rocky, Newcomb has allowed one run or less in half of his starts and struck out 30 batters. The young left-hander still needs to improve giving up walks, having walked 14 through six games, but there is a lot to look forward to as he continues to develop.
Pitching Grade: C+
Atlanta’s pitching staff as a whole had a tumultuous start to the season. With the team ranking 19th in total wins, Braves’ starting pitchers have accounted for 46 quality starts, but they also have the eighth-highest ERA for a rotation in the league (4.82). Their bullpen is tied for second in most blown saves (16) and their tendency to allow home runs at Suntrust Park is concerning (58). Atlanta’s strikeout rate is also one of the worst in the MLB, ranking 28th out of 30 teams with 7.36 strikeouts per nine innings.
Lately, though, some of the Braves pitchers have turned things around and picked up momentum heading into the All-Star break. Veteran knuckleballer R.A. Dickey has had impressive performances throughout June and July, having allowed just one run or less in five of his last six starts. During that span, the 43-year-old has struck out more batters (37) than in the rest of his previous starts combined (32).
Reliever Jose Ramirez has emerged as an important set-up man in the bullpen, having not allowed an earned run since June 23rd. He also leads the team in holds (16). Starter Mike Foltynewicz has also been on a tear, with Atlanta winning the last six straight games he’s started. The right-hander is tied with rotation anchor Julio Teheran for the best record on the team (7-5).
There is one instance of subtraction from the pitching rotation that might serve as an addition for the rest of the season for the Braves. Starter Bartolo Colon was released in early July from the team after a just starting 13 games for the team. Any hope of the former Cy Young winner finding the same magic that got him a 15-8 record and 3.43 ERA with the New York Mets last year was quickly abandoned.
Signing as a free agent this past offseason, Colon struggled to find any momentum as he pitched his way to a 2-8 record with a whopping 8.14 ERA. With ‘Big Sexy’ gone and other starters seeming to have improved their game, though, Atlanta’s pitching could officially turn the corner after a poor start to 2017.
Offensive Grade: B-
Any team that loses an elite all-around first baseman is going to suffer in his absence. Surprisingly, though, the Braves have not collapsed without Freeman driving in runs. A large part of that is due to Adams’ great offensive play, but the rest of the roster has hit better as the season continued too.
Atlanta ranks seventh in the MLB for total hits (795) at the halfway mark, while also tallying the seventh highest batting average (2.63). When it comes to scoring those runners, though, the Braves have struggled more often than not.
The team ranks below the league average in runs scored through the All-Star break, driving in 4.6 per game. Atlanta also has had problems hitting for power without Freeman and posted the third-worst home run total in the league (88).
In comparison to last season at the All-Star break, however, the Braves were in a much worse position. The team ranked dead last in the MLB in runs scored (307) and home runs (55), while posting a 31-58 record. With Freeman returning from injury, it’s expected that Atlanta will receive another big boost offensively and could see their stats improve even more. The roster has hit well through June and July, and if they continue at this rate, their record could improve even further.
'Postseason Potential' Grade: D+
This section gets the worst grade out of them all, but it’s not entirely the Braves’ fault. So many factors determine which teams make the playoffs that it’s usually unlikely that a team controls their own destiny at the halfway point in a season.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, a few teams in the National League already are in that position, with the division-leading Washington Nationals being one of them. The Nats have played well all year and seem on their way to a second straight title in the NL East. They entered the week holding a 9.5-game lead and sporting a run differential of +90, which is the only positive one in the whole division.
With rest of the NL East having struggled in the first half of the season, they have jumped out to a lead that would take a complete meltdown to squander. The Braves sit in second place with a one-game lead over the Miami Marlins, so they are in a better position than others. It looks very unlikely anyone will be able to catch the Nationals, though.
This leaves the wild card race as the only feasible chance Atlanta has of making the postseason, but even that notion seems to be a stretch. After an incredible start to the season for three NL West teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers have stormed ahead in that division behind a 6-game winning streak.
The other two teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Colorado Rockies have strong enough records to where they are the current leaders for the two wild card spots. The Rockies hold a 7.5-game lead over the next best teams, with the Braves eight games behind. Unless both of those teams slip in the second half of the season and Atlanta gets really hot, it's probable that the Braves will miss the playoffs for their fourth straight year.
Overall Grade: B
There have been some rough patches for Atlanta so far in 2017, especially towards the beginning of the season. Colon’s struggles and the pitching staff having a slow start dug the team an early hole, and Freeman’s broken wrist could have made things much worse. The team improved after Adams’ arrival, though, and the offense has done a good job getting on base. With the return of Freeman, hopefully even more of those runners will turn into runs.
The starting rotation has played better too, with veterans stepping up and producing good performances lately. If they keep games close, Atlanta’s bats have seemed well-rounded enough to deliver victories. Considering the preseason expectations for this team and their tough start, it's hard to criticize the Braves sitting just three games under a .500 record.
They have impressed at times and the roster seems to have few holes for a team that wasn't expecting to be too competitive this year. Now it comes down to whether they can continue this pace and claim a winning record for the first time since 2013.
The Braves return to start the second half against a tough slate of teams. They will have a six-game homestand against the Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs before traveling to play a four-games series against the Dodgers.