The Atlanta Braves are in the NLCS on the strength of their run prevention, which sure sounds like a sentence out of the 1990s. And God, does it feel good to be back in the ’90s again—that era of prosperity, post-grunge, and baggy pants. Why did we ever leave it behind?
The Braves teams of that era had one of the greatest pitching staffs ever assembled, headlined by Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. Those three combined to win seven Cy Young Awards from 1991 to 1998, and their Atlanta teams won eight division titles that decade, made eight NLCS appearances, and won five pennants. The franchise is often denigrated for winning only one World Series in that span, but do you have any idea how good a team has to be, over how long a period, for “only” one World Series to be a disappointment?
While Atlanta occasionally dipped into the trade market back then and signed Maddux as a free agent, those great pitching staffs were built using mostly homegrown talent. Glavine, Smoltz, Steve Avery, Kevin Millwood, Mark Wohlers, and (for good or ill) John Rocker all made their major league debuts in Braves colors, and of those, all but Smoltz were Atlanta draft picks.
That was a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of skill—maybe once-in-history. Trying to replicate a homegrown talent pool like that is a fool’s errand; one might as well build a transoceanic dirigible out of bedsheets and a handful of party balloons.
Still, the Braves attempted it, and for most of the 2010s, it looked like they were going to get close. Atlanta amassed frightening quantities of talented young pitchers over that decade in the hope of assembling a team capable of starving opposing offenses throughout the 2020s.
This year’s Braves have not only won all five of their playoff games this year, they’ve done so while twirling four shutouts. So surely the plan has worked out, right?
Well … it’s not quite that simple.
The Braves’ historic run of 14 consecutive division titles ended in 2005, by which point most of the team’s old stalwarts had left town. Andruw Jones left for Los Angeles after the 2007 season, and Smoltz followed him out the door a year later. By the time the Braves returned to the playoffs in 2010, they had built a new core around Chipper Jones, a handful of veteran acquisitions, and some exciting youngsters: Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Jair Jurrjens, Craig Kimbrel, and so on. Freddie Freeman, Mike Minor, and Andrelton Simmons soon followed. This club made the playoffs three times in four years but never won a series and was itself disassembled throughout the mid-2010s.
Given that those Braves teams were still fairly young, a hard reset was probably not necessary. But during the fallow period that ensued, the latest incarnation of the franchise was assembled. Ozzie Albies was signed as an amateur free agent in 2013, Ronald Acuña Jr. a year later, and Austin Riley was drafted a year after that. In December 2015, the Braves picked up Dansby Swanson in a trade with Arizona.
But above all, Atlanta spent that time hoarding pitchers. From 2011 to 2018, the Braves had 11 first-round picks and used nine of them on pitchers; that group includes current starters Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright. Meanwhile, they traded Heyward, Kimbrel, Simmons, Evan Gattis, and both Upton brothers for packages of prospects laced heavily with young arms.
Since 2014, the Braves have seen 12 of their pitching prospects land on Baseball Prospectus’s offseason top 101 prospect lists. That group does not include Max Fried, Matt Wisler, Tyrell Jenkins, and Mike Foltynewicz, all of whom were on the top 101 shortly before being traded to Atlanta, but never made it back on after. But this bountiful talent pipeline has not translated directly to major league depth. Of those 16 guys, only three have so much as thrown a pitch for Atlanta this postseason. A fourth, Bryse Wilson, suited up for the NLDS but didn’t pitch. Another, Lucas Sims, pitched against the Braves this October. Three are no longer playing affiliated baseball, while the remainder are somewhere else in the Braves’ organization. That includes Mike Soroka, the team’s nominal ace, who tore his Achilles tendon and is out for the year, as well as Touki Toussaint, Sean Newcomb, and Foltynewicz, all of whom were demoted after allowing a combined 51 runs in 41 1/3 innings.
Fried, Anderson, and Wright have all pitched well this postseason, but even that overstates the stability of Atlanta’s rotation. Fried has pitched like an ace the past two years, but thanks to back and ankle injuries, his October availability was up in the air until the final weeks of the season. In addition to Soroka’s injury, the Braves were able to get only one start out of offseason signing Cole Hamels before shoulder and triceps issues shut him down. And Felix Hernandez opted out of the season during the COVID-19 shutdown.
By August, the Braves were rummaging through the waiver wire for pitchers like a college student searching his drawers for clean shirts and underwear only to discover he has neither. So the Braves took the mound in the equivalent of swim trunks, a suit jacket, and flip-flops for large parts of the season. Robbie Erlin, Jhoulys Chacin, Tommy Milone—none of the Laundry Day stopgaps came through.
So the Braves went into the playoffs with Fried as their only experienced starting pitcher. Anderson had gone on a lights-out run to close the regular season, but he’d made only six major league starts. And Wright, the no. 3 starter of last resort, had made 12 career starts, but in five of those he’d allowed as many runs as innings pitched.
Rather than the neo-Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz rotation that seemed to be in the making, this year’s Braves have three talented youngsters who are pitching very well at the best possible moment.
As the talk heading into the first round was whether the Braves’ young arms could keep up with Cincinnati’s vaunted rotation, Fried held serve against Trevor Bauer in Game 1, pitching the first seven of what would be 13 scoreless innings. Wright, in Game 3 of the NLDS, had one of the best starts of his career: six innings, three hits, seven strikeouts, zero runs allowed. One could not have expected more from Gerrit Cole or Jacob deGrom in that circumstance. And Anderson in particular has been great; in two starts he’s struck out 17 while allowing no runs and just eight baserunners.
But while taking nothing away from what Fried, Anderson, and Wright have done, they are being put in a position to succeed.
The most obvious example of this is the quality of the competition they’ve faced. Of the 16 playoff teams, Cincinnati and Miami were 13th and 16th in runs scored, and 11th and 14th in wRC+. If you combined these two lineups and gave them four outs an inning, they still might not be able to keep pace with the Dodgers.
The other side of that equation is that the Braves have one of the best offenses in baseball. Acuña, Freeman, and Marcell Ozuna all posted an OPS+ of 150 or better this season, while Travis d’Arnaud hit .321/.386/.533 as a catcher. The Braves scored 5.8 runs per game in 2020, 1.4 runs more than the Marlins and 1.7 runs more than the Reds. Even against very good pitching, the Braves have scored 24 runs in five games. And the only time Atlanta’s young starters faltered—when Fried allowed four runs to the Marlins—the Braves plated five against Sandy Alcantara, and four more off Miami’s bullpen.
Compare the pressure Anderson faced in Game 2 of the NLDS to what Miami’s Sixto Sanchez faced in Game 3. Sanchez had to go deep into his start to keep the Marlins alive, and he had almost no room for error with a lineup that might give him only three runs of support. Anderson, on the other hand, came into both of his starts with Atlanta up in the series, and just two innings into his Game 2 start, he was pitching with a lead. If a pitcher merely has to be good, rather than perfect, it makes a world of difference.
Then there’s Atlanta’s bullpen, which was above-average in the regular season and has become borderline unhittable in October. In 20 1/3 innings this postseason, Atlanta relievers have allowed just one run and 10 hits, while striking out 26. Of the relievers expected to pitch significant innings in the NLCS, only Wilson (if he comes out of the bullpen) and A.J. Minter came off the internal production line. But some of the top pitching prospects who didn’t pan out in Atlanta helped the team build this bullpen through trades.
The highest-rated pitching prospect the Braves have had since 2014, according to BP, is not Fried or Anderson, but Kolby Allard, who topped out at no. 24 on the 2018 list. Allard was a polarizing prospect; the Braves thought his stuff was good enough to warrant selecting him at no. 14 overall in 2015, but concerns about his durability turned out to be warranted. After a series of back injuries, the Braves traded him to Texas in July of last year for reliever Chris Martin, who had a 1.00 ERA in 19 appearances this year.
The next year, the Braves spent the no. 3 overall pick on Anderson. Given how well Anderson has pitched in his brief MLB career, it’s become fashionable in some circles to wonder whether he should’ve gone no. 1 overall. While he could become the best player from that draft, at the time Anderson was viewed as a reach at no. 3. But the Braves picked him there because he would sign for less than the top college pitcher, A.J. Puk, or top high school pitcher, Riley Pint. Atlanta devoted the bonus savings to a Kansas high school left-hander named Joey Wentz, who at no. 41 overall got paid like a pick in the early teens. This is the equivalent of trading down, which MLB’s Byzantine draft rules do not allow.
Wentz hasn’t panned out so far, but at last year’s deadline the Braves managed to flip him to Detroit for All-Star closer Shane Greene, who led the Braves with 28 relief appearances this year. Greene hasn’t closed for Atlanta because Mark Melancon has held down that role since mid-2019. Melancon came over from the Giants for a package that included pitching prospect Tristan Beck. Melancon inherited the ninth inning in Atlanta from Luke Jackson, whom Atlanta acquired in a trade that sent Jenkins the other way.
Even if these pitching prospects didn’t feed directly into Atlanta’s bullpen, they strengthened that unit indirectly. And those former prospects who did make it into the Braves’ playoff rotation are going to need all the help they can get against the Dodgers.
Reaching the NLCS is a huge achievement for a club that hadn’t won a postseason round since 2001, particularly considering how badly injuries have devastated Atlanta’s pitching staff. But this is where things get tricky.
The Dodgers were clearly the best team in baseball this year and the only team other than Atlanta to go 5-0 in the first two rounds of the playoffs. FanGraphs’ ZiPS projection system gives Los Angeles a 61.8 percent chance of advancing to the World Series, which makes the Dodgers the clear favorite, but not an insurmountable one.
While Wright, Fried, and Anderson smothered weak-hitting competition in the first two rounds, in the Dodgers they’ll be facing an offense just as potent as their own. And the speed with which Atlanta dispatched its first two opponents camouflaged the team’s lack of rotation depth. Even Wright represented a roll of the dice in Game 3 of the NLDS—it’s not remotely clear who would start Game 4, let alone games 5, 6, or 7. (FanGraphs gives Atlanta just a 3.9 percent chance of sweeping.)
In 1948, Boston Post writer Gerald V. Hern paid tribute to another Braves playoff team with a lack of rotation depth. “First we’ll use Spahn, then we’ll use Sain. Then an off day, followed by rain,” read the poem. In the 2020 NLCS, an equivalent poem might read: “Fried, and Anderson, and curse Globe Life Field for having a roof.”
While contenders sometimes bring back starters on short rest to paper over deficiencies in depth, that doesn’t look like an option for Atlanta. Of these pitchers, only Fried has started a game on less than three days’ rest: One two-inning stint on two days’ rest in a bullpen game, and one six-inning start three days after he pitched two-thirds of an inning in relief. With as many as seven games on the docket for the next seven days, Braves manager Brian Snitker will probably be forced to use at least one of Wilson or Huascar Ynoa (20 career earned runs in 24 2/3 innings) out of the rotation at some point.
Nor have Atlanta’s pitchers demonstrated that they can eat up innings to save the bullpen; Anderson’s 104-pitch appearance on September 24 is the longest career outing for any of the three, and none of them has ever pitched into the eighth inning. This will be a difficult series in which to break that trend, for reasons related to Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, and Mookie Betts.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, not only has Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw fronting its rotation, but the depth to go to seven games without starting anyone on short rest. Julio Urías has served as a bulk reliever through two rounds, while Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has used Dustin May as an opener and one-inning reliever, and Tony Gonsolin not at all. The longer this series goes, the more it would seem to favor the Dodgers, at least on paper.
The Braves’ 1990s rotation could certainly have navigated such a grueling schedule and opponent. Now we’ll see whether the players the club has produced over the past decade can get the job done.