Behind a playoff-worthy start by Bryce Elder and an MVP-worthy night by Ronald Acuña, Jr., the Braves crushed the Pirates 8-2. Because the Phillies lost to the Marlins, the division lead is 15 and the magic number is 8. Things are going pretty well.
RAJ hit homer number 35, his 6th homer in the last eight games, and had two other hits. Orlanda Arcia also had three hits, and Eddie Rosario had two, including a two run dinger himself. Matt Olson also contributed a couple of hits, although believe it or not neither of them left the yard. In other words, a typical offensive night for this team—8 runs and 12 hits.
We’ve gotten used to that kind of offense. To me, the most impressive performance, and one which holds promise for October baseball, was by Elder. He went seven innings, striking out nine, giving up just four hits. The only runs he surrendered came on a two run homer in the sixth after the Braves had already built a commanding lead.
I have a good friend who lives in another state. He’s a huge baseball fan, but he doesn’t watch the Braves on a regular basis. He is very serious about his fantasy team. Early this season, after Elder had gotten off to a good start, my buddy called me and asked if he should pick up Elder for this team. I told him that although I admired the guy for getting as far as he had, I didn’t expect his success to continue. His stuff was nothing special, and he needed to rely on pinpoint command. Basically, there was very little margin for error with the guy, and I was skeptical that he could keep it up.
I’m pleased to say I was wrong about that.Elder’s stuff is actually pretty impressive, even though he doesn’t throw in the mid-nineties. I was watching last night on a big screen TV and I could see his pitches much better than on my home TV. His slider has great downward movement, and he consistently threw it at the bottom of the zone. Bucs batters swung over it all night long. His other main pitch is a two seamer that also has excellent movement. It darts in the opposite direction as the slider, of course, and when he keeps it on the edges of the plate it is also very tough to hit. Several times he threw it inside to lefty batters and it jumped at the last minute to the inside corner. I’m not comparing him to Greg Maddux, but that pitch at least is very reminiscent of Mad Dog. Of course Elder needs to have good command (who doesn’t?), but when he does he can miss bats, and more importantly induce weak contact. I know this was only the Pirates, but I believe we can feel OK with Elder as a fourth starter in the playoffs.
As to the offense, there was one atypical inning. Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh’s all star hurler, held the Hammers scoreless in the first two. He faced the Braves order for the second time beginning in the third. Here was the sequence: Ronald 94 mph liner to center, Ozzie strikeout, Olson 70 mph bloop, Ozuna broken bat 78 mph liner to right, Eddie 75 mph bloop to left, TDA 71 mph bloop to left, MHII 86 mph routine fly to right ,Arcia 83 mph soft liner to left. If you had known that sequence would happen, you would have said, man, that Keller is really fooling the Braves—they can’t make solid contact against this guy. You’d figure he was probably still shutting them out through five innings. But as it turns out, the Braves were lucky; every one of those soft bloops fell for hits. They batted around in the third, with six singles and four runs scored. It was fun to see, after so many other games (like against the Cardinals) that our guys hit 110 mph screamers right at fielders. After the soft contact third inning, Ronald resorted to form in the fourth. His leadoff homer that inning traveled 455 feet.
This team is so good that I have a desire to wax poetic. I’m going to resist that impulse, as JonathanF has already done that, in a superior way to anything I could pull off. If you haven’t read it, you must see his post earlier this week, Your Team: Your Team – Braves Journal. Jonathan F apparently shares a birthday with Elton John, which inspired him to take the Turpin/John song and make it even better as a tribute to this Braves team. I share a birthday with Madonna, so I thought about adapting Like a Virgin as an homage to the Braves, but thought better of it.
A few weeks ago I stated boldly that this Braves offense is as good top to bottom as any team I remember, except possibly the mid-seventies Big Red Machine. (That’s not exactly a hot take, I realize.) I decided this week to emulate JonathanF in a different way. Using Stathead, I looked to see what teams had the highest team OPS+ for a season. Before I looked it up, I thought of a couple of offensive powerhouses and wondered if they might rank higher than this Braves team by this measure. My guess was that the 1995 Indians or the 1982 Brewers (Harvey’s Wallbangers) may be close in team OPS+ to the 2023 Braves.
Here is what I found: The 2023 Braves have a higher team OPS+ than any team in the 20th Century that did not have Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, or that did not cheat by banging on trash can lids. Yes, the current Braves’ team OPS+ of 122 is higher than any team’s since WWII, other than the 2017 Astros, whose OPS+ was 123. The 1982 Milwaukee club was in third place at 121. The 1995 Indians were not as high as I had guessed. Their 116, while still excellent, was brought down by very weak offensive seasons by Omar Vizquel and Tony Peña. The key to those Brewers and Braves was that everyone had an OPS+ greater than 100.
What about the Big Red Machine? Like the current Braves, every regular had an OPS+ over 100, even the defense-first guys, shortstop Concepcion and center fielder Geronimo. Their OPS+ was 120, placing them fourth behind the 2017 Cheaters, the 2023 Hammers, and the 1982 Wallbangers.
Does that mean the Braves are better top to bottom than the Big Red Machine? Not so fast. Don’t forget that the Reds did not get the benefit of the designated hitter. Nearly ten percent of their plate appearances were by pitchers. I haven’t figured out how to do it, but I bet if you took the pitchers out of the team OPS+ theirs would be higher than any other team since the Ruth/Gehrig Yankees. By the way, the 1927 Yankees had a team OPS+ of 127, thanks to 225 from Ruth and 220 from Gehrig.
Dylan Dodd goes for the Braves this evening. He hasn’t been particularly effective in AAA this year, but no harm in giving him a chance and giving extra rest to the top line starters that we will rely on in October.