They did drop another spot in the ESPN Power Rankings, back to the No. 3 spot, but there is little reason for concern at this point as far as their playoff hopes are concerned. However, some recent injuries reveal a team that could be very vulnerable come October.
According to Coolstandings.com, the Braves have had a 99.9 percent chance of reaching the postseason since Aug. 4, and their mini-slump this week has not affected their odds one iota. Not only have they been the best team in baseball but their competition has been lacking. There is no other team in the National League East above .500, and, at 65-65, the Nationals have just a 4.1 percent chance to reach the postseason, which is easily the lowest percentage for a team currently in second place in its division. With a whole week of August still to go, we are already talking about Atlanta’s magic number.
The problem for the Braves is that the team that built that lead is not the same one that is taking the field right now. In fact, Fangraphs projects them to be just a .500 team the rest of the way, good for the 12th-best record in baseball. This is mildly alarming, but not for the reason you might think.
If Atlanta stumbles down the stretch, you are sure to hear a lot about why that is a bad omen for the postseason. Now, a team never likes to limp into the playoffs, especially if it’s with two of its best players rusty or on the shelf. However, statistically, there’s very little to the notion that a team needs momentum entering the postseason tournament.
Back in 2005, Dave Studeman of The Hardball Times noted that, from 1969 (the first season of the two-division/league championship series play format) through 2004, World Series champions had a slightly worse September record than the average playoff team and that the team with the best record in September won the World Series only eight times in 35 seasons, and six of those eight teams also had the best overall regular-season record. This essentially means that just two teams that got red-hot in September went on to win the Fall Classic.
Momentum aside, the real issue for the Braves could simply be that they won’t be as good a team if Heyward and Beachy aren’t on the field. Heyward, in particular, has really come into his own. The still-just-24-year-old had been putting together a monster second half at the dish before taking a fastball off the cheek.
He had been hitting .317/.405/.554 since the break, and his 168 wRC+ — a measure of a player’s overall offensive contributions compared with the league average — was seventh-best in the game among qualified hitters. His jaw wasn’t wired shut, however, so there is hope that he can be ready for the postseason, even if he has to wear a Dave Parker-like mask in the batter’s box.
The only real effect on Atlanta, though, will be dealing with whether he is rusty once the postseason starts, as the Braves actually have several capable bodies in the outfield.
Plenty of players
The most capable replacement for Heyward is Joey Terdoslavich, a 24-year-old Florida native whom the Braves plucked out of the sixth round of the 2010 first-year player draft. Since his call-up on July 4, Terdoslavich has displayed a keen eye at the plate, albeit in a small sample — he has walked in eight of his 49 second-half plate appearances, good for a robust 16.3 percent walk rate.
In addition, the team has Evan Gattis and Jordan Schafer, both of whom have tailed off after monster first halves but nevertheless possess the talent to cover for Heyward in his absence. Gattis is especially free for outfield support now that third catcher Gerald Laird is back in the lineup.
The story is similar in the rotation — the Braves have dug deep this season to find arms when they’ve needed them. For a while, there was the thought that they had too many starters, but when Tim Hudson was felled for the season, in stepped Beachy. But now, with Beachy possibly being lost for the season after a complication in his surgically repaired right elbow, the team can turn to lefty Alex Wood.
Wood himself had stepped into Paul Maholm’s spot when the latter landed on the DL, but now Maholm is back and Wood has been pitching well in the rotation. He has posted a 2.52 ERA and 2.56 FIP in his six second-half starts — both marks best the effort put forth by staff ace Mike Minor. Like Heyward, Beachy had been playing well, but, over the course of a month, it isn’t hard to replace his contributions. If Atlanta has any problem on its hands, it will be setting a postseason rotation — specifically, whether Wood is needed more in the rotation or in the bullpen, where he had pitched well earlier in the season.
Losing Heyward and Beachy in one week is no doubt painful for a Braves squad that has faced more than its fair share of injuries this season. However, not only do the Braves have good depth to cover for them but they are going to sail into the playoffs on the wings of their 13-game lead.
And even if they drag themselves into the postseason in T-101 fashion, their lack of momentum won’t be a death knell as long as they can get some of their injured players — particularly Heyward — back on the field.