The Atlanta Braves will head into the 2013 All-Star Break with a six game lead over the second place Washington Nationals. After an explosive 12-1 start, the Braves have played .500 baseball since. Unfortunately for the Nationals and the rest of the teams in the National League East, those first thirteen games don’t get wiped off of the schedule.
Coming into the season, the Braves’ offense was heavily touted; something a bit unusual for an organization built around pitching for the past two decades. The offense was expected to be flashy, fast, and dynamic with the additions of Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, and Chris Johnson. However, the offense has been streaky for the entire first half. Bench players Evan Gattis, Jordan Schafer, Ramiro Pena, and Reed Johnson have all made significant contributions. Braves pinch hitters have the highest batting average (.287), the highest OPS (.823), and the most home runs in the National League.
The Braves’ rotation has been more than acceptable, but it hasn’t been overwhelming. The starters are fifth in the National League with a 3.59 ERA, but are eleventh in batting average against. All five regular starters have worked through bumps in the first half. Still, with Brandon Beachy on the mend, most Major League teams would love to have to worry about what to do with an extra Cy Young-caliber starter.
The soul of the 2013 Braves has been their bullpen. Statistically, they are the best in baseball. They have the lowest ERA (2.62), the second best average against (.213), and have given up the fewest home runs (16). After losing Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters early in the season, there were concerns about whether the resulting holes would force young relievers into roles they weren’t ready for. Those concerns have been alleviated by emergence of Jordan Walden and Alex Wood.
Walden has regained the form that made him the L.A. Angels closer in 2011. His walk rate of 2.6 per nine innings is by far the lowest of his career, and his ERA of 2.35 is down from 3.46 last season. He has emerged into the primary setup role in front of Craig Kimbrel. The Walden/Hanson trade has worked in the Braves’ favor thus far.
Wood, who made his debut on May 30, has been exceptional as well. After posting a 1.26 ERA in 57 innings at AA Mississippi, Braves’ management decided that he could make a greater contribution to the Atlanta bullpen than he could from receiving more seasoning at AA. With a 2.45 ERA and 26 K’s over 22 innings, he hasn’t missed a step in his transition to the big leagues.
With tremendous across-the-board depth and an offense that still has the potential to throttle any pitcher it faces, there is reason to be optimistic about the second half for the Braves. The Nationals problems of their own at the moment, so the Braves can put them away early if they can catch fire after the break. But, in what has become a near tradition in Atlanta, the Braves’ success will again be contingent on the strength of their pitching.