Braves clinch N.L. East Championship for the 3rd consecutive year
Nothing to it, right? Just your typical N.L. East Championship-type season. I mean, sure, maybe the Braves only played 60 games. Ok, so they had to use 13 (so far) different starting pitchers to get through those 60 games. Big deal, right? They had the worst rotation in baseball? That was just an attempt by the baseball gods to make this season somewhat fair for the other teams in the East. You mean to tell me you were WORRIED?!?!
Uh, yeah, and you’re lying to yourself if you say you weren’t. COVID-19 has sucked the fun out of 2020, so why would you expect anything good to come out of a truncated season with the specter of a virus-related shutdown looming over the proceedings? And the injuries? This Braves team had legitimate rotation concerns even before Folty lost 1/3 of his body weight and 8 MPH off his fastball, Newcomb lost control of everything in his arsenal and subsequently lost his spot on the roster, and Soroka severed his Achilles tendon and the hopes of fans everywhere. Then we took body blows from Albies and Acuña both hitting the IL with wrist injuries. Honestly, this season has been a disaster from the words “Play Ball,” and somehow, some way the Braves rose above all the turmoil and celebrated on their home field Tuesday night as three time Champions of the N.L. East. The question is, in a season where everything seemed to go wrong, what went right for Atlanta?
Nick Markakis opts back in
On July 6th, Nick Markakis shocked many when he announced that he was opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. I think that he, like many, didn’t have a warm and fuzzy feeling about how the start to the season was negotiated between the players and the league and, with that in mind, didn’t expect the season to be completed. In his twilight years as a player, why risk getting injured in the first couple of games of the season only to watch the whole thing crumble because neither side apparently was 100% committed to playing this year in the first place?
Sitting at home with his family, going to Little League games, and watching his teammates play on the TV screen rather than live and in person seemed to wear on Markakis, however, and out of the blue the Braves received a much welcomed bit of news:
He was activated less than a week later, right after Mike Soroka was lost for the season with his torn Achilles. You might expect a veteran on the down side of his career to need some time to get up to game speed, but all Nick did was bat .368/.429/.596 with an OPS of 1.025 in the month of August. You might not be a believer in clubhouse chemistry, but you can’t argue with the production value he was able to provide the Braves at a time when they could have easily spun themselves out of the playoff race. He provided steady AB’s while Albies and Acuña both spent time on the IL and Ender Inciarte fell off the face of the earth. Add to that the leadership he brought to the clubhouse during this chaotic time and it’s safe to say that there is a good chance the Braves would not have clinched the division without Nick Markakis. This literally hurt me to put into words, but I’m happy to admit that I was wrong about bringing him back for this season.
alex anthopoulos pushed most of the right buttons
I won’t deny it; I am one of many who think that Anthopoulos completely blew it with his approach to the trade deadline. To be fair to myself and other highly intelligent people, we aren’t wrong just because the Braves clinched the division. It WOULD be wrong, however, to say that AA has been terrible this season. He made a number of clutch moves in the offseason that worked out even better than I think he would admit.
The signing of Marcel Ozuna to a one year, $18M deal is particularly noteworthy since he currently leads the National League in HR and is top 3 in both SLG and wRC+. He is a disaster in the outfield, but with the advent of the designated hitter in the NL this season that hasn’t been as much of an issue as it could have been. His offensive barrage has allowed manager Brian Snitker to finally do what some have been demanding for years and move Freddie Freeman into the second spot in the lineup where his production can be maximized.
He also built one of if not THE best bullpen in the majors this year, and as luck would have it that has been critically important. The Braves have the most innings pitched by their bullpen in the National League at 243 2/3 and the 3rd lowest ERA in all of baseball at 3.36. AA has basically “Snit-proofed” the entire relief corps by giving him no less than 6 very reliable arms to choose from on any given night: Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Will Smith, Chris Martin, Darren O’Day and the surprisingly resurgent A.J. Minter. Rotating in long relief arms like Tomlin, Ynoa, Bryse Wilson, and Touki Toussaint has given Snitker some flexibility as well as some not-so-good arms to put into high leverage situations, and we all know how much he loves doing that.
duvall is back to doing duvall things
The Braves traded for Adam Duvall in 2018 in an attempt to bolster their bench. He was having an atypical season in Cincinnati, and found himself relegated to a platoon role upon arriving in Atlanta. His struggles continued, and upon entering the 2019 season the Braves decided he would be better off starting the year in Gwinnett at the AAA affiliate. Rather than pout about the demotion, Duvall put some serious work in. In the 101 games he played for the Stripers Duvall hit 32 HR and had a .965 OPS, causing many to wonder why the hell he was in AAA long enough to play 101 games? He was eventually promoted (or more likely asked never to return to AAA by the rest of the league) and continued to hit, adding 10 HR at the big league level with an OPS of .882.
Truncated season or not, Duvall has continued to impress this year. In 53 games he has 16 HR, two 3-homer games, and has tied the Braves franchise record with 11 HR in the month of September. He’s also playing the field at a high level, which has been critical with Ozuna getting the vast majority of his AB’s as a DH.
Brian snitker has managed his clubhouse to perfection
By now you should know that I have more than a few issues with Brian Snitker’s in-game management. From the way he manages the bullpen to the odd lineup decisions that usually involve Marcel Ozuna in LF, I find myself regularly exasperated by the man. With that said, however, I give him full marks for how he has managed his clubhouse through this pandemic. There have been no whispers of anyone doing anything outside of the protocols established by MLB and the MLBPA. By all accounts, players under his direction have done exactly what they were supposed to do: lead incredibly boring lives for a couple of months. He’s managed to cultivate a level of accountability that many other teams failed miserably at, and in my opinion the level of maturity expected from his players has directly led to their ability to navigate this goofy season.
This is by far his best job managing the Braves, and he was exactly the guy we needed for the job this year. I will continue to second-guess his in-game moves, of course, but I have to give credit where credit is due.
Post season bound!
Just to underscore how weird the year of 2020 has been, I just wrote an article saying good things about Nick Markakis, Alex Anthopoulos AND Brian Snitker. Folks, if you needed any more proof that this year has been off the rails, that should do it. Ender Inciarte is still fair game, however, which only means he’s probably going to be 4-9 with 3 HR in the first round of the playoffs now… Anyway, enjoy this crazy season and the run to the World Series. Don’t waste time trying to predict how it will go, and sure as hell don’t put money down in Vegas on it. Anything is possible this year, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride!