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Lessons from 2021 Braves championship run

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Winning the World Series doesn’t always happen like we’d expect

2021 World Series Game 6: Atlanta Braves v. Houston Astros
WS MVP (Soler) and NLCS MVP (Rosario)
Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves won the 2021 World Series. Congrats!

The Braves were expected to be contenders last year, but they were never favorites to win it all. They got out to a disappointing slow start and then lost arguably their best player to injury, and yet still they rallied to grab their fourth straight division title and knock off a couple heavyweights in the playoffs.

It wasn’t the result we were most expecting, but that doesn’t make it a fluke. It’s a reminder that winning the title isn’t always a question of who has the most stacked or expensive roster. Atlanta took an alternate path but not an unusual one, and their success offers some lessons that fans of any team can keep in mind.

You only need to make the tournament

Ten teams reached the 2021 MLB postseason. Six were division winners, and four were Wild Cards. The Braves had the worst record of all of them, at 88-73.

Everybody else won at least 90. In the AL, two teams won at least 90 and missed the playoffs. In the NL, one Wild Card team won 90 and the other won 106. Atlanta would have finished no better than third place anywhere else, but the NL East was the worst division in the majors, so 88 wins was enough to take it and punch a ticket to the playoffs.

And that’s the most important thing. Just make it to the crapshoot, and then anything can happen. You’d certainly rather have the gaudy regular season record and the best stats, but once the tournament begins none of that counts and everything is set back to zero. All that matters in October is who plays best today, this week, and this month.

Sometimes the top seed wins. The 2020 Dodgers, 2018 Red Sox, and 2016 Cubs got it done, and the 2017 Astros won 101 games. But the 2019 Nationals ranked eighth out of 10 playoff teams leading up to their title, and in 2014 it went to an 88-win club who barely cracked the postseason as the Second Wild Card. In three of the past eight years, almost half the time, the ring has gone to one of the last teams you’d expect from among the bracket. There’s always a chance, as long as you’re in the bracket.

Make it to the tournament. Stay as healthy as possible. Get the hottest at the right time. That’s how you win the World Series, whether you’re a 107-win juggernaut or an 88-win underdog.

It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish

The Braves lost their first four games of the season. Then they won their next four! Then they lost another four. By the end of April they were 12-14.

They were similarly mediocre in May and June, and at the All-Star break they were 44-45. They hadn’t spent a single day above the .500 mark.

At that point, their odds didn’t look good. They were at 8% to make the playoffs at all, and even if they managed to pull off that upset, they were at 0.4% to win the championship.

But in August they finally put it together. They went 18-8 that month, including a nine-game winning streak against some bottom-feeder opponents. On Aug. 8 they climbed over .500 for the first time, at 57-56, and on Aug. 15 they took over first place in the NL East. They kept it up in September, going 18-11 the rest of the way.

In this case, it helped that the other contenders in their division fell apart and opened up a path for them. But the point is, the standings aren’t always what they seem in April, or the All-Star break, or even mid-August. It ain’t over till it’s over.

It’s not a good thing when a team starts slow, but it’s not a cause to abandon all hope. It digs a hole and lowers your odds, and it probably highlights some weaknesses that must be addressed, but it can be overcome. That might mean a stinker April quickly put in the rear-view mirror, but it can also come in the form of four months of meh followed by a 36-19 flourish.

This isn’t even a rare occurrence. Two years ago, the 2019 Nats spent three months with a losing record, finally getting over .500 at the end of June. They put together a 46-27 record after the break, snatched a Wild Card, won the play-in, and slayed both the 106-win Dodgers and 107-win Astros en route to the title.

The ideal situation is to play great for all six months, and then continue playing great for a seventh month. But don’t count out a team just because of a slow start, or even a slow first half.

Injuries suck, but a good team is more than any one player

On July 10, Ronald Acuña Jr hurt his knee and went out for the season. Up to that point he’d been the best player in the league, leading the NL in fWAR, and he ranked as the fourth-best hitter in the majors.

Atlanta was already struggling, and now they’d lost their biggest star. It would have been easy to write them off, and the writers at Talking Chop were largely in favor of selling at the deadline.

But baseball teams have to be more than one big star. There’s no quarterback to carry every play, and no point guard getting 30% usage, just a hitter getting one at-bat each time through the lineup or a pitcher starting once every five games. Even Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani can’t make the playoffs on their own.

Acuña obviously made the Braves better, but they also had a superb infield led by 2020 MVP Freddie Freeman, plus a strong rotation and bullpen. He was a major piece of that puzzle, but it was never all about him. They were supposed to contenders because they had him and all those other pieces.

It would have been cooler if Acuña had stayed healthy, and the Braves would have been even better with him onboard. But he got hurt and his team won anyway, because they were always going to have to be more than just him, and the other stars stepped up. Losing a superstar is a significant setback, but it doesn’t have to end a team’s season.

Don’t need the biggest trade deadline moves, just the right ones

One thing that helped the Braves overcome the loss of Acuña is that they nailed the trade deadline. In particular, they shored up their outfield, acquiring four veteran hitters to revamp an area that had suddenly become a weakness.

Lots of premier names changed uniforms this July. The Dodgers got Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. The Giants nabbed former MVP Kris Bryant, while the Yankees picked up heavy hitters Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo. The Blue Jays added pitchers Jose Berrios and Brad Hand, the White Sox got a second closer in Craig Kimbrel, and the Rays scored slugger Nelson Cruz.

Atlanta? They traded for Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosales, and Jorge Soler, giving up almost no prospect capital to do so. They weren’t the splashiest moves, but they were exactly the solid contributors the team needed at the proper positions. The finishing touches on a roster that already had most of what it needed.

Each of them played a crucial role in the title run. All of them hit average or better after their acquisitions, including Duvall cracking 16 homers in 55 games. Pederson was the hero of the NLDS. Rosario won NLCS MVP. Soler won World Series MVP. And none of them stayed hot for the entire postseason, each only going big for their one respective series.

Trading for the biggest star at the deadline is wonderful, but it doesn’t guarantee anything, not even if the star plays great like Scherzer and some others did. Sometimes it’s the shrewd move for the mid-level name that makes the most difference, whether because it was just the right fit for the team’s needs, or because that’s the player who happens to get hottest in the small sample of October.

Case in point? Perhaps the most notable July acquisition by Atlanta was reliever Richard Rodriguez, the closer for the lowly Pirates who had been a hot topic of rumors all month. He didn’t even make the postseason roster.

There’s no accounting for bullpens

Speaking of relievers, Braves bullpen was led by a group of five pitchers. They did the heaviest work during the season, and covered almost all of the postseason relief innings.

Among them, Will Smith is a star closer on a big contract, Chris Martin is a star setup man on a hefty salary, and A.J. Minter has been good for a while too. That trio looked strong entering the year, and they delivered.

On the other hand, Luke Jackson and Tyler Matzek were less established, as former top prospects who had shown flashes of success but not fully broken out. Jackson had a promising 2019 but then a terrible 2020 and was considered a possible non-tender candidate last winter by Talking Chop, while Matzek had an encouraging small sample in 2020 but hadn’t even thrown 200 career innings by age 30. By the end, Jackson ended up as their top setup man, between a 1.98 ERA and the team lead in holds, and the lefty Matzek had a great season in situational and middle relief followed by a team-high 13 appearances in the playoffs (three runs, 24 Ks).

It’s not that Atlanta got lucky, just that a lot went right. Three good relievers were as good as they were supposed to be, two breakout candidates panned out to their top ceilings, and all five stayed healthy and effective for seven months.

And what of their depth, if anything had gone wrong with those primary five arms? Jesse Chavez and Jacob Webb chipped in a few innings in October, but when they needed emergency help, the next in line was rookie Dylan Lee, who now has more career postseason innings (3) than regular season innings (2).

Again, this isn’t to write off what Atlanta achieved, just to marvel at it. After all, while the pen was thriving they got plenty of bad fortune in their rotation, losing multiple starters to injuries during the playoffs and calling up inexperienced starter prospects to pitch in the World Series. The universe giveth and taketh.

Entering the year, out of the 30 teams, which bullpen would you have picked on paper? Atlanta’s looked fine, but other teams’ would have seemed more stacked and exciting. When the dust settled, this was the one that carried the tattered remains of its pitching staff all the way to glory. Not at all undeserved, but not necessarily what you would have guessed ahead of time. That’s the way bullpens go, with hindsight as the only method to analyze them with any degree of accuracy.

***

Things didn’t go so well for the Oakland A’s in 2021, as they missed the postseason despite being contenders in win-now mode. But seeing how the Braves succeeded made the A’s lackluster results even more frustrating, because it was so easy to envision Oakland as the team riding that exact wave through October. They were like the Darkest Timeline version of Atlanta.

Along the way it was easy to be negative about all the things going wrong for the green-and-gold, and that pessimism turned out to be warranted. But the Braves went through many of the same things, and that leaves us with some lessons to keep in mind for next time, in future seasons when we find ourselves in similar situations.

Even with their epic collapse at the end of the year, the A’s still won 86 games. That’s only two fewer than the Braves, and six short of an AL Wild Card spot. They were within the echelon of teams that made the playoffs. And sure, it’s easy to point at all the holes in the roster and proclaim that Oakland would have been bounced early from the bracket, but the lowest seed of all won the whole thing, so you never know. Just make it to the tournament and get hot.

The A’s overcame a slow start too, at least until they capped it with a slow finish. They began the season with six straight losses and a ruthlessly lopsided run differential, but by mid-April they were in first place, they stayed there until mid-June, and they were still tied for a playoff spot as late as Aug. 22. One or two more good weeks in September and we wouldn’t even remember the 0-6 start, except to point out what a fluke it turned out to be rather than a serious cause for panic.

Oakland’s lineup took a big blow when outfielder Ramon Laureano was suspended. It was the kind of setback that made a championship all the more difficult to imagine, but hey, the Braves did it without an even bigger producer in Acuña. Atlanta had the benefit of a star first baseman and star third baseman to pick up the slack on offense, but so did the A’s. Of course, there is a limit to this phenomenon when the absences begin to add up, as the green-and-gold found out by also placing two of their best pitchers on the injured list, but it took more than any one of those individual losses to sink their season.

The Braves further filled in for Acuña with shrewd deadline acquisitions, but Oakland found similar success there, particularly in replacing Laureano. Starling Marte played out of his mind once he got here, and it would have been fun to see him take over a playoff series like Pederson, Rosario, and Soler did. Marte wasn’t one of the 10 biggest names moved at the deadline, but he was undoubtedly the right pick for the A’s, even if it didn’t turn out to be quite enough.

As for the bullpen, was Oakland’s that different from Atlanta’s on paper in April? They both had the expensive star closer, but Trevor Rosenthal got hurt twice and never threw a pitch. Lou Trivino and Jake Diekman had at least as much breakout potential as Jackson and Matzek, and they looked great until they got overworked covering for Rosenthal; Andrew Chafin (who arrived in July) and Yusmeiro Petit had at least as much track record as Minter and Martin; and take your pick between 38-year-old Sergio Romo or 37-year-old Chavez. We know now that it ended up disastrously for the A’s, but if you want to see how an almost identical setup would look if it went well, just take a peek at the Braves. You never know which side of the bullpen coin you’ll get until it lands.

In one final morbid coincidence between these two teams, both of them lost their ace starting pitcher to an injury after being hit by batted balls. Chris Bassitt went down in mid-August, while Charlie Morton was hurt early during Game 1 of the World Series. Even then we’re met with the cruel reality of how timing affects outcomes, as the two-month difference in these awful mishaps meant they unleashed their own unique impacts upon each club.

***

The point here isn’t to make excuses. The A’s lost, for lots of reasons, and what happened is done. It’s to remember what exactly happened today, when the games actually got played on the field, so that it can inform our expectations tomorrow.

There will be more seasons. Someday another A’s team that’s supposed to be good will have a wretched start, so awful that you can’t imagine them ever climbing out, but two weeks later they could be in first place, or six months later they could be atop the mountain. Or they could slip into the last playoff spot with 88 wins, with seemingly no chance against the top seeds, but suddenly get hot at just the right moment. They could lose their biggest star and win anyway, or turn an unheralded deadline acquisition into an immortal hero, or hit the jackpot with the perfect combination of relievers.

In those moments, let’s think back to how the 2021 Braves pulled off all that in one summer, and remember to keep the fAith.