1. Braves entering stretch where they can build on surprising start
No one has played a tougher schedule through these first three-plus weeks of the season than the Braves.
Just one of their opponents currently has a sub-.500 winning percentage, and that would be the defending National League East champion Nationals at .476 (10-11), as Atlanta has claimed 12 of 20 games against a run of Washington, the Mets (.700), Phillies (.667), Cubs (.526) and Rockies (.522). Despite that gauntlet, the Braves have the NL’s best run differential at plus-34, its top run total (111), highest wRC+ (112) and fWAR (4.5) and are tied for the Senior Circuit lead with a collective .345 on-base percentage.
That includes having the NL’s batting leader in Ryan Flaherty (more on him later), while Ozzie Albies’ 16 extra-base hits top the league and Preston Tucker is tied for fourth in RBI (18).
Meanwhile, Braves starters are fifth in ERA (3.04) and the seventh-best strikeout rate (9.86 per nine), while Shane Carle (0.5 fWAR) and Dan Winkler (0.3) are in the top 22 most valuable relievers in baseball.
The point of all of this being, is it finally time — after a proving ground kind of schedule that’s seen Atlanta more than exceed expectations — to believe this team has turned the corner following three straight 90-loss seasons?
As Mike Folytnewicz said before Sunday’s rained-out series finale vs. the Mets, “I’ve seen a lot of other guys say ‘shocking,’ but we just think it’s our game. … We’ve faced just a lot of solid dudes, a lot of solid starting pitchers, solid teams. This offense just comes to play every day. It’s awesome to see that.”
The easy answer would be yes as we’ve seen the Braves reach these heights without having even put the optimum version of their team on the field.
They’ve played without Tyler Flowers (2.5 fWAR in ’17), who didn’t get through his first at-bat due to an oblique injury, Johan Camargo just came back Wednesday, left-hander Luiz Gohara hasn’t rejoined the rotation and, of course, we’ve yet to see the arrival of wunderkind prospect Ronald Acuna Jr.
Approach with guarded optimism if you will, but if the last 20 games — a stretch in which the Braves were one of only three teams to not play a team below .500 — have been about establishing an identity, the next 19 will be an opportunity to solidify it.
The Braves face the two worst teams in the NL with four each vs. the Reds (.143 winning percentage) and Marlins (.238), two more sub-.500 teams in the Rays (.381) and Giants (.429) and the Phillies (4-2 vs. Atlanta) and the Mets again.
With their second home stand complete, the Braves are off to their best start at 12-8 since they went 13-7 in 2014 and they haven’t scored this many runs this early in the season since 1999.
It’s a fast and stunning start that’s been helped along by multiple stunning performances, and chief among them …
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