For those of you looking for Magic Numbers last week, I took a vacation over the 4th of July Holiday down to Moab, Utah. Good times were had by all as we saw some of the National Parks. However, I missed watching the Braves go on a large portion of their 9 game winning streak. I did make it back in time for the losing streak, which was about as encouraging as Dan Uggla‘s real estate decisions. The tight division race got me thinking as the Braves head into the All-Star break, how much do division leads matter at the scheduled half-way point? I endeavor to answer that question in this week’s article.
As things stand, the Braves are tied for the division lead with the Nationals, but they are also one game up in the win column. The Braves are two wins back for the outright NL lead. How did the leads on July 13th hold up in prior years? In 2013 at this time, the Braves were up 7 games in the division and they obviously won. In 2012, Washington was up by four games at the break and they won the division by 4 games. In 2011, Philly was up by three games at the break, and they won the division by 13 games.
In fact, if you look at the last 10 years of the NL East, the leader at the All-Star break has won 60 percent of the time. In three of the four other instances, a team within three wins at the break won the division. So, the main thing with the break is that if your team is 5+ games back, you’re likely out of the running. Considering the Braves and the Nationals are seven games in front of the Mets, Marlins, and Phillies? Well, if I had to give you stats as to why those teams are terrible, you probably also need to read directions on how to use your ice cube trays.
So what separates teams after the break? Looking at the last two years since the playoffs expanded, the answer is post-break pitching. In 2013, all five of the playoff teams finished in the top half of the NL in team ERA. In 2012, the same held true as all five teams finished 7th or better in NL team ERA. It honestly didn’t matter how good the team’s offense was if the pitching didn’t hold up. A good example is the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers, who finished No. 1 in runs scored in the second half, but missed the playoffs with a 11th place pitching in the NL.
Still, there were a couple of teams that finish in the top half of ERA that miss the playoffs. In 2013, those teams were Milwaukee and Miami. Why? The Brewers got off to such a horrific start at the beginning of 2013, they were 19.5 games back at the break. The same thing happened to Miami who was 18 games back going into the break. Some deficits can’t be overcome no matter how well you pitch in the second half. In 2012, the Dodgers and Phillies were in the top seven in team ERA in the second half, but missed the playoffs. The reason there was similar for Philadelphia, as they were 15 games back at the break. Just too big of a hole.
However, the Dodgers are the outlier. The Dodgers actually had the lead at the break going into the break in their division, and they finished in the top half in post-break pitching. So what went wrong? Short answer, the Dodgers finished 12th in runs in the second half. They simply couldn’t score. They also finished under .700 in total season OPS, which I’ve shown in prior Magic Numbers can be extremely problematic for a team’s playoff chances. The Dodger’s heartbreak is my biggest concern about the Braves. I believe the pitching can hold up for our team, but I’m not at all secure in the hitting finishing tops in the NL. Why should I be, since the Braves are 14th in NL runs scored right now?
The good news for Braves fans is that we have time for guys like Evan Gattis to get healthy, and for the team to continue to gel. As much as we all worry about team hitting, the pitching staff is likely going to have to be the key to victory. What I like seeing is the emergence of Shae Simmons and David Hale as viable bullpen options, in addition to Craig Kimbrel starting to look like the Craig of old. What I don’t like is that Julio Teheran has been roughed up in his last two outings, Mike Minor still doesn’t look right, and Alex Wood is battling in most of his starts. Those guys really need to sharpen the long knives for the next two-plus months of work, or the Braves will find themselves in serious trouble.
My advice? Take the time during the break to watch the NL’s All-Stars. Many of those guys are going to be key outs for the Braves in the second half. Hopefully our pitchers are taking notes, too.