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Atlanta’s early season surge has it in second in the NL East

Today, the Atlanta Braves picked up a 5-3 win over the Washington Nationals in extra innings  to boost their season record to 7-5; which is good for second in the NL East. It’s a surprising surge for a team that many expected to hover around last place.

So how are the Braves playing so well at the start of the season?

It’s been primarily behind the strength of their offense as they’ Braves’ sticks are posting a fWAR of 2.5; while the pitching staff has only been worth 0.5 wins — starters have been worth 0.0 and the relievers have been worth 0.4 wins thus far. Which isn’t surprising as the Braves offense carried the team throughout last season as the starting staff flailed to provide any exceedingly positive value.

To fix some of the pitching woes from ’17, the Braves let Bartolo Colon (sadness) and R.A. Dickey (mehness) walk and have elected to let their youth sink or swim at the major league level. One of the big name to watch out for on Atlanta’s starting staff is Sean Newcomb.

Newcomb flashed moments of brilliance last season was meh for the most part; the 24-year old has been snake bitten by his defense in his first two starts of 2018. His ERA is sitting at 4.35, but his FIP is an impressive 2.52 with an even lower xFIP of 1.95. If he can continue to strand 63.5% of runners while striking out 13.06 batters per nine innings while walking only 3.48, his ERA should drop. But the problem for the Braves is that Newcomb is, thus far, the only starters whose FIP and xFIP are lower than their ERA’s. As a result, it’s likely that these pitchers will see their ERA’s deteriorate as the season progresses.

This will put more pressure on the bullpen to continue its solid performance as the year goes on and it doesn’t seem like Atlanta has the farm depth for the pen to sustain its current usage levels — so far this season, Atlanta’s relievers have pitched in 43.2 of its 100 innings.

As for the offense, it’s primarily been the Freddie Freeman show. The veteran first baseman has an insane on base percentage of .500 through 50 plate appearances (yup, totally sustainable). His walk rate of 28% has masked the fact that he’s seen a dip in his hard contact rate this season; despite the dip in hard contact rate, Freeman is still posting a wRC+ of 201 (also sustainable) and a wOBA of .471 (only slightly above his career average of .394). All of this means that the 28-year old has been worth .7 wins through the season’s first 12 games.

But Freeman isn’t the only Braves batter to be off to a hawt start as Dansby Swanson has been unreal throughout the beginning of the season. Swanson has posted a wRC+ of 160 through his first 48 plate appearances. Unfortunately for the 24-year old shortstop, his offensive production has primarily been fueled by a high BABIP of .438 that is 148 points over what he did last season. Which means that there should be regression for Swanson’s offensive production as the his performance normalizes throughout the next few weeks.

The Braves offense and bullpen have been dominant throughout baseball’s first two weeks, but the starting rotation will continue to be an area of concern for the ball club that’s going to cost them a few games throughout the season.

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