Making their first playoff appearance since 2013, the Atlanta Braves feature some of baseball’s most tantalizing young talent and are one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in the league. Here’s everything you need to know about them as they head into the NLDS against the Dodgers.
The Case For
All year long, the Braves’ hitters have seemingly taken turns playing hero and taking pressure off the rest of the lineup; that’s a big part of the reason why this team hasn’t had a losing streak longer than four games. From Ozzie Albies’s blistering start to the first-half consistency that earned Nick Markakis an All-Star nod to Ronald Acuña putting his prodigious talent together at midseason to Johan Camargo’s surprising second half, no one has ever had to carry the baton for too long—except for Freddie Freeman, whose steady success runs underneath everything in Atlanta.
The Braves are nobody’s World Series favorite, but the consistency of Freeman and the culture of a young team hitting its stride seems to have given the youngsters a fearlessness about stepping into big moments and contributing.
The Case Against
After finally putting it all together this summer, Mike Foltynewicz will be the rock of the playoff rotation. But behind him, what can you bank on out of the Braves’ starting options? Kevin Gausman, who has lost a little momentum from the torrid start to his Atlanta tenure even as the wins keep coming? Julio Teheran, the former ace-in-waiting who was left for dead by most of the fan base before righting the ship in the final two months to nudge his ERA below 4.00? Sean Newcomb, who hasn’t lasted into the seventh inning since July? Scrap-heap sensation Anibal Sanchez? Actual sensation Touki Toussaint, who is just 22?
Unless some member of that group turns in a herculean performance, at some point it will fall to the bats or the bullpen to keep Atlanta alive long enough for Foltynewicz to take the ball again.
When Fredi Gonzalez was fired after a 9–28 start to the 2016 season, it was hard to find anyone who saw the promotion of Triple-A Gwinnett manager Brian Snitker to an interim role with the big club as the start of something long-term. Snitker, who has been part of the organization as either a player or coach since 1977, brought much-needed stability to the clubhouse, but it seemed to be generally understood that he would be replaced by a splashy name or a tactical mastermind once the Braves were ready to contend again.
That breakthrough season came early, and now Snitker will be making intensely scrutinized decisions on a stage few people expected him to make it to. Oh, and after essentially going year-to-year in the two seasons since he earned the full-time gig, he currently is not under contract for ’19. No pressure.
Why you should root for them
The Braves are proof that rebuilding teams don’t need to spend half a decade in the baseball wilderness (looking at you, Cubs and Astros) before they reemerge as contenders. After the same team that won 96 games in 2013 imploded in the second half of 2014, the front office took some gigantic swings, trading Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Craig Kimbrel in the same offseason and following those moves up with a flurry of others in subsequent years to clean house and reshape the team around Freeman. The optimistic goal was to be good right away when the club moved into its new stadium in the suburbs; that goal was realized one year late, but in the grand scheme of rebuilds, no one’s complaining about that outcome. For Braves fans, four years out of the playoffs (three of which were spent in complete irrelevance) may still feel like an eternity, but for fans of this year’s hopeless also-rans, it can be a model worth aspiring to.
Most famous fan
Atlanta has seen its Q score rise dramatically in the eyes of out-of-towners in the years since the Braves last won consistently, which opens this competition up to a host of new celebrities connected in some way to the city. But Ludacris’s role in this iconic 2003 commercial has built the beloved rapper such an insurmountable lead that no one has come close to Mr. Bridges in the 15 years since it aired.
The last Braves team to make the playoffs won the NL East in the face of doubters who thought they struck out too much. (They went on to prove the doubters wrong by … striking out too much in a four-game NLDS loss to the Dodgers.) That team’s 22.6% strikeout rate was the highest in the NL and the third-highest in the majors, behind only the bottom-dwelling Twins and Astros. This year, 22.6% would good for 13th in the majors and ninth in the NL, putting them level or better with three NL playoff teams. (The 2018 Braves sit 25th with a 20.5% K rate, the lowest among NL playoff teams.)