The standings on May 3 don’t mean much of anything, but it certainly is something to look at them and see that the Atlanta Braves are in first place in the National League East. The only teams with better records than Atlanta: the Red Sox, Yankees, Astros and Diamondbacks. The Braves offense leads the National League in runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. Their starting pitching, which began the season poorly, has been fantastic over the past three weeks or so. The Braves are not in first place by default. They have earned their place at the top of the standings.
The last time the Braves were in first place beyond the second week of the season was back in 2014. That also happened to be the last time the Braves were actually trying to win as opposed to tearing down and rebuilding. They found themselves in first that year, off and on, until July 20, after which they went on a skid, finishing the season 25-39, in second place, but 17 games behind the Washington Nationals. The Braves would go 207-278 over the next three seasons, trading off veterans — and acquiring some other, lesser veterans for payroll purposes — and going all-in with a youth movement. In the meantime they experienced the worst front office scandal since integration, resulting in the firing of their previous general manager and the forced surrender of multiple prospects. They’d also move into a new ballpark, abandoning the city of Atlanta for the suburbs to no small amount of controversy. It’s been a rough few years.
While most people expected the Braves to improve this year, it was expected to be incremental improvement due to the maturation of some younger players and some better health. That maturation has come more quickly than expected, with young players Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña playing fantastically in the early going and some slightly older building blocks like Dansby Swanson transforming from liability to asset. Beyond that team health has been good and, let’s not delude ourselves, they’ve had a lot of good luck in the form of some guys playing well over their head in the early going (I’m looking at you Nick Markakis and Ryan Flaherty). Of course, all winning teams experience some good luck from time to time, so that good luck should not be discounted. The wins are in the bank.
I don’t think that the Braves will hold on to first place all season. The Nationals are too good, the Phillies are pretty darn good themselves and even if the Mets are dealing with injuries and their general Metsiness, they’re a more talented team. That’s before you get to the part about the Braves pitching not being good enough and, over the course of a 162 games and hot, hot weather, young players often wilt. It was supposed to be a year of moving forward and the Braves have moved forward, but I certainly expect them to move backward a bit after this early season surprise.
But it’s certainly neat in the meantime, ain’t it?