Monday, July 3, 2017

Comparing 2017 to 1991? Pump the Breaks

Julio Teheran | Jeff Morris (Follow on Twitter)
During yesterday's broadcast, Braves "analyst" and resident curmudgeon Joe Simpson took time from telling everyone what music was appropriate to play during a loss to compare-and-contrast the 2017 Braves with the 1991 Braves. That team, after 80 games, was 40-40 and in third place in the NL West, 8.5 games back. The current squad, who would win their 81st game later that day, was 39-41 with a hold on second place in the NL East this season. They trail the Nats by 7.5 games, who also won Sunday.

The comparison is a best-case scenario. The 1991 team would win 54 of their remaining 82 games that season with a young club aided by some smart veteran pickups like Sid Bream and Terry Pendleton. The 2017 team also made some veteran pickups before the year to help lead the squad to higher ground. Why couldn't the same thing happen? Could the 2017 Braves follow in the 1991 team's footsteps?

But this comparison is lacking. What Simpson did not mention is that the 1991 team had a run differential of +28 in the first 80 games. They would improve that over the second half to +77, but the '91 Braves squad was already a pretty decent team after 80 games regardless of what their record said. After 80 games, they were simply elite in large part because their rotation was both great and gave Bobby Cox a lot of innings.

To be fair, there is something in this comparison that could prove quite interesting. 1991 was a year of mediocrity for the National League. Only five teams finished over .500 and of those five, only three reached the 85-win plateau. This year's NL has just six teams at .500 or better with the Cubs winning yesterday to rejoin the club. That could aid the Braves moving forward except for the fact that their schedule includes many of the league's best teams moving forward. They deal with the Nats ten more times, the Dodgers and Cubs seven more times, and Arizona and Colorado six more times each. Also included are two games with the Astros and three each with St. Louis, Texas, and Seattle - clubs that are, like the Braves, teetering around .500. Of their remaining 81 games, nearly half come against current playoff contenders.

But ultimately, at the end of the day, if we circle back to run differential, that may be why this comparison has its biggest problems. The Braves have a run differential of -36. Even with their winningest month of the season so far in June (16-12), they managed a +4 run differential. The Braves in 1991 had pitching. While the 2017 club is improving in this regard, they still are miles behind the '91 squad.

A better comparison might be the 2014 Braves. After 80 games, they were four games over .500 but had a negative run differential of -5. They would go 37-45 down the stretch, costing Frank Wren his job.

Or perhaps the best comparison is the 2007 Atlanta Braves. After 80 games, they were 42-38 and just four games back in the NL East. They had a run differential of +2. But they, like this version of the Braves, had a big problem. Despite a solid offense pumping out 4.5 runs per game after at the 80-game mark, their pitching staff was giving out nearly as many. That didn't change for the rest of the year and despite one of the league's best offenses in the second half with the addition of Mark Teixeira, the Braves finished in third place in the NL East. They wouldn't have made the NL Wild Card Game had their been one, finishing five games behind the second Wild Card spot.

Optimism never killed anyone. I do understand that and don't really take joy in being a "wet blanket." If you want to believe the '91 worst-to-first can happen again in '17, there is enough reason to hope. Regardless if you believe if my point is worth making, we can all agree that this current squad is a hell of a lot more fun to watch than the ones we've seen the last few years. Yet, it's difficult for me to see a comparison between this one and the 1991 NL Champs. Now, the 2007 roster...that seems like a quite appropriate comparison - even down to the superstar first baseman coming to the team in July. Fortunately, the Braves won't give up a treasure chest of prospects to get Freddie Freeman like they did with Teixeira.

But that '07 roster was burned by the same things hurting this team - a bad rotation and an iffy bullpen. You can't outslug everyone, after all. But if the Braves can get more of this weekend's pitching (albeit, it came against maybe the worst offense in baseball), maybe the 1991 comparison will become more and more valid moving forward.

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