The Braves Turned A Lost Season Into A Championship

The Atlanta Braves won a thrilling 7-0 victory over the Houston Astros on Tuesday night to end a season that saw things not always go their way. This was their first World Series title in 26 years. Although the title was the culmination of one the most successful campaigns ever by a champion, the Braves proved that the MLB season is not a sprint but a marathon. Even though they were only a few months away from being champions, Atlanta's record landed them in the same conversation as the previous champions.
The Braves achieved one of the greatest championship turnarounds in history with their World Series win. As August turned to July, Atlanta was still below.500. They seemed to be on the fringe of the playoff picture due to the ineptness of the New York Mets (division-rival) and Philadelphia Phillies. The Braves won 66.2 per cent of their games from August to the end, including the postseason. This was a 107-win rate per 162, which allowed them to surpass their rivals and advance through the playoffs.

The 2021 Braves have the distinction of being the MLB champion who spent the most time below.500 throughout the season. They were underwater for 101 games this year. Atlanta was the only other champion in this regard, and that was the 1914 Boston Braves, who were below.500 for 90 of their game days. These Braves defeated modern teams to surpass the records of the 2003 Florida Marlins (and the 2019 Washington Nationals).

The Braves achieved a historic turnaround. They are the All-time World Series Champions with the most game days under.500 in the regular season. Source: Retrosheet

This was not a case of a fluke team just catching fire at the right moment and riding that hot streak towards a title. Even though the Braves had a different roster, the version that we saw in the postseason and down the stretch was closer to what experts expected. The story of Atlanta's rebuilding its outfield after it lost its top player, Ronald Acua Jr. to an ACL tear in July, is well-known to baseball fans. The Braves became the second team to have each of its infielders hit at minimum 25 home runs. They were just three Dansby Swanson homers from becoming the first all-HR infield. Despite all the turmoil, Atlanta was still the sixth-best pitcher in baseball by wins over replacement.

The Braves were able to maximize their talent in October and November, when it mattered the most. They defeated the formidable Milwaukee Brewers in a four game NLDS and beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in six to win the NL pennant. They also kept the Astros' lineup under control during the Fall Classic. Houston scored seven runs in Game 2, nine in Game 5 and one in each of its losses. The streaky Astros, who had finished the regular season with an OPS of.783, were held to a.596 op and a.184 batting average with runners scoring (down from.341 by the ALCS). This helped make the difference in a series that was as close as it could be on paper.

Atlanta's Elo rating climbed to 1570 on Tuesday night, up 36 points over the July 31st. They were 7 points behind the final Elo of the 1995 Braves who won the franchise's first lone title in Atlanta since 1966. The team had a remarkable amount of talent on both the plate and the mound (Greg Maddux (John Smoltz), Chipper Jones (Plate), and the overall era was widely regarded as disappointing for only winning one title. These letdowns, along with the Falcons Super Bowl meltdown of 2017, helped to fuel Atlanta's reputation as the most championship-starved major pro sport city. In July, Santul Nerkar, my colleague, and I discovered that Atlanta teams had won 4.75 championships, which is what we would expect given their vast number of seasons since 1980.

All it took to break the drought was a team with a record of under.500 and a few months remaining in the regular season. Despite the imminent free agency of team heart and soul Freddie Freeman (who is still under contract), there may be more to come as Acua returns from injury, while many key players are either young or already have favorable contracts. It was amazing, and while the Braves World Series odds fell to 2 percent in July, it was a perfect end to a season that was not about who the champion was, but how it ended.