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Better Pitching in August and September got the Braves to the Playoffs

Better pitching could help the Diamondbacks make the playoffs.

Braves won the World Series.
Braves won the World Series.
Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’m a Diamondbacks fan! When the Diamondbacks make it to the playoffs it is a successful season. And with a very generous portion of luck the Diamondbacks could make it to the World Series, like the Braves did.

Last week my friend Jon (a Braves fan) told me that in late July the World Champion Braves were unlikely to make the playoffs. His thought reminded me of my Diamondbacks and I wondered how did the Braves do it? What I heard him say was that in the last two months of the season the bullpen got the Braves into the playoffs. Maybe the bullpen is that important! The Diamondbacks’ bullpen was undeniably in the bottom three in the Majors and they finished far from the playoffs. His thought was worth exploring!

Was bullpen pitching by far the most important factor?

Was bullpen pitching by far the most important factor, or was bullpen pitching one of several factors? Let’s look at Braves pitching to see how much it improved in the last two months of the season, including the late innings.

Although I might have used FanGraphs data to extract bullpen pitching from starter pitching, instead I used Baseball Savant data to look at pitching by inning. My decision was influenced by several Diamondbacks pitchers who would be hard to label as starters or relievers.

The following table makes several comparisons. Let’s talk about them after you look at the expected weighted On-Base Averages (xwOBA’s) in the table.

xwOBA for Braves in 2021 Season. Data from Baseball Savant and Baseball Reference.

The first few rows show several things:

  • Pitching was better (lower expected weighted On-Base Average, xwOBA) in the last two months of the regular season, for innings 1-5 and for innings 6-9.
  • When pitching was better, the Braves’ win-loss record was better.
  • In the last two months of the season innings 1-5 and innings 6-9 had nearly identical xwOBAs.

The remaining rows look closer at the late innings for the last two months of the season. When xwOBA was equal to or worse than the Diamondbacks’ season average xwOBA of .334, the data is red. When the xwOBA was better than .300, the data is green.

The remaining rows show two things:

  • The Braves’ pitching was often better than the Diamondbacks’ season’s average pitching, but not always. My conclusion is that the differences in pitching were not different beyond compare.
  • From 1-15 September (the two weeks with the worst win-loss record in the last two months) Brave’s pitching was below average for innings 1-5, inning 7, and inning 8. Those 2 weeks had a win-loss record worse than the other 2-week intervals in the last two months of the season. My conclusion is that both starting pitching and bullpen pitching were correlated with the Braves’ win-loss record.

However, one factor needs to be considered and ruled out as a cause – how much impact did the Braves offense make?

Let’s look at runs scored per game.

  • 4.79 runs per game, 1 April to 31 July
  • 5.62 runs per game, 1 to 15 August
  • 4.69 runs per game, 16 to 31 August
  • 5.00 runs per game, 1 to 15 September
  • 5.25 runs per game, 16 Sept. to 3 October

Except for 16-31 August, runs scored per game was higher in the last two months than it was prior. From 16-31 August, runs per game was significantly below the season average. Nevertheless the corresponding win-loss record was above average at 8-5. My conclusion is that although in general an increased runs per game was a factor in winning games, pitching had a bigger influence.

The Right Stuff.

I told Jon my conclusion that in the last two months starting pitching and bullpen pitching got the Braves’ to the playoffs. We discussed two things worth mention.

Five of the Braves’ starting pitchers are young! Ian Anderson and Huascar Ynoa are 23, Mike Soroka is 24, and Tucker Davidson and Touki Toussaint are 25.

Four of the Braves’ starting pitchers were first round draft picks, including one drafted by the Diamondbacks. Max Fried was picked by the Padres in 2012, Touki Toussaint was picked by the Diamondbacks in 2014, Mike Soroka was picked by the Braves in 2015, and Ian Anderson was picked by the Braves in 2016. In addition, future starters for the Braves include three first round picks in the minors (Kyle Wright AAA, Jared Shuster AA, and Ryan Cusick A+). And, three bullpen pitchers were first round picks ( Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson, and Sean Newcomb).

My conclusion is that the Braves’ pitchers succeeded because they have the right stuff.

Summary.

Although runs per game contributed, the main reason the Braves made the playoffs was better pitching in August and September. The Braves’ pitchers demonstrated that they have the right stuff.