Braves clinch NL East with historic offense that has been among the best of all time

It’s a safe bet that most players who have faced the 2023 Braves have had similar thoughts, but few have articulated it as well as Paul Goldschmidt, the reigning National League MVP.

“It might go down as the best offense in 100 years,” Goldschmidt said when his Cardinals were in Atlanta last week, as reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I think they’re so consistent. They take their walks, obviously they’re driving the ball, and they don’t give away at-bats. Basically, everything you want in a hitter, they almost all do it, and do it throughout the whole game. Definitely can put up what they’re doing against probably the top five offenses of all time.”

How would to define “top-five offenses of all time” is a great question. Baseball, of course, has a wealth of statistics, and depending on which one a person favors, there are lots of ways to answer the question. Here are three categories that seem relevant, with numbers through Tuesday’s games, the night before the Braves clinched their sixth straight NL East title with a 4-1 win over the Phillies. 

MORE: Updated playoff bracket, magic numbers

Home runs

We’ll start with an obvious one. The Braves are on pace to set a new record for most home runs in a single season in major league history. That mark is currently held by the 2019 Twins, who hit 307 homers, at an average of 1.895 per game. With three more Tuesday night in Philadelphia, Atlanta had 281 homers through 145 games — setting the new National League record, which had been held by the 2019 Dodgers, at 279 — and an average of 1.938 homers per game (the Dodgers are second in the bigs with 224 homers, for context). So, that would certainly be something. 

They’re one of 45 AL/NL teams since 1900 to have at least 10 players hit 10 home runs. Nice, but not historic (especially when you consider the woebegone 2023 Cardinals can make the same claim). They have nine players with at least 15 home runs, which is tied with seven other teams for the most in one season. 

Raise the number to 20, and they’re one of 12 teams with at least seven players to hit 20+; those 2019 Twins are the only team with eight. Bump the level up to 29 homers — Ozzie Albies’ current total — and they’re tied with those Twins as the only team with at least five players to hit 29 or more home runs. It’s rarefied company, no doubt. The only disconcerting thing? Those 2019 Twins were swept out of the postseason in short order, losing 3-0 to the Yankees in the ALDS after a 101-win regular season. 

Raise the number to 34, and they’re tied with the 2000 Angels as the only team ever with four players at that number or higher. If Marcel Ozuna hits one more homer, they’ll be the first team ever with at least four player to hit 35 homers. Matt Olson and Ronald Acuña, Jr., were already there and Austin Riley joined them Wednesday. 

Another way to look at the depth of power in the lineup …

Batting 1st, 37 home runs (2nd in MLB this year)
Batting 2nd, 35 (3rd)
Batting 3rd, 36 (2nd)
Batting 4th, 46 (1st)
Batting 5th, 36 (1st)
Batting 6th, 29 (2nd)
Batting 7th, 26 (2nd)
Batting 8th, 19 (6th)
Batting 9th, 17 (6th)

Not a single break in that lineup. Michael Harris II has been the most common No. 9 hitter. He got off to a horribly slow start to the season, with just a .190 average midway through June. But since June 12, he’s been back to the way he was as a rookie last year — better, really — with a .343 batting average, .930 OPS, 13 homers and 15 stolen bases in 79 games. 

And he’s the last-place hitter in this lineup. Just brutal. 

MORE: Which MLB managers are on the hot seat?

OPS+

This is essentially the standard OPS statistic — on-base percentage plus slugging percentage — with a few important tweaks. First, it’s adjusted so 100 is league average, and every point above or below is a percentage point variance. For example, an OPS+ of 97 is three percent worse than league average, and an OPS+ of 135 is 35 percent better than league average. A lot of advance metrics are calculated this way, to give the numbers some sort of common meaning. 

And maybe the most important thing about OPS+ is this: it accounts for ballpark factors, including things like altitude and dimensions. For example, a Rockies club that played in pre-humidor Coors Field in mile-high Denver posted an impressive .837 team OPS in 2001 — best in the bigs that year — had just a 97 team OPS+, which was tied for 13th. Basically, OPS+ tries to provide a little consistency for hitting statistics.

Anyway, let’s take a look. Atlanta’s team OPS+ this year is 123, which means it’s 23 percent higher than league average. That includes every single player who’s taken an at-bat this year. The Dodgers, Rays and Rangers are tied for second, at 114, and then no other team is even at 110. So, yes, that’s impressive. But let’s look at historical context. 

Here are the top five AL/NL teams, as ranked by team OPS+, since 1900.

1. 1927 Yankees, 127
2. 1931 Yankees, 125
3. 2017 Astros, 123
4. 1930 Yankees, 123
5. 2023 Braves, 123

That’s pretty impressive company, eh? The 1982 Brewers, at 121, are the only other full-season team even above 120 (the 2020 Mets finished at 121, too, but it’s hard to include a 60-game season). And then, let’s look at the other four teams. 

The 2017 Houston team is, of course, the infamous team that used illegal methods to steal pitching signs and relay those signs to batters to gain an advantage. Not every hitter, and not every pitch. And I don’t even want to get into the larger question, which is whether other teams were using similar methods, too. That’s irrelevant here. What is relevant is we know for sure that there was cheating happening with that Astros team. So, grain of salt. 

And the other three teams in there with this Atlanta club? 

Those Yankees teams had a couple guys named Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, inner-circle sluggers and batsmen who did things never before seen in Major League Baseball. In 1927, Ruth had a 225 OPS+ and Gehrig was at 220. In 1930, they checked in at 211 and 203. In 1931, they finished at 218 and 194. As you can imagine, those two legends helped bump up that team OPS+. Atlanta, by the way, is led this year by Ronald Acuña, Jr., at 164. Austin Riley’s at 122, with four other players between him and Acuña. 

The 1927 Yankees and 2017 Astros won the World Series. The 1930 and 1931 Yankees both missed the postseason, winning 86 and 94 games, respectively. 

First-inning runs

Let’s start with this: The Braves will not break the record for the most first-inning runs in baseball history. That mark was set by the 1950 Red Sox, who scored 160 times in 154 games. Dom DiMaggio (yep, Joe’s brother) had a .474 on-base percentage in the first inning as the team’s primary leadoff batter, and he scored 35 times. Johnny Pesky, the primary No. 2 hitter, had a .496 on-base percentage in the opening frame and scored 33 runs. As a team, the Red Sox had a .439 on-base percentage in that first inning, best in history. Incredible stuff. 

The Braves could possibly finish second, though. Right now, they’re tied for 36th, with 130 first-inning runs in 145 games. If they continue at that pace in the last couple weeks, they’ll finish with 145. At the moment, the 2000 Cardinals are second, at 147. 

For this Atlanta team, of course, everything starts with Acuña. He’s the table-setter. Acuña is batting .380 in the first inning, with a .460 on-base percentage. He’s scored 38 runs in the first inning — the record is 45, set by Rickey Henderson (shocking, I know) in 1985 and tied by Lenny Dykstra in 1993. Acuña has 33 singles, 10 doubles and six homers, with 17 walks against only 12 strikeouts. He has 18 first-inning stolen bases — that’s nowhere near Henderson’s record of 41 in 1982, btw — but also has been caught stealing eight times.

Austin Riley, who has been pretty much locked into the No. 3 spot in the order, has 10 first-inning homers and a .990 OPS. Matt Olson, who spent the first half of the season batting second, and the second half batting cleanup, has 11 first-inning homers, with a 1.108 OPS. It’s just a brutal way for pitchers to start a game, facing those batters right out of the gate. 

It’s not necessarily likely, but the Braves do have a shot at setting the record for the most first-inning extra-base hits and most first-inning homers. The Braves are at 78 extra-base hits, and the record is 92, set by the 2003 Cardinals. They have 38 first-inning home runs, and that record is held by the 2019 Reds, who hit 46 (Eugenio Suarez hit 15 that year!). 

Maybe the most surprising thing, though? The Braves don’t even lead baseball in those two categories in 2023. The Dodgers — y’know, with MVP candidates Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman batting 1-2 in the order — have 79 extra-base hits and 40 home runs. By total runs, though, they’re well behind the Braves, at 111. 

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