Once a powerhouse in the National League East, the Atlanta Braves have long since faltered into mediocrity. Before this season, the Braves had ascended to the NL Divisional Series only twice in the last 12 seasons. The last time the Braves played in the NL Championship Series was 2001. Lately, 90-loss seasons have been the norm, a far cry from even getting to October baseball in the first place. The Braves turned in a poor 72-90 season in 2017 but were undeterred, as their farm system was the toast of Major League Baseball. They entered 2018 ready for another season of rebuilding.
This did not happen. The Braves stunned everyone, flipping a 90-loss season on its head to a 90-win season. The Royals Review staff (in apparent lock step with ESPN experts) unanimously selected the Washington Nationals to be the NL East victors in our preseason predictions, with only one writer—yours truly—even selecting the Braves to finish second in the division. I figured that the Braves, with their immensely talented farm system on the cusp of providing MLB-ready players, were more likely to finish ahead of dumpster fires New York Mets and Miami Marlins as well as the rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies.
That was only partially correct. Atlanta is headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2013, having accelerated their rebuild by at least one and perhaps multiple years.
For the Kansas City Royals—and for any other rebuilding team, for that matter—the Braves represent a tantalizing possibility that one’s rebuild could end sooner than predicted. This makes everyone happy, because better teams bring in more revenue for the owner, provide job security for the coaches, front office, and players, and make fans significantly more excited about the franchise.
But how did Atlanta do it? Well, yes, cheating, but how did the 2018 Braves get so good so fast? And how can the Royals or other teams replicate it?
It is functionally impossible to predict how good one franchise will be in three years, let alone four of your closest competitors, so trying to time your competitive window to open when your divisional rivals are weak is a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, a team’s divisional opponents can accelerate or hinder a rebuild.
As I wrote earlier, the Mets, Marlins, and Phillies were an underwhelming trio of teams. Yahoo! Sports called the Mets organization a ‘waterfall of mismanagement’ and a ‘laughable mess,’ a pair of terms that are actually somewhat kind considering the baffingly terrible state of Mets ownership. Awful ownership similarly tanked the Marlins this year, as D2r2k J2t2R (#RE2PECT) and friends traded away all their good and expensive players so they could LARP as Hexxus, with money as the sweet pollution they inhale for power and poor Marlins fans as the fairies trampled underfoot by the giant demonic logging machine of capitalism. As for the Phillies, they were simply earlier on the rebuilding timeline, and—for now—weren’t a threat.
Essentially, if you are a rebuilding team where one or more of your divisional rivals bear more similarity to the villain in Fern Gully than a real life baseball team trying to win ball games, you’re in luck. In Atlanta’s case, their door opened as soon as the Washington Nationals faltered. But if you’re, say, the Tampa Bay Rays and you win 90 games in a division with two 100-win teams in the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, there’s nothing you can do. Well, there’s nothing you can do either way, but sometimes your division is conducive to an accelerated rebuild, and it is undeniably helpful.
A BUNCH OF GOOD PLAYERS
Yeah, a good team has good players. Zero people are surprised by this assertion. If you are, then you might be Alf or some other cat-eating being that has never seen Earth sports before.
But what the Braves can teach teams is just how many good players you need, or at least what that looks like for a team that has gone through the rebuilding puberty quicker and faster than predicted.
We’re going to put this in the context of Wins Above Replacement (WAR). A core part of WAR is the ‘replacement’ part. Essentially, a replacement-level player is a freely available player that can be acquired for nothing. Per Baseball-Reference:
Replacement level players, by their very definition, are players easy to obtain when a starter goes down. These are the players who receive non-roster invites at the start of the year, or the players who are 6-year minor league free agents.
What if a team was constructed entirely with these replacement level players? While there are different calculations for WAR and therefore different figures, for Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR a replacement level team wins 29.4% of its games, or a 48-win pace over a 162 game season. Every point of WAR is worth one win, and in order to find out how much WAR you need from your players to get to a certain win total, you merely take the desired win total and subtract 48 games from it.
The 2018 Braves won 90 games, and their team WAR was 37.3. While that’s not quite at the theoretical 42 WAR needed to get to 90 wins, that’s ok. Variance and luck play enough of a factor so that makes sense.
So, if you’re a rebuilding team and want to accelerate said rebuild, you’re going to need in the range of 35 to 40 WAR from your team to get an upper-80s win total from your team. As a point of reference, the 2018 Royals accrued 18.6 total team WAR. They would need to about double their total value to approximate the 2018 Braves.
Thus ends Part One of the Braves Route to a faster rebuild. Part Two will focus on more specifics and include a roadmap for the Royals.