There are teams that didn't have a lot go their way this season. The Angels, for instance. They made a splashy free-agent signing that was a total bust. There were injuries. The pitching had a rough turn. Mike Trout was worth only nine wins instead of 11. Not a lot went as planned. If Angels fans complained, you'd listen.
There are 18 other teams that didn't play past the 162nd game, too. All of them could tell similar sob stories.
Nationals - Our bench was dreadful!
Yankees - We ran out of Tesla coils and corpses to reanimate!
Astros - lol
That's baseball, alright. Waste thousands and thousands of words about who's going to do what because of that move they made. None of it happens like you expect. Except for the Astros.
Which brings us to the Atlanta Braves. They've finished under .500 twice in the last 23 years. If you like recent history, they've averaged 92 wins over the last four seasons. Different faces, different string-tuggers, different players. Same results. There's a leather-bound instruction manual somewhere in the Braves' front office. It's been passed down from front-office employee to front-office employee, and it works. Should you spend a million on corporate espionage to get that book, or blow it on Delmon Young? You chose poorly, Phillies.
The 2013 Braves allowed fewer runs per game than any Braves team since the dead-ball-era staff from 1916. These are the Braves we're talking about, mind you. Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz never allowed fewer runs per game than Medlen/Minor/Teheran, and that's impressive even after you adjust for era.
So I guess everything worked out for the Braves this season. Those other teams had the bad breaks, and the Braves caught all the luck. Yep.
Except, let's explore the Braves' season just a bit. Let's look at it from the perspective of a team that one 76 games instead of 96. Pretend the Braves were at home, licking their wounds. What went wrong?
The offseason splash was a dud
In the offseason before 2012, the Braves did nothing. Almost literally, nothing. They re-signed a guy or two. But there were no trades, no free-agent signings. It was like they were stubbornly convinced that they were right and baseball was wrong.
Last offseason, the Braves signed B.J. Upton for $75 million, a huge outlay for the Braves. He had the 10th-worst season from any hitter in franchise history by adjusted OPS. He wasn't disappointing. He was actively chasing all-time futility records for the organization, and he was catching up with them, for the most part.
Dan Uggla descended into self-parody
The two lowest batting averages in Braves history, minimum 400 at-bats? Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. Without checking, I'm pretty sure this is the first time a 22-homer-hitting second baseman was left off a playoff roster for being unproductive. Uggla is surprisingly disciplined, but he can't make contact anymore.
Jason Heyward was hurt, and good-not-great
The part about him being hurt is important. He had only 382 at-bats. The good-not-great part is debatable. He had a outstanding defensive season to go with his 111 OPS+, which makes him an extremely valuable player.
But, well, there are expectations that come with a nickname like the J-Hey Kid. He was supposed to be Mike Trout when Trout was still in high school. He's not Mike Trout; he's Jason Heyward, which is a valuable, valuable thing. Still not the player Mike Trout turned into, which is what people expected, if a little irrationally.
The part about him being hurt is more important, though. There was less Heyward than the Braves expected.
Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty both had Tommy John
The Braves' calling card was their bullpen. Venters had maybe the best pitch in baseball, and he was murder on lefties. O'Flaherty was right behind him on the lefty power-rankings. Both are out of the year and probably a chunk of next season, too. There's no way a team can recover from two blows like that.
Tim Hudson injured
It was a fluke injury, too. Eric Young, Jr. stepped on his ankle, and suddenly the Braves were without their longtime workhorse. It's not like teams have a spare Tim Hudson tucked away in the pantry, so the Braves were certainly in a difficult spot.
Brandon Beachy's comeback halted
Everyone thinks Tommy John surgery is magic, and that pitchers sometimes come back throwing harder, like Henry Rowengartner. But sometimes there are complications. Beachy, who was the Braves' best pitcher as recently as last June, had to be shut down. Without Hudson and Beachy, the Braves were going to have to make do with some stopgaps and minor leaguers.
He wasn't that big of a deal, for the most part. Just like typing his name at every opportunity. Got to use a header font this time!
And that's the story of how the Braves finished 76-86.
Except they won 96 games.
I'm going to practice bad sabermetrics, but whatever. I have an English degree from San Jose State. Pretend the players up there hit their averages from the past few seasons. Uggla, Hudson, Beachy and Upton were all three-win players. Heyward was a seven-win star, as it wasn't crazy to expect. O'Flaherty and Venters were the rare relievers who could post gaudy WAR numbers. A reasonable projection model could have projected 25 WAR for those seven. They combined to post a combined 1.6. The only thing keeping them in positive territory was Heyward.
If you replace the replacement-level players on the Cubs with the seasons you expected from the disappointing players on the Braves, the Cubs would have finished ahead of the Reds.
That's not how the stat works, I know. Play along. The point is that the Braves were hosed. They expected a few things, and they didn't pan out. They spent a lot of money and made a lot of moves, and the team they ended the season with isn't what they expected. They were tied for the second-best record in baseball.
That's because of their depth. And their pitching. And that secret book with all of the secrets of baseball. It's a handy book. There have been a lot of hard-luck stories in baseball this year, and the Braves are one of them. They were also one of the best teams in baseball. Not sure if I get how when I look at everything that's gone wrong.