After today's win, the Braves are 55-53, five games behind San Francisco in the wild card standings and 6.5 games behind the Phillies in the NL East. The Braves have outscored their opponents by 27 runs on the season, a margin that ought to leave the team two games better than their actual record at 57-51. This imaginary Braves team with a record to match its run differential would be only three games out of the wild card and with fewer teams to vault to get to October.
Normally, the conclusion would be that the Braves have been unlucky and they stand a slightly better chance of making the playoffs than a normal team in their position. Unfortunately, this whole "we're unlucky and that luck will even out" mantra has become an annual refrain. The Braves have been two games below their expected record; they were six games below last year and five games below in 2006 and 2007. In other words, this is the fourth straight year in which the Braves have been "unlucky" by having a record that is poorer than their run differential. At a certain point, we have to look at explanations other than luck? How long are we going to have to wait for a season in which Atlanta wins a crazy share of one-run games and outperforms their actual merit?
So what's the explanation for why the Braves have consistently underperformed their expected records? Normally, one would point the finger at the bullpen, since it has a disproportionate impact on a team's performance in close games and a bad record in close games is the surest way to fail to match an expected record. While there have certainly been years in which a bad bullpen has hurt the Braves, this year is not one of those years. The pen hasn't been dominant, but it's at least a tad over average, so it wouldn't explain why the team has been unlucky. Sure enough, the Braves are 6-3 in extra innings and 18-15 in one-run games, so the miserable failings in close games have not popped up this year. (Did you know that the Braves were 48-88 in one-run games from 2006-08? 40 games under .500 in games that are supposed to be a coin flip? Yeesh.) We have to look somewhere else.
I'm loathe to attribute a big role to any baseball manager because the tactical aspects of the position are colossally overrated, certainly compared to football or basketball coaches. I'm also loathe to ever say anything negative about Bobby Cox, the best coach/manager that this city has seen, full stop. With those two caveats out of the way, are we hamstrung by a manager making tactical mistakes in tight games? Does anyone else have a better explanation for why the Braves are underperforming their expected record for the fourth year running? The sample size is getting a little big to be a fluke. I'm honestly open to any thoughts from the peanut gallery. I prefer any explanation other than "it's Bobby's fault." Bonus points for assigning blame to Kent Hrbek, Ed Sprague, Jim Leyritz, or Brad Ausmus.