21 reasons the Braves’ 2021 World Series title was so very unexpected

HOUSTON — The Braves are World Series champions again, for the fourth time in franchise history and the second time since they move to Atlanta in 1966.

This is easily the most unlikely of the four titles. Maybe that makes it the most special. Who knows? That’s a conversation for a different time, though, and one that really only lifelong Braves fans can have. 

Today, in the wake of the Braves’ 7-0 clinching win in Game 6, let’s look at 21 reasons why Atlanta’s 2021 World Series title was so very unexpected. 

1. Fewest wins of any playoff team

This is where we’ll start. It’s not a judgement, just a statement of fact. The Braves won just 88 games during the regular season; every other team won at least 90. And we’re just talking about why a World Series title would have been unexpected, not impossible. 

2. No Ronald Acuña Jr.

Atlanta has lots of talented players, no doubt. But Acuña is the most talented player in the organization, by far. He’s the superstar. He’s the one who could win multiple MVPs in his career. When he went down with a torn ACL in July, that felt like the end of Atlanta’s World Series dreams. The division still seemed possible because the NL East was not good, but advancing in October without their best player? Nah. 

3. W-L-W-L-W-L, etc …

The Braves hovered around .500 for what seemed like forever. They lost the last game of the first half and the first game of the second half, then rattled off an incredible streak of 18 consecutive games where they alternated wins and losses (a suspended game completed later in the season technically messed up the sequence). They were two games below, then three games below, then two below, then three below and so on and so forth. 

“It’s just been tough to get on a roll,” Dansby Swanson told SN near the end of that bizarre streak. “There have been times you feel like we’re going to break out, and the next day it just doesn’t happen.”

Eventually, obviously, it happened.

4. Wrong side of .500 for a long, long time

Speaking of .500, the Braves didn’t even top the .500 mark for the season until Aug. 6, when they beat the Nationals 8-4 at home, right after they finished a sweep of the Cardinals. The Rangers (who finished with 102 losses) and Marlins (95) were the only other two teams who could claim that dubious honor at the time, in the season’s fourth month. 

5. Bad bullpen, few reinforcements

Much has been made of the performance of the outfielders the Braves traded for, and rightly so. We’ll talk about them in a moment. But not nearly enough has been said about the improvement of the bullpen as a group. 

“They had their ups and downs the first part of the year,” Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, who works as an analyst on the Ballys Sports Southeast broadcasts, told Sporting News in a phone interview over the weekend. “I know from doing games myself, the games that the Braves lost, the bullpen struggled badly, and the game they won, the bullpen was really good.”

The relievers, as a group, had a 4.58 ERA in the first half. In the second half the relievers collectively posted a 3.24 ERA. Unlike the outfield revival, the improvement wasn’t a result of trade-deadline additions; the only reliever added, Richard Rodriguez, was fine but hasn’t been on the postseason roster in any round. 

“They found their confidence in terms of going out there every day and being good instead of having some days good and some days bad,” Glavine said. 

6. Not much success against good teams

During the regular season, Atlanta was 2-4 against the Dodgers, 1-3 against the Red Sox, 1-3 against the Yankees, 1-2 against the Rays and 3-3 against the Giants. They were also 0-6 against a Blue Jays team that won 91 games but missed October. The only playoff team the Braves were above .500 against was the Cardinals, and those games were all before St. Louis caught fire down the stretch. 

7. Marcell Ozuna’s absence

In any other season, losing a player who finished sixth in the MVP race the previous year would be the worse loss. But Ozuna struggled mightily, then got hurt and then his domestic violence arrest ended his season, very rightly so. No place for that in the game. Atlanta quickly turned the page on him.

8. Jorge Soler was awful in K.C.

Nobody will ever forget the mammoth homer Soler hit out of the ballpark in Game 6. Royals fans might try to, though. 

In 94 games with the Royals, Soler hit .192 with a .288 on-base percentage, 13 homers, a minus-1.4 bWAR and a 76 OPS+. It was well known he was available, and let’s just say the Braves didn’t exactly have to engage in a bidding war for his services. Revived in Atlanta, Soler popped 14 homers in 55 games, produced a 128 OPS+ and a 1.0 bWAR. 

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9. So was Eddie Rosario in Cleveland

Rosario had some fine years in Minnesota, but was underwhelming after signing a one-year deal with Cleveland in the offseason. The Braves sent Pablo Sandoval to Cleveland, and Cleveland immediately cut him loose; the team had just wanted to rid itself of the rest of Rosario’s salary for the season. Rosario hit as many homers (seven) in 33 games with Atlanta as he did in 78 with Cleveland, and his OPS+ jump was very similar to Soler’s (from 86 to 131). 

We’ll come back to his heroics.

10. Pederson wasn’t much better in Chicago

You’re getting the point, right? The Braves were, let’s say, opportunistic. They were smart, no doubt. But they went almost solely for low-risk, high-reward players who might have benefited from a change of pace. In his first five full seasons in the bigs (2015-20), Pederson averaged 25 homers, a .339 on-base percentage and a 119 OPS+. The Cubs signed him this offseason and gave him a chance to play full time, and Pederson had a .300 OBP and 91 OPS+. He wasn’t great in Atlanta, either, posting a 96 OPS+, but Atlanta probably doesn’t survive the first two rounds of the playoffs without Pederson’s prodigious power — or his pearls. 

11. Atlanta had lost five straight World Series home games

OK, sure, this doesn’t have a direct impact on the 2021 squad. But heading into the 2021 World Series, the Braves had lost their past five World Series games played in Atlanta — Games 1-2 in 1999 and Games 3-4-5 in 1996. All five losses were to the Yankees. 

12. Charlie Morton’s broken leg

Max Fried might be Atlanta’s best starter, but Charlie Morton is the staff leader, and he threw just 2 1/3 innings before leaving with a broken leg. The Braves only had three starters heading into the World Series, and then by the third inning of Game 1, they only had two. 

13. Matzek’s four years out of the bigs

Atlanta’s best relief pitcher was out of the big leagues for four full years — 2016 to 2019. 

14. Dylan Lee’s start

Seriously, the Braves won Game 4 after starting a guy who had only pitched two big league innings in his career. IN HIS CAREER.

15. Kyle Wright’s piggyback outing

Seriously, the Braves won Game 4 when the guy who had thrown only 6 1/3 big-league innings in 2021 relieved the guy who had only two big league innings in his career. That kind of stuff might work against also-rans in September, but it’s not supposed to work in the World Series. It’s just not. 

16. Tucker Davidson’s start

In Game 5, the Braves started a rookie with only five big league starts in his career — one in 2020 and four this year. The lack of actual experience the Braves rolled out to pitch GAMES 4 AND 5 OF THE WORLD SERIES really should not be overlooked. 

17. Huascar Ynoa’s injury

The Braves were looking at a bullpen outing in Game 4 of the NLCS, but that didn’t seem so bad because Huascar Ynoa was set to be the opener. He’d been injured much of the season, but had pitched 91 innings — 17 starts and one relief appearance — in 2021, and at one point was one of Atlanta’s best pitchers. And then, a few hours before Game 4, the Braves announced that he was injured and was being replaced on the NLCS roster, meaning he was out for the World Series, too. 

18. Will Smith, closer 

No doubt, Will Smith did an outstanding job as Atlanta’s closer in 2021, recording 37 saves with a 3.44 ERA. But you can’t blame Braves fans for being skeptical after they watched him pitch to a 7.38 FIP in the abbreviated 2020 season and get lit up in Games 4-5 of the 2020 NLCS against the Dodgers. And Smith did show a penchant for the occasional homer-based hiccup — he allowed 11 round-trippers during the regular season — but he was unbelievable in the postseason, posting a 0.00 ERA with six saves in 11 innings.

19. Eddie Rosario, part 2

Told you we’d come back to Eddie. How could we not? His NLCS showing topped anything Mark Lemke ever did in the postseason , and Braves fans know that’s impressive. Rosario had four hits and an RBI in Game 2, another RBI in Game 3, then hit two homers and had four RBIs in Game 4. With the full attention of the Dodgers’ scouting report, Rosario added two more hits in Game 5 and another two — including a three-run homer in the fourth inning that put Atlanta ahead 4-1 — in Game 6. 

Rosario had played six previous postseason games, all with the Twins. He batted .217 with a .250 on-base percentage in those contests, all of which were losses for the Twins. 

20. Max Fried’s ankle

How many Atlanta fans had flashbacks to Game 1 when TV replays showed Michael Brantley stepping on Fried’s ankle in front of first base in the first inning? Just felt too familiar to Morton’s broken leg, a coincidental stroke of very bad luck in a very important game.

Only, Fried was fine. Better than fine, actually. He was dominant for the rest of his outing, allowing only three singles (two runners were erased on double plays) and striking out five Houston batters. 

21. Atlanta’s sports history

28-3.

There are others, like the time the Braves won the first two games of the 1996 World Series in Yankee Stadium and then lost the next four games — including three at home — but mostly, 28-3.

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