If ever a future baseball fan needs a reminder of the randomness inherent in the sport’s postseason, if ever they want a prototypical example of playoff strangeness, they need look no further than the story of this 2021 Atlanta club.
See, Atlanta shouldn’t have come anywhere near this World Series trophy. Its best player tore his ACL; its best young pitcher missed the entire season after tearing his Achilles twice. It finished the regular season with a mere 88-73 record. It had more losses than wins at the end of July.
Compared to previous iterations of this roster, which had evinced so much promise but fallen so short in October, this version of the team wasn’t anything special. Since 1995, the last time the franchise won a championship, sixteen different Atlanta teams have managed a better winning percentage than the 2021 vintage. Seventeen posted more batting WAR as a team, according to FanGraphs; 11 posted more pitching WAR. The average Atlanta team since 1995 has won 89 games per 162—one more win, in other words, than this team managed in 161 regular-season contests.
So many stars in that span lost out on so many championship chances. Chipper Jones never won another title for Atlanta after 1995. Nor did Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, or John Smoltz. Division-winning cores with Andruw Jones, Brian McCann, and Craig Kimbrel all stumbled in the playoffs, and often in calamitous ways, dating all the way back to squandering a 2-0 lead in the 1996 World Series. From 2010 through 2013 alone, Atlanta suffered in October from Brooks Conrad’s errors, an umpire’s dubious infield fly call, and Juan Uribe’s moonshot with Kimbrel stranded in the bullpen. In 2020, a 3-1 lead in the NLCS shifted quickly to a seven-game defeat.
And in 2021, none of that mattered—not the dispiriting past, not the erratic present, not the broader cross-sport pall that has settled over the Atlanta sports scene for a quarter-century. In 2021, Atlanta parlayed a mediocre roster into a playoff spot, then took advantage of the opportunity by racing past the favored Brewers, Dodgers, and Astros en route to a shocking title. In 2021, Atlanta blew a four-run lead to the Astros in a potential championship clincher—and then cruised in its next opportunity just two days later.
With a 7-0 win in Game 6 on Tuesday, buoyed by home runs from Jorge Soler, Dansby Swanson, and Freddie Freeman, Atlanta won its first championship in 26 years and the fourth in franchise history. In a month full of upsets, Atlanta’s title is the greatest of all—the culmination of one of the most surprising playoff outcomes in recent MLB history.
Atlanta posted that 88-win total, the worst for any division winner by five wins and the worst for any playoff team period, all four wild cards included, despite playing the majors’ easiest schedule. Atlanta went just 43-42 against teams outside its division and, within the division, feasted on dreadful opposition: No other NL East team finished with a positive run differential. In any other division, Atlanta would have been well out of contention with a losing record at the end of July.
But in the NL East, Atlanta still had a dream, and GM Alex Anthopoulos made a medley of minor moves to upgrade the roster for the stretch run. He traded for Joc Pederson on July 15 and Soler, Eddie Rosario, and Adam Duvall on July 30. At that point, according to the FanGraphs playoff odds, Atlanta had less than a 10 percent chance of making the playoffs and less than a 1 percent chance of winning the World Series.
There is precedent for individual players to change teams and then the fortunes of a franchise at the trade deadline. Every club wants its own 2008 CC Sabathia or 2004 Carlos Beltrán, even if neither of their teams won the championship. But to remake an entire unit with four new players? That bit of transactional transformation is new.
Yet there is no overstating just how much those trades mattered, and just how much their targets accomplished. In the playoffs, the outfield quartet combined for a .270/.339/.505 batting line. In other words, against the higher-caliber pitching of the postseason, Atlanta’s four new outfielders were collectively as productive at the plate as Manny Machado or Nelson Cruz were in the regular season.
The quartet was responsible for 56 percent of the team’s postseason RBIs (36 of 64) and 52 percent of its home runs (12 of 23). And its members contributed many of Atlanta’s most important hits along the way:
- Pederson crushed two pinch-hit homers—one a game-winner—in two games to start the playoff run.
- Soler led off Game 1 of the World Series with a homer, then blasted the winning dingers in games 4 and 6, en route to winning series MVP honors.
- Duvall opened the scoring in Game 5 of the World Series with a first-inning grand slam.
- And Rosario, most of all, paced the lineup all postseason long, producing a bonkers .383/.456/.617 slash line. His biggest hit came in Game 6 of the NLCS, when his tiebreaking three-run homer against Walker Buehler sent Atlanta to the World Series.
Thanks to this scorching foursome, surprise contributions from the bullpen, and just enough clutch hits to survive a slew of late-game seesaws, Atlanta weathered seemingly crushing injuries to Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mike Soroka in the regular season, and Charlie Morton in the playoffs. After Morton broke his leg in Game 1 of the World Series, Atlanta had all of two healthy starting pitchers left—but to no ill effect, in the end.
It’s difficult to know, just now, whether this miracle run will influence future team-building principles like the Cubs’ and Astros’ (embrace the tank!) or Dodgers’ (aim for a division title every year!) triumphs have in recent seasons. Would-be contenders want to replicate juggernauts. They don’t want to replicate a team that wins 88 games and reaches the postseason only because of geographic luck.
Yet the club’s enterprising spirit at the deadline is itself a lesson for the future—that as long as a team has a chance, it should try to win and seize the day. For instance, Cleveland had a better record than Atlanta at the trade deadline, yet traded Rosario for mere salary relief. Three months later, he won NLCS MVP and raised the World Series trophy.
Try at the deadline, reach the postseason, and it’s possible to upset three superior rosters in a row, as Atlanta did against the Brewers, Dodgers, and Astros. In a short series, Freeman can homer off Josh Hader, and Tyler Matzek can transform into Mariano Rivera circa 1996, and the lineups’ performance with runners in scoring position can both shift in one team’s favor.
For a team that entered the postseason with so few expectations, Atlanta romped without too much angst—unlike the Nationals, who needed numerous late-game comebacks in elimination games to win the World Series in 2019. In this postseason, after Game 1 of the NLDS, Atlanta never trailed at any point in any series again, nor did it ever lose two games in a row. It went 7-1 at home, delighting fans all month long with a succession of tense wins, as every home win came by three runs or fewer:
- Won by three in Game 3 of the NLDS
- Won by one in Game 4 of the NLDS (featuring a game-winning homer in the eighth inning)
- Won by one in Game 1 of the NLCS (featuring a walk-off hit)
- Won by one in Game 2 of the NLCS (featuring a walk-off hit)
- Won by two in Game 6 of the NLCS
- Won by two in Game 3 of the World Series
- Won by one in Game 4 of the World Series (featuring back-to-back game-tying and game-winning homers in the seventh inning)
(Those fans and the broader club and league infrastructure also provided the one note of immense frustration from this Atlanta run: the nonstop Chop at Truist Park. That’s an important caveat to an otherwise celebratory moment.)
Atlanta isn’t the only team to win the World Series after a relatively mediocre regular season. The 2006 Cardinals won 83 games, the 1987 Twins 85, the 2000 Yankees 87, and the 2014 Giants 88. This kind of outlier occurs about once a decade—and might soon grow more common, if MLB expands its playoff field as desired.
Yet that dissonance resonates all the more with this specific franchise: Since 1995, Atlanta has played the third-most playoff games of any club, behind only the Yankees and Cardinals, who have both won multiple titles in that span. Atlanta’s lost more of those games than it’s won. But what the NL East dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s couldn’t accomplish again, and what the early teams of the Freeman era failed to achieve, this underdog group managed with style.
Atlanta wasn’t the majors’ best team from April to September; it wasn’t all that close. It merely tried to win, and then it did. That’s a reason for a trophy, and for the other 29 clubs to take note.