What's Atlanta's secret? 3 productive ironmen

Atlanta could be 5th team in last 58 years with top 3 in games played

September 12th, 2019

There are more ways to measure a player’s value than ever before, but a team still benefits most from its stars showing up every day.

That’s what the Braves’ core is doing this year. With less than three weeks left in the regular season, the top of the National League’s games played leaderboard has a distinctly Atlanta feel to it.

Most games played, NL, 2019
1-T. (ATL): 146
1-T. (ATL): 146
1-T. (ATL): 146
4. Starlin Castro (MIA): 145
5-T. Six players tied with 144

The Braves’ 9 1/2-game lead in the NL East might convince manager Brian Snitker to rest his horses between now and Sept. 29, as Acuna, Albies and Freeman have all sat out just one game this season. But boasting the league’s three most durable players is rarer than you think. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only four teams have featured three players who all finished tied for third or higher on their league’s games played leaderboard since MLB expanded to 18 teams in 1961.

(The Cubs played two extra games in 1965 on account of ties; rules at the time stated that tie games must be replayed in their entirety.)

It's more impressive when you consider what the Braves’ trio is contributing; it’s one thing to play every day, and another to do so at an All-Star level. Acuna (5.1), Freeman (4.5) and Albies (4.0) have all compiled at least 4 WAR, per Baseball-Reference, which only the 1992 Astros can claim out of the four teams above. Those ’92 Astros and ’65 Cubs are also the only such trios with each player recording an adjusted OPS+ above 100 (better than league average), like Freeman (142), Acuna (121) and Albies (109) are on pace to do this year.

That Houston team featured a pair of iconic teammates in Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio playing just their second season together, a similar arc to Acuna and Albies. And all three of those Cubs teammates are with Bagwell and Biggio in the Hall of Fame’s Plaque Gallery. Cubs managers Bob Kennedy and Lou Klein positioned Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Ernie Banks together in the heart of their lineups 143 times in 1965, while Astros skipper Art Howe slotted Biggio, Steve Finley and Bagwell in the top three spots 81 times in ’92. Snitker opted for a top three of Acuna, Albies and Freeman on a near-permanent basis beginning July 24, and the Braves are an MLB-best 31-13 since that date.

Freeman celebrates his 30th birthday Thursday, but he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down as he’s on pace for his second straight 160-plus game campaign. He, Albies (22 years old) and Acuna (21) are terrific now, and they could be terrific for a while in Atlanta. Freeman is under contract through 2021, and Albies and Acuna are both Braves through at least 2025 (Albies’ contract contains two club options, beginning in ’26).

Together with Josh Donaldson, right behind them with 143 games played, Acuna, Albies and Freeman give the Braves a quartet that could rival the top four hitters in any lineup in baseball. Should those four reach 100 runs apiece, they would be the first quartet to do so since the 2009 Phillies and Yankees. They’re also on the verge of 100 runs, 20 homers and 20 doubles, a combination that no quartet has achieved since the ’04 Yankees. And they could be just the third quartet since 1900 to each score 100 runs, hit 20 homers and 20 doubles and also slug .500, joining the ’03 Braves and ’96 Mariners (Albies is currently slugging .487).

One thing nearly all those teams failed to do? Win the World Series. But the Braves’ uber-consistent core gives them more than a puncher’s chance -- not only this October, but for several more to come.