OBP is life. Life is OBP." That mantra was coined by Baseball Prospectus founder Gary Huckabay in the 1990s to drive home the point that batting average, stolen bases, "small ball," even home runs all fell in line behind not making outs when it came to building a strong offense.
This year the Braves have taken Huckabay's slogan to a whole new level. Despite ranking 13th in the NL in slugging and 14th in stolen bases, as well as 10th in batting average and ninth in homers, Atlanta has scored the second-most runs in the league (278) thanks to a league-leading .349 OBP and a major league best 261 walks. These Braves do just one thing well—not make outs—and it's been enough to lift them to the top of the NL East. Atlanta is 20--6 with a .371 OBP since dropping two of three to the Phillies in early May to fall six games back. They've scored more than six runs per game over that stretch, outscoring their opponents 157--90, and now lead the Phillies by two games.
What's remarkable is that the Braves have no one other than rightfielder Jason Heyward and first baseman Troy Glaus having a strong year by their personal standards. Catcher Brian McCann and third baseman Chipper Jones are both at career lows in batting average and slugging percentage, but the two are drawing frequent walks that have given them high OBPs (.384 and .392, respectively). Glaus, after missing almost all of 2009 because of shoulder surgery, has picked up where he left off in '08, with 11 home runs, 29 walks and a .367 OBP. Heyward has been not just one of the best rookies in the league, but an MVP candidate with a .272/.400/.522 line.
The 20-year-old has a preternaturally disciplined approach at the plate. He's ninth in the NL with 4.24 pitches seen per plate appearance, and he's getting better: Heyward walked 50% more often than he struck out in May, an amazing feat for a player of his age and experience level.
Atlanta's pitching staff has hardly been an afterthought in the rush to the top. Just as the offense relies on bases on balls, the Braves' hurlers lean on throwing strikes and keeping the ball down: They have allowed the fifth-fewest walks in the NL, held their opponents to the sixth-lowest OBP and allowed the sixth-fewest runs. Led by Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson, Atlanta's pitchers are second in the NL in groundball rate, which makes up for ranking 12th in strikeouts. The bullpen has likewise been superb, as one-year rentals Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito have combined for 67 strikeouts and a 2.35 ERA in 46 innings at the end of games. Righthander Peter Moylan and lefty Eric O'Flaherty, the pen's matchup specialists, have beaten same-side hitters to a pulp, striking them out 30% of the time while allowing just six walks and one homer.
So long as the entire roster continues to follow the "OBP" mantra, the Braves will do more than simply challenge for the NL East crown. They can position themselves for a deep October run that would be a fitting coda to manager Bobby Cox's Hall of Fame career.
Now on SI.com
Check out Joe Lemire's MLB Power Rankings every Thursday at SI.com/mlb