A little over two weeks ago, the National League East race was still in roughly the same state it had been in for most of the season: The New York Mets were leading over the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves, though New York hadn’t truly asserted itself despite its competitors sitting at or below .500. On July 28, our forecast model gave the Mets a 53 percent chance of winning the division, compared with 22 percent for the Braves and 20 percent for the Phillies — a portrait of a division that was in the liminal space between “up for grabs” and “locked up.”
But things have changed. Even after sweeping the Washington Nationals this week, the Mets’ division odds are currently down to 19 percent, trailing both Philly (45 percent) and Atlanta (35 percent). Despite slugger Pete Alonso’s best efforts to the contrary, it’s been panic mode in Queens, while the Phillies surge and the Braves hang tough in the face of adversity. As a result, the remaining seven weeks of the NL East’s regular season should give us an epic playoffs-or-bust battle between three rivals approaching the race from three very different recent trajectories.
For the division-leading Phillies, it’s simply about making the playoffs — and finishing above .500 — for the first time since 2011. And what a long journey it has been since then. That squad was a 102-win powerhouse, led by the strong core the franchise had pieced together over the preceding decade: Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz in the lineup, and an all-time pitching staff featuring Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. However, none of those stars were with the club past 2016, by which point the Phillies had already begun an ambitious teardown on the same order as the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs before them.
Unlike the Cubs and Astros, each of whom won a World Series via tanking, the Phillies’ rebuild had not yet yielded much success before this year. This was despite sticking to the tested formula of extreme losing1 followed by extreme spending.2 Last offseason, ESPN’s Sam Miller held up the Phillies as perhaps the first failed tank job of the current era and a cautionary tale for would-be tankers in the future. Their bet that they could tame baseball’s inherent randomness was looking like a bust.
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But this year’s team is living up to expectations a bit more than its predecessors did. Bryce Harper is playing like an MVP, though he’s on pace for just slightly more wins above replacement3 per 162 games (5.15) as he had in Phillies pinstripes during the 2020 (4.87) and 2019 (4.56) seasons. Zack Wheeler (8.21 WAR per 162) is looking like a Cy Young-caliber starter, improving on what was already an outstanding Philadelphia debut last season. J.T. Realmuto has been a model of consistency behind the plate, while Andrew McCutchen and Rhys Hoskins have been better this year than in 2020. Third baseman Alec Bohm, a rookie revelation a season ago, is hitting better since June after getting off to a horrendous start. No. 2 starter Aaron Nola, while slightly down in performance from last year, is still pitching well, and a relief corps that had been catastrophically bad (-5.5 WAR per 162) in 2020 is at least above replacement level (0.8 WAR per 162) — baby steps! — so far this year.
Are the Phillies that much better than they were last season? Arguably not. They are on pace for just 0.4 more WAR per 162 this year than in 2020, their Elo rating is only 12 points better now than at the end of last season, and they have a worse Pythagorean winning percentage (.487) than last season (.493). But they’ve been luckier, both in the sense of winning more close games — again, the perks of having a mildly less-horrible bullpen — and in their division foes’ inconsistent play.
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For the Braves, an up-and-down year could be seen as at least somewhat understandable. After all, the team lost the great Ronald Acuña Jr. for the season to an ACL injury in early July, robbing them of their own MVP candidate to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Harper. (They’ve also gotten less than nothing out of left fielder Marcell Ozuna, who was arrested for domestic violence in early June.)
But Atlanta was actually worse when they had Acuña than they’ve been since losing him — they are 40-40 in games he started and 19-16 without him in the lineup. They were also perhaps due for some of their other returning stars to play better, which has happened in the cases of key hitters such as Austin Riley, Dansby Swanson and Freddie Freeman. And a team that had relied so heavily on its bullpen to compensate for a 29th-ranked rotation in 2020 now ranks among the top dozen teams in both starting- and relief-pitching WAR.
As a result, the Braves’ decision to buy talent at the trade deadline in spite of our odds-based advice to sell looks wiser than it did a few weeks ago. Thanks to an impressive youth movement in the late 2010s that yielded the likes of Acuña and All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies, Atlanta is coming off three straight division titles. Now a franchise that knows a thing or two about division streaks is still very much looking for a fourth.
That brings us to New York, which in March was (on paper) the best bet to steal the division away from the Braves. The Mets have the division’s most expensive roster, thanks in no small part to the offseason acquisition of shortstop Francisco Lindor (who makes $22 million this year, and is due another $341 million over the following 10 years). With it, they seem to have more than enough top-tier talent to rank among the MLB’s best teams, provided they’re all healthy and in the lineup together.
These being the Mets, though, health of course has been an issue. Jacob deGrom was having an all-time pitching season before he hit the injured list in mid-July with forearm tightness, causing him to miss about a half-dozen starts. He’s just the biggest headliner in a group that, going into August, had lost the most production to injury of any club in MLB this year. In a press conference this week, acting general manager Zack Scott heaped a lot of the blame on his players for their own injuries, which was a pretty bad look. But it’s undeniable that the Mets’ efforts to expand — and then merely hold on to — their division lead have been greatly hampered by the procession of star absences.
So too did Scott call out an anemic New York offense that ranks 28th in scoring, with 3.80 runs per game on the season and just 3.36 in the month of August. While it was glaring earlier in the season that this team was scoring less than we would expect based on its underlying stats, that’s actually less true now — and the hard-luck explanation is harder to accept now that we've seen four-plus months of this team trying (and failing) to hit.
Alonso has done his part to prevent those struggles. Including Thursday’s walk-off home run against the Nats, he’s been 25 percent better at the plate than league average by weighted runs created plus (wRC+) so far this season. But he’s also one of just four New York hitters (joining Jonathan Villar, Jeff McNeil and Brandon Nimmo) with 150 or more plate appearances and a wRC+ above average this year. (Even newcomer Javier Báez, acquired from the Cubs at the deadline, has done little since homering in his first game as a Met.)4 Most of the players the Mets have been counting on to produce offense have not delivered, which is a big reason that their division hopes have stalled out late in the season.
What’s interesting about the Mets in the big-picture view is that, of the three clubs vying for the NL East right now, they made the World Series most recently, last appearing in 2015 (compared with 2009 for Philadelphia and 1999 for Atlanta). That’s recent enough — and most of that 2015 team’s core was young enough — that you might expect the current Mets to be a continuation of that group’s arc. But it’s not true. DeGrom and Michael Conforto are the only remaining members of that team to appear for the Mets in 2021 so far.5 Instead, this is a team mostly cobbled together just as recently as when the Phillies’ and Braves’ rebuilds yielded their fruits. In turn, that may make this year’s potential collapse even less palatable, since it’s hardly the last gasp of some aging, once-great core: Theoretically, these Mets should be in their division-chasing prime.
With plenty of time left in the regular season, that may still yet be true. But it’s also true that the Phillies and Braves have very much caught up with their division rivals to the north. That should help produce a desperate battle for the playoffs over the rest of the schedule, since there’s almost no chance that the East’s runner-up could be good enough to snag a wild-card consolation prize if it doesn’t win the division. The Phillies, Mets and Braves have all taken very different roads over the past decade to find themselves here, but now there is just one prize they’re eyeing as they look ahead to the stretch run.
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