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Turns Out The NL East Didn’t Have Four Good Teams

One of the most entertaining series in baseball last weekend pitted the Atlanta Braves against the Philadelphia Phillies, with the teams splitting a pair of late-game comeback wins before the Braves ran away with a 15-1 laugher in Sunday’s rubber match. We should get used to this. One of these two clubs is probably going to win the National League East, and both could figure significantly into the NL’s postseason picture. In what once looked like a crowded division battle, the Braves and Phillies have emerged as clear favorites, largely leaving their rivals in the dust.

Before the season, we called the NL East the “tightest division race in baseball,” and that did hold true … for about a month. On April 28, the division’s top four teams — the Phillies, Braves, New York Mets and Washington Nationals — sat within three games of each other, even if Washington and (to a lesser extent) Atlanta had scuffled some coming out of the gate. Things have changed since then, however. The Phillies and Braves are a combined 53-36 since April 28, while the Mets and Nats are 41-49. (The fifth-place Miami Marlins have been more competitive recently as well, but they never really stood a chance of vying for the division or the playoffs.)

Although the division is far from locked up, the two teams at the top now have a combined 86 percent chance of winning the East, according to the FiveThirtyEight model. Here’s how our model has judged the state of the division race over time:

Atlanta pulled into the division driver’s seat in part by virtue of this weekend’s series victory over Philadelphia (which included that landslide 15-1 win) and yet another blowout over the Mets on Monday night. That’s nothing new; the team has generally been on a tear all month. Since the start of June, no club has added more to its Elo rating than the Braves, who have won 13 of 16 contests and have boosted their rating by 14 points — from 1513 (16th in MLB) to 1527 (10th) — over that span.

Rookie Braves left fielder Austin Riley, who made his debut on May 15, has hit a remarkable 11 home runs in his first 31 MLB games, while Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Josh Donaldson continue to enjoy strong seasons. (Even shortstop Dansby Swanson has begun to live up to his top-prospect billing from several years ago.) Moreover, the Braves’ pitching — already highlighted by 21-year-old ace Mike Soroka (2.12 ERA) and a resurgent Julio Teheran (2.92) — figures to improve depth-wise with the addition of free agent Dallas Keuchel, who is set to debut for Atlanta soon.

All of this helps explain how Atlanta has built a 59 percent probability of winning the East and a 78 percent chance of returning to the playoffs after its breakout season last year. But before the Braves pulled ahead this week, the Phillies had led the NL East in division win probability in each of the previous eight weeks.

Philly has loads of top-level talent on its side, among Bryce Harper, Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins and company. Some of that talent has underachieved — Harper (on pace for 2.3 wins above replacement)1 hasn’t quite been a dominant force in his first Phillie season,2 while Nola (4.89 ERA) has struggled to replicate last year’s near-Cy Young campaign. But others have stepped up: Hoskins is one of the game’s most underrated players, offseason pickups J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura are performing well, and Nola’s downturn has been mostly offset in the rotation by Zach Eflin’s better-than-expected numbers (2.81 ERA). Even when future Hall of Fame outfielder Andrew McCutchen was lost for the season with an ACL tear in early June, new acquisition Jay Bruce started raking (1.085 OPS) in his place.

The Mets and Nationals — who sit in third and fourth place, respectively — are running short on time if they want to stage their own comebacks. Our Elo ratings think that Washington (1523) is effectively interchangeable with the Braves (1527) and Phillies (1520) on a talent basis. But even if every remaining game is a coin flip, the Nats’ nine-game deficit will be difficult to dig out of, particularly with three teams ahead of them in the division race and six teams running ahead for the second wild card. Meanwhile, New York’s roster is a cut below (1508 Elo) regardless of its many offseason moves — and that’s in spite of breakout performances from Pete Alonso (on pace for 5.5 WAR), Jeff McNeil (3.5) and Dominic Smith (2.9).

For some hope, perhaps the Nats and Mets can look to Philly’s beneficial early luck in both close games (worth three extra wins) and sequencing (worth another four wins) as a sign that the Phillies might fall off the pace set by their 39-32 record. But the Braves have few such holes to poke in their resume, and the gap between the East’s top two and next two (5½ games) looks daunting as the second half of the season approaches.

Maybe that means the 2019 National League could be shaping up to look a little like 1993 all over again, when the Braves and Phillies battled all season for NL supremacy. Atlanta was stocked with Hall of Famers and still relatively early in a dynasty that would ultimately span into the mid-2000s; Philadelphia had a motley group of mulleted upstarts who weren’t supposed to contend but ended up winning 97 games. This time, the roles could be recast with Soroka playing Greg Maddux, Harper as Lenny Dykstra (a stark contrast in conduct but not talent), Realmuto as Darren Daulton and Acuña as Ron Gant.

Back in ’93, a Braves-Phillies NLCS determined a spot in the World Series. This year, the ever-dominant Dodgers (to whom our model assigns a near-certain playoff probability and a 103-win projection) will probably have something to say about the pennant. But the East, at the very least, appears to run through Atlanta and Philadelphia again.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Averaging the two versions found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  2. Harper’s on-base plus slugging of .820 is his lowest since 2016, and his WAR remains decent but not great — despite improved defensive numbers. (He’s been 1.5 runs better than an average right fielder this season.)

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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