This is baseball, which can be weird, and we’re Atlanta, where no sure thing is ever sure. (I’m thinking of 28-3; you are, too.) There’s your disclaimer. Now hear this:
I will be surprised – nay, shocked – if these Braves don’t win their division.
They’re way past being a cute story. They’ve been a good team since … heck, since opening day. As of Friday afternoon, they were 68-52. (The worst-to-first Braves of 1991 were 66-54 after 120 games.) They were first in the National League in runs and run differential, second in OPS, third in starting pitchers’ ERA. Before the season’s first pitch, Baseball Prospectus assigned them an 8.2 percent chance of winning the East; they’re at 63.3 percent now.
Maybe it’s just me, but the latter number sounds low. Washington has spit the bit; with 40 games to go, the Nationals were a .500 team. Philadelphia has run in lockstep with the Braves all season and is writing a similar story – rebuilding team breaks upward a year sooner than expected. That said, I don’t think the Phillies are as good as the Braves. I’m guessing the final six weeks will bear that out.
It’s not enough to say that the Phillies have no Freddie Freeman, no Nick Markakis, no Ozzie Albies, no Ronald Acuna. If we go by Baseball-Reference WAR, the Phils have no position player as good as Johan Camargo. Cesar Hernandez is Philly’s top-rated everyday guy; he’d be sixth among Braves. Rhys Hoskins is second in WAR among Philly regulars; he’d be 10th among Braves.
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No, the Braves have no pitcher to match Aaron Nola, who’s better than good. But they have a lower starters’ ERA than the Phillies. (Philly’s bullpen is better, though only seventh-best in the league; the Braves’ is ninth.) There’s a reason the Phils were believed to have made a much stronger pitch for Manny Machado than the Braves did – they’re the team out of plumb.
As of Friday, the Braves were hitting .262 with an on-base percentage of .325. The Phillies were hitting .236 with an OBP of .317 – both below league-average. The Braves had outscored opponents by 95 runs; the Phillies had outscored opponents by 14 runs. (Granted, a 24-4 loss to the wretched Mets on Thursday shrank that total.) If we go by Pythagorean wins/losses, the Braves should be three games better than they are; the Phils should be five games worse.
If the Phillies prevail, it will be because of their schedule. They have 18 games left against sub-.500 teams, 12 in September. The Braves have seven games remaining against sub-.500 teams, three in September. Once past next week’s set in Miami, here’s the Braves’ slate – two in Tampa, makeup game against the Cubs, three with Pittsburgh, three with Boston, four at Arizona, three at San Francisco, three with Washington, three with the Cardinals, four with the Phillies, two at the Mets and three in Philly. That’s a rough road.
Baseball Prospectus’ simulations have the Braves winning 90.1 games, the Phillies 88.2. The guess is that the final margin will be wider than that. A hallmark of these Braves is how a team not expected to break .500 has carried itself with an air of expectancy. Talent can have that effect. Simply put, the Braves have more good players than the Phillies.
The Braves look around their clubhouse and see Freeman and Markakis, proud pros having big years, and Albies and Acuna, youngsters who can win games by themselves. They didn’t have to add Asdrubal Cabrera, Justin Bour and Wilson Ramos in the attempt to scare up runs; the Braves have been scoring at a goodly clip for 4-1/2 months. Deadline acquisition Kevin Gausman has done what he was brought here to do – stabilized a rotation beset by injury. And don’t look now, but Julio Teheran has worked two strong starts in succession.
This isn’t to knock the Phillies: They’ve had a nice year, and they’re positioned to make the playoffs even if they don’t win the East. I wouldn’t want to face Nola in the wild-card game, or Nola/Jake Arrieta/Vince Velasquez in a best-of-five Division Series. (Nick Pivetta peaked before Memorial Day.) But their offensive issues are such that their margin for error is thin. I can’t see them finishing first.
I can see the Braves doing it. They hit better than Philly, pitch just as well and catch the ball at a much higher rate. (The Phillies have made 93 errors, the Braves 62.) The previous Braves’ administration always felt that they’d stolen a march on Philadelphia in the reboot race, that the Phils waited too long to break up the Howard/Utley/Rollins/Hamels/Lee axis. I’d say that still holds.
Both teams have sunny futures. Both teams are ahead of schedule. The Braves, however, are further ahead. Come nightfall Sept. 30, they’ll be ahead in standings.