Sure enough, the Braves again seem the class of the NL East

Remember the offseason, when everyone – OK, not quite everyone — was sure the Braves had been caught and passed by the three other National League East teams who matter? Remember how the reigning division champs were being picked to finish third if not fourth this time? Remember who insisted the Braves were still the team to beat?

Your flouter of conventional wisdom — or mass panic, take your pick — is back today to say: Look now. The Braves lead the East by three games over Philadelphia, and the Mets and the Nationals are so far back (8-1/2 and nine games, respectively) a bad week could spell the end for either. FanGraphs assigns the Braves a 71.8 percent chance of winning the division and projects them to win 90.6 games. The next-closest Eastern team is projected to win 83.7.

Boilerplate time: Baseball seasons last forever, and we can’t get carried away with any single series, week or fortnight. (Remember the handwringing when the Braves started 0-3 in Philly?) Fourteen games remain against both the Phillies and Mets; 17 remain — 17! — against the Nats. That said, the Braves are 28-14 since May 13 and 13-3 in June. They won’t win 10 of every 11 from here to October, but the team we see today bears scant resemblance to the Braves of April. On the contrary, these look an awful lot like the Braves of 2018.

Through 73 games last season, the Braves were 43-30. That’s where they sit today. After 73 games a year ago, they led the East by 3-1/2 games; they wound up winning the division by eight. It could well happen again.

We’ve been using the words “small sample size” when sifting through stats. Well, we’re nearing the point when sample sizes aren’t so small. As of Tuesday morning, the Braves were eight games from the seasonal midpoint. Numbers are starting to mean something. With no further ado, here are some numbers.

The Braves rank second among NL clubs in runs; they’ve bettered the second highest-scoring NL East club by 46. They lead the league in OPS; the second-highest Easterner ranks seventh. They lead the East in home runs, batting average and on-base percentage. Remember when we kept saying this was remained the best everyday eight in the division? Anyone care to argue?

Pitching, as we know, hasn’t been such a smooth ride. Closer Arodys Vizcaino is lost for the duration. Starter Kevin Gausman was so bad the Braves had to hunt to find some physical reason to stash him on the injured list. (They found plantar fasciitis. Up next: halitosis.) Both rotation and bullpen have had major issues, and yet … the Braves lead the East in overall ERA and, miracle of miracles, relievers’ ERA. The starters’ ERA could stand an uptick, and here we note: Dallas Keuchel is scheduled to make his first big-league start as a Brave on Friday.

This being baseball, where stuff always goes wrong, it’s possible the Braves could relapse into their April malaise. The Phillies’ rotation could stabilize — know who ranks second-worst among qualifying NL starters in ERA? Aaron Nola – and the 36-year-old Robinson Cano could do something/anything for the Mets and the Nats could nose above .500 for the first time since April 18. Those teams, however, have a problem the Braves don’t have. Namely, those teams aren’t the Braves, who have more good players than any other Eastern club.

It was that way last year, and for all the local winter angst, nothing has changed. The Mets added Cano, who has compiled a minus-0.3 WAR. The Phillies added Bryce Harper, whose 0.5 WAR lags Jay Bruce’s, who didn’t become a Phil until this month. Harper signed for $330 million and is under contract for the next 12 seasons. The Mets are on the hook to pay Cano $120 mil through 2023. Contrast such profligacy with the Braves’ one-time outlay of $23 million for Josh Donaldson, who WAR-wise has been better than big-name Eastern acquisitions Harper, Cano and Nats catcher Yan Gomes combined.

It’s not as if every Eastern purchase has gone bad. Starter Patrick Corbin has a 1.9 WAR for the Nats. Catcher J.T. Realmuto has been the Phillies’ best player; Andrew McCutchen was second-best before tearing an ACL. Closer Edwin Diaz has been OK (but not great) for the Mets. But here we recite the argument made over the winter: Those teams HAD to buy. All finished up the track last season; none had the in-house resources he Braves possess.

The Braves were 49-27 against the East last season, which was why they were division champs. They started this season 2-6 against divisional opposition. They’ve since gone 11-3, which is why they’re back in front. Granted, they’re only 5-8 against the Phillies, Mets and Nats — we say again: thank heaven for Miami — but the Braves have gotten going, and only one of the three wannabes is having a winning June.

The one is Washington, which might be the team to circle. If we go by Pythagorean wins and losses, the Phillies and Mets — and the Braves, too — are slightly better than their run differential suggests they should be. The Nats are way behind theirs, which might indicate they’re due to get lucky.

Then again, the Braves’ third-order winning percentage — a Baseball Prospectus gauge used by the analytic set to determine a team’s true worth — is .561. Nobody else in the East is above .498. The Phils, Mets and Nats will do more buying over the next six weeks, but the hometown nine again seems the class of its division. And Dallas Keuchel, we remind you, hasn’t thrown a real pitch.