Technically the top two teams in the National League East begin a three-game series at SunTrust Park on Tuesday night. (Those same two teams began a three-game series at SunTrust Park 18 days ago. The MLB schedule is weird.) The Braves lead second-place Philadelphia by 5-1/2 games, but there’s the need for the “technically” caveat. The Phillies no longer appear the division’s second-best team.
Philly was 11-16 in June, a month that saw it lose 8-1/2 games in the standings. It has lost five of its past six series and somehow dropped five consecutive games to the Marlins. Only last week’s four-game sweep of the Mets, who’ve lost four of their past five series and are all but gone as a playoff possibility, kept the Phillies this close.
FanGraphs gives the second-place Phillies a 4.9 percent chance of winning the division and levies their odds of making the playoffs at 25.8 percent. (On June 1, FanGraphs assessed the Phillies’ postseason probability at 52.2 percent.) Meanwhile, the third-place Nationals are assigned a 19.2 percent shot at winning the East and a 61.3 chance of qualifying for postseason.
We mentioned last month that Washington was the NL East team to circle. Sure enough, the Nationals are back above .500. They have the second-best run differential in the East. They’ve begun to perform at the level their Pythagorean won/lost total suggested all along. That said, they’re seven games behind the Braves with more than half a season gone.
From Rian Watt in FanGraphs: “The Braves’ offensive success in June — and the wins against division rivals that came from it — have put them on track for 91 wins according to our Expected Wins, which would be the second-best in the NL behind the Dodgers. They’re not the best team in the NL, and they are slightly overperforming their Pythagorean and BaseRuns records, but they are a heckuva lot better than we thought a month ago.”
(A personal note: I’ve considered the Braves the class of the East from the start, even though they didn’t look the part in April. The Braves’ June hitting, splendid as it was, coincided with a rotational upheaval that saw Mike Foltynewicz demoted and Kevin Gausman disabled and Dallas Keuchel signed. They could and should pitch better than this. If they can’t, they’ll have no chance come October.)
As Watt notes, the Braves played 15 games against NL East opposition in June; they won 11. In so doing, they went from one of four contenders to prohibitive favorite. FanGraphs assesses their chances of winning the East at 75.3 percent. More notable is that Washington, which is 42-41, is now seen as their closest competition, though not that close.
Watt again: “The Braves beating up on the Mets and Phillies in June made it less likely that the Nationals would win the division, yes, but it also made it much more likely that they would win a wild card spot.”
The difference between the Nationals and the Phillies is that the Nats have a rotation. For the longest time, the excellence of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin was undercut by Washington’s worst-in-the-majors bullpen ERA, but it’s unthinkable that a team with a starters’ ERA of 3.72 would flounder forever. (The Braves would take 3.72 in a heartbeat; their rotation’s ERA is 4.63 and is the only reason they’re not 10 games in front. Their bullpen ERA, believe it or not, is the NL’s best.)
For the Phillies, these three games aren’t quite a last stand. There’s still a ways to go. Still, anything less than a series victory would mark a major blow to Philly’s chances. After this week, they’ll have only 10 games remaining against the Braves. The Nationals have 14. I doubt either can catch the Cobb County club, but I remain wary of the #Natitude gang. Of Philly, not so much.