Phillies may win NL East, but Braves are virtual locks for wild card

They are on top tier of lackluster NL
Atlanta Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies greets first base coach Tom Goodwin (88) after the final out to end the game as the Braves lose to the Washington Nationals at Truist Park, Thursday, May 30, 2024, in Atlanta. Albies was on second base. The Braves lost 3-1. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Atlanta Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies greets first base coach Tom Goodwin (88) after the final out to end the game as the Braves lose to the Washington Nationals at Truist Park, Thursday, May 30, 2024, in Atlanta. Albies was on second base. The Braves lost 3-1. (Jason Getz / AJC)

While the Braves were playing middling baseball for a month, the Phillies were streaking to a big lead in the National League East. Philadelphia’s advantage stood at 6½ games on the last day of May. There’s a real chance the Braves will see their division championship streak end at six.

That’s significant because division titles are the truest measure of a team and can come with first-round byes in the playoff. But if the Braves lose the division it will end up not mattering much because there’s no way they won’t earn one of three NL wild-card berths. Maybe you didn’t notice while waiting and waiting for the Braves to score more runs, but the NL is looking shabby below the top four teams.

The Phillies are playing great baseball (even the defense is decent if you can believe it). The Dodgers are very good, as usual. I’m not sure about Milwaukee’s pitching, but the Brewers keep winning. Those teams are the division leaders in the NL. The Braves are the best of the rest in the league even though they strained to score runs during a middling May.

The other playoff challengers are the Giants, Padres, Cardinals and Cubs. I don’t see any other NL club that’s got the goods to make the postseason (I used to think the Diamondbacks do, but they’ve since faded). The Braves should feel good about their chances of finishing ahead of those teams.

According to that main FanGraphs projection, the Braves have a 94% chance of making the playoffs. Only the Phillies and Dodgers have higher odds. The forecast is gloomier for the Padres (60%), Giants (42%), Cardinals (38%) and Cubs (36%). The Baseball Prospectus playoff odds differ somewhat with the specific numbers but come to the same general conclusion: The Braves are the class of a five-team race for three wild-card berths.

It’s easy to figure why the statistical models favor the Braves over the others. They have the best pitching staff of the bunch. Braves starers rank tied for fourth in WAR, eighth in ERA and third in FIP (runs allowed with luck stripped out). Braves relievers rank tied for 14th in WAR, fifth in ERA and tied for ninth in FIP.

None of the other wild-card contenders can match that staff. The Giants and Cardinals don’t have many good starters or relievers. The Cubs have good starting pitching, but their bullpen is shaky. The Padres have a strong reliever corps but mediocre starters.

And those teams haven’t scored runs like the Braves when the entire season is the sample size. The Braves got off to a good start at the plate before regressing in May. They still are scoring more runs per game than the Giants, Padres, Cubs and Cardinals. That won’t change so long as Braves hitters break out of their strange funk.

I admit that I expected that to happen by now. It’s still only June, but it’s been surreal to watch nearly every good Braves hitter slump all at once. It’s created bad energy at Truist Park, where the Braves are accustomed to a party.

The home team’s hitters are swinging, missing, striking out and shuffling to the dugout with frustration on their faces. The fans seem to expect rallies to fizzle, and they do. All this was before Ronald Acuña Jr. sustained a season-ending knee injury.

The Braves so far have been getting by with great pitching. They are squandering some of those outings now, and the good pitching may not continue once the runs scored become more plentiful. But the offensive fog will lift eventually. And the truth is the Braves don’t have to be like last year’s record-setting bashers to make the playoffs, where anything can happen.

The Braves surely want to avoid the best-of-three wild-card round. The weird results from last year don’t change that. The Braves and Dodgers lost in the NLDS after earning byes. The Rangers and Diamondbacks made it to the World Series after earning wild cards.

But there are obvious advantages to earning one of the two first-round byes. There’s the math: Luck plays a big role in a best-of-three series, and it’s better to need 11 postseason wins for a World Series title than 13. There’s also the calendar: The teams that earn byes can line up their pitchers how they like for the division series.

The Braves would have to catch the Phillies to have a chance at earning a bye. The NL East winner probably will get one because the Brewers, Cardinals and Cubs are going to beat up on each other in the Central. The problem is that even if the Braves go on a tear, the Phillies finally look capable of holding them off.

If it ends up being a wild card instead of a division title for the Braves, then so be it. They might be cooked already if they played in the other league. Sort MLB teams by run differential and four of the top six are in the AL. The AL’s division leaders (Yankees, Guardians and Mariners) must contend with division rivals (Orioles, Royals and Twins) and legitimate wild-card contenders (Tigers, Red Sox and Rangers).

Luckily for the Braves, they play in the NL. The Braves are still a top-tier team in that league even with the offense sputtering. The Braves will have to start scoring more runs to catch the Phillies. It’s much more likely they’ll do that than miss out on a wild card. The NL East title streak may end, but the Braves will make the postseason one way or the other.