Is the NL East a Two-Team Race?

June 21, 2019

 

Neil Paine recently posted an article at FiveThrityEight titled "Turns Out the NL East Didn’t Have Four Very Good Teams."

As you can guess from the headline, the article discusses how the NL East race, widely expected to be a four-team battle this year, has turned into a two-team race between the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies.

I certainly don’t disagree with those points. The National League East felt like a toss-up coming into the season, and at this moment it seems like the Braves and Phillies are building a comfortable distance between themselves and their rivals in New York and D.C.

But there are two points where my views of where things stand in the NL East diverge at least a little from the broader consensus.

The first challenge I’d make is to the notion that there are even two very good teams in the NL East.

The Braves are a good team: Atlanta has a near-embarrassment of talented young players, and they’ve shown a good capacity to know how to manage that talent: when to wait-it-out with a developing player (Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies) and when to change things up to allow a struggling player the chance to succeed in a different capacity (Sean Newcomb).  Atlanta has loads of talent, and they have enough organizational smarts to know how to utilize that talent.

The Philadelphia Phillies have an impressive 39-32 W-L record at this writing, but aside from Rhys Hoskins and the surprisingly brilliance of Zach Elfin (2.81 ERA), this team has had more disappointments than successes. Bryce Harper has under-impressed in his first year as a Philly. Aaron Nola has lost the control that saw him finish third in the 2019 NL Cy Young vote. Jake Arrieta and Nick Pivetta have underperformed, and the bullpen has been mostly a mess. J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura are playing below their abilities, and the great Andrew McCutchen, after a promising start, is gone for the season. Even counting the surprising success of Scott Kingrey (.66 slugging percentage), the Phillies have a ratio of two or three disappointments to every success.

And it shows in their record. The Phillies have scored 346 runs, and they’ve allowed 340, a negligible difference. It is possible that the Phillies will have all of their players round into form to become a great team, but right now it is more accurate to call the Phillies a good team with better luck.

But – and this is my second challenge – if a team winds up challenging the Braves down the stretch, I am not convinced it will be the Phillies. I think the Mets and Nationals still have a chance to give us the four-team battle that most of us were expecting.

*             *             *

 

Let’s start with the Mets.

I have not been kind to the Mets in recent years. This is principally because the Mets organization has made decisions that have utterly baffled me. I have very little faith that the people tasked with making decision for this organization have any real knowledge about baseball, nor any structuring strategy guiding their efforts. Lacking those, they don’t have the good manners to just get out of the way long enough to let a very good core of players win baseball games.

My specific frustration with the Mets in recent years has been their steady effort to construct a lineup capable of leading the NL in homeruns while finishing last in batting average and runs scored. I watch a lot of Mets baseball - mostly because I enjoy their broadcasters – and I cannot tell you have many times I've seen the Mets come to bat in the middle innings of a close game, at a moment when the opposing starter is tiring and the pendulum of the game is begging to tilt to their favor, only to watch the Mets hitters go up hacking early, everyone swinging for the fences. The hitters usually wind up with a couple warning track flyouts in the span of thirty seconds, and then the pendulum has swung the other way, and Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard is back out on the mound, having barely caught their breath.  

I have spent the better part of the last few seasons wondering why no one making decisions on the team had any notion that offense can also be generated by getting on base, by making contact, by running, and by working a count to get the pitch you want. More glaring, the Mets don’t seem to understand that a team playing half their games in a tough park for homeruns must to have an offense capable of creating runs without homeruns...capable of creating runs on some combination of walks, hits, speed, and contact.

The Mets organization hasn’t gotten any smarter. Instead, they’ve gotten lucky. They lucked into having the talents of Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, and the extremely underrated Jeff McNeil show up, and they’ve lucked into a series of injuries (thanks, horse!) that has forced the team into giving those players a chance to play. In return, the quartet has given the Mets something the team hasn’t had in years: an offense that has the capacity to wear out pitchers and generate runs.

The Mets offense has changed significantly for the better, and while the team’s pitching staff has underperformed from their lofty levels of 2018, it’s not improbable to imagine the Mets having a surge.

While I like the changes the Mets have made, I’m more optimistic about the Nationals chances.

The Nationals have a terrific core of young players in Juan Soto, Trea Turner, and Victor Robles. Surrounding them is perennial MVP candidate Anthony Rendon and the very capable Adam Eaton, Howie Kendrick, and Brian Dozier. Their pitching rotation has to rank as one of the best in baseball: Scherzer, Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Erick Fedde. Their closer is Sean Doolittle, who is terrific.

The Nationals haven’t started scoring runs yet, but they will: this is an offense that can generate runs in any way a situation demands. Tie game? This team has players who can steal a base and get into scoring position? Down three? This team has guys who can get on base, and guys who can knock them in with a homerun.

The Nationals run differential isn’t any different than the Phillies (352-351 for the Nats, 346-340 for the Phillies)…the gap in the standings in wider than the gap in true talent.

The Nationals biggest problem has been their bullpen: aside from Doolittle, no one has really stepped up to lock down the later innings. That is a problem, but if you’re looking for problems to solve, trying to find middle relievers down the stretch run is a lot easier than trying to find someone like Soto or Turner or Rendon.

*             *             *

 

So I think the NL East is still a division up-for-grabs: while the Braves are the strong leaders right now, it’s too soon to discount the Nationals and Mets.

I’m going to close this article with a non-analytic comment: I think Andrew McCutchen’s injury was a significant blow to the Phillies, not merely in terms of what he was doing on the field, but in terms of who he is, and the kind of team the Phillies are.

The Phillies are a young team. Their manager, Gabe Kapler, is very smart, but he is very intense. Their star player is Bryce Harper, who can also be categorized as ‘intense.’ Jake Arrieta is intense.

The stars on baseball teams aren’t always the leaders, but they are, for better or worse, the locus of attention. The Phillies have an overabundance of very intense people at the center of attention, and while intensity is a fine quality for a baseball player, too much can break a team.

I don’t know Andrew McCutchen, but I suspect that his presence on the Phillies was useful in breaking up that intensity a little bit. Gabe Kapler can obsess over spreadsheets, and Harper can bitch about an umpire calling a low strike…and McCutchen could deflect a little bit of that intensity.

I’ve played on teams with people who were intensely competitive, people who channeled that intensity outward, and it doesn’t take a lot for that to sour a team. There is something about intensity that seems selfish, that seems antithetical to ‘team’, and it is useful to have some counter to that. If Harper is sulking in the dugout, it helps to have someone on his level capable of cracking a joke when the other players are looking around wondering how they should react.

This is pure speculation, but I think Andrew McCutchen was that person in Philadelphia: he was the balance for a team that has a lot of intense people in the camera’s line of vision. He was the release valve to the pressure: I think the Phillies are going to miss that.

If the Phillies wind up tail-spinning down the stretch, a lot of us in the sabermetric community will attribute that failure to his absence at the top of the lineup. Maybe that’s most of it – certainly that’s all we can count and approximate – but I think McCutchen’s value to the Phillies goes far beyond what he did in the batter’s box. I think his absence will keep the Phillies out of the playoffs.

 

David Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments and questions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. You can follow him on Twitter at DavidFlemingJ1.

 
 
 

COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)

evanecurb
Nats bullpen gave up two runs in top of tenth against Braves; they scored one in the bottom. Atlanta takes Two of three. Braves now 8.5 games I had of Washington and 7.5 ahead of the Phillies.
9:24 PM Jun 23rd
 
DaveNJnews
If Gabe Kapler were to be fired within the next 24 hours, it would not surprise me at all.
2:30 PM Jun 23rd
 
DaveNJnews
The Phillies have really crashed and burned.
I think there is some truth to what you are saying about McCutchen. Without him, the team seems really mangled up.


7:25 AM Jun 23rd
 
evanecurb
Nats’ bullpen blew a four run lead against the Braves tonight. There’s not an easy fix for a bullpen that is this bad. Historically bad. They need to make wholesale changes or they can kiss the season goodbye.
2:39 AM Jun 23rd
 
garywmaloney
Went to the Nats-Braves game last night -- God, what a loaded lineup for the Braves. Hitter after hitter with .600 SAs ! F. Freddie Freeman batting third! Albies was the #8 hitter, and he was solid.

But the Nats scratched out a win. Up 4-3 going into the 9th, they handed the ball NOT to Doolittle, but Wander Suero, a fireballer with a 5-plus ERA, who promptly allowed two baserunners. At this point, to our chagrin, Martinez had NO ONE up in the pen! (A couple batters later, he got up Mark Grace - he of the 6-plus ERA.) But Suero wriggled out of it, and Robles ended the game by catching a bloop into short right.

Nats now 18-7 in last 25 games . . .
8:25 AM Jun 22nd
 
evanecurb
At a beat the Braves tonight. 6.5 out. Phillies lost; only two ahead of Washington.
11:01 PM Jun 21st
 
DaveFleming
Yeah, I started writing this article as that series was getting started, and didn't get it posted until today. That certainly helps things.
6:43 PM Jun 21st
 
evanecurb
Nats swept the Phillies this week. Three game series with Atlanta starting tonight. Currently 7 1/2 behind Atlanta, 3 behind Philadelphia. Not yet in the race but closer than they were three weeks ago when they were 13 games below .500.
3:56 PM Jun 21st
 
 
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