The Washington Nationals were supposed to win the NL East running away this year, but Philly and Atlanta have shocked the baseball world by holding onto the top two spots all the way into August.
Fans of National League baseball can strap in for an exciting finish to the 2018 season. Each division is currently too close to call and figures to go right down to the wire. I want to focus on the NL East race for this piece. I am going to analyze each team to get an idea of who the smart bet is to take home the division title in September.
|Record||Win %||GB||Current Odds to Win Division|
Nationals Can’t Get It Going
Beginning the season at -500 odds to win the NL East, the Nationals have to be considered a big disappointment as they currently sit in third place just three games over .500. At 57-54, Washington is on pace to win just 83 games. This would be way behind their projected preseason win total of 94.5. The Nationals were supposed to dominate their division and coast into the playoffs but instead find themselves needing a big streak just to pull back to even with the division leaders.
The Nationals have not played terribly well, but the both of the teams in front of them have exceeded their low expectations. Philadelphia is currently on pace to win 91 games despite being projected for just 77.5 wins. Likewise, Atlanta will win 90 games at their current pace and blow their projected 75.5 win total out of the water.
When Washington fell behind in the standings in April and May, every expert acknowledged that the Braves and Phillies looked good then but could not possibly sustain their high level play over the course of the entire season. Echoing that sentiment were Vegas oddsmakers who refused to name anyone but Washington the division favorites until not too long ago when the Nationals were still below .500 approaching the All-Star break.
It is now clear that Washington will have to start winning if they hope to make the playoffs. They cannot simply wait for Atlanta and Philly to lose. The Nationals are all in to win this season with the fifth-highest payroll in the MLB.
On paper, the Nationals have plenty of big names in their starting rotation, but only one of these players has performed well on the field this year. That player is Max Scherzer, of course, and he is a front runner for the NL Cy Young with his terrific line which is shown below.
The Nats were counting on big seasons from Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark, and Gio Gonzalez but the trio has underperformed, all holding losing records and ERA’s right around four.
Unfortunately for the Nationals, Scherzer cannot start every game. Having an ace like him can be a major asset in a short postseason series, but the Nationals are in danger of not reaching that point. With the two teams they need to catch both playing well, the odds are not in Washington’s favor.
The Nationals’ bullpen has been stellar in 2018, ranking in the MLB’s top ten in both ERA and batting average against. The problem is that Washington has had trouble getting to their pen with the lead due to the struggles of their starters.
Offensively, the Nationals have been carried by the efforts of five key hitters. Anthony Rendon, Matt Adams, and Bryce Harper have been the big boppers, combining for 62 home runs. Rookie Juan Soto and speedy shortstop Trea Turner have both homered 14 times while scoring large amounts of runs in limited at-bats.
What Happened to Harper?
The most frustrating player on the Nationals has easily been their star outfielder Bryce Harper. In 2017, Harper batted a career-best .319 with 29 home runs and 87 RBI’s despite batting just 420 times due to a knee injury. Being his contract year, fans were expecting even bigger things coming into 2018.
Harper rocketed out of the gates in April, posting exceptional lines over the first couple of weeks of the 2018 season. Through twenty games, Harper was hitting .315 with a league-leading eight home runs. Although he is a lifetime .279 hitter, his high average in 2017 and his hot start to 2018 led many to believe that Harper was now capable of hitting well into the .300’s. His walk rate during this stretch was also phenomenal, sitting at 26.9% while his strikeout rate was just 14.1%. That absurdly high walk rate was nearly double his career average while his strikeout rate was well below his career average of 20.9%.
Since that hot start, Harper has underwhelmed at the plate. He is still walking at a high rate, 16.5%, but his strikeout rate has nearly doubled to 27.2%. What accounts for these poor discipline numbers? His 2018 chase rate is 27.5% which is actually three percentage points lower than his career average and lower than the mark from his stellar 2017 season. Harper is not chasing more pitches than he normally does, so what is he doing wrong?
The scary thing is that while he is not chasing more frequently, he is chasing with less success. Throughout his career, Harper has made contact with 60.9% of the pitches he has left the zone to swing at. In 2018, he has made contact with just 51.9% of these pitches. Harper does walk an awful lot. In fact, he leads the National League. It appears that he may be pressing and attempting to do too much at the plate, causing him to chase worse pitches than he did in the past.
While chasing pitches can be attributed to poor decisions and approaches, it is very alarming that Harper’s contact rate has also fallen on pitches in the strike zone. His Z-contact%, which measures this, is nearly five percentage points lower than his career average. Not only is Harper leaving the zone too often, but he is frequently getting beat on pitches in the zone, something that never used to happen.
Harper needs to realize that he has help in the lineup and does not need to be the hero each time he steps into the box. 19-year-old Juan Soto is leading the Nationals in batting average while Rendon and Adams supply plenty of power. The Nationals have other threats. Harper does not need to put the team on his back.
Harper’s batting average currently stands at .234 while his on-base percentage is a measly .380. This is unacceptable considering that Harper leads the league in walks. He needs to stop chasing, take his base, and trust his teammates to drive him in. If Harper continues to struggle in the middle of the Nats lineup, it will be difficult for them to gain ground on the division leaders.
When Did Philly Get Good?
Leading the division into August, the Phillies can no longer be considered just a hot-start team. They are a legitimate contender. Unless you closely follow the Phillies, you may find yourself wondering who they have on their team that is playing so well.
The Phillies’ offense features five players with 15+ home runs. These players account for most of the Phillies’ production this season. Despite their efforts, Philadelphia has struggled to score runs and ranks 20th in the MLB in this category.
A common trend for the Phillies all season long has been their inability to put the ball in play. Their offense is second in the league in walk rate, which sounds great until you see that they also have the third-highest strikeout rate. They are getting plenty of baserunners from all the walks but struggle to score because walking seems to be the only aspect of offense Philly is good at.
At just .235, the Phillies are tied for the second-lowest batting average in the league. This means that they are not going to have many rallies where they string multiple hits together. This is okay if you can steal bases and get into scoring position frequently, but Philadelphia does not steal much, totalling the third-lowest amount in the NL.
If you cannot play small ball and manufacture runs, you must be able to hit home runs and score in bunches. The Phillies rank 15th in homers, which is not great and accounts for their below average run production.
It has been the pitching that has carried the Phillies to first place. The team’s 3.74 ERA is good for first in the division and sixth-best in the entire MLB. The Phillies also rank in the top-ten of batting average against, strikeouts, and walks issued. They are paced by their ace, the 25-year-old Aaron Nola. Finally putting together a successful full season, Nola has emerged as one of the game’s brightest young pitchers. Veteran Jake Arrieta is also pulling his weight while Vince Velasquez is posting the best numbers of his young career.
These starters comprise a formidable 1-2-3 punch and are to thank for the Phillies’ recent success. After figuring out the back end of their bullpen, the Phillies can now also effectively shorten games by relying on the newfound confidence of their relievers. A look at the Phillies’ ERA by month in 2018 paints a picture of their season:
Much of the blame for the team’s June struggles can be placed on the then-closer Hector Neris. Neris began the season closing games for the Phillies but had a hard time doing his job. The 29-year-old posted a 6.90 ERA and a 1.53 WHIP in 30 innings, blowing 3 of his 13 save chances. He was removed from the closer role in June and sent to the minors, helping to account for the Phillies’ recovery in July.
This team is getting hot at the right time. Pitching wins games late in the season and that is exactly what this team is built around. The main concern is the youth of some of Philadelphia’s key pitchers. While Arrieta has been dominant in the past, Nola and Velasquez have yet to finish a season without going through an extended rough patch.
In the bullpen, the Phillies’ best options have been the 23-year-olds Victor Arano and Seranthony Dominguez and the 25-year-old Edubray Ramos. Philadelphia is banking on these youngsters continuing to dominate, but history tells us that is a risky proposition.
Atlanta vs. Everybody
Picked by Vegas to finish fourth in the division, the Atlanta Braves have held onto first place for much of the season but now find themselves in second. Just like the Phillies, Atlanta has been carried by excellent seasons from their top-three starting pitchers. The 26-year-old Mike Foltynewicz is breaking out with the best season of his young career as is the 25-year-old Sean Newcomb. Anibal Sanchez is a 12-year veteran who has resurrected his career with Atlanta and is on pace for his first winning season since 2014.
The Braves’ pen has also been phenomenal with five big arms putting up huge numbers. Arodys Vizcaino has settled into his role as the closer and now carries a sub-two ERA. Dan Winkler and A.J. Minter are both striking out over ten batters per nine innings while keeping their ERA’s below three. The following chart shows the stats of the Braves’ five key bullpen arms:
Having shut down pitchers in the back of your pen is key to shortening and winning games. Atlanta boasts the lowest bullpen ERA in the division which should prevent the team from fading down the stretch.
Offensively, the Braves are paced by their three best hitters. Freddie Freeman is a perennial all-star who is simply living up to expectations. The 12-year veteran Nick Markakis made his first all-star game this year and is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career. The 20-year-old second baseman Ozzie Albies has been a wonderful surprise for Atlanta, leading the team in home runs and runs scored in his first full MLB season.
The Braves’ offense has also received some production from youngsters Ronald Acuna Jr. and Dansby Swanson. This duo has combined for 20 home runs and 69 RBI’s thus far. Freeman and Markakis are experienced vets, but the Braves’ other top hitters have yet to prove they can produce for an entire season.
I really like to look at one-run wins when predicting end of season and postseason success. They give you an idea about how clutch a team is and whether or not they are built for postseason, pressure-packed baseball. The league average thus far in the 2018 MLB season is to have 27.7% of your wins be by one run. As you can see, the Phillies win a lot of close games:
|% of Wins by 1 run|
The fact that the Phillies win a lot of one-run games is crucial because, with their offense, they are not going to blow many teams out. Just as important as securing one-run wins are avoiding one-run losses. The following table will show you these teams’ records in one-run games thus far in 2018:
|Record in 1-run Games||Win % in 1-run Games|
Not surprisingly, the Nationals choke in close games. This is undoubtedly a major factor in their inability to get over the hump and gain ground on the division leaders. With how much the Phillies’ hitters strike out, it is amazing that they play so well in close contests. I like the Braves’ chances moving forward. They have a deep lineup, a strong bullpen, and have proved they can perform under pressure.
The Braves are in the midst of a brutal stretch of 58 games played over 60 days. This has required them to adopt a six-man rotation. Those September call-ups cannot come fast enough for Atlanta who will desperately need the added bullpen depth.
I decided to begin by looking at two different aspects of the remaining schedule for these teams. The first is their remaining games against teams above .500 and the second is their remaining games at home. The following chart breaks this down:
|Remaining Games||% vs Winning Teams||% at Home|
Three things jump out at me here. The Phillies have the least games to play and the easiest remaining schedule. Also, the Nationals’ remaining schedule is absolutely brutal. They play some very tough teams, mostly on the road, while their division foes get majority home games. Advantage Phillies here.
The quickest way to make up ground in a division race is to beat your opponent head-to-head. Thus far in the season, the Braves have winning records against both the Nationals and Phillies while Washington has losing records against both teams.
Each statistic I pull up makes the Nationals’ situation appear even more bleak. They cannot win close games and they cannot beat the teams they are battling with for the division. Washington plays 16 of their remaining 51 games against either the Phillies or Braves, giving them plenty of chances to catch up – or to fall further behind.
I say this because the Nationals seem to play much worse against Philly and Atlanta. This chart will show you what I mean:
|Record||Runs For/Against||BB/9 Allowed||K/9 While Batting|
|vs Braves/Phillies||9-13||4.28 / 4.68||3.32||9.08|
|vs Everyone Else||47-41||4.63 / 3.82||2.67||7.69|
With numbers like this, I have an extremely difficult time believing in Washington to make a comeback. I am sure that makes you wonder who I am predicting to come out of the East. Are you ready for it? …. Philadelphia!
Here is a quick bullet list summary of my reasons (which I have mentioned previously):
- I believe Harper will continue to struggle and the Nats will not make a push
- Vegas has the Phillies as the current favorite which is a big plus
- The Phillies are getting hot at the right time
- The Phillies have a much easier remaining schedule than the gauntlet that both the Braves and Nats face
- The Phillies offset their high strikeout rate by drawing many walks
- The Phillies are scrappy and find ways to win close games
Learn from my analysis and do your own research to predict the NL East winner. With plus odds on each team, you can cash in big if you choose correctly!
All statistics accurate as of 03:00 ET 8-7-18 and courtesy of Killersports.com, Fangraphs.com, and ESPN.com