NLDS Preview: Atlanta Braves vs. Philadelphia Phillies

Ronald Acuña Jr. Bryce Harper
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies summarily dispatched the Marlins in two games this week in the wild card round, setting up a rematch with the Braves in the NLDS. On paper, Atlanta is the superior team, one that topped the majors with 104 wins this season and won the NL East by 14 games over Philadelphia. But playoff series aren’t won on paper, and baseball is the coin-tossiest of the major sports; its playoffs aren’t about crowning the best team, but the winning team — two correlated yet different things. The Braves had a 14-win advantage over the Phillies last year, too, and that didn’t keep Philadelphia from sending Atlanta back home on a midnight plane to Georgia in four games. The Phillies could easily do it again.

The Phillies didn’t come away with a championship in 2022, but anyone claiming that they had an unsuccessful season should have their pants checked for fire-related damage. Knocking out the Braves ought to have given them significant satifaction last year, given how Atlanta had come out on top in recent seasons. Both teams spent much of the mid-to-late 2010s in rebuilding processes, but the Braves had considerably more success; their 2022 playoff appearance was their fifth in as many seasons. Philadelphia, on the other hand, had trouble developing impact players at the rate Atlanta did; 2022’s postseason run was the franchise’s first in 11 years.

So how will the rematch go? Let’s start with the current projections:

ZiPS Playoff Projection, Braves vs. Phillies
Team Win in Three Win in Four Win in Five Victory
Braves 15.5% 24.5% 19.1% 59.1%
Phillies 9.7% 13.6% 17.7% 40.9%

Atlanta is favored to win the five-game series, but not with overwhelming odds. The Braves could definitely go home in a week still having never defeated the Phillies in a playoff series.

These probabilities will likely change a small amount as we get closer to the Game 1 and have more clarity on the Atlanta’s plans. At press time, it seems likely that Max Fried will start Game 2 after pitching in a simulated game on Tuesday. But blisters can be annoying, and until the Braves confirm that he will be the starter, I’m being conservative with their usage. I also don’t necessarily think that Game 2 would be his guaranteed debut; given that they were uncertain whether he’d even be available a week ago, I’m not sure they wouldn’t feel safer with Bryce Elder being the one set up to come back on four days’ rest in a possible Game 5. The Phillies could pitch Zack Wheeler on four days’ rest before going back to Ranger Suárez, but again, I held off on that given that the team has had a lot of faith in the latter in the past.

In any case, I’ll re-roll the projections with Fried in Game 2 and both Wheeler and Fried starting in Game 5:

ZiPS Playoff Projection, Braves vs. Phillies (With Fried)
Team Win in Three Win in Four Win in Five Victory
Braves 18.9% 25.7% 21.6% 66.2%
Phillies 7.6% 12.3% 14.0% 33.8%

Fried’s availability is one of the biggest X-factors in this series, so I’m eager to see the matchups at least written in pencil. The difference between getting him for two starts and getting a second Elder start and perhaps a start from AJ Smith-Shawver is a significant one (ZiPS prefers Allan Winans to Smith-Shawver, but I don’t think he’s the one who’ll get the nod). There’s also an open question as to who the Phillies would start in a possible Game 4. I think it’s unlikely that Taijuan Walker makes a start this postseason, and Cristopher Sánchez worked deep into a lot of games in the second half, mostly successfully.

With Charlie Morton on the shelf and Kyle Wright still getting back to normal after missing significant time with a shoulder injury, the Phillies with their top three of Wheeler, Aaron Nola, and Suárez are the Braves’ match when it comes to starting pitching. It’s gotten surprisingly little press, but the Phillies actually lead the majors in pitching WAR in 2023, and the bullpen was nearly up to the same standard, finishing third in WAR and sixth in total ERA. Craig Kimbrel is the name reliever, but José Alvarado is the scariest of the short relievers at this point, having mostly conquered the command issues that once plagued him. Jeff Hoffman has quietly been one of the year’s best signings. He isn’t the only way the Phillies have matched teams like the Rays or Dodgers in bullpen cleverness; Matt Strahm has continued to be very solid in myriad roles, and the team showed real ambition by trusting Orion Kerkering in the majors so quickly. Gregory Soto’s ERA isn’t impressive, but in many ways, he’s much closer to being a pitcher than a thrower than ever before; he was hit a lot less hard than in 2022 and shaved off a third of his walk rate. Atlanta has a very deep bullpen, but if you’re just talking the top five or six guys — and that’s what you’re talking about in October — I think the differences between the two teams are fairly small here.

Where Atlanta has an advantage is the lineup. Philly’s lineup is hardly punchless, finishing fourth in the NL in runs scored despite no Rhys Hoskins and not having Bryce Harper available to start the season. But the Braves’ lineup was the class of MLB this season, leading the league by nearly 50 runs. The last time a team scored more than Atlanta’s 947 runs was the Yankees all the way back in 2007. Nor is it a team that fattened up their bottom line in handful of big blowouts:

Games Scoring Three Runs or Fewer, Wild Card Era
Team Season Games W L
Mariners 1996 36 6 30
Braves 2023 37 9 28
Red Sox 2004 39 7 32
Yankees 2019 40 6 34
Twins 2019 41 10 31
Yankees 2009 41 11 30
Yankees 2007 42 6 36
Blue Jays 2003 43 3 40
Red Sox 2003 44 8 36
Athletics 2001 44 11 33
Indians 2001 44 6 38
Indians 1999 44 8 36
Indians 1996 44 11 33
Phillies 2007 45 4 41
Red Sox 2005 45 9 36
Indians 2000 45 9 36
White Sox 2000 45 9 36
Yankees 1998 45 16 29
Rockies 1996 45 3 42
Red Sox 2019 46 5 41
Yankees 2018 46 11 35
Cardinals 2004 46 13 33
Giants 2000 46 12 34
Rockies 1997 46 3 43
Yankees 2006 47 10 37
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Excluding the shortened seasons (1994, ’95, 2020), only the 1996 Mariners failed to score more than three runs less often than the 2023 Braves. Nor is there any particularly exploitable weakness. The Braves had the best wRC+ in the league against both lefties and righties. They were in the top five in value against all categories in pitches. The data isn’t tracked, but I’m sure they’d score runs in a box, with a fox, on a train, or in the rain. The least productive offensive player in their starting lineup, Orlando Arcia, still hit .264/.321/.420, an above-average triple-slash for a shortstop.

While I’m suspicious of chopping up data into smaller and smaller tranches, which has dubious predictive value, it’s at least worth seeing if the Phillies had a particular knack for shutting down high-scoring offenses. So I looked at each pitching staff against the top six teams in runs scored (Braves, Dodgers, Rangers, Rays, Rangers, Astros, and Cubs).

Team Pitching against the Top Six Offenses, 2023
Braves 4.06 .318
Astros 4.10 .325
Twins 4.13 .318
Padres 4.18 .305
Giants 4.24 .303
Orioles 4.25 .311
Rays 4.31 .309
Cubs 4.33 .308
Yankees 4.45 .320
Diamondbacks 4.51 .330
Brewers 4.56 .320
Mariners 4.60 .311
Guardians 4.62 .329
Blue Jays 4.92 .336
Dodgers 4.94 .340
Phillies 5.06 .334
Cardinals 5.12 .353
Mets 5.31 .347
White Sox 5.44 .346
Nationals 5.52 .357
Athletics 5.57 .353
Red Sox 5.66 .354
Marlins 5.66 .362
Royals 5.67 .340
Angels 5.75 .352
Reds 5.98 .369
Pirates 5.98 .345
Tigers 6.00 .357
Rangers 6.57 .371
Rockies 7.05 .397

The Phillies didn’t demonstrate a particular ability for stopping high-octane teams, nor did they show any particular talent at shutting down the Braves. But that’s not something I would worry about; sometimes things are just interesting rather than particularly meaningful!

At the end of the day, the Braves enter the NLDS as favorites over the Phillies, but by a relatively slim margin. As dominating as they have been this season, if they treat the Phillies as a speed bump rather than a real threat, they may live to regret it — again.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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4 months ago

The Games Scoring Three Runs… chart is confusing. It has a Wins column that equals the total of W+L…not sure how that works

4 months ago
Reply to  shalgrim

it’s supposed to be total games