Spring-Training Divisional Outlook: National League East

Previous editions: AL East.

As we sit in the midst of a sneaky good stretch on the sports calendar, with early round WBC and football free agency action underway, it’s time to continue looking ahead to the regular season with the second of six divisional previews.

As we did with the AL East last week, we will use 2016 batted-ball data to get a feel for the true offensive, pitching and defensive talent of all 30 clubs, while reviewing key player movement and under-the-radar strengths and weaknesses that could make the difference in their respective 2017 campaigns. Today, the NL East.

We’ll start it off with a table that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

NL East – Key Team BIP Metrics
WAS 0.334 0.550 0.314 0.506 20.2% 8.6% 24.5% 7.8% 105.0
NYM 0.320 0.536 0.330 0.528 21.3% 8.5% 23.0% 7.2% 105.6
MIA 0.327 0.490 0.329 0.518 19.8% 7.3% 22.4% 9.7% 97.5
PHL 0.318 0.503 0.333 0.550 23.0% 7.1% 21.1% 7.6% 101.9
ATL 0.318 0.491 0.328 0.538 20.0% 8.1% 19.6% 8.8% 96.6
NL AVG 0.326 0.528 0.326 0.528 21.5% 8.3% 21.4% 8.4% 99.6

The first four columns indicate how each team “should have” performed at the plate and on the mound if each batted ball generated league-average results for its exit-speed and launch-angle “bucket.” The next four columns list each club’s offensive and defensive K and BB rates.

The last column represents each club’s Defensive Multiplier. This measures each club’s defensive performance compared to its opposition over 162 games. Using granular BIP data, each team’s actual AVG and SLG (excluding home runs) was compared to the projected levels (as described in the previous paragraph) for such BIP, both on offense and defense. This essentially isolates the contributions of pitching from those of team defense. If a club out-defended its opponents, its Defensive Multiplier is below 100. If a club was out-defended, its multiplier is above 100.

Color-coding is used above to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

Next, let’s convert the above data into run values, perform some Pythagorean magic, and come up with a series of projected win-loss records: (a) on only each club’s BIP hit/allowed, (b) further adjusted for K and BB for/against, and (c) further adjusted for team’s Defensive Multiplier. This third projection represents the club’s true-talent W-L record for 2016. For comparative purposes, each club’s 2016 actual and Pythagorean records are listed:

NL East – 2016 Actual/Projected Records
WAS 93-69 101-61 97-65 95-67 97-65
NYM 80-82 85-77 81-81 87-75 87-75
MIA 76-86 78-84 80-82 79-82 78-83
PHL 70-92 67-95 65-97 71-91 62-100
ATL 71-91 71-91 73-89 68-93 67-94

Let’s make some broad observations about each club’s 2016 performance utilizing the data in the two tables above.

The Washington Nationals were clearly the class of the division in 2017, from just about any angle of observation. With Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth enduring off seasons, and Joe Ross and Stephen Strasburg’s seasons truncated by injury, they still hit the ball harder than, and limited contact authority far better than any other team in the division. It wasn’t just the usual suspects getting it done; even subpar performer Ryan Zimmerman hit the ball quite hard, while stealthily effective Tanner Roark muted opposing contact. On batted balls alone, this was an exceptional club, with a projected 93-69 record.

Adding back the Ks and BBs makes them markedly better. The Nats were measurably better than league average in three of these four team metrics, over a half STD better in offensive K rate and pitching BB rate and over a full STD better in pitching K rate. Again, their excellence in these areas extends beyond the Max Scherzers and Strasburgs; Daniel Murphy’s low K rate and Ross’ K and BB rates deserve plaudits, as well. With Ks and BBs baked in, the 2016 Nats are now a 101-61 club.

Team defense was the Achilles’ heel of the 2016 Nats. Their overall 105.0 team Defensive Multiplier was second worst in the division and in the NL. The issue was particularly acute in the outfield, as the club posted a poor 123.6 multiplier on fly balls. Trea Turner was out of position in center field, and Werth was a liability in left. Defense knocked four wins off of the Nats’ 2016 projection, dropping them to 97-65, two games better than their actual mark.

On batted balls alone, the 2016 New York Mets were an exceedingly average ball club. They were fairly close to league average in all four team BIP metrics, over one-half STD above average in projected batting average allowed and over one-half STD below average in projected offensive batting average. On BIP alone, the Mets were an 80-82 club.

The average-ness extends to team offensive K and BB rates. The only reason the Mets were a playoff club last season was their pitching staff’s K and BB excellence. Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and friends posted a cumulative K rate over a half STD better, and a BB rate over one full STD better than league average. This adds five games to the club’s projection, up to 85-77.

The Mets’ team defense was the only one in the NL that graded out worse than the Nats according to my method. The Mets’ biggest problem was in the infield, where they posted a 111.2 Defensive Multiplier on grounders, worst in the NL. The many players manning the infield corners were the primary culprits, as the five guys logging the most innings at first and third base posted negative UZR marks. Defense lops four wins off of the Mets’ projection, dropping them to 81-81, six games shy of their actual mark.

Anything that happened on the field for the Miami Marlins last season was overshadowed by the tragic loss of Jose Fernandez in the campaign’s waning days. On balls in play alone, their offense was a maelstrom of the thunderous contact provided by Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich, mixed with the hunt-and-peck stylings of Dee Gordon and Ichiro Suzuki. Their projected offensive SLG was over a full STD below league average, the primary driver of their projected 76-86 record on BIP alone.

The addition of Ks and BBs into the mix was a slight net positive for the club. Their low offensive and high pitching K rates were both over one-half STD better, while their offensive and pitching BB rates were over one full STD worse than league average. Ks matter a little more than BBs, so two wins are added to the 2016 projection at this stage, raising their record to 78-84.

The club’s Defensive Multiplier of 97.5 was a bit better than league average and was directly attributable to strong performance from the infield on grounders (79.7 multiplier, best in the NL). Adeiny Hechavarria is an underrated defensive star at shortstop who can be a true breakthrough player with subtle enhancements on offense. With team defense added in, the Fish’s projection rises to 80-82, one-half game better than their actual 2016 performance.

If ballgames were decided on BIP alone, it wouldn’t have been a pretty sight in Philadelphia last season. The club was below average in all four team metrics. They finished over a full STD below in projected offensive and defensive AVG and also defensive SLG. From a glass-half-full perspective, the main driver of these poor results was a poor liner rate on both sides of the baseball. The Phils finishes 13th and 15th, respectively, in the NL in liners for and against, and liner rates are quite volatile from season to season. On BIP alone, this was a 70-92 club.

Adding Ks and BBs into the equation did not help the 2016 Phillies. This was almost totally due to the club’s poor offensive K and BB rates, which were both the worst in the East and over a full STD worse than NL average. The departure of Ryan Howard (and hopefully the arrival of J.P. Crawford) should help quite a bit here, though admittedly it will hurt a bit with regard to offensive BIP authority. Incorporation of K and BB into the mix drops the Phils’ projection by three games to 67-95.

The Phils’ Defensive Multiplier sits squarely in the league average range at 101.9, with no meaningful variance from league norms on either fly balls and grounders. Consideration of the defensive data drops the Phils’ projection fractionally to 65-97, six games shy of their actual 2016 record and more in tune with their 62-100 Pythagorean mark.

On BIP alone, the Braves weren’t a whole lot different than the Phils, rating a tad bit worse offensively (both projected AVG and SLG over a full STD below league average) and slightly better on the mound (projected SLG over one-half STD worse than average). What’s a bit concerning here is that the Braves’ offensive numbers, which are independent of the pitcher-friendly nature of Turner Field, were so bad despite the presence of one of the game’s best baseball-impactors in Freddie Freeman. On BIP alone, this was a 71-91 club.

Adding Ks and BBs into the mix doesn’t materially affect the Braves. Their low offensive K rate was a modest strength, while their pitching staff’s K and BB rates were modest weaknesses. They hope that an additional year of experience for their kids, plus the addition of vets Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, will help matters. It might on the BB side, but not with the whiffs. The club’s projection remains unchanged at 71-91 after the addition of the K/BB data.

Very quietly, the Braves’ defense grades out as the best in the division according to my method, which is in disagreement with most publicly available metrics. This is due to a strong 88.9 Defensive Multiplier on fly balls — thanks largely to the inimitable Ender Inciarte. Unfortunately, he will be flanked by Matt Kemp for a full season in 2017, which will make that number difficult to repeat. The defensive data adds a couple wins to the Braves’ projection, up to 73-89, four-and-a-half games above their actual 2016 record.

Now, let’s look forward. Below are the current Fangraphs projection, as of Wednesday afternoon:

2017 Projected Records
WAS 91-71
NYM 85-77
MIA 78-84
ATL 73-89
PHL 71-91

While last week’s subject, the AL East, might be the best division in baseball, the NL East is at the other end of the spectrum. There is a measureable chance that there might only be one .500 team in the group.

Let’s briefly discuss some key issues – and some of the important changes from 2016 — for each club below:

Washington Nationals
A lot to report here: Matt Wieters replaces Wilson Ramos behind the dish, while the club thinned out its pen by letting Mark Melancon walk and its minor-league system by dealing high-end talent for Adam Eaton. It’s win-now time, with urgency, in Washington.

The front-line talent is excellent. There’s even reason to be optimistic about 2016 non-achievers such as Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, who both deserved much better offensive fates based on their exit-speed and launch-angle data. Harper should bounce back, and Anthony Rendon appears ready to take the next step toward stardom. They’re all in, however, and have little depth behind their front line. The bullpen is a particular area of concern, more so for the playoffs than the regular season. They are the clear pick to win the East, but success or failure will be determined by their October performance.

New York Mets
The Mets are apparently quite satisfied with the status quo entering the 2017 season. They were the only club to enter spring training with no players on their 40-man roster who were in another organization at the end of the 2016 season. That might not be a big deal if they didn’t have such an obvious boondoggle of an outfield situation. There’s no way on earth that Michael Conforto should enter 2017 without at least the large half of a platoon in his back pocket, but that’s not the way things stand at present.

With David Wright‘s ongoing injury woes and the general uncertainty surrounding Jose Reyes, third base could be an issue, and the clock should be ticking on Jay Bruce’s tenure in right field. The starting-pitching depth is quite exceptional, but they might again need every bit of it, with no guarantees surrounding the near-term availability of Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler. My gut tells me that this is a retrenchment year for the Mets; by next March, Amed Rosario might be in place, Conforto will be a mid-order fixture, and they can build from there. Second place should be expected, but I think 85 wins is a bit high.

Miami Marlins
The loss of Fernandez hits the Marlins hard on the field and in the heart, and will affect them for years. The Marlins again trot out a very strong, though small, nucleus of exciting young stars such as Stanton, Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. None of them are pitchers, however, and their farm system is as barren as can be. An injury to any one of those outfielders means tons of at-bats for Ichiro, which is cool and all, but isn’t going to help these guys win.

There is plenty of quantity, including free-agent signee Edinson Volquez, in the competition for rotation slots, but it’s reasonable to question whether there is a No. 1-3 starter anywhere in the system. Their pen is versatile and somewhat deep, and it will need to be. Justin Bour is healthy and ready to shore up first base, and Hechavarria’s batted-ball data suggests he’s closer to a poor man’s Elvis Andrus offensively than the automatic out he was in 2016. If Yelich and Stanton are MVP candidates, they could contend for a Wild Card spot, but those odds are slim. I see them bobbing somewhere between 75-78 wins, battling to hold off the two young upstarts behind them.

Atlanta Braves
I’m going to put it right out there: I just don’t get the love the baseball media has bestowed upon this organization of late. Sure, they fleeced the D-backs in the Shelby Miller deal. Kudos to them for that. I like their farm system, but in my humble opinion it’s not quite a top-five group, let alone the consensus No. 1. Too much of their high-end talent resides in the lowest levels, with little track record. This is a key year for the big club, as they move into a new stadium and attempt to build a bridge from their Colon-Dickey present to a winning future.

Potential holes are aplenty. Catching won’t be one of them if Tyler Flowers, who deserves 350 plate appearances to show what he can do, gets the opportunity. The husk of Brandon Phillips will play second base, relegating better option Jace Peterson to the bench. Adonis Garcia has done nothing to show he’ll be a quality starting starting third baseman, and Matt Kemp will give away any offensive contribution he makes with his glove. Some might consider Nick Markakis another potential hole, but I like his high-floor, modest-upside package. Batted-ball data to this point also suggests that Dansby Swanson is more of a tomorrow than a today guy. The 2017 season will be during wihch this program gets a dose of reality. Last place with about 70 wins sounds about right.

Philadelphia Phillies
Here’s another club that won quite a bit in the not-too-distant past that’s trying to find its way back home. As with the Braves, this is a key transition year for the Phils. Huge 2016 holes in left field, right field, and first base have been filled by Howie Kendrick, Michael Saunders and Tommy Joseph. Their best prospect, Crawford, is almost ready for prime time, filling another pseudo-hole currently occupied by Freddy Galvis, and BIP data suggests that Maikel Franco possesses a good deal of remaining upside.

The big deal here is the starting pitching. In Aaron Nola and Vince Velasquez, they have two high-ceiling studs coming off of injury. In Velasquez’ case, it’s not his first rodeo in that regard. In Jerad Eickhoff and Jeremy Hellickson, they have two guys whose numbers can be penciled in with some reliability. And hey, Clay Buchholz is here, too. That’s a nice base from which a young club can build. They were the worst team talent-wise in the East last season, but aren’t this time around. If they can turn two or three of their promising young talents into above-average major leaguers, the Phils can contend as soon as 2018. This year, they’ll win 75-78 games and duke it out with the Marlins for third.

We hoped you liked reading Spring-Training Divisional Outlook: National League East by Tony Blengino!

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“This is due to a strong 88.9 Defensive Multiplier on fly balls — thanks largely to the inimitable Ender Inciarte. Unfortunately, he will be flanked by Matt Kemp for a full season in 2017, which will make that number difficult to repeat. ”

Yeah, but on the other hand, he’s also flanked by Nick Markakis. Wait, no . . . that’s the same hand.