The Braves Are Running Out of Time

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Before the start of the season, the Atlanta Braves were the consensus pick to win the NL East. While it wasn’t unanimous – try getting a few dozen writers to fully agree on something – 22 of 25 FanGraphs writers predicted the Braves to win the division for the seventh straight season. Sportsbooks offered odds on Atlanta that had an implied probability of 75-80% for winning the division. ZiPS projected the Braves to win the most games in the majors and gave them a 63% chance to take the NL East crown. But as we approach the end of the first third of the season, it’s the Philadelphia Phillies who are on top of the division with the best record in baseball. The team’s six-game lead over Atlanta isn’t an insurmountable barrier, but it’s still a comfortable cushion for this point of the season. So, how concerned should the Braves be? And how long do they have to overcome their rivals and keep their division streak alive?

Frequently, when I discuss surprise first-place teams at this point of the season, I compare the situation to a hypothetical foot race between Usain Bolt and me. It goes without saying that Bolt is a much faster runner than I am, to the degree that he’d probably beat me in a race hopping on one foot. But what if he gave me a head start so I could get a sufficient lead? How far ahead would I have to be to have a chance to hold off the world’s fastest man? Uhhh, 10 steps from the finish line by the time he starts running might get it done. Obviously, this isn’t the perfect analogy, because even if Bolt is the Braves of running, I certainly am not the Phillies. But you get the idea: At some point in the season, a division race becomes a question of time, not talent.

First things first, let’s take a look at the current simulated ZiPS projected standings, through Thursday night’s games.

ZiPS Projected Standings – NL East (Morning of 5/24)
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% 80th 20th
Philadelphia Phillies 98 64 .605 62.2% 34.4% 96.6% 10.8% 103.8 91.4
Atlanta Braves 94 68 4 .580 36.4% 53.7% 90.1% 11.1% 100.7 87.5
New York Mets 79 83 19 .488 1.4% 23.2% 24.6% 1.2% 85.8 73.0
Washington Nationals 69 93 29 .426 0.0% 2.1% 2.2% 0.0% 75.8 63.1
Miami Marlins 67 95 31 .414 0.0% 0.8% 0.8% 0.0% 73.4 61.0

Well, at least if you go by the ZiPS projections, Atlanta fans aren’t getting the happiest version of this tale. ZiPS still thinks the Braves are the better team, but the margin has narrowed considerably. What was a 10-win gap in March has thinned to just a hair over a three-win separation per 162 games (20 points of winning percentage, to be exact). In fact, the Phillies are now projected to have an almost identical probability of winning the division as the Braves did at the start of the season, despite Atlanta’s aforementioned 10-game edge; as I remind people, the future is almost always far more uncertain than you think.

This is actually an impressively durable change, which further complicates matters for the Braves. Projections for teams don’t usually move quickly because, well, baseball history says they shouldn’t. ZiPS has been doing team projections since 2005. If all you had to go on to project the last two-thirds of a season was a team’s preseason projection in ZiPS and the team’s actual record for the first-third of the season, the best mix based on two decades of projections is about two-thirds ZiPS and one-third actual record.

The offenses tell much of the story, so let’s start with Philadelphia’s offense. Here are the differences between ZiPS preseason WAR and the current projected final WAR. The latter consists of the WAR already on the books and the rest-of-season projections. Remember, this already includes all those grumpy old regressions toward the mean.

Phillies Offense – ZiPS Preseason vs. Final 2024 WAR
Name Preseason WAR Projected Final WAR Difference
Alec Bohm 1.61 4.68 3.06
Bryce Harper 3.69 5.13 1.45
Bryson Stott 2.58 3.94 1.36
Edmundo Sosa 1.28 2.33 1.05
J.T. Realmuto 3.22 4.17 0.95
Brandon Marsh 1.74 2.55 0.80
Trea Turner 5.05 5.62 0.56
Johan Rojas 0.94 0.98 0.03
Kyle Schwarber 1.76 1.72 -0.04
Whit Merrifield 0.76 0.53 -0.23
Cristian Pache 0.82 0.53 -0.30
Garrett Stubbs 0.32 -0.11 -0.43
Nick Castellanos 0.52 -0.65 -1.18

That’s eight players projected to finish with at least a half-win more than at the start of the season. Castellanos is the only Phillies player whose projected WAR is now a half-win worse, but the projection systems didn’t expect much from him going into the season anyway. None of the hitters who are smashing the ball right now are expected to turn into midnight pumpkins. Even Bohm, the infielder ZiPS was most suspicious of, is now in the top 10 for most projected WAR added for 2025. And it’s not shocking that Harper, Realmuto, Turner (who is currently on the IL), and Stott are projected to maintain their strong starts.

As for the pitching, we projected the Phillies to have the second-best rotation in baseball, so their awesomeness is hardly surprising. Philadelphia’s stars have more than balanced out some of the outfield question marks and its depth hasn’t truly been tested yet, except for Turner’s injury — and as Jon Becker noted in his morning column on Tuesday, Turner’s replacements in the lineup, Sosa and Kody Clemens, have excelled in his absence.

As for the Braves, their vaunted offense has come out rather impotent. They rank seventh in the NL in runs scored, which isn’t disaster territory, but Ronald Acuña Jr., Matt Olson, and Austin Riley have all been just barely above league-average hitters this year. Sean Murphy has been out with an oblique injury that he suffered on Opening Day, but that’s been less of an impact because Travis d’Arnaud has been solid as the everyday backstop. Things might be a lot worse right now if not for the performances of d’Arnaud and Marcell Ozuna.

Atlanta’s current place in the standings is the fault of its underperforming stars, not its complementary talent. And that’s what makes it tough for the Braves to turn things around with a few trades, as they did in 2021 before surging to win the World Series. It’d be one thing if the problem were someone like Orlando Arcia, because the Braves wouldn’t think twice about benching or trading him to acquire a better shortstop. But when it comes to Acuña, Olson, and Riley, all Atlanta can do is wait for them to catch fire. What adds to this general feeling of helplessness is that the team’s biggest problem on the pitching side is Spencer Strider’s season-ending UCL injury. Even if the Braves were to try and swing a trade, their farm system is one of the weakest in baseball right now and only a few teams are currently out of contention. Major reinforcements aren’t on the way anytime soon.

The good news for Atlanta is that its stars are capable of breaking out of their funks at any moment, but the longer it takes them to turn things around, the more time the Phillies have to pull away. To get an idea of how much time the Braves have left, I took the current projected standings and had ZiPS simulate the rest of the season with both teams posting the same record going forward (for the sake of the example, I’m going with a 94-win pace) to see how quickly the divisional probabilities would change. Without picking up ground but also not losing any, Atlanta would slip to two-to-one divisional underdogs by June 10, and hit the three-to-one spot on the last day of the month. If this continues to the morning of the trade deadline, the Braves would find themselves with only an 18% projected chance to win the NL East, while the Phillies’ divisional odds would climb to 81%. (The Mets would still retain a few tenths of a percentage point.)

Let’s be clear: Despite the relatively gloomy outlook for Atlanta, a six-game deficit heading into Memorial Day Weekend is not insurmountable. In fact, the Phillies have the same divisional odds now as the Braves did two months ago. That said, for the first time since 2011, the NL East is the Philadelphia’s division to lose.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com 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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Da Bear
20 days ago

Frequently, when I discuss surprise first-place teams at this point of the season, I compare the situation to a hypothetical foot race between Usain Bolt and me. It goes without saying that Bolt is a much faster runner than I am, to the degree that he’d probably beat me in a race hopping on one foot. But what if he gave me a head start so I could get a sufficient lead? How far ahead would I have to be to have a chance to hold off the world’s fastest man? Uhhh, 10 steps from the finish line by the time he starts running might get it done. Obviously, this isn’t the perfect analogy, because even if Bolt is the Braves of running, I certainly am not the Phillies. But you get the idea: At some point in the season, a division race becomes a question of time, not talent.

This is pretty much the same premise the Braves already consider at every home game with their “Beat the Freeze” promotion, but instead of running against Bolt (who’s now retired), fans get a head start against groundskeeper Nigel Talton.