The NL East Race Might Be Down to Two

Our Playoff Odds page has a nice little feature that lets you display, for any two dates, the difference between a team’s playoff odds on Date A and its odds on Date B. Around the end of each calendar month, I like to use that feature to check in on which teams most improved their odds over the month that was and which lost ground. It’s a long season, and it’s easy to miss things. Here are the largest changes in playoff odds from June 1 to June 30:

June Shook Up the NL East
Team % Change
Braves 37.9%
Phillies -28.8%
Nationals 25.8%
Mets -16.8%
Cardinals -13.0%

There’s a story there. Let me start it by saying that 17 of 30 big-league teams saw no change at all to their playoff odds in June, or saw a change of less than 2%. Another five saw a change greater than 2%, but less than 10%. Of the eight teams whose playoff odds swung by more than 10% in June, fully half — the four teams at the top of the table — came from the same division: the National League East. To some extent, that kind of clustering is to be expected — when one team rises, another in its division must fall — but the relative quiet of every other division gives us an opportunity to reflect for a moment on what happened in the NL East in June, and what lies ahead in July.

And the story in the East in June — if you look past the off-field madness in New York  — was primarily the story of a young Braves team coming into their own at the plate at just the right time. After posting a middle-of-the-pack 96 wRC+ through May 31, Braves hitters came alive in June, posting an NL-best 123 wRC+ and 56 home runs on the month. Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, and Ronald Acuña, Jr. led the charge, but the Braves didn’t really have a single hitter struggle over that span. Nick Markakis and Austin Riley, who put up nearly identical 96 and 97 wRC+’s, were the worst regulars. That’ll play. And it did, against exactly the teams Atlanta needed to beat: After playing just 15 games in-division in March, April, and May combined, the Braves played 15 games against division rivals in June and won 11.

Pre-season, most projection systems — ours included — saw a very tough division race, forecasting four teams (those listed in the table above) at around 85 wins, with the Nationals a touch ahead of the other three. Those four teams were among the top seven most likely to make the playoffs, with the Nationals, who had a 7.2% pre-season shot at the title, the second-most likely to challenge for a World Series championship behind the Dodgers. Well, the Braves’ offensive success in June — and the wins against division rivals that came from it — have put them on track for 91 wins according to our Expected Wins, which would be the second-best in the NL behind the Dodgers. They’re not the best team in the NL, and they are slightly over-performing their Pythagorean and BaseRuns records, but they are a heckuva lot better than we thought a month ago.

That leap has coincided with a June that has been a catalog of horrors for Philadelphia and New York. The Mets salvaged a win against Braves last night, but prior to that, were in the middle of a seven-game losing streak that had come, inconveniently enough, against the Phillies and Braves. The Phillies, for their part, lost seven straight from June 16 to June 23, also against two division rivals. Only the four-game sweep of the Mets that followed, and a drumming of the lowly Marlins yesterday, has kept them from putting up zero wins in the second half of June. This was meant to be the year that Philadelphia took its seat with the big kids of the National League, but their poor starting pitching — a 5.08 FIP in June — and an under-performing offense wasted what was a pretty good month by a Philly bullpen led by Juan Nicasio and Vince Velasquez.

Let’s not overstate the case: The Mets (and, to a lesser extent, the Nationals and Phillies) lost a lot of games in June in part because they played a lot of games against the Braves, who won most of the games they played against those teams. Baseball, a game with a thousand inputs, resolves into only two outputs: wins and losses. One team cannot win without the team other losing, and so it’s perfectly plausible to see a month in which the four teams of the National League East played at roughly the same level but saw one team come out firmly ahead. Maybe that’s what happened this month. Maybe not — the Braves’ offensive success relative to the rest of the league makes me think maybe they’ve figured something out. But the fact is that the wins and losses that pile up in June count just the same as they do in any other month, and the Mets, in particular, have just seven games left against the Braves to make up a 12.0 game deficit in the division directly, though of course the Braves could cool.

That makes the Nationals the key team here. As Dan pointed out last week, Washington is near the tail end of a window that they need to have pan out. And unlike New York and Philadelphia, the Nationals have plenty of opportunity left to take on the Braves directly — 14 games from hereon out, including seven in September — and more talent to bring to bear on that opportunity than their competitors to the north. An 8-18 run from mid-April to mid-May is depressing the Nationals’ full-season win totals and obscures the 24-10 run they’ve been on since then. The Braves beating up on the Mets and Phillies in June made it less likely that the Nationals would win the division, yes, but it also made it much more likely that they would win a Wild Card spot (their odds of doing so jumped from 16% on June 1st to upwards of 40% today, driving almost all of the increase in playoff odds) and so made the prospect of a mid-season selloff much less likely.

Add everything up and you get to this simple truth: A month ago, the NL East was a race between four teams, none of which seemed particularly likely to clear 90 wins. Now, the race is mostly down to two teams — the Nationals and the Braves — and it seems more likely than not that the Braves will enter the playoffs with more than 90 wins and perhaps even the second seed in the National League bracket. But if they do, it’ll be after beating off some serious competition from a Nationals team that still has plenty of opportunity to bring them down. That’s what I’ll be watching for the rest of this season, at least where playoff races, and not individual teams or players, are concerned. The Yankees, Twins, and Astros have the AL divisional races mostly wrapped up. So too do the Dodgers in the NL West. The NL East, though, stands together in contention with the Central, and unlike the Central, it saw the ground shift dramatically in the last month. There’s still room for it to swing back, and with the trade deadline looming, perhaps the balance will shift again. I’m looking forward to watching it happen if it does.

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Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness.

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carter
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carter

Cardinals aren’t in the NL East

The Ghost of Johnny Dickshot
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The Ghost of Johnny Dickshot

Reading comprehension is hard isn’t it?

WoundedSprinter
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WoundedSprinter

I suspect a limited attention span, rather than RC as such. But, no. I think it’s fairly obvious what Rian’s table was meant to indicate.

I’m guessing that the Braves/Mets thing was indeed a confusion, however. I mean, the table as shown is pretty clear on that point.