The Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies were expected to be the two worst teams in baseball. The hometown nine has held up its end, so to speak. The Braves are 10-30, tied with Minnesota at the bottom of the bigs. The Phillies are a game out of first place in the National League East and 13 1/2 games ahead of the Braves. How’d that happen?
Hitting-wise, there’s not much difference. The Braves have the fewest runs and homers among MLB teams; the Phillies have the second-fewest. Defense-wise, there’s a difference. The Braves rank last in DRS (defensive runs saved) at minus-35; the Phillies are 20th at minus-8. Pitching-wise, there’s a big difference.
The Phillies’ starters have an ERA of 3.72, ninth-best in baseball; the Braves’ starters have an ERA of 4.61, which is 18th-best. (Still better than you’d expect from a 10-30 team, though.) Acquired in the Ken Giles trade from Houston, the 23-year-old Vince Velasquez has been splendid, which is no shock to the Braves. They tried to land him in the Evan Gattis deal a year earlier. They got Mike Foltynewicz instead.
Aaron Nola, who’s 22 and who’ll start against the 23-year-old Matt Wisler in Philly tonight, has been nearly as good as Velasquez if you go by ERA and better if you swear by FIP (fielding independent pitching). The journeyman Jeremy Hellickson has done for Philly as the Braves hoped Bud Norris might do for them — eat innings, keep his team close and hand the game to the bullpen.
Speaking of which: Going by Baseball-Reference’s WAR (wins above replacement), the Phillies’ third-, fourth- and fifth-best pitchers have been Hector Neris (eighth-inning guy), Jeanmar Gomez (closer) and David Hernandez (seventh-inning guy). The Braves hoped they’d find a similar tandem in Arodys Vizcaino, Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson. Vizcaino has done his bit; the other two have been awful.
The Phillies have benefited from a softer schedule: Of their first 41 games, 16 have come against teams below .500. (Then again, they opened the season by getting swept by the Reds, who are 12-26 since.) Of the Braves’ first 40 games, only three have come against a sub-.500 team. (Hooray for Arizona!)
But here’s the biggest difference: When the Phillies have kept it close, they’ve tended to win. (There’s your bullpen.) They’re 14-3 in one-run games, 4-0 in extra innings. The Braves are 2-6 in both categories. If we go by run differential, the Phillies should be 17-24, which means they’ve outperformed by seven games. The Braves should be 11-29, meaning they’ve underperformed by one.
If the playoffs started today — wouldn’t it be a surprise if they did? — the Phillies would be the National League’s first wild-card team. Even so, FanGraphs’ projections give Philly only an 0.4 percent chance of reaching the postseason after a 162-game season. Indeed, FanGraphs sees the Phillies being only a half-game better than the Braves from here on.
The Phillies are projected to finish a not-terrible-given-the-expectations 73-89; the Braves are projected to finish 59-103, which would leave them alone in 30th place, seven games behind the No. 29 Reds.
Moral of our story: If you’re a bad team — and the Phillies, their record notwithstanding, have been outscored by 28 runs — a flying start won’t make you good. It does, however, beat the heck out of being 10-30. Anything would beat 10-30. (Except, I guess, 9-31.)
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