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Unsustainable: Phillies vs. Braves series preview

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Hope the Braves enjoyed their little hot streak, because tougher days are ahead

MLB: Miami Marlins at Atlanta Braves
The Braves can’t afford to have Ronald Acuna slump much longer
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Phillies have bid farewell to the Mets, they’re on to face another division rival. The Braves have fared well in recent weeks, but there are plenty of signs that the good times in Atlanta are coming to an end.

Atlanta Braves

Record: 89-55, First place in National League East

The last time they met

The Braves visited Philadelphia in late July and won two out of three. At first that sounds impressive. Then you see that they beat Jake Arrieta while he was suffering from bone spurs, and Zach Eflin when he was suffering from actually listening to the Phillies’ pitching staff.

What’s that sound? Oh, that’s just regression heading your way

The Braves enter this series with a 17-3 record in their last 20 games. That’s would put them on pace to win 137 games over a full season, which seems TOTALLY sustainable. There’s no reason to think that regression is about to hit them hard, right?

Oh, and would you look at that? The Braves lost on Sunday, so maybe the fall has already begun.

But seriously, are they that good?

Looking at their Pythagorean record, the Braves have eight more wins than they should. I’ll concede that people tend to place more emphasis on Pythag than they should, and not every Pythagorean record is created equal. But even with that in mind, outplaying your expected record by eight games indicates that the Braves are either extreme overachievers, or have gotten extremely lucky.

On one hand, the Braves’ strong performance in one-run games may be a good omen for the playoffs when games tend to be close. On the other hand, these things tend to level out, and the Braves might have used up all their close game karma in the regular season. Even more likely: It won’t matter because the Dodgers are far better than the Braves anyway.

Phillies pitching vs. Braves hitting

The Phillies will go with the foursome of Aaron Nola, Jason Vargas, Zach Eflin, and Drew Smyly as starters this series. Nola hasn’t had as good a season as last year, but he’s 3-0 against the Braves, so he certainly knows how to beat them. Vargas has only faced them once this season, but regardless of the opponent, he can generally be counted on to give his team a chance to win.

Eflin has not had much success against the Braves this season, but his poor starts came in the midst of his “bad” period. That probably works to the Phillies’ advantage, because the Braves are likely headed into this series expecting a four-seam fastball throwing wreck of a pitcher rather than the confident sinkerballer he’s been the past two weeks.

As for Smyly, he’s only faced two Braves batters in his career, and both of them struck out. The Braves unfamiliarity with his stuff, combined with his terrific performance thus far in September (Only one run allowed in two starts) means they’re likely in some trouble.

The Braves’ offense relies heavily on outfielder Ronald Acuna, so it should be worrisome for them that he’s batting just .192 over the last month. Ozzie Albies hasn’t been all that much better at .228 during that span.

As for the Braves’ good hitters, they might not be all that good this week. Freddie Freeman has a career OPS of .627 against Nola and .589 against Vargas. Josh Donaldson may be a multiple-time All-Star, but he likely wouldn’t be if he had to face Vargas more often (.583 career OPS).

The Braves won’t even be able to turn to Nick Markakis to bail them out. The veteran has been a real Phillie-killer this season, but he’s currently on the Injured List.

Braves pitching vs. Phillies hitting

The Braves’ good luck has mostly manifested itself in their starting rotation. Before the season began, nobody was especially intimidated by their starters, so either pitching coach Rich Kranitz is a genius, or these guys are playing over their heads. The one guy on their staff who hasn’t outperformed expectations is scheduled to pitch the series opener. Mike Foltynewicz has an ERA of 5.28 and the only thing he’s excelled at is walking batters.

Max Fried has looked like a top-of-the-rotation pitcher in 2019...except when he’s faced the Phillies. He’s got a 6.94 ERA against them, and has already served up two home runs to Bryce Harper. Dallas Keuchel has largely been okay since the Braves picked him up, although his FIP is more than a run higher than his ERA, and he will mix in a start where he gets absolutely shelled.

The finale will be started by Julio Teheran, who is also a member of the “My ERA is much lower than my FIP” club. He’s somehow made only one start against the Phillies this season (maybe that explains why he’s having a surprisingly good season), and that one didn’t go well for him. I understand if the Braves wanted him to avoid the Phillies since Harper has owned him throughout his career (18-43 with eight home runs).

Speaking of Harper, it appears that he’s recovered from his injured hand, and will be ready to once again terrorize the Braves’ pitching staff. While I’d understand if the Braves simply chose to walk Harper every time he’s up, they’ll also have to deal with J.T. Realmuto, Corey Dickerson, and Adam Haseley, all of whom have been hot over the past two weeks.

Phlashback of ineptitude: Jordan Schafer

Jordan Schafer had two stints with the Braves. The first came in 2009 when the speedy centerfielder “burst” onto the scene with a .204 batting average in 50 games. It’s tough to be worth -1.6 wins in that few games, but somehow Schafer managed. After he was sent back to the minors for seasoning, he rejoined the major league team in 2011 and improved his average to .240 and was worth 0.2 wins.

He was sent to the Astros as a throw-in in the Michael Bourn deal, but apparently the Braves really missed the guy. When he went on waivers after the 2012 season, they quickly brought him back home. He wasn’t too much of an embarrassment in 2013, but the following season, his average dropped to .163.

You might not think a player of his caliber would have a lot of endorsement deals lined up, but one local business felt he was just the man for the job:

The Braves released him, and he tried to make a comeback as a pitcher. He’s currently pitching in AAA in the Giants system.

Prediction

While the Phillies probably can’t catch the Braves in the standings, the wild card is still well within reach. The Braves will assuredly try their hardest to keep the Phillies from getting there, since they obviously don’t want a hot Phillies team as their potential NLCS opponent (provided the Braves can even make it that far).

Unfortunately for the Braves, after the Phillies win three of the four games this week, that possibility will be much closer to reality. With the Phillies poised to dominate this series, and the Eagles ready to beat the Falcons on Sunday (again), it’s shaping up to be a sad week in Atlanta.