No one is happy with the Phillies.
There are a multitude of reasons why Phils fans are annoyed with their baseball team. The offense has been maddeningly inconsistent, with strikeouts galore, an inability to hit with runners in scoring position, and streakiness running up and down the lineup all season long. Two big league veterans brought in to pitch in the Nos. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation, Matt Moore and Chase Anderson, have been brutal. Injuries and a lack of depth throughout the organization have prevented manager Joe Girardi from making smart baseball moves and have actively forced him into making dumb ones, such as asking an injured Bryce Harper to risk further injury to a sore shoulder when he ran out of position players in Sunday’s series finale to the Blue Jays.
Still, despite all that, the Phillies have more wins than any other team in the division. They are 22-20, one game back of the New York Mets, who are 20-16. The Atlanta Braves, reigning three-time division champs, are four games back, 19-23, with the worst run differential (-18) in the division. The Marlins, 18-23, finally lost their distinction as the only team in the division with a positive run differential (it’s now 0), and the Nationals continue to spin their tires, in last place, 16-21, 4.5 games back.
All this leads to the question of the day. How did the NL East become a raging tire fire?
New York Mets
Let’s start with the division-leading Mets, who looked as though they might be ready to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the pack last week when they went on a seven-game winning streak. They were then swept in a three-game series in Tampa by the Rays before beating the Braves 3-1 on Monday.
Like the Phils, New York is suffering from a string of injuries to some very important players. Kevin Pillar was hit in the face by a 95 mph fastball last night in the game against Atlanta and suffered multiple nasal fractures as a result. Pillar is the second NL East player to be hit in the face by a fastball this month. Miraculously for the Phillies, Harper was not seriously hurt. The Mets have also watched the best pitcher in baseball, Jacob deGrom, leave a couple of his most recent starts due to pain in his side. He reportedly could return from the Injured List later this week or early next week, but he’s been in-and-out. Taijuan Walker got hurt last week. Carlos Carrasco hasn’t been seen yet. And finally, Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto both suffered hamstring injuries this week and both are out of action until at least May 27.
It also doesn’t help that their biggest off-season acquisition, Francisco Lindor, is off to a .185/.304/.274 start and has been worth 0.2 fWAR.
Despite all that, New York can likely lay claim to being the best of a pretty mediocre bunch, and have done a good job overcoming their myriad of maladies.
FINAL: Mets 4, Braves 3— Steve Gelbs (@SteveGelbs) May 19, 2021
Since May 1, the Mets have lost JD Davis, Brandon Nimmo, Jacob deGrom, Albert Almora, Jeff McNeil, Michael Conforto and Kevin Pillar.
They've also gone 11-5 and vaulted from 4th to 1st in the NL East.
It's pretty incredible what they're doing right now
Think you’re frustrated?
Ynoa broke his right hand when he punched the dugout after exiting yesterday's start. He'll miss at least a couple months— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) May 17, 2021
Eesh. Ynoa has a 3.02 ERA and had struck out 10.1 batters opening while walking 2.2 per nine, so his absence from the rotation is no small thing. Then, during last night’s game against the Mets, Max Fried had to be pulled.
Here's another look at Max Fried right before he left tonight's game. pic.twitter.com/zPBL2jccUY— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) May 18, 2021
The Braves announced after the game that Fried was pulled as a precaution due to cramping in his fingers. Perhaps it’ll turn out to be nothing, but it sure was weird. Ronald Acuña Jr. has been in and out of the lineup with ankle problems, and Ender Inciarte is currently in the paternity list.
While the Phillies’ offense has been disappointing, Atlanta’s bats have been feast or famine. Their .226 batting average is 3rd-lowest in the National League, although their OPS of .722 is 4th-highest, thanks to a league-best 60 home runs. But it’s the pitching that’s been the main culprit. Their staff fWAR of 1.9 and 4.69 ERA are both 4th-worst in the NL. Charlie Morton (5.08 ERA), Drew Smyly (5.23 ERA) and Fried (5.46 ERA) have been monumentally disappointing. Their 4.97 bullpen ERA is also 4th-worst. So, yeah, the pitching’s been bad and that’s mainly why the Braves have yet to make their mark.
Finally, the bullpen, which was a strength last year, dearly misses Mark Melancon and Darren O’Day and has the inexperienced A.J. Minter as their closer. They also have virtually no right-handed options out there, which has led to numerous match-up problems in the early going.
Yes, until last night when even that got erased, the Marlins were the only team in the division that had a positive run differential thus far. That seems hard to believe. It’s harder to believe that the only team in the division that came into Tuesday with a positive run differential is in fourth place.
The Marlins are actually doing better than expected, other than concern over Sixto Sanchez’ shoulder inflammation, which was diagnosed in early April. Sanchez is now throwing from 120 feet, but his progress back to the mound has been slow. Sanchez’ injury history is, of course, one of the reasons the Phillies felt OK about dealing him in the first place.
Nevertheless, the Marlins have had the Phils’ number in recent seasons and, to be fair, is the one team in the division that has at least matched their preseason expectations.
The Nationals’ problem hasn’t been the offense, with a .717 OPS that was tied for 5th, although Trea Turner is the only Nats position player with an fWAR over 0.6 (he’s at 2.1). Juan Soto isn’t seeing many pitches to hit, as evidenced by his three home runs in 111 plate appearances and a walk rate of 17.1% that is 9th in MLB among hitters with at least 100 PAs. But like Atlanta, Washington’s weakness has been their pitching staff.
As a staff, the Nationals are dead last in fWAR (1.3), although their 4.13 ERA is middle-of-the-pack, 8th out of 15 teams. Max Scherzer is having yet another outstanding season and, in four starts, Jon Lester’s 3.80 ERA is just fine. But it’s been a slog for Patrick Corbin (6.19 ERA in seven starts) and Joe Ross (5.80 ERA in seven starts). Stephen Strasburg has made just two starts and is dealing with shoulder inflammation. Since signing his seven-year, $245 million deal before the 2020 season, he’s made just four starts total and pitched 15 innings of big league baseball.
None of these teams have the kind of depth you’d expect a World Series contender to possess, which means we may need to start getting creative around here.
Idea: instead of the NL East winner going to the playoffs you build an NL East all star team and send that to the playoffs - deGrom, Nola, Acuña, Soto, Scherzer, Lindor, Jazz Chisholm, healthy Sixto, Tomas Nido— Jon Tayler, Top 0.1% On OnlyJons (@JATayler) May 19, 2021
Yep. The NL East. It’s fannnnnntastic!