On the last National League East report on April 10, the New York Mets were in the middle of a six-game winning streak and sat atop the division. Unfortunately, things have taken a turn for the worst, as the Mets have dropped down to fourth place and are three games back of the red-hot Atlanta Braves.
Entering 2018, the National League East race was expected to come down to the Washington Nationals, who were the heavy favorites to take home their third straight division crown, and the Mets. Not many people foresaw the emergence of the Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies, who both have an abundance of young talent, as serious contenders. However, Atlanta and Philadelphia are separated by just a half-game for first place in the east.
The Braves are 21-14 and first place in the division. The Braves opened the month of May with a three-game sweep of the Mets at Citi Field, but were swept at home by the San Francisco Giants over the weekend. The Braves recovered to take both games in a short road series against the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Braves offense has been the catalyst to their success, as they lead the National League with a 110 wRC+, an 8.0 fWAR, a .268 team batting average, and a .335 team on base percentage. Nick Markakis, the 13-year-veteran, is leading the charge with a .338/.419/.554 slash line and a 168 wRC+, which are all career-highs for the right fielder.
Met tormentor Freddie Freeman, who missed a sizable chunk of the 2017 season, has returned to his usual ways with a .301 and a .406 on-base percentage. Freeman has re-established himself as one of baseball’s top first basement, as he is near the top of the leader board with a 149 wRC+ and a 1.3 fWAR.
The big story of the Braves’ season has been the call-up of top prospect Ronald Acuña Jr., who debuted in late April. The 20-year-old has cooled down after his blistering start (he’s hitting just .207 in his last seven games), but he still sports an impressive .302 average and .917 OPS in 53 at-bats. Along with 21-year-old second baseman Ozzie Albies, Atlanta has two of baseball’s brightest young stars. Albies leads the league in runs and doubles and ranks third among all National League second basemen with a 141 wRC+ and a 1.2 fWAR.
Next up, the Braves head to Miami tonight to take on the Miami Marlins for four games.
The Phillies are 21-15 and second place in the division. After losing two out of three to the Nationals in Washington, the Phillies returned home and dismantled the Giants en route to a three-game sweep. The Phillies outscored their west-coast opponents by a 26-5 margin.
Philadelphia has baseball’s youngest roster, with an average age of 26.5. Outside of Carlos Santana, whom the team acquired last offseason, every starting position player on the team is 28 years old or younger. Philadelphia has set themselves up for a long run of success, especially with budding young stars like center fielder Odubel Herrera and left fielder Rhys Hoskins, who continue to tear it up. Herrera has emerged as one of baseball’s best offensive center fielders, as he ranks in the top five in fWAR (1.4), wRC+ (160), batting average (.341), and on-base percentage (.411).
The Phillies also have one of baseball’s best young aces in Aaron Nola. The 24-year-old Louisiana native has a 2.05 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, and 2.56 FIP, all of which rank in the top ten among qualified starters. His success stems from his control (1.88 BB/9 ratio) and his ability to avoid the longball (0.34 HR/9 ratio). The fact that he has baseball’s third-lowest HR/9 ratio is especially eye-catching given that Citizen’s Bank Park is notoriously home run friendly. Over his last two starts against the Marlins and Giants, Nola has pitched 14-and-one-third innings while allowing only one earned run and striking out 19.
Next up, the Phillies take on the Mets for three crucial divisional games starting on Friday.
The Nationals are 20-18 and in third place in the division. After a slow start, Washington have proven that it’s hard to keep the champs down for long. They’ve won eight of their last ten games and surged ahead of the Mets by a half-game, although they still sit two-and-a-half games behind the Braves.
The Nationals offense is still without second baseman Daniel Murphy, who has missed the entire season following off-season knee surgery. The offense recently got a boost with the return of third baseman Anthony Rendon, who sat out three weeks after fouling a ball off his toe. Since returning, Rendon has collected six hits in 16 at-bats, including a home run in his last game.
While Bryce Harper continues to attract the attention in the Nationals lineup (he leads the league with 12 home runs and 40 walks), first baseman/left fielder Matt Adams has quietly been red-hot. With Ryan Zimmerman struggling offensively for a majority of 2018 (.217 average, 86 wRC+) and battling a recent back injury, Adams has had more opportunities to play as of late. In his past eight games, he’s gone 10 for 26 with seven home runs.
The Nationals pitching continues to be as good as advertised, leading National League pitching staffs with a 5.4 fWAR and firing on all cylinders over the past couple of weeks. Ace Max Scherzer continues to dominate, coming in sixth in the National League with a 0.85 WHIP and fourth with a 1.74 ERA. In his last start on May 6, he struck out 15 in six-and-one-third innings. In total he’s struck out 80 batters and leads all starters with a 13.94 K/9 ratio.
Gio Gonzalez has quietly emerged as the second best pitcher on the Nationals this year, ranking ninth among major league starters with a 1.3 fWAR, seventh with a 2.49 FIP and 13th with a 2.22 ERA. Over his last three starts, he’s gone 18 innings, allowed two earned runs, and struck out 21 batters. Stephen Strasburg hasn’t been as dominate as we’re used to seeing, but still has a respectable 3.52 ERA and 3.69 FIP on the season. After giving up five earned runs in a start against the Arizona Diamondbacks, he’s rebounded in his last two outings, going 14 innings while allowing five earned runs and striking out 16 batters.
Next up, the Nationals visit the National League’s best team, the Diamondbacks, for four games
The Miami Marlins are 13-23 and in last place in the division. They are coming off a sweep at the hands of the Chicago Cubs in which they were outscored 31-9.
The Marlins are about where you would expect them to be after their front office traded most of their talent during the offseason. One of the players who was not traded was catcher J.T. Realmuto, who is off to a great start after missing time at the beginning of the season after suffering an injury during spring training. Realmuto has developed into one of the best catchers in the league, coming in third with a 1.0 fWAR and a 151 wRC+. He also ranks in the top ten in home runs (4) and runs scored (12) despite missing action early in the season.
While the Marlins will not be competing for a playoff spot in 2018, they have a lot to be excited about in their rotation, which has a lot of young talent. Jose Urena, who got off to a slow start, has rebounded in his last three outings and has lowered his ERA from 5.88 to 4.37. His best start was a game against the Colorado Rockies, where he went seven innings and allowed only one run against the potent Rockies offense. The 26-year-old Caleb Smith has also had a very good season for the last-place Marlins, posting a 3.67 ERA and 3.37 FIP.
The Marlins also have to like what they’ve seen from Jarlin Garcia (last start notwithstanding). His most impressive feat was allowing zero hits against the Mets and one hit against the New York Yankees in back-to-back starts. In 37 total innings pitched, he’s allowed just 21 hits and 11 earned runs (seven of which came in his last start against the Cubs)
Next up, the Marlins take on the division-leading Braves at home for four games starting on Thursday.
The Mets’ record against their National League East rivals is 10-7, which looks good on paper but is inflated by the eight straight wins against the Phillies, Nationals, and Marlins during their early-season surge. Since that 8-0 start, the team is 2-7 against divisional opponents, including five losses in six games against the Braves.
The Mets have a chance to get back on the winning track when they take on the Phillies for three games on the road. After that, the Mets only play ten games against divisional opponents through the end of June (five at Atlanta, three vs. Miami, two at Miami). The Mets don’t have a shot for revenge against the Nationals until mid-July.
With four teams now in the mix, the National League East has the chance to shape up into one of baseball’s best competitions.