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Real or not? The Braves are ready to run away with the NL East

Jun 18, 2019

The Atlanta Braves pounded out 16 hits and three home runs in a 12-3 victory over the New York Mets on Monday, running their current hot streak to 10 wins in 11 games, a stretch that includes five one-run victories plus blowout wins of 14 runs, nine runs and twice by seven runs. It's a beautiful thing when your baseball team plays like this for an extended period.

I think this stretch of games -- with the caveat that seven of those 11 games came against the Marlins and Pirates -- has finally convinced me that the Braves are the team to beat in the NL East. They've gone from two games behind the Philadelphia Phillies to three games ahead, but those standings may not be an accurate indicator of how far apart the teams actually are.

We can look at the run differential and see the Braves are plus-48 and the Phillies are merely plus-6. But consider the following arguments and the advantages the Braves have over the Phillies:

The Braves' best players are better than the Phillies' best players

Ronald Acuna Jr. led off the bottom of the first inning Monday with a home run off Zack Wheeler, his 17th, and set the game into motion. He had three hits and Freddie Freeman added two. The Braves' offense is built around those two -- much like the Phillies are built around Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper.

-- Freeman (.313/.404/.592) versus Hoskins (.271/.395/.522)

How soon could Ronald Acuña Jr. claim Best Player in Baseball title? Jeff Passan

It's close, but Freeman clearly rates the edge based on this season, last season and what to expect the rest of the way.

-- Acuna (.301/.380/.519) versus Harper (.247/.356/.464)

Acuna's recent hot streak has pushed his numbers well beyond Harper's. Maybe Harper will eventually go on a big run, but in the meantime he's on pace for 27 home runs and 208 strikeouts.

The Braves' rotation is better

Mike Soroka had another solid outing, improving to 8-1 with a 2.12 ERA. He's a master of pitch efficiency as he threw just 68 pitches in six innings. Phillies ace Aaron Nola got off to a horrendous start, but has been better of late. The season rotation numbers are actually pretty close:

Braves: 4.31 ERA, .325 wOBA allowed, 20.6% SO ratePhillies: 4.43 ERA, .344 wOBA allowed, 21.2% SO rate

Once you adjust for parks, you can argue the Phillies have been a little better, even as they've struggled to fill the back end of the rotation. That's because Kevin Gausman (6.21 ERA) and Mike Foltynewicz (5.53 ERA) have struggled for Atlanta. But the Braves will soon add Dallas Keuchel to the rotation and Sean Newcomb is back as well (although he may miss his next start after getting hit in the head by a line drive). If Gausman and Foltynewicz can rediscover some semblance of their 2019 form, the Braves will be seven deep in starting pitcher options. The Phillies, meanwhile, will probably have to be active on the trade market. I'll take the Braves moving forward.

Defense

This is closer than I would have guessed:

Braves: plus-12 defensive runs savedPhillies: minus-7 DRS

Acuna has been the Braves' best defender and he has held his own in center field in place of Gold Glover Ender Inciarte (who is out with a back injury and unlikely to start much when he does return given Austin Riley's production at the plate). They don't really have any major weaknesses other than Brian McCann's inability to throw out runners, and DRS has dinged two of their pitchers (Luke Jackson and Gausman) a total of seven runs for their defense, so they'd be plus-19 otherwise.

The Phillies are much improved from their train-wreck defense of 2018. J.T. Realmuto has been credited with plus-11 DRS, but their second-best defender had been Andrew McCutchen, who is out for the season. They've also received a lot of credit for good pitcher defense (four different pitchers are at plus-2 DRS). That may be a real thing or just a statistical fluke. Anyway, clear edge here to the Braves.

Injuries/depth

The Braves have been mostly healthy while the Phillies are without McCutchen and David Robertson. (Fellow relievers Seranthony Dominguez and Adam Morgan are also on the IL, creating some depth issues in the Phillies bullpen at the moment.) Jay Bruce has been hot since coming over from the Mariners, but the Braves boast maybe the best bench in the NL this side of the Dodgers with McCann, Charlie Culberson, Johan Camargo and Matt Joyce.

I didn't mentions bullpens. That is not a strength for either team -- the Phillies are 15th in the majors in bullpen win probability added and the Braves are 18th. That could end up being the Braves' fatal flaw, I suppose, but the rest of the team looks strong enough to overcome even a mediocre bullpen.

Are the Blue Jays even trying? This will seem like criticism of Edwin Jackson, but it's not. It's criticism of the Blue Jays for continuing to pitch Jackson, who has had a fine and lengthy career and is trying his best, but really shouldn't be in the major leagues.

Jackson was the Toronto's "bulk" guy in a 10-5 loss to the Angels, replacing opener Derek Law. He got two outs in the second inning as the Angels scored seven runs. Cavan Biggio misplayed a fly ball into a Mike Trout double, which didn't help, but Jackson also served up three home runs in the inning.

2 Related

Jackson has now pitched 25⅓ innings, starting five games and pitching in bulk relief -- or what was supposed to be bulk relief -- three other times. He has given up 41 runs, 46 hits, 12 home runs and has a 12.43 ERA. I mean ... I feel bad for Jackson, who is taking the punishment for a team that isn't trying to win.

So ...

-- Jackson's 12.43 ERA would be the second-worst since 1900 (minimum 25 innings) after Stu Flythe's 13.04 mark for the 1936 A's.

-- He has allowed a .390 average. That would be tied for ninth-worst (minimum 25 innings) since World War II. Denny Stark allowed a .427 average for 2004 Rockies.

-- His rate of 4.30 home runs per nine innings would be the highest since at least World War II (minimum 25 innings). Shawn Kelley allowed 4.15 homers per nine in 2017 (12 HR in 26 IP).

Do better, Blue Jays.

Anyway, Justin Upton made his 2019 debut and homered off Jackson to lead off that second inning. Here's a Trout home run (off Nick Kingham, not Jackson) because it's a Mike Trout home run and he went 4-for-5 to raise his season line to .296/.461/.635:

Mike didn't want to be the only outfielder in the lineup to not go yard today. pic.twitter.com/daa5gcqvSd

— Los Angeles Angels (@Angels) June 18, 2019

Bunt of the day: Matt Carpenter beats the shift with a bunt single, err ... bunt double:

Matt Carpenter just bunted for a double... yes, you read that correctly! pic.twitter.com/mtJUNpG4ji

— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) June 18, 2019

Carpenter's bunt came with two outs, and he then scored on Starlin Castro's error. The Cardinals beat the Marlins 5-0.

Yes, we have some good pitching! After that ridiculous slugfest of a series in Colorado over the weekend, it was nice to see a few pitching gems on Monday. Two of those came in the AL East as Rick Porcello outdueled Jose Berrios in a 2-0 victory for the Red Sox and Masahiro Tanaka threw a complete game, two-hit shutout to beat the Rays 3-0. A few notes on those games:

-- The AL East became the first division with three 40-win teams.

-- Porcello has a 3.20 ERA over his past 10 starts after opening the season with a 5.52 ERA in his first six starts.

-- Berrios was nearly as brilliant for the Twins, allowing one run in eight innings with 10 K's, retiring 19 in a row at one point.

-- Tanaka became the first Yankee since Mike Mussina in 2002 to throw a shutout with two hits or fewer and 10 strikeouts. He has a 0.43 ERA in three starts against the Rays in 2019. Remember Tanaka's dominance against Tampa if the Yankees win the division by a game or two.

-- Tanaka's Game Score of 92 is tied for third-highest of 2019, behind German Marquez's 94 for the Rockies (a one-hit shutout with nine K's) and Chris Sale's 93 (three-hit shutout with 12 K's). Shane Bieber also had a 92.

The other gem came from Joey Lucchesi of the Padres, who allowed three hits in seven scoreless innings in a 2-0 win over the Brewers. Lucchesi, no doubt, knew he owed the baseball gods a good game after being the lucky guy from San Diego who didn't have to pitch in Colorado.

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