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Morton, Eflin square off as Phillies arrive for weekend showdown

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Both hurlers will be making their third start of the year against the opposing team

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Phillies swept the Braves in the season-opening series. Charlie Morton did not fare particularly well in Game 2 (though it wasn’t really his fault), and Zach Eflin stifled the games in Game 3. A few days later, the two teams squared off again in Atlanta, and the Braves took two of three (and Alec Bohm still hasn’t touched home plate). Morton fared much better in the Braves’ home opener, while Eflin allowed four runs in the second game of the series, which his team eventually dropped 5-4. The Phillies are coming to town for a weekend series in Atlanta, and both of these hurlers are set to take on their opponents for the third time already this season.

Per the standings, the Phillies currently lead the NL East with a 17-15 record. Like the Braves, their season has been whiplash-inducing: to date it’s been bookended by four-game winning streaks, but they’ve gone 9-15 in between those, and are 4-5-1 in terms of series wins. (The Braves, by comparison, have a four-game winning streak, two three-game winning streaks, and three four-game losing streaks so far; they are 5-4-1 in terms of series wins yet trail the Phillies by 1.5 games in the standings.) Where the two teams differ is how they’ve gotten here so far — the Braves have hit their way forward, while the Phillies have really leaned on their rotation to buttress some pretty underwhelming hitting.

One of those leaners-on? Zach Eflin, who’s been real tough for opponents so far. Over six starts, Eflin has a stifling 87 ERA-/59 FIP-/81 xFIP- line. While his 1.3 fWAR puts him third on his own club (with both Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler ahead of him), he’s still 12th in baseball (among pitchers), part of an impressive three-headed monster of effective starting in Philadelphia so far. His performance is a follow-on from a strong two months in 2020, and while Eflin has never been bad per se, the Braves probably can’t rely on him tailspinning himself and his team into a loss. On the plus side, it’s not like they haven’t hit him already: while Eflin held them to a solo homer with an 8/1 K/BB ratio in Philadelphia, the Braves tagged him for four runs (including a homer) and allowed just a 2/1 K/BB ratio to him in Atlanta.

In some ways, Charlie Morton’s been about as good as Eflin — his 84 xFIP- is pretty similar to Eflin’s 81. In other ways, though, he hasn’t quite given his team the same oomph. Morton’s been stung a tiny bit by the longball (16.0 percent HR/FB; 90 FIP-), but moreso by (a lack of) sequencing: his 65.1 percent strand rate is his lowest in a season since 2010, and the sixth-lowest in baseball among the 70 or so starters with 30 or more innings thus far. Morton’s season debut saw him giving up three runs in five frames to the Phillies with a 5/2 K/BB ratio — all three runs scored after a bases-empty, two-outs situation in the fifth where a hit-by-pitch, a hit by the pitcher, and a weakly-hit liner did the main damage. He bounced back for his best start of the year (so far) right after, with a 7/1 K/BB ratio and just one run allowed in six frames. Since those two outings, Morton’s been kinda meh — he’s struck out at least six in all four tries, but also walked at least two, and given up a dinger in each outing. Perhaps facing the Phillies’ mix-and-match offense will give him some breathing room.

Why mix-and-match? Because that’s a decent descriptor. Bryce Harper has been one of the best bats in baseball so far, and is the only human with 50+ PAs and a higher xwOBA than Ronald Acuña Jr. coming into this game. J.T. Realmuto and Rhys Hoskins have also hit fairly well. However, a bunch of other guys have just been MIA so far: Alec Bohm’s been terrible (but very unlucky, with a near-.350 xwOBA), Didi Gregorius hasn’t hit, center field is such a mess that Odubel Herrera was brought back, and so on. Jean Segura is still third among their position players in fWAR despite missing about half their games so far, while both prospect callup Nick Maton and veteran fill-in Brad Miller have provided more to the Phils than everyone but Harper, Realmuto, Segura, and Hoskins. Sure, the Braves have had their struggles offensively too, but the Phillies are 27th in wRC+ and 16th in xwOBA, while the Braves are 13th and first, respectively.

Both teams are coming into this series on winning streaks. Both teams stand to gain a huge amount, standings-wise, from a sweep; a series win would be a consolation prize by comparison. We’ll see what happens.

Game Info

Philadelphia Phillies @ Atlanta Braves

Friday, May 7, 2021

7:20 pm EDT

Truist (sigh) Park, Atlanta, GA

TV: Bally Sports South, MLB Network (out of market only), MLB.tv

Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, WNNX 100.5, Braves Radio Network, La Mejor 1600/1460/1130 AM

XM Radio: Ch. 187