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Starting Nine: The insanity of the insane NL East

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Trying to make sense of the National League East, and all the oddities it has created, is enough to make your head hurt

Atlanta Braves v St Louis Cardinals
Jorge Soler is a part of a remade Braves outfield that makes them one of three teams currently without all three players it started in this positions on Opening Day.
Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images

Watched Tenet recently, then immediately Googled “Tenet explained” and read a nearly 3,500-word breakdown of the movie. Can safely stay I still have no idea what in the hell I watched, but also feel I understood it more than what we’ve watched unfold in the National League East over the past four months.

The Braves, though, are ever so slowly reeling in a Mets team that couldn’t distance itself from the pack, despite the pack’s issues, as New York succeeded in giving the two teams behind it all kinds of confidence that busy trade deadlines could help lead to a changing of guard at the top of the division.

As Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos said in a shade-throwing moment his post-deadline availability last week “The one fortunate thing for all of us in the NL East, is that we’re playing in the NL East in 2021. ... There’s no doubt we’ve had our challenges, but everyone in the NL East has had their challenges.”

Challenges is putting it lightly. It’s been a division heavy on insanity.

Let us count the ways.

1. Turning run differentials on their heads

The Mets sit atop the NL East despite a negative run differential (-9), while every other division leader is at least +89 in that department. After New York beat the Marlins 5-3 Wednesday night, the only team with a positive differential in the division is the second-place Braves (+57), with the last-place Marlins going from +2 to zero after their loss. Since baseball moved to the three-division alignment in 1995, only three teams have ever finished in first place with a negative run differential — the 1997 Giants (-9), the 2005 Padres (-42) and the 2007 Diamondbacks (-20). While Miami is currently out of this position, the Rockies in 2001 (+17) and 2006 (+1) are the only franchise that has come in last with a positive differential. It’s, of course, never happened in this setup in the same season. The Mets are on pace for a -13 run differential.

2. Braves go back, back, forth and forth

The Braves carved out a strange place in history as they alternated wins and losses for 18 consecutive games, a streak that ended with Wednesday’s 7-4 win over the Cardinals. They long left behind the 2020 Rockies, 1981 Dodgers and 1974 Phillies, who all shared the previous mark with 16 straight, with Atlanta previously experiencing the same result in back-to-back games last on July 10 against the Marlins, when they claimed the last of three in a row. But that’s not the strangest thing about this oddity in the Braves’ season. That comes with the fact that it’s eventually going to be wiped away. On Sept. 24, the Braves and Padres will resume their July 21 game — which San Diego led 5-4 after five innings — and no matter the result, it will void the record, as it was sandwiched between a loss to the Rays and a win over San Diego. So, enjoy this historical oddity while you can.

3. Atlanta’s outfield shuffle

The Braves took the field on Opening Day with an outfield of Marcell Ozuna in left field, Cristian Pache in center and Ronald Acuña Jr. in left. Wednesday night vs. the Cardinals, they trotted out Jorge Soler (left), Guillermo Heredia (center) and Adam Duvall (left) days after making the outfield a priority at the trade deadline as they acquired Soler (Royals) and Duvall (Marlins) to go along with Eddie Rosario (Indians) and Joc Pederson, who was acquired two weeks earlier from the Cubs. To the surprise of no one, after Acuña was lost July 16, the Braves are 26th in outfield fWAR (0.2) and had given considerable playing time to Heredia (0.5 fWAR), Ehire Adrianza (0.3), Abraham Almonte (0.0) and Orlando Arcia (minus-0.1). Acuña’s injury, Ozuna’s off-the-field concerns and Pache’s struggles make the Braves one of three teams currently without their entire outfield from the season’s first day, with the Indians trading away Jordan Luplow to the Rays and Rosario to Atlanta, while the Marlins sent off Corey Dickerson (Blue Jays), Starling Marte (A’s) and Duvall.

4. Freddie Freeman and the place no reigning MVP wants to end up

After a May in which he hit just six percent above league average — not exactly the territory we’ve come to expect for the reigning NL MVP — Freddie Freeman has been back to doing Freddie Freeman-type things. He’s carrying a 166 wRC+ in the second half and is sitting at 136 in that department on the season to go with a .289/.392/.504 slash line, 24 home runs, 14 doubles and 60 RBI. He’s fourth in NL MVP odds (+700), putting him behind the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. (-125) and the Dodgers’ Trea Turner (+400) and Max Muncy (+400). It’s been a fine follow-up for Freeman, and while there’s still time to chase down the Mets, the current state of things has the first basemen trending toward some unfortunate company. The last 10 seasons, only the 2018 Marlins, 2013 Giants and 2011 Reds had worse winning percentages the year after a player won NL MVP. It’s a little disingenuous to put that on Miami considering it shipped off Giancarlo Stanton after his MVP win, but a year after Buster Posey won, San Francisco had a .469 winning percentage, and Cincinnati was at .488 a season removed from Joey Votto’s MVP campaign. The Braves, who have yet to play a game over .500 this season — they’re joined by the Marlins and Rangers in there — will make another bid to do so Thursday night as they’re sitting at 54-54.

5. Top-10 offenses don’t live here

While the Braves are fourth in home runs (152) and rank 10th in runs scored (520), they remain outside the top 10 in fWAR at 14.6, 0.4 behind the Brewers for that 10th spot. It makes the NL East the only division without a top-10 offense, while the NL Central has Milwaukee (15.0), the NL West has the Dodgers (20.5), Giants (19.0) and Padres (15.2), the AL East boasts three in the Blue Jays (18.0), Rays (17.1) and Red Sox (16.0), the AL Central has two — the Astros at an MLB-best 23.5, and the A’s at 15.8 — and the AL Central has the White Sox (17.6). The division-leading Mets, meanwhile, are 18th (11.6) and are the only division leader outside the top 10. It’s a stark contrast to last season, when the NL East had two of the top five offenses, with the Braves at fourth (11.1) and the Mets in fifth (10.0).

6. Top-10 arms come from cellar dwellers

The Marlins’ young pitching staff was expected to be its biggest strength this season, but who would have expected it to be THE strength of a division with the likes of Jacob deGrom, Max Fried, Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler (and formerly, Max Scherzer)? Miami ranks fourth in the majors with a collective 3.52 ERA out of its starting staff and bullpen, 0.15 ahead of the Mets. Its rotation comes in seventh (3.63) to New York’s fifth (3.45) and is bolstered by a relief corps that is fourth (3.39), while the Mets are 12th (3.97). It’s no surprise the division has the leaders in fWAR among all pitcher with Wheeler (5.1) and deGrom (4.9), but only the Dodgers and White Sox with four each have more players in the top 35 than the Marlins with Trevor Rogers (10th at 3.3), Sandy Alcantara (23rd at 2.5) and Pablo Lopez (34th at 2.3).

7. Not even the toughest in their own neighborhood

Along with the Mets’ injuries, the vulnerability of the division leaders is further illustrated by the fact that, well, they have all kind of issues with the teams behind them in the standings. With Wednesday’s win vs. the Marlins, the Mets are now 3-5 against them this season and remain the only first-place team that is under .500 within its own division at 22-23. The Mets are 3-5 vs. the Nationals and 8-8 against the Braves, and if not for going 8-5 head-to-head with the Phillies, would be in even worse shape. The last time a team didn’t finish at or above .500 against their division opponents was the 2015 Rangers, who were 36-40 (.473) within the American League West.

8. Finding success out West

The NL West is a powerhouse, with FanGraphs’ postseason odds giving the division a lock on both wild-card spots. The Dodgers have a 99.4 percent chance of making the playoffs, with the Giants at 98.0 and the Padres at 76.2. Try telling that to the Mets. They have a 14-6 record against the West, the second-best winning percentage (.700) against the division, trailing just the Brewers (.760). Now to be fair, that record has come by the Mets going 5-1 against the Diamondbacks and 5-2 vs. the Rockies, two teams that are 20 and 35 1/2 games, respectively, out of first place, but a winning record is a winning record, and the Mets do have four wins against the Padres. New York isn’t the only East team to find success vs. the West, with the Marlins 16-12 (.571), having beaten the Dodgers four times, the Giants three times and the Padres twice.

9. Left-handed starters putting hex on East

Max Fried (3.69) is only one left-handed starter in the NL East that ranks in the top 25 in ERA, and yet he has an ERA under 5.40 against just one of division opponents (the Mets at 2.50), piling up at that 5.40 against the Phillies and is at 7.80 vs. the Marlins and 8.44 vs. the Nationals. Despite that overall success against the East’s top southpaw, the depth of lefties in the division is proving a problem. The Braves (14-12) are the lone team in the East that is at or above .500 against lefty starters, with the Mets 12-21, the Phillies 17-19, the Nationals 13-19, and the Marlins 11-22. Meanwhile, every other division hast at least three teams with winning records vs. left-handers. It gets stranger considering the NL East joins the AL East as the only division with multiple teams hitting above league average against lefties (the Nationals at 114 wRC+, the Phillies at 105 and the Mets at 100).