Through the first 30 or so games of the 2021 season, teams in the NL East are a tightly packed bunch. Just two games separate the first- and fifth-place teams, but the teams aren’t exceeding the expectations of this being the deepest, toughest, best division in baseball. It’s quite the opposite, actually. The Senior Circuit’s east coast is the only division (in both the AL and NL) that does not have a single team with a winning record through May 4, 2021.
Prior to 2021 Spring Training games, Marlins’ manager Don Mattingly gave media members his thoughts on the NL East. Much of what he said, especially his belief that there would not be a clear frontrunner that runs away with the top division spot, holds true:
This is a black and blue division. This is going to be a grind. You know I talk about grinding it out all the time. Every team in this division is going to give everybody trouble.
It’s Not Time to Panic
It’s interesting to look back on last year’s 60-game sprint, because teams would now be at the halfway point of the COVID-19 shortened season. However, because it’s a more “normal” season, there are more than 130 games left. I’ll take a look at what each team has done thus far…
The Phillies have been slightly underwhelming the past few seasons, but they were lucky to re-sign J.T. Realmuto and add Brandon Kintzler to their bullpen this offseason. Bryce Harper is putting up some of the best numbers of his career. Through May 4, Harper ranks in the 90th percentile or above in the following categories: average exit velocity (93rd), barrel% (98th), and xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA (each 100th).
Not all of the Phillies offense is performing well, however. Didi Gregorius is struggling mightily at the plate. He’s striking out at a much higher clip (19.2%) compared to his career average (14.1%). When he makes contact, it is often poorly hit. On the defensive end, Gregorius is the fourth-worst infielder according to Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric, and his poor defense has actually caused opposing offenses to score four runs. Alec Bohm and Andrew McCutchen are two more Phillies regulars that are struggling to produce at the plate and are poor defenders in 2021.
Lastly, it would be negligent of me to ignore the Phillies’ bullpen. Four different pitchers have blown at least one save this season and Kintzler, who was coming off a strong season with the Marlins, has pitched very poorly. The good news for the Phillies is that the rest of the division is also struggling. They’re in the top spot of their division with an even .500 winning percentage.
We know by now that a slow start for the Nationals doesn’t mean very much. More than halfway through May in 2019, they were off to a 19-31 start, sitting 10 games back in the NL East. They would go on to sneak into the playoffs and eventually win the World Series.
Trea Turner and Juan Soto are keeping the Nationals alive so far this season. Turner continues to spray balls all over the field and leads the team with six home runs and seven stolen bases. Soto had a quick stint on the injured list, but was recently activated. The Nationals will be relying on him to keep producing at the MVP-level he was before injuring his shoulder. As seen below, he has been one of the best hitters in almost all of the listed categories.
The Nationals have also seen encouraging production from Yadiel Hernández and Josh Harrison, but the pieces they added in the offseason have been disappointing so far. Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber are both hitting below the Mendoza Line. Although they don’t have a winning record and have the worst run differential in the NL East, the Nationals are in second place. The team is also counting on Stephen Strasburg to return from the injured list and join Max Scherzer in the top of that starting rotation.
New York Mets
The Mets had the most successful offseason of any team in the NL East, trading for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco and signing free agent James McCann. They also have the best pitcher in baseball. That’s a good thing, right?
Both Lindor and McCann have struggled to produce at the plate. Some of Lindor’s underlying numbers are promising — his plate discipline is good and defense is stellar — but it hasn’t translated into on-field production. He’s slashing .163/.284/.209 for a dismal adjusted OPS 58% worse than league average (100). McCann, on the other hand, has very poor underlying numbers in addition to a lack of production at the plate. As for Cookie Carrasco, he tore his hamstring in spring training and has yet to pitch this season.
Jacob deGrom is 33 years old and somehow still getting better. His average fastball velocity is 99 mph, up from 94 mph in 2016 and 97 mph in 2018. In five starts this season, he leads the National League with a 0.51 ERA and 59 strikeouts. He’s allowing the fewest hits per nine innings (4.1) and the most strikeouts per nine innings (15.2) in all of baseball. But, there’s always a but, deGrom was scratched from his start yesterday and an MRI revealed lat inflammation. The Mets are hoping deGrom can avoid a trip to the injured list, however.
Despite the disappointing start for their offseason acquisitions, the Mets remain only half a game out of first place in their division.
I don’t think many people suspected the Braves would fall toward the bottom of the division. This offseason, they acquired Charlie Morton, Drew Smyly, and Jake Lamb while parting with Mark Melancon and Adam Duvall, among others. Melancon, now with the San Diego Padres, has the most saves in baseball and the division rival Marlins scooped up Adam Duvall.
Starting pitching was the Braves weakness in 2020 and 2021 looks to be the same. Huascar Ynoa has been a very pleasant surprise, especially considering he wasn’t among the projected pitchers coming into the season. He’s stepped up when Max Fried went down with an injury and Mike Soroka remains on the injured list. Their acquisitions, Morton and Smyly, have been disappointing as well. On top of Ynoa’s pitching performance, he’s swatted two home runs this season, including a grand slam in yesterday’s game against the Braves.
Ronald Acuña Jr. is matching Juan Soto’s magnificence this season, putting up MVP-quality numbers of his own. The Braves’ offense is as menacing as ever. The top half of their lineup includes Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman, Marcell Ozuna, Ozzie Albies, and Austin Riley.
The Braves have a chance to make a statement over these next few weeks as they play eight games against division opponents in the next 15 days. They are also expecting Fried to return from the injured list today and rejoin their starting rotation.
No one expected the Marlins to secure a spot in last year’s postseason and there aren’t many more believers this season either. But that doesn’t bother the Marlins one bit. The team harnessed the words of a Philadelphia broadcaster who asserted, after the Marlins beat the Phillies on Opening Day, that “you have to beat the bottom feeders.” After clinching in the final weekend of the regular season and sweeping the two-game Wild Card series against the Chicago Cubs, the Fighting Fish spoke of the motivation that label sparked and even donned t-shirts with their new nickname.
The Marlins may be in last place through the first month of the season, but they are 2.0 games out of first place and the only team in their division with a positive run differential. They’ve had a handful of games where their offense was able to score a surplus of runs, but the praise deserves to go to the Marlins’ starting pitchers. Sandy Alcántara, Pablo López, and Trevor Rogers have been stellar thus far, but the team has lost 10 of 19 games that the trio has started despite a combined 2.45 ERA.
Even though the Marlins haven’t taken advantage of the gems their pitchers have spun, they remain only a few games back due in part to the struggles of their division rivals. The team’s rather crowded injured list is in the process of slimming down as Brian Anderson was just activated and Jazz Chisholm Jr. should return to the field very soon. Elieser Hernández, who left with an injury mid-way through his first start, and Sixto Sánchez are also progressing from their respective injuries. With the nature of this division and the determination of this group, you have to give the Marlins a consideration in May.
Various photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Aaron Polcare