The Phillies-Braves Talent Gap Is Far Closer Than We Thought

The Phillies are proving they won't just sit back and let the Braves walk to a seventh straight NL East title.

Ronald Acuna Jr. of the Atlanta Braves and Bryce Harper of the Philadelphia Phillies speak during the first inning at Citizens Bank Park.
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - SEPTEMBER 13: Ronald Acuna Jr. #13 of the Atlanta Braves and Bryce Harper #3 of the Philadelphia Phillies speak during the first inning at Citizens Bank Park on September 13, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

The Atlanta Braves are the best team in baseball. But the Philadelphia Phillies are the best team in baseball. As contradictory as those two statements sound, they’re both equally true.

If “best” means “most talented,” then it’s hard to argue that the Braves aren’t the best team in the game. This is the team of Ronald Acuña Jr., Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Michael Harris II, and Ozzie Albies, not to mention Max Fried, Chris Sale, Charlie Morton, and Raisel Iglesias.

The projection systems at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus think the Braves will win more games than any other team over the rest of the season. The Los Angeles Dodgers have gotten off to a huge early lead in their division, yet their World Series odds barely eclipse Atlanta’s.

This team is so good that a 22-12 record over the first six weeks somehow counts as a slow start. The Braves are the best team in baseball.

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Yet, it’s the Phillies, not the Braves, who sit on top of the NL East. It’s the Phillies, not the Braves, who boast the best record in the major leagues. They have won eight of their last 10 and 16 of their last 20. They have not lost a series since the first week of April.

The Phillies pitching staff leads the National League in strikeouts, quality starts, and FanGraphs WAR. Their offense ranks second behind only the Dodgers in on-base percentage, home runs, and wOBA. This team is winning games, and winning with authority. The Phillies are the best team in baseball.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – OCTOBER 12: Trea Turner #7 of the Philadelphia Phillies turns a double play past Matt Olson #28 of the Atlanta Braves in the fourth inning during Game Four of the Division Series at Citizens Bank Park on October 12, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

I’ll be the first to admit I’m biased. Phillies posters still adorn the walls of my childhood bedroom. Yet, even I am not ready to argue Philadelphia is on par with Atlanta when it comes to true talent.

Simply put, the Phillies are playing over their heads right now. Alec Bohm won’t be one of the best hitters in baseball all season. Trea Turner’s absence is going to hurt. On the pitching side, Zack Wheeler, Ranger Suárez, and (especially) Spencer Turnbull can’t maintain ERAs under 2.00.

The Braves, meanwhile, are bound to bust out of their current slump. Perhaps they already have, after sweeping the Boston Red Sox in a quick two-game set this week.

Atlanta’s offense has been surprisingly wretched lately. Since April 21, they have a .213 batting average and a .604 OPS. They’ve scored just 3.4 runs per game over their last 15 contests. Yet, this is almost exactly the same team that scored 5.85 runs per game in 2023.

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Acuña will start hitting. Olson will start hitting. Riley, Albies, and Harris will start hitting. This cold stretch won’t last forever. The Braves lineup that strikes fear into pitchers’ hearts and minds will be back.

I don’t say any of this to diminish Philadelphia’s accomplishments over the first six weeks of the season. Quite the opposite, in fact.

As remarkable as the Braves can be, it is becoming increasingly clear that these two teams are closer in talent than most (if not all) of us realized. The Braves are not infallible, and the Phillies are more than just their superstars.

Alec Bohm (172 wRC+) won’t keep up this torrid pace, but he has proven he can be a powerful contributor in the middle of the lineup. Fellow youngsters Brandon Marsh (109 wRC+) and Bryson Stott (111 wRC+) are showing why their breakout 2023 seasons were no flukes. They are above-average contributors at the plate, in the field, and on the bases.

With Bohm, Marsh, and Stott contributing alongside veterans Bryce Harper, Trea Turner (when healthy), Kyle Schwarber, and J.T. Realmuto, the Phillies have one of the deepest lineups in the league – even if the slumping Nick Castellanos never returns to form.

Meanwhile, the Phillies’ pitching staff might be every bit as fearsome as the Braves’ fabled offense. Behind Wheeler and Aaron Nola, we have seen Ranger Suárez (1.72 ERA), Cristopher Sánchez (3.22 ERA), and Spencer Turnbull (1.57 ERA) all take big steps forward. History and common sense tell us they’re due for some regression, but all three have excellent underlying numbers that demonstrate legitimate growth and development.

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Suárez is showing off pinpoint control. Sánchez is a groundball master. Turnbull is racking up strikeouts with a devastating new sweeper and a secret weapon of a changeup.

As for the bullpen, Jeff Hoffman (1.13 ERA, 2.08 xERA), José Alvarado (4.30, 3.01 xERA), Matt Strahm (1.26 ERA, 3.01 xERA), and Orion Kerkering (1.86 ERA, 1.83 xERA) could make for one of the nastiest back-end combinations in the sport.

On the downside, Seranthony Domínguez (7.43 ERA, 4.21 xERA) and Gregory Soto (6.10 ERA, 5.28 xERA) are struggling. Yet, with so many talented arms behind them, these two don’t need to put too much pressure on themselves. Their pure stuff is still electric, and they can be dominant at their best. If anyone can help them right the ship, it’s the Phillies’ wunderkind pitching coach Caleb Cotham.

Overall, the Phillies bullpen currently has a disappointing 4.61 ERA, but their 3.49 FIP, 3.70 xFIP, and 3.65 SIERA suggest good things to come. The bullpen might be this team’s weak spot right now, and that only serves to highlight just how strong the offense and starting rotation have looked.

The Braves are still the favorites in the NL East. On paper, they’re still the best team in the league. Yet, the Phillies have dethroned their division rivals for a reason.

Simply put, Philadelphia has played better baseball over the first six weeks of the season. That doesn’t mean the Phillies are a better team, but it shows they won’t just sit back and let the Braves walk to a seventh straight NL East title.

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The talent gap between the Phillies and the Braves is much, much closer than almost anyone thought it would be. The NL East seemed all but decided before the season even began, yet it might just prove to be the most hard-fought division battle of the year.