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Crunch time: NL East is up for grabs as the Braves host Mets in Atlanta

The Braves kick off the final week before the All-Star Break with a huge three-game set against the NL East-leading Mets in Atlanta.

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Braves have blistered, scalded, and overwhelmed their opposition since the calendar turned to June. They’ve gone 29-8, turning a 10.5-game deficit into the division into just a slim, 1.5-game differential. The Mets have gone a respectable 19-16 in the same span, but have seen most of their advantage frittered away as a result. The current playoff odds have the NL East as basically a toss-up: the Mets have a 49.7 percent chance (as of the time of writing); the Braves are at 48.8 percent.

In some ways, due to the bloated playoff format enabled by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, these games are bedecked in the full regalia of consequence: no matter what happens, both the Braves and Mets are highly likely to make the postseason at this point. On the other hand, though, the winner of the NL East also seems highly likely to finish with a top-two record in the NL, thus earning a coveted (I guess) bye from the first round of the postseason. In any case, the Mets are coming and the stage is set for a three-game showdown.

  • If the Braves win all three games, they’ll transform a 1.5-game deficit into a 1.5-game lead, continuing their rapacious ascent up the standings.
  • If the Braves win two out of three, the Mets will see their lead trimmed to just half a game, and the Braves will continue the chase.
  • If the Braves win just a single game, well, they had a 2.5-game deficit as recently as this past weekend, so no big deal. A bummer, but not a death kneel.
  • If the Braves get swept, well... let’s not think about that. But like I said, the worst likely outcome at this point for the Braves is still a playoff spot, so eh.

In case it wasn’t obvious, neither of these teams looks like the pair of opponents that split a four-game set in New York earlier this year in May. Before that series, the Mets had the best position player production in MLB, while the Braves were mired in the league’s bottom half due to some terrible defensive play and severely underperforming their quality of contact. The Mets also had the pitching edge rotation-wise, though the Braves had a much better bullpen.

Since that series, the tables have turned as well. The Braves leapfrogged the Mets — fourth-most position player fWAR compared to the Mets’ ninth-place ranking, with better hitting and defense. A more dramatic reversal has been on the pitching end — the Braves rank far-and-away first in pitching fWAR since May 5, while the Mets are a mediocre 16th.

Overall, these teams are very different at this point, but evenly matched in some respects. They rank fourth and fifth in position player fWAR on the season, separated by just decimals. The Braves have pulled way ahead in pitching fWAR, leading the Mets by over 4 fWAR and eight ranking spaces (Braves are second, Mets tenth). The difference is less notable in the rotation than in the bullpen, where New York’s mediocre relief corps is the result of an amazing Edwin Diaz season and a bunch of okay-or-worse performances.

As you probably know by now, these teams have gotten to where they are offensively in very different ways. The Braves are your quintessential thwackers, ranking in the top six (and often higher) in exit velocity, hard-hit rate, xwOBA, xwOBACON, and the like. They swing a ton and do lots of damage when they do, and therefore see the lowest zone rate from opposing pitchers in the league. They miss tons of strikes, and miss a ton in general, sporting the league’s highest whiff rate, but that’s by design. They pull the ball in the air, as the baseball deities intended: they have some of the highest fly ball rates and pull rates in MLB, and the lowest opposite-field rate. They strike out a ton and honestly don’t walk very much.

The Mets are a different beast. They’re in the bottom half of all the quality of contact stats, and barely outside the top 10 in xwOBA, with weak contact propped up by attempts to have the ball find some grass or be hit too weakly to convert into an out. Unlike the Braves, the Mets don’t have a clear identity in terms of plate approach — they’re 10th in zone swing rate, 11th in zone contact rate, have an average chase rate, and are ninth in overall swing rate. What they do do well is avoid whiffs when swinging at junk (and therefore, in general). While this might doom some teams to suboptimal contact and the poor results that come with it, the Mets have done just fine with squibbers and flares, as they have great offensive results despite mediocre-or-worse barrel and solid contact rates. For a long time, the Braves’ pursuit of the Mets was rendered extra-frustrating by the fact that the Braves were severely underperforming their xwOBA, while the Mets were not — even with the new, more drag-prone ball. Those trends have abated a bit as the season has worn on — the Mets still have the fifth-best xwOBA underperformance in MLB, but the Braves are 13th now, so it’s not as horrid.

What this all means, though, is that this could be an uber-frustrating series if the bloops and bleeders are what deliver wins unto the Mets for the next three games. We’ll see what happens.

Monday, July 11, 7:20 pm ET

Max Scherzer (9 GS, 55 23 IP, 59 ERA-, 69 FIP-, 77 xFIP-, 69ish xERA-)

This series kicks off with maximum awesomeness, as a battle of the Maxes is in the cards. Scherzer missed about half of May and all of June with an oblique strain, but has been unsurprisingly dominant when healthy. He struck out 11 and walked none in six scoreless innings against the Reds in his return from injury, and was pushed back a day to make this start and aid the Mets in defending their spot atop the NL East.

The Braves are intimately/infinitely familiar with Scherzer at this point — they beat him in Game 2 of last year’s NLCS, and 27 regular-season games. Scherzer has a career 3.35 FIP and 3.72 xFIP against the Braves, compared to 3.12 and 3.27 overall, respectively. They missed him earlier this season in New York, but should be ready for him on Monday night.

Max Fried (17 GS, 107 13 IP, 59 ERA-, 64 FIP-, 74 xFIP-, 67ish xERA-)

It’s very fitting that for the Max Battle, both Maxes have pretty much the same pitching lines — it actually goes beyond “fitting” and crosses into “eerie.” Fried has been on a roll for most of the 2022 season — his most recent start against the Cardinals, in which he threw six scoreless with a 4/1 K/BB ratio, was actually his first start of the year with an xFIP above 4.00. By any measure, Fried really hasn’t had a bad start in about two months. He beat the Mets with a 6/0 K/BB ratio and two runs allowed in six innings earlier this year, and dominated them in three starts last year, even though the Braves ended up losing two of those games.

Tuesday, July 12, 7:20 pm ET

David Peterson (13 G, 11 GS, 62 IP, 90 ERA-, 103 FIP-, 90 xFIP-, 96ish xERA-)

The Mets will follow Scherzer with David Peterson, who is having an average-y season in the New York rotation. Peterson is kind of a weird guy at this point: he’s a groundball pitcher who gets into a lot of deep counts, which results in a lot of grounders, walks, and strikeouts, at the expense of most-everything else. He has both a low zone rate and a mediocre chase rate, and really gets by because hitters have a hard time connecting when they do chase (hence the deeper counts and strikeouts).

What this has resulted in for Peterson is a high-variance season. He’s had dominant stretches like a 15/2 K/BB ratio in back-to-back starts against the Marlins, utter implosions like his most recent start against the Reds (7/5 K/BB ratio across just 3 23 innings, with three runs and a homer allowed), and really weird starts like his outing in Texas, where he had a 10/0 K/BB ratio but allowed two homers and three total runs in six innings.

Peterson beat the Braves earlier this season despite having four runs (three earned) charged to him in six frames, with a 6/3 K/BB ratio and a homer allowed.

Spencer Strider (19 G, 8 GS, 65 23 IP, 62 ERA-, 48 FIP-, 62 xFIP-, 63ish xERA-)

After Max Fried, the Braves will unleash not-so-secret weapon Spencer Strider on the Mets. Strider’s been essentially dominant since moving to the rotation, and has video game numbers over his last three outings: 30 K, 3 BB, one run allowed in 18 innings, 12 ERA-, 14 FIP-, 42 xFIP-. He’s pitching like a dominant reliever... for six innings at a time.

Of course, Strider might be prone to the occasional blow-up — he struggled with a patient Giants team and it’ll be interesting to see what happens when he faces against a Mets team that is fine making weak contact rather than trying to mash the ball and taking the whiffs that come with it. (This makes me wonder what Strider would do against the Braves...)

Strider made his MLB debut in 2021 by pitching in two games against the Mets, but hasn’t faced them as either a starter or reliever yet this year.

Wednesday, July 13, 12:20 pm ET

Chris Bassitt (16 GS, 96 IP, 102 ERA-, 98 FIP-, 90 xFIP-, 82ish xERA-)

A matinee matchup wraps up this series, and Chris Bassitt will take the hill for New York. Bassitt’s had an interesting year — his strikeout and walk rates are similar to what he did last season in Oakland, and he’s eliciting much worse contact on balance, but he’s nonetheless been stung by the longball way more than in the recent past. When they come, the homers tend to be bunched, which has a big effect on his seasonal line.

The Braves dealt Bassitt a tough loss in New York, as he had an 8/1 K/BB ratio but was stung into giving up both the lead and the tie the third time through. (He opposed Fried in the game.)

Randomly, Bassitt has somehow faced the Marlins in each of his last three starts. He’s pitched well, with a 17/2 K/BB ratio, but lost two of the three games. Even more weirdly, the game the Mets won was the one where Bassitt allowed two homers; he didn’t allow a longball in the other two.

Charlie Morton (17 GS, 94 IP, 100 ERA-, 98 FIP-, 91 xFIP-, 91ish xERA-)

After a poor start to 2022, Morton has battled back with some dazzling outings to bring his seasonal line into average territory, which is quite an achievement. The Braves have taken off as Morton has — since the start of June, his slash is 67/79/61 (compared to 129/115/119 before that), and while he’s had a few blow-ups and meh starts in that span, he’s generally piled on enough strikeouts to give himself a chance.

The Mets beat the less-effective version of Morton earlier this season, as he managed just a 3/3 K/BB ratio and was charged with five runs (four earned) in 5 23 frames. Morton faced the Mets a bunch last year (four starts and a postseason tune-up) and dominated them twice with two other mediocre outings.

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