NL East division update: April edition

We have witnessed a month of baseball, and the competitive environment is beginning to take shape. The Atlanta Braves were fastest out of the gate and still lead the division, although every team but the Miami Marlins remains in the hunt.

With so much baseball left to play, let’s look in on some of the interesting storylines rather than focusing on the general playoff picture. Standings are through April 28.

Miami Marlins (Record: 6-19)

The 2013 season never was meant to be a successful one for the Marlins. An offseason campaign of cost cutting was unsuccessfully branded as a rebuilding effort, the result of which is an incredibly weak roster featuring few interesting players.

The Marlins surprised everybody by promoting Jose Fernandez to the rotation, giving fans a reason to tune in every five days. He’s seen mixed results, with two strong starts followed by two stinkers.

The real shocker is Giancarlo Stanton‘s power drought. He finally had a three-home run outburst over the weekend after playing most of April without a long ball. Some have speculated that a lack of lineup protection is hurting his ability to find pitches to hit.

For once, the “protection” argument may have some merit. Usually a star like Stanton isn’t surrounded by hitters like Placido Polanco, Justin Ruggiano, and Juan Pierre. The lineup as a whole is arguably the worst in the league, which means that pitchers are not compelled to challenge Stanton with strikes.

The PITCHf/x numbers for Stanton tell a strange story. Unsurprisingly, only free-swinging Pablo Sandoval has seen fewer pitches in the strike zone. After all, pitchers generally have no reason to pitch to Stanton. He is currently seeing about five percent fewer pitches in the strike zone than last season.

Here’s where things get truly bizarre. Despite hardly seeing strikes and a rather selective approach, Stanton still is seeing first-pitch strikes in 66 percent of his plate appearances, another five percent change from last season. Roughly two-thirds of the time he comes to the plate, he puts the ball in play or starts the count in the hole.

This is not a recipe for success. 0-1 counts result in substantially reduced power outcomes compared to 1-0 counts. The combination of a low number of pitches in the strike zone and a high first-pitch strike rate is a bit of a paradox.

This is a situation worth monitoring for Marlins fans. At first blush, this smells like a small sample anomaly that will correct itself over the course of a season. The Marlins brass is undoubtedly breathing a sigh of relief after this weekend; Stanton is an integral component of the rebuilding plan in Miami.

New York Mets (Record: 10-13)

The Mets were supposed to be many flavors of terrible, but so far they are keeping their heads above water. While they are likely to fade into the summer due to a lack of depth and talent, they’re currently doing a lot of things well.

Matt Harvey has been a revelation. The opposition has withered in his presence, batting just .122/.190/.191, resulting in a 1.54 ERA. Of course, a .160 BABIP has something to do with those pitiful numbers, but even his FIP is a meager 2.37. In other words, “luck” has only marginally benefited his numbers.

The most interesting performance thus far belongs to Lucas Duda, who is representing the three true outcomes in force. He has blasted five home runs while walking and striking out over 20 percent of the time.

After a strong performance in 2011, Duda was tabbed by many traditional and fantasy outlets as a breakout candidate in 2012. Injuries and poor performance ruined that story line, but he seems to be back on track so far in 2013. Duda’s currently getting it done by rarely swinging. Heading into Sunday, he was tied with A.J. Ellis for the lowest swinging rate in baseball at 31 percent. He’s offered at only 15 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

Unlike Stanton, pitchers are not attacking Duda early in the count, 58 percent of his plate appearances are starting with a 1-0 count. This explains both the high walk rate and potent power numbers.

Going forward, advance scouts are going to begin recommending that pitchers challenge Duda early in the count. If he is prepared, he can exploit this by jumping on early-count fastballs. The Mets certainly will be hoping he can continue performing well, as they would like to turn a few more veterans into valuable prospects but have few players left to sell.

Philadelphia Phillies (Record: 12-14)

The Phillies are currently the worst of the playoff contenders in the division, although things are beginning to look up. Carlos Ruiz returned from suspension over the weekend, and Jonathan Pettibone has filled in ably for John Lannan in two spot starts. Roy Halladay began the season looking quite broken, but he has been sharper in recent outings.

Part of the Phillies’ focus over the offseason was getting younger in the field. Domonic Brown was given the chance to win a starting job, which he seized in spring training. Results have been mixed, although his athletic profile remains promising.

The other youthful addition to the roster was Ben Revere, who—aside from a spectacular diving catch—has been terrible. As a slap-happy speedster, Revere has seen the opposite problem of Stanton.

Many outlets have critiqued Revere’s inability to draw a walk, usually citing bad plate discipline. It would be more accurate to critique his inability to drive the baseball. Revere actually may suffer from being too disciplined. He currently sees one of the highest first-pitch strike rates in baseball despite being one of the least likely players to swing at a pitch. When he does swing, he rarely misses. Because his only real tool is speed, pitchers are pouring pitches over the plate, and only Marco Scutaro sees more fastballs.

Revere whiffs in fewer than one out of 20 swings, yet his strike out rate of 15 percent is unusually high. This indicates that he’s working himself into bad counts and potentially taking too many called strikeouts. More aggression early in the count could help him to replicate his results from last season, when he put more balls in play and reached base at a much higher rate.

The Phillies need this type of production out of him. He was supposed to provide dynamic base-running ability to help the meat of the order see more fastballs. It’s tempting to suggest that Revere work the count and take more walks, but that probably isn’t the best way for a player of his skill set to maximize his on base percentage. So while you may hear from others that Revere’s problem is plate discipline, don’t be fooled. If anything, he’s too disciplined for a player of his profile.

Washington Nationals (Record: 13-12)

The Nationals went into the season with the best on-paper roster in baseball. After one month, several holes have been revealed.

Ryan Zimmerman has been erratic. He’s currently on the disabled list and had a fringe case of the yips prior to his injury. Top prospect Anthony Rendon was recalled to fill the offensive hole, but both he and Steve Lombardozzi have yet to produce much at the plate.

On the pitching side of the ledger, Stephen Strasburg has looked distressingly human, mainly because batters are whiffing over two percent less frequently than last season. The real concern is Dan Haren, who is showing great peripherals, including a 5.00 K/BB ratio, but is also getting hit hard early and often. While it’s easy to say that a .386 BABIP can and will regress, it’s much tougher to say how far that regression will go, since he seems to be catching too much of the plate.

Despite these concerns, the Nationals have a lot to be pleased about, most notably their 20-year-old franchise star, Bryce Harper. Watching him play, it’s hard not to conclude that he could do anything. After a nine-home run April with a Bondsian .517 wOBA, Harper may have surpassed Mike Trout as the most dynamic young player in the game.

Last season, pitchers learned not to challenge Harper with fastballs. Thus far, that approach has carried into 2013. However, it appears that Harper has continued adjusting to the steady diet of offspeed stuff. Those looking for holes in Harper’s offensive game may need to wait for an injury. It does appear that “luck” is on his side—a .361 BABIP and 32 percent HR/FB ratio typically qualify as lucky—but even with regression, he likely will compete for the best offensive performance in the league.

Of course, this bodes well for the Nationals’ prospects in 2013. With a monster in the heart of the lineup, supported by strong on-base threats like Denard Span and Jayson Werth, the offense should produce runs in bunches.

Atlanta Braves (Record: 15-9)

The Braves started the season with a 12-1 record and looked utterly unbeatable before cooling off. They feature a feast-or-famine offense centered around the mashings of Justin Upton. His 12 home runs and .477 ISO are both tops in baseball.

The story of Atlanta’s offense is fascinating because it’s a really a tale of have’s and have-not’s. Joining Upton on the “hot” end of the spectrum are the third-base platoon of Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson, Freddie Freeman, and rookie Evan Gattis.

Gattis is particularly interesting. The scouting reports suggest that he’s a free swinger who may have plate discipline issues at the major league level, but so far he’s showing league-average swing rates. His defensive abilities were also questioned, yet there have been few complaints this season. His emergence could allow the club to comfortably part with Brian McCann after the season. McCann is due to return from the disabled list soon.

On the cold side of the equation are B.J. Upton, Andrelton Simmons, Dan Uggla, and Jason Heyward. All four are struggling to convert balls in play into hits. Heyward must have rolled snake eyes for 2013, as he holds a ridiculously low .114 BABIP and is recovering from an emergency appendectomy.

The combination of hot and cold performances actually bodes well for the Braves. As the cold players come out of their slumps and vice versa, the lineup should continue to produce runs in bunches.

If the Braves have any concerns in 2013, it’s an effective-but-shallow rotation. Brandon Beachy is currently on track in his rehab from Tommy John surgery, but an injury stack in the rotation will leave the club short-handed. But as long as their hurlers stay healthy, Braves fans have every reason to expect a playoff berth.

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Marc Schneider
Marc Schneider

I don’t think Zimmerman has Steve Sax disease; he simply has a very poor throwing motion, whether related to injury or something else.  It’s not as if his bad throws are inexplicable.  His motion is shockingly poor for a major league player-at least from what I have seen.  He simply cannot throw over the top anymore.

Jack Weiland
Jack Weiland

“Many flavors of terrible”

“distressingly human”

Nice turn of phrase on both of those, Brad.

Dave Cornutt
Dave Cornutt
The other interesting bit I found going through Stanton’s numbers is that his percentage of swings on pitches outside the zone is close to his career average, but his percentage of swings in the zone is down about 7%.  Why would he be swinging at fewer pitches in the zone?  Curious. As for the Nats, I expect most of their pitching to come around… Ross Detwiler, from what I’ve seen, has pitched well but been BABIP-unlucky.  Drew Storen has periperhal comparable to Soriano’s, but he too has had BABIP problems.  Gio Gonzalez is the one guy I’d point at who… Read more »
Jim Casey
Jim Casey

Nicely written and cogently analyzed. As a native Washingtonian and Nats fan, I am concerned most about Ryan Zimmerman. If he has Steve Sax disease there is no place to hide that in the NL, and the Nats have no practical alternative at 3B. You’re absolutely right about Strasburg too. He looks human, not like an ace at all. Jordan Zimmerman now looks like the guy who should be #1 in this rotation. The next 4 nights against the Braves should be interesting for sure.

Matt Hughes
Matt Hughes
Great job Brad. I’m looking forward to seeing if/when the Nats turn it around. If Strasburg can stay healthy, that team should rebound and be in WS contention. Braves are also intriguing and have looked great. However, their pitching is an injury away from looking pretty “meh”. My Phils are really a “wild-card” at this point. There are so many factors that could break their way and put them in contention, but I think it would have to be a lot of luck for that to happen. IF they can fight their way into the playoffs, that rotation will scare… Read more »