In a competitive National League East, beating up on the Marlins will reign supreme.
The National League East is the most competitive division in baseball, with any of four teams capable of winning the pennant. Per FanGraphs’ Coolstandings, the Nationals are clear favorites to win the division, with a 40 percent chance, but the Mets, Braves, and Phillies are all in the running, each with around a 20 percent chance to take home the NL East crown. The East represents a bit of an anomaly, as no other division has three teams with as high a percentage to win the division, let alone four.
In 2018, the Braves won the East by a solid eight games, despite the fact that by first / second / and third-order wins, the race should have been much closer. In other words, looking at the Nats run differential and other various underlying numbers such as pythagorean runs (which takes out sequencing luck), and quality of opponents, there should have been a pennant race between them and the Braves, but the reality did not shake out that way.
Atlanta walked away with the East last year, and deservedly so. They spent 115 days in first place, never spent a day below .500, and wrapped up the division nearly two weeks before the started of the playoffs. The separation for Atlanta was their performance in the division, where they posted a 49-27 record, a .580 winning percentage. The even bigger differentiation however was their complete and utter dominance against the Mets (13-6) and Marlins (14-5).
While the Nationals fared well against the Marlins (13-6), their sub-.500 record against the rest of the East is what ultimately led them to a distant-second place, and missing the playoffs.
With 19 games against each divisional foe, strength against the teams played most often cannot go understated. The Nationals are 7-7 so far against the East, and they have not yet played the division champs. The Phillies are 13-8, the Mets are 11-8, and the Braves are 4-7. The big key to all of this however, is the Miami Marlins.
The Marlins offense is potentially historically horrible. Miami hitters collective sit in the bottom five on all three slash categories, with a particular emphasis on a lack of power. The team’s .333 slugging percentage is seven percentage points below even the next-worse team, and over 29 games, the Fish have hit a team total 23 home runs; Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger each have 14 home runs, between the two of them they have five more home runs then the entire Marlins lineup!
Last season the Dodgers eked out an NL West pennant via a game-163, which they took from the Rockies. The Dodgers 14-5 record against the lowly 66-96 Padres helped propel them to the 92-wins required to win the division. The Rockies found themselves in a game-163 in large part because they did not take advantage of those games against San Diego, going a modest 11-8.
Similarly in the NL Central, the Brewers edged out a division pennant by defeating the Cubs in a game-163, after posting a 13-6 record against the 67-win basement-dwelling Reds. Despite that record hardly denoting dominance, it was better than the Cubs 11-8 record. The division was ripe for the taking simply by beating up on a last place team that essentially mailed it in after the All Star break (during which time they put up an awful record of 24-42). Had the Cubs gone 12-7, they would have won the division by a game over the Brewers.
The 8-21 Marlins are going to be the doormat of the National League this entire season, that much is clear. FanGraphs projects them for 102-losses this season, PECOTA has them around 96 losses. Either way, there are wins to be had in Miami for every other team in the NL East.
So far, the Mets swept the Marlins in their first three-game set, the Phillies have already taken five of their first seven, the Braves went 2-1, while the Nats lost their first three-game series 2-1.
With another 90+ losses on the way for the Marlins, it’s going to be a long summer in Miami, (though seemingly few people will witness it). In any case, a Marlins literal loss is another division foe’s gains. We can track the standings and projections through the summer to try to figure out who will emerge victorious in the tight NL East, but taking a look at how rest of the division is faring against Miami will give an early indication into which team is most likely to pull ahead in the end.