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Divide and Conquer, NL East 

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A look back at the key moments of the game that led to Atlanta's elimination

Last week, we discussed the potential collapse of the Atlanta Braves in their attempt to hold on to the National League Wild Card. Well, on one of the greatest nights in baseball history, that potential collapse became a crippling reality for the Braves, as they lost a late-inning heartbreaker to their division rival Philadelphia Phillies. At the risk of picking at a wound that has almost assuredly not begun healing yet, let us take an episodic look through the lens of Win Probability Added and Win Expectancy (provided by Baseball-Reference) and see how the game progressed from the Braves being on the brink of a second straight playoff berth to heading home without a chance at the World Series.

3rd Inning: Dan Uggla hits a two-run home run, Braves lead 3-1
That home run was the single biggest play on the Braves' side of the docket on Wednesday evening, as it added 22 percent to their chances of winning the game according to WPA. Uggla's home run was fitting of the hitting performance he has put up since July; his batting line of .301/.386/.596 with 24 home runs since July 5 has far surpassed the other Braves batters. His 36 homers for the season represent a career-high total and a fifth straight year with over 30 home runs. Despite the atrocity that was the first half of the season, his magnificent second-half line brought his season back from the brink. After the end of June, it seemed almost a foregone conclusion that Uggla would end up an absolute disappointment in 2011, yet somehow he ended up with 2.3 WARP on the year, which stands as second on the team among position players. With his Wednesday night home run, it appeared that Uggla was going to once again have a hand in leading his team's offense to the postseason.

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September 26, 2011 5:00 am

Divide and Conquer, NL East: The Surprise Wild Card Race


Michael Jong

While no one would have predicted it a mere month ago, the Braves have collapsed and hold a single game lead over the Cards.

As sports fans, we all love a good collapse. This may be because inherent to all good collapses are also good comebacks, and everyone loves a good comeback. Combine the nature of these dual concepts with the stakes of making it to the playoffs for a chance at the World Series, and you have an intriguing storyline to follow at the end of an otherwise dull 2011 stretch run. The Atlanta Braves were 8.5 games ahead of their closest Wild Card competitor, the St. Louis Cardinals, at the beginning of September. CoolStandings had them at a 97.8 percent chance of making the playoffs (96.4 percent chance of winning the Wild Card) that day using their “smart” mode assumptions. The Cardinals, on the other hand, had just a 4.3 percent chance of making the postseason. Flash forward to the present time, and the Braves and Cardinals are in drastically different situations. Since September 1, the Braves have gone 8-15 while the Cardinals have gone the opposite direction, posting a 15-7 record. The reversal of fortunes has put the Braves just one game ahead of the Cardinals for the Wild Card lead with only three games remaining.

This drastic change is reflected in the Playoff Odds Report. Through September 24, the Braves had an 88.8 percent chance of moving into the postseason, while the Cardinals were up to 11.2 percent. This change was most drastic during the past week—a week in which the Braves went 2-4 versus the three lower-ranked teams in the NL East while the Cardinals won five of seven games. Atlanta lost almost seven percent on their odds to make the playoffs this past week, while the Cardinals gained eight percentage points in their quest to thwart the previously untouchable Braves.

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September 19, 2011 9:00 am

Divide and Conquer, NL East: The Importance of a Strong Core


Michael Jong

The Phillies are a model team for building and maintaining a strong core of players.

The Philadelphia Phillies clinched their fifth straight National League East division crown with a Saturday night victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. A playoff birth was not really in doubt given their odds in the Playoff Odds Report, but the mathematical certainty of the division title and the near assurance of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs should give the members of the Phillies a level of comfort heading into yet another postseason.

Speaking of comfort, there should also be a level of comfort for the players involved in the 2011 division-winning Phillies because of their familiarity with each other and with the playoff scene. One of the reasons for the Phillies' division success these last five years is that they boast a core of players that has been unparalleled in the NL East since their first title in 2007. The Phillies have eight players who have been with the major league club since 2007, with six of those players being regular, above-average or better contributors to the team.

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September 12, 2011 5:00 am

Divide and Conquer, NL East: The Phillies' Cy Young Candidacy


Michael Jong

A look at the Phillies' two nearly identical Cy Young candidates.

The Philadelphia Phillies are rolling on their way to the National League's top seed and a first-round playoff appointment with either the Arizona Diamondbacks or the Milwaukee Brewers. The remainder of the regular season is merely a formality, and for fans of NL East teams that have been roughed up by the Phillies' pitching staff (Phillies pitchers have a 3.26 ERA and 3.35 FIP versus the NL East), it has seemed that way for much of the regular season.

Indeed, if there were one thing for the Phillies to “compete” for in terms of the regular season, it may very well be the National League Cy Young Award race—a race in which they own two of the possible three dogs.

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September 6, 2011 5:00 am

Divide and Conquer, NL East: The Curious Case of Javier Vazquez


Michael Jong

A look at the perplexing career of one of 2011's biggest rebound pitchers.

This past week, Florida Marlins starter Javier Vazquez struck out his 2500th batter, inducing a whiff from Lucas Duda to end the bottom of the 6th inning on August 30. This put Vazquez in quite a bit of special company, one of only 22 pitchers since 1961 (and 30 pitchers overall) to reach the 2500-strikeout plateau.

Whenever milestones come up, it is always a good opportunity to look over a player's overall career, and Vazquez's is an intriguing one when considered alongside his strikeout-laden peers. The perception of Vazquez as an excellent pitcher who could reach such a career milestone seems strange after his numerous decent but unspectacular seasons. After all, how many excellent starters are told by their managers that they are not “big-game pitchers” like Ozzie Guillen said to Javy all those years ago? But the perception of him as just an average pitcher (he does have a career record of 160-160) does not match the fact that he was able to reach such a lofty milestone as 2500 strikeouts.

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While the Braves and Phils are playoff-bound, the NL East's other three teams will use September to evaluate potential roster moves.

Last week, we looked at the immediate future of the playoff-bound Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies and their possible matchups in the first round. But the other three NL East teams are not going anywhere after September; they will be packing it up for the long winter months and awaiting the 2012 season. So what do these teams have to look forward to as they approach the last month of the 2011 season?

Florida Marlins: Hanley Ramirez and His Health
It is no secret that Ramirez's season has been a disaster. The highest-paid Marlin has had a 0.6 WARP season through 385 plate appearances, and he has missed playing time due to two separate DL stints for different injuries. Those two stints represent the first and second trips to the DL in Ramirez's brilliant career, though he did miss much of the last month of 2010 with soreness in his left elbow.

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A look at the three most likely playoff series in the National League, all involving teams from the NL East.

There are not many playoff races of interest remaining this season. Despite a tight AL East race between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, both teams are almost a lock to make the playoffs according to Baseball Prospectus's Playoff Odds Report. A similar case has arisen in NL East, and indeed in the National League in general. Aside from the NL West race, the remaining three playoff spots are well in-hand given our expectations of the teams involved. The Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers have all but wrapped up their divisions with 100 and 95.5 percent odds of making it in according to their PECOTA projections. And while the Atlanta Braves may only hold a five-game edge on the San Francisco Giants for the Wild Card, they stand at an 87.8 percent chance to win the fourth playoff spot.

Presuming everyone plays as expected (and the “that's why the play the games” saying appears here as a warning that this does not always happen), the NL East teams have little to look forward to in the regular season; play out their games as expected and they should end up as two of the top contenders to represent the National League in the World Series. What sort of competition are they facing? Let us look ahead to the currently projected potential playoff matchups between the NL East division representatives and their likely opponents.

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A look at the conflicting seasons of Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez.

Last night, the Atlanta Braves beat the Florida Marlins 6-2, completing a three-game sweep of the Fish. With both teams in close proximity, the story of two players who once shared a bond in Florida as one of the best offensive double-play combinations in baseball came to mind. One player, former Marlin and current Braves second baseman Dan Uggla, is redeeming himself with a 31-game hitting streak that has brought his season line from “atrocious” to “below average.” The other, Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez, missed his sixth straight game with a shoulder injury and has yet to decide whether he is healthy enough to play or should go on the disabled list.

Recent performance plays a strong role in how a player is perceived. The recent 30-game surge by Uggla has brought his season line right in line with Ramirez's.

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August 1, 2011 11:30 pm

Divide and Conquer, NL East: Trade Deadline Reflections


Michael Jong

Michael reflects on how each NL East team did in acquiring the pieces on their trade deadline wishlists.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the wishlists of the NL East teams as they headed into the 2011 trade deadline. Teams knew they had holes that they wanted filled, and a good number of the contenders went out and aggressively filled those holes with trades at or before the July 31 mark. How did these trades mesh with the wishlists of the teams entering one of the busiest deadlines of recent note? Let us revisit those team wishes and how those teams made those wishes come true.

Philadelphia Phillies: Right-handed hitting outfielder
Move: Acquired Hunter Pence from the Houston Astros
Mission Accomplished?: Yes

The Phillies perhaps saw that their West Coast rivals the San Francisco Giants get ahead of the bat-acquiring parade by picking up Carlos Beltran from the New York Mets and decided to act quickly. When Pence was made available this week, the Phillies had an offer on the table involving prospects Jarred Cosart and Jonathan Singleton, but it seems the Astros backed off at first. After a period where it seemed Houston was unwilling to make a deal, the two teams reentered negotiations and eventually made a deal involving those three prime parties.

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Michael looks at five players who could play a large role in the post-season chances of an MLB team.

Two teams in the NL East are currently in the thick of a division race, while the three other clubs are hovering close to a .500 record with little chance of making it to the playoffs; the Playoff Odds Report has the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves as very good bets to make the postseason while the New York Mets, Washington Nationals, and Florida Marlins each have less than a one percent chance to be playing in October. Still, all of these teams may yet have a player that could still have an impact on a playoff race, whether it is the NL East division race or a stretch run elsewhere. This week, let us take a look at one player on each team who could have a significant impact on his team’s (or another team's) chances at a playoff berth.

Philadelphia Phillies: Roy Oswalt, Starting Pitcher
Oswalt threw a simulated game on Friday and may be ready to begin a rehab start in the minors this upcoming week. He has been out since June 24 with a bulging vertebral disk and lower back inflammation. The Phillies should not really sweat Oswalt's regular season return, though, as their chances of making the playoffs are almost a certainty; they hold the best record in baseball and have a five-game lead on the team in Atlanta. The Playoff Odds Report has the Phillies as essentially a lock for the playoffs, putting them at a 99.1 percent chance of making the postseason. PECOTA projects that the difference between Oswalt and a fifth-starter type like the intriguing Vance Worley or the dreaded Kyle Kendrick over the nine or ten starts remaining in the regular season is likely to be a little more than one WARP, which would, at most, amount to part of the difference between the Phillies getting home field advantage in the National League Championship Series or not. Right now, Baseball Prospectus's projections have the Phillies finishing four games ahead of the San Francisco Giants, so that one win may ultimately not matter much.

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Michael examines what each team in the NL East desires most as the trade deadline approaches.

Right after the All-Star Game and the unofficial first half of the baseball season, teams and fans alike turn their attentions to the next big landmark of the year: the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Fans clamor for their favorite teams to acquire this player or that one. Teams haggle with other teams for the right price. Numerous mentions of clubs being “buyers” or “sellers” fill the media coverage of the deadline. People all around refresh MLB Trade Rumors hundreds of times a day.

In honor of this yearly ritual of rampant speculation and overanalysis, let us take a look at what each NL East team would like to see happen in terms of transactions by the July 31 trade deadline. Call it a wish list for the NL East, if you will.

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July 11, 2011 9:54 pm

Divide and Conquer, NL East: Pitching Dominance


Michael Jong

Michael tests conventional wisdom and examines whether the pitching in the NL East is superior to the Central and West.

In last week's edition of Divide and Conquer, there was some controversy when Derek Lowe's name was brought up among the league leaders in WARP this season. This line of thinking got me examining the WARP totals for all of the division's finest pitchers. Dubious as the Lowe-for-WARP-leader campaign may be, it turns out (rather unsurprisingly) that the NL East as a whole is running out some of the best starting rotations in all of baseball, even when viewed through different lenses.

The NL East Starters
Here is how the NL East's five teams stack up in terms of three pitching statistics of interest: ERA, SIERA, and Baseball Prospectus's Fair Run Average (FRA), explained here. The five pitchers who have made the most starts for each team were selected and these are their results:

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