Despite finishing 2016 three games below the Phillies in the cellar of the NL East, the Braves’ progressing rebuild and acquisition of young talent has renewed optimism about the future of the franchise among many baseball writers. They’ve also worked to improve their on-field product in the short term by signing deals with players like Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, and Kurt Suzuki, and acquiring cast-offs like Brandon Phillips and Matt Kemp.
Unforgivably, they also signed Ryan Howard to a minor-league contract.
The two teams are in a fight to lift off from the bottom of the NL East this year, and this opening series will be our first glimpse of which club is proceeding in its rebuild more quickly.
What to expect
I was told once about how certain shellfish, when being cooked, will pull each other back into the pot so none of them can escape and they all boil together.
That’s this series. Neither team is particularly good, nor do they have much to gain from 2017 other than hope for the future. The best they can do is make sure they both suffer equally. It could make for some pretty bad baseball.
To an optimist, though, it’s a tightly-contested series against two evenly-matched teams. The Phillies and Braves, after all, have had remarkably similar results to start the year.
In addition to a matching 6-9 record, the teams have put up similar wOBA (.311 for the Phils and .310 for Atlanta), wRC+ (96), home runs (16), and WHIP (1.35). While the Phillies have outscored the Braves 72 to 57 since the season began, the Braves’ 4.20 team ERA beats the 4.68 for Phillies pitchers.
The Braves may have had a lighter schedule so far, with only two of their wins coming against teams that aren’t the unfortunate San Diego Padres, which should barely count as winning in the first place. Still, the season series against Atlanta might be one metric to determine which team gets to have more immediate optimism.
Friday at 7:05 p.m., Bartolo Colon (1-1, 4.24 ERA) vs. Jeremy Hellickson (2-0, 1.59 ERA)
Jeremy Hellickson’s first few starts are the thought you comfort yourself with when everything else is going astray. He’s allowed three earned runs in 17 innings – good for a 1.59 ERA – and an immaculate 0.82 WHIP. Other than leaving his first pair of starts sooner than we would have liked and for odd reasons, he’s done nothing to make fans upset that he accepted the team’s qualifying offer in the offseason. This might partly be due to luck – he’s not striking guys out (2.65 K/9) and is generating less soft contact than before but has still seen his BABIP tumble to .182 – but the results have been there.
Colon has been exceptional in two of his three starts, allowing a run and lasting at least six innings in both. The other, though, saw Miami plate six runs. The Phillies will hope to see the latter version of him, but Colon did well against them last season: in five starts, he threw to a 3.03 ERA against the Phillies and held them to a .220/.252/.358 slash line.
Saturday at 7:05 p.m., Jaime García (0-1, 4.67 ERA) vs. Jerad Eickhoff (0-1, 2.75 ERA)
My praise for Eickhoff is as consistent as he is. Get it? Because he’s consistent. I’m here all week, folks. He hasn’t allowed more than three runs in a start in his last 11 starts, dating back to August 2016. In his career, Atlanta has a .547 OPS against him.
García has had a rough start to his Braves debut, but his early 4.67 ERA is nearly identical to what he earned in 171 2/3 innings last year for St. Louis. So far, opponents have been hitting a lot of line drives off him, and he isn’t striking many batters out. Those factors can lead to a lot of hits and runs for the opposing club.
Sunday at 1:35 p.m., Mike Foltynewicz (0-2, 4.26 ERA) vs. Zach Eflin (0-0, 3.60 ERA)
Eflin had a rocky 2016, as his debut season included an ERA of 5.54 and WHIP of 1.33— a worse season than Clay Buchholz had. Granted, that might be owed to the knee pain that ultimately led to surgery and beginning 2017 on the disabled list.
His first start of 2017 began inauspiciously. In the first inning, he allowed a pair of runs and three walks and threw a wild pitch. He settled in after that, though, going four more innings without allowing a run.
Foltynewicz has had a bizarre start to the season. Cory McCartney of Fox Sports details it in full, but the short version of it is that he’s pitched in rain, had his start skipped due to scheduling quirks and was victim of the “C.B. Bucknor experience”— Bucknored, as I like to say.
His career ERA is 4.89, so it’s not like Foltynewicz, who I’m already rooting against because his name is hard to type, had exceptional results before his quirky 2017. His 1.66 WHIP in 2017 is awful, but his career WHIP is 1.46. The Phillies should have no trouble getting on base against him unless his new repertoire, which focuses less on his fastball and more on a slider, keeps them off balance.