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What's real and what's not in the NL East

@mlbbowman
April 25, 2019

The first month of the National League East race has progressed as expected with the Mets, Phillies, Braves and Nationals all sticking within a few games of each other. This crowded race might be determined by which team most effectively fixes its bullpen woes. Each of these division contenders have

The first month of the National League East race has progressed as expected with the Mets, Phillies, Braves and Nationals all sticking within a few games of each other. This crowded race might be determined by which team most effectively fixes its bullpen woes.

Each of these division contenders have been strengthened by some surprising developments and burdened by some disappointing early-season struggles. Here’s a look at which of the early trends should be considered real.

Mets

What's real: Jeff McNeil's start. McNeil might not hit above .350 all season, but while producing one of the game’s top five batting averages dating to July 24, he has given reason to believe he could compete for a batting title. The 27-year-old left-handed hitter won’t hit for power, but he has one of the game’s lowest whiff rates and his 90-plus mph average exit velocity proves he’s more than a slap hitter. His expected batting average ranks among the game’s top 15 marks.

What's not: Noah Syndergaard's struggles. When you have a 5.90 ERA and a 2.94 FIP through five starts, there certainly isn’t reason to worry. Syndergaard’s strikeout rate is up and his walk rate is down. Making this stretch more baffling is the fact his hard-hit rate is up from last season, but still slightly below where it was during his stellar 2016 season. There is a 50-point difference between the big right-hander’s batting average and expected batting average, and a 100-point difference between his slugging percentage and expected slugging percentage. It’s only a matter of time before the Mets are reintroduced to Thor.

Phillies

What’s real: Bryce Harper's presence. He has cooled over the past couple weeks, but he still has a .900-plus OPS and the ability to influence how pitchers attack the middle of Philadelphia’s lineup. After the former NL MVP Award winner was ejected during Monday’s loss to the Mets, a peeved Jake Arrieta made it clear how much the Phillies need Harper to keep himself in games, especially right now with Jean Segura, Odubel Herrera and Scott Kingery on the injured list.

What’s not: Aaron Nola's downward trend. One month into the season, Nola has posted the NL’s highest ERA and surrendered the second-highest BABIP. The latter is just one metric that suggests the right-hander may soon begin trending in the right direction. His weighted on-base average (.394) is the fourth-worst among pitchers who have faced at least 100 batters and his expected wOBA (.353) ranks 69th. He ranked among the league’s top six pitchers in both of these statistical categories in 2018.

Braves

What’s real: Dansby Swanson’s improvement. He ranks among the NL’s top 20 hitters in OPS and he has already nearly matched last year’s barrel total. The shortstop has benefited from a healthy wrist and a more patient plate approach that has led him to be less susceptible to sliders. His hard-hit rate has jumped to nearly 50 percent and he has improved his walk rate thus far. This may be the season he starts to live up to the expectations set when the D-backs took him with the first pick in the 2015 MLB Draft.

What’s not: Max Fried’s dominance. He has the potential to be one of the game’s top pitchers, but while producing the NL’s best ERA thus far, the southpaw has struck out just 17.3 percent of the hitters faced. Durability will be an issue as he has never thrown more than 118 1/3 innings at the pro level. But his improved fastball velo and impressive curveball spin rate will continue to lead some to draw comparisons to a young Cole Hamels.

Nationals

What’s real: Anthony Rendon’s hot start. Long before he spent this season’s first month making sure Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich were the NL’s only early MVP Award candidates, the Nationals third baseman was set to be paid handsomely on next offseason's free-agent market. He has barreled an impressive 21.1 percent of balls in play and produced a MLB-high 66.7 percent hard-hit rate (balls with a 95-plus mph exit velocity). He might not hit .370 all year, but he’ll produce another 900-plus OPS and his fourth straight 20-homer season.

What’s not: Brian Dozier’s slow start. He showed some signs of regression last season, but the veteran second baseman did not anticipate hitting below the Mendoza Line and producing a sub .700 OPS through this season’s first four weeks. He’s never going to vie for a batting title, but the 50-point difference between his slugging percentage and expected slugging percentage indicates he could still construct a sixth straight 20-homer season.

Marlins

What’s real: Caleb Smith’s emergence. He ranks among the game’s top five pitchers in strikeout percentage (33.0) and batting average allowed (.173). His 2.35 ERA ranks sixth among qualified NL starters. It’s not like he came out of nowhere when you consider he struck out 27 percent of the batters faced and limited opponents to a .217 batting average this season. But this season's improvement validates the effectiveness of a changeup he’s using more frequently and the value of his four-seam fastball average spin rate (2434 rpm), which ranks third among left-handers who have thrown at least 150 fastballs.

What’s not: Martin Prado’s hot start. If this were 2016, there would be less of a reason to focus on the fact Prado has hit .320 and produced a .792 OPS through his first 50 plate appearances. But because the veteran constructed a meager .610 OPS while battling a slew of injuries the past two seasons, there’s certainly reason to anticipate a steep regression. The 35-year-old infielder’s durability will be tested as the Marlins plan to play him at third base on a regular basis. He spent the first few weeks sharing first base with Neil Walker.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.