If last year’s Braves-Phillies National League Division Series was exciting – and it was, with the Phils winning 3-1 – then this year’s rematch promises to be at another level entirely. The 2023 Phillies are superior to the 2022 Phillies, in our view. The 2023 Braves merely won 104 games and arguably have the best offense in history. Both sides have stars on stars on stars, and a rivalry dating back more than a century in the NL. You can throw the regular-season records out for this one, just like last year.
Who has the edge? Let’s look position by position.
You’d think this would be a slam dunk. J.T. Realmuto has been the consensus best catcher in baseball for the last half-decade. Then again, Atlanta made it a point to go out and trade for Sean Murphy, and he was a Top 5 catcher entering the season himself, solidifying both clubs behind the plate.
But then the season began, and something interesting happened. Realmuto had a decent-not-great season, with a 106 OPS+ that was his lowest since 2015. Murphy got off to a red-hot start and ended up with a 125 OPS+, earning him the start in the All-Star Game. On the defensive side, Murphy rated as absolutely elite – the third-best catcher by Statcast metrics – while Realmuto’s usually great defense took a step back, particularly in framing. So far as 2023 goes, it’s difficult not to pick Murphy’s overall game.
The flip side is that Murphy’s hot start turned into a dreadful September. Then again, if either team needs to use its backup, Travis d’Arnaud made the All-Star team as recently as 2022, while Garrett Stubbs’ claim to fame is generally how little he plays. It’s not a large edge here at all, but the Braves' duo is in a slightly better situation.
If we’re talking name value, there’s absolutely no conversation here. Bryce Harper is one of the superstars of his generation, responsible for some of the biggest moments in Phillies history. He’s probably going to end up in the Hall of Fame. He is, in a lot of ways, a living legend.
But he’s also going up here against Matt Olson, who merely mashed a best-in-baseball 54 home runs with a 162 OPS+, a season that likely will end with a top 5 MVP finish. Plus, despite down defensive metrics that seemingly accurately reflected a fielding year that was off by Olson’s own admission, he’s two-time Gold Glove winner, while Harper is doing his best to learn first base on the fly. He’s done that relatively well, and posting a 146 OPS+ after rushing back from Tommy John surgery is more than a little impressive. It would take a superstar to outrank Harper here. Olson is that superstar.
Let’s start with the easy part. Ozzie Albies (33 homers, 124 OPS+) has been a better hitter than Bryson Stott (15 homers, 104 OPS+). It’s not that Stott isn’t a good hitter; you may recall the grand slam in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series. It’s not that Stott hasn’t improved; the steps up he’s made against fastballs this year have been massive. But so far as hitting goes, you’re taking Albies.
Yet there’s more to baseball than just hitting, and that’s where it gets interesting. Stott (+13 Fielding Run Value) is a considerably better defender than Albies (-6). Stott has a slight edge on the bases, as well, and so if you put all that in the soup and bring it out as Wins Above Replacement, it’s essentially a tie. Given the requirement to actually choose someone here, we’re going with Albies, because we’ll put slightly more weight on offense and his ability to switch-hit. But like everywhere else, it’s a close one.
Not here, though. Yes, we know that Orlando Arcia started the All-Star Game; good on him for stepping up to fill a post-Dansby Swanson hole, and on Braves fans for supporting their players in the balloting. But not only was Trea Turner a perfect 30-for-30 in steals this year, he outhit Arcia over the course of the full season (111 OPS+ to 98 OPS+), which is important to think about because the first half of Turner’s first year with Philadelphia famously didn’t go well.
But one standing ovation later, Turner hit .337/.389/.668 (1.057 OPS) after the Aug. 4 display of love. He’s elite on the bases, and with a hitting track record to match. Arcia probably exceeded any reasonable expectations this year, but he’s not Turner.
Not every comparison is as simple as just comparing the numbers. Sometimes, other factors must be weighed. But here, we’ve got Austin Riley hitting 37 homers with a 128 OPS+ (along with defense that has improved from below average to fine), and Alec Bohm hitting 20 homers with a 108 OPS+ (with a similar trend of third base defense improving from below average to fine), and you’d sort of have to twist yourself into pretzels to not choose Riley here.
It’s important to remember that the left-field situations we’ll see in October aren’t likely to match what we saw during the season, at least on the Philadelphia side, because Kyle Schwarber, the Phillies' primary left fielder this year, is likely to be mostly or exclusively at DH in October. Instead, what we’re really evaluating is a platoon combination of Cristian Pache (elite defensive outfielder, below-average bat) and Brandon Marsh (strong defensive outfielder, strong enough bat to post a 127 OPS+), which is a wildly different pairing than what Schwarber brings.
It’s a little different on Atlanta’s side, where the Braves have mostly used Eddie Rosario (league-average 100 OPS+ bat, average defense) with a little of Kevin Pillar against tough lefties. Marsh is the best hitter of the four, and the Phillies have the two best defenders here. It’s a partnership situation for Rob Thomson, but it can be a good one.
Somewhat like left field, the Phillies' late-season situation is different than it was for most of the year, as rookie Johan Rojas has mostly supplanted Marsh in center, though Marsh still sees some time there. Rojas’ glove, even in his relatively limited playing time, has been proven to be absolutely elite by both the eye test and the numbers, and there’s been considerably more life in his bat than the relatively low expectations there would have predicted.
Of course, the Braves have a pretty tremendous defensive center fielder themselves in Michael Harris II; it’s probably not hyperbole to say that this series has two of the three best defensive center fielders in the NL, given that Colorado’s Brenton Doyle’s season is done. Harris has much more of a track record with the bat -- with a 114 OPS+ this year, and a 133 OPS+ in 2022 while winning the NL Rookie of the Year -- despite the fact that, surprisingly, he’s younger than his Philadelphia counterpart.
We’d like to take a brief moment to point out that in his second year with Philadelphia, Nick Castellanos seemed considerably more comfortable, and he ended the year on a hot run, hitting more than half (15) of his season’s homers (29) in the final two months. He’s a valuable member of the Phillies' lineup.
We’d like to take an even briefer moment to remind you that Ronald Acuña Jr. went 41/73, cut his strikeout rate by more than almost anyone ever, tied for the non-Ohtani lead in Wins Above Replacement, and is highly likely to win the NL Most Valuable Player Award. Sometimes we need not overthink these things.
Given that we’re talking about the DH spot here, Schwarber’s extremely poor defensive season doesn’t even matter. We’re talking just bats against bats. This should help his case, and it does, but despite the career-high 47 homers here, just look at the comparison between him and Atlanta’s Marcell Ozuna …
- Schwarber: 122 OPS+, .197/.343/.474, 47 homers
- Ozuna: 138 OPS+, .274/.346/.558, 40 homers
If Atlanta's rotation was at full strength – if Kyle Wright and Charlie Morton were fully available, and if Max Fried’s status was more certain than “is probably going to come off the injured list to start Game 2,” then this might be more of a difficult decision. After all, Spencer Strider is starting Game 1, and he’s going to get some Cy Young support. But as things stand, the Braves are crossing their fingers that Fried (out since Sept. 21 with a blister) can perform behind him, and then when the series shifts to Philadelphia for Game 3, they don’t have an obvious choice, given Bryce Elder’s somewhat predictable fall from “2.97 ERA All-Star first half” to “5.11 ERA second half.”
Yet while the Braves do have a likely advantage in Game 1, when the solid enough Ranger Suárez is expected to oppose Strider, the Phillies' superior depth and the way the schedule lands here makes this one of the bigger likely strengths for Philadelphia. With two days off before the Division Series starts, and days off after Games 1, 2 and (if necessary) 4, the Phils might have five non-playing days between the end of the Wild Card Series and a deciding NLDS Game 5, if it goes that far. Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola would be able to start three of the five games.
It’s possible, too, that Atlanta could have Strider and Fried starting three or even four games. It’s just a lot to ask of Fried’s blister, and the backup plans aren’t great.
ERA absolutely isn’t everything for relievers, and you absolutely have to go further than that, but it’s also hard to ignore this fact: In September, Atlanta relievers had a 5.32 ERA, the fourth worst in baseball, while Philadelphia relievers had a 2.74 mark, the fourth best. While that can be more than a little misleading, because not every September reliever will appear in October, that kind of gap simply can’t be overlooked, especially when you look under the hood.
Much like the Twins, the Phillies have made some changes to their bullpen and they seem to have the important pieces cooking at the right time, especially if late-season rookie sensation Orion Kerkering can perform like the hype indicates he should. Watch out in particular for Gregory Soto, who has quietly managed to tame the walks; his September walk rate was the lowest of his career.
On Atlanta’s side, we’re not going to worry too much about one game, but surely whenever A.J. Minter comes in, people will immediately start thinking about the Sept. 20 outing where he entered in the 10th inning against Philadelphia and walked three (plus another via intentional walk) on the way to a loss. The normally reliable Raisel Iglesias’ strikeout rate collapsed in September, though there’s the potential for Wright to be a quality ace out of the 'pen.
Throw out the regular-season records. They simply don’t matter here, as was proven well enough by “Phillies vs. Braves from one year ago in the playoffs,” and this is a Philadelphia team that we view as being superior in nearly every way to last year’s version. Of course, the Braves have the better lineup, as we just went through. They have the better lineup than almost anyone. Ever.
All of which makes this a close one, yet we have enough concerns about Atlanta’s pitching -- a 4.76 second-half ERA, which ballooned to 5.61 in September -- and we like what the Phillies have done on the mound enough that we think they’re going to squeak this one out. The best team in the regular season isn’t always the one that wins a short season in October.
Phillies in five