The Philadelphia Phillies open the season at home with their dangerous new lineup against Julio Teheran and the Atlanta Braves. The Phillies are heavy favorites, and for good reason, as Aaron Nola will be on the mound for them. If you have action on the game or just want to see Nola do his thing and carve up hitters, you’ll be able to stream the game live on ESPN+ with a free 7-day trial. Now let’s get into the game breakdown so I can tell you which side you should invest your money on.
Spring training results mean very little, as evidenced by the Red Sox being buried at the bottom of the Grapefruit League standings. What is important, though, is Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman both dealing with arm injuries, leaving Teheran as their Opening Day starter. Not only that but in their bullpen, A.J. Minter is still rehabbing and Darren O’Day is expected to begin the season on the IL. Johan Camargo is their best bench bat, but he too is sidelined for another week with oblique pain.
The Phillies don’t have as much in the way of injury concerns, but Rhys Hoskins could potentially be a late scratch from the lineup if his shoulder isn’t ready to go. Cesar Hernandez is dealing with a minor hip strain but is expected to play. You may be tempted to bet the Braves because Nola carried a 5.19 ERA this spring but remember, it was just an 8.2-inning sample size and veteran pitchers are known to fiddle with their breaking balls since it is only an exhibition game. Ignore that useless data.
If Foltynewicz was healthy and starting, this game would be much closer to even than it currently is.
Julio Teheran has had his share of struggles but allowed two or fewer runs in 17 of his 31 starts last season (54.8%). To put that into perspective, Corey Kluber and Zack Greinke both did it in 18 out of 33 (54.5%). There is always a chance he blows up, of course, but his performance tends to ebb and flow with home runs allowed, as he has consistently been among the league’s worst at allowing the long ball. In 2018, his 1.33 HR/9 was 44th out of 57 qualified pitchers. Likewise, in 2017 he was 51st out of 58. Even with the daunting Phillies lineup opposing him, however, it seems unlikely that they will mash multiple homers in this one. March and April temperatures have suppressed run scoring, and especially home run totals over the years. What’s more is that the brisk wind will be blowing straight in from centerfield at 12 to 15 MPH most of the game. Don’t be surprised if Teheran hands the ball to the Braves pen after six innings of one-run baseball Thursday.
Aaron Nola is as consistent as they come, mowing down hitters at home and on the road, in April as well as August. His one weak spot, however, seems to be in day games for whatever reason. Over a fairly reliable 29-game sample size, he is just 8-11 with a 3.49 ERA compared to 27-15 with a 3.22 ERA in the evening. What may be more concerning for the Phillies is that Nola’s .570 total OPS last year jumps 28% to .727 versus the players in Atlanta’s offense. Fortunately for Nola, the Braves seem to have some holes in their lineup. Dansby Swanson and Brian McCann carry a .683 and .731 OPS respectively over the last three seasons. Ozzie Albies may be a liability too, after hitting just .254/.296/.409/.705 from May 1st on last year with a .695 OPS vs righties over the full season.
The top half of their lineup is much more impressive, however. They added Josh Donaldson to an already strong core of Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna, who may be two of the top dozen hitters in baseball. Nick Markakis carries a career .873 OPS versus Nola in a 31-plate appearance sample size while Ender Inciarte is much better versus righties like Nola than lefties. As long as Donaldson can stay healthy, this offense is nearly as good as anyone’s in the National League, including the Phillies. Over his past 162 games, Donaldson has 41 homers with 101 RBIs and a .900 OPS.
Nola wasn’t all that impressive in 2018 spring training before rattling off a 2.18 ERA over the first two months of the season. This year’s Grapefruit League ratios shouldn’t concern you either, but there is one red flag. He only threw 8.2 innings over three starts while last year we saw 18 innings and five starts. Typically, MLB teams slowly ramp up their pitchers to full durability over the course of five or six starts. That means six innings, let alone seven or eight, out of Nola seems unlikely Thursday. Assuming Nola hands the bullpen five solid innings and the score remains low, Philadelphia has the bullpen advantage with David Robertson, Seranthony Dominguez, Hector Neris and Adam Morgan potentially lined up behind him. The four combined for 291 Ks and just 173 hits in 224 innings last year.
While Rhys Hoskins may not quite be himself yet, the remainder of the Phillies lineup is unbelievable this season, and possibly the best in the National League. Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto are all immense upgrades from last season. This will be McCutchen’s first full season outside a pitcher-friendly home ballpark. Even since his career downturn three years ago, McCutchen carries a better road OPS (.803) than Manny Machado, Francisco Lindor, Justin Upton and Javier Baez. That is a 1,000 plate appearance sample size too, so it should by no means be considered a fluke. Segura, Harper and Realmuto get sizeable ballpark factor upgrades too. We can’t simply look at their overall stat line and assume that is who they will be in 2019. Rather, consider that Christian Yelich morphed into the National League MVP from a fringe All-Star candidate thanks in part to moving from the least hitter-friendly ballpark in the National League to one of the most. Realmuto is already the top offensive catcher in baseball and gets a similar upgrade as Philly trails only Coors for right-handed home run factor.
Julio Teheran is quite a bit better versus righties than lefties which doesn’t bode well for Philadelphia as five of their top six hitters are right-handed hitters. Over the past three seasons, he has allowed just a .641 OPS against righties compared to .759 against lefties. That is essentially saying the average righty hits like Billy Hamilton against him while the average lefty produces like Rafael Devers. While McCutchen, Segura, Hoskins, Realmuto, and Franco might not be average hitters, we can expect them to perform at a rate about 15 to 20% lower than usual versus a pitcher like Teheran.
Although there is a lot to like with Teheran and the weather, the Phillies’ advantage of having Aaron Nola on the mound plus a tremendous lineup has the Braves lagging behind.
The current line on this game is -181 for the Phillies and +171 for the Braves. Essentially, Vegas is giving Philadelphia a 64% chance to win at home to open the season. While that may not seem like much compared to your typical football game, baseball is different in that the Orioles could beat the Yankees any given night with even their worst pitcher on the mound against Luis Severino. This spread is huge in baseball terms, virtually turning the Phillies into the 2018 Astros (103-59 or 64% winning percentage) and the Braves into the Royals (58-104 or 36% winning percentage).
Despite everything there is to love about the Phillies’ hot new lineup and having a true ace on the mound, the weather and Teheran’s high rate of extremely useful performances just make this spread too much to still side with Atlanta.
While the Braves are by no means the favorite, over the course of simulating this game 1,000 times, you’d come out ahead by betting +171 on Atlanta. I’m expecting the wind to keep the ball in the yard for Teheran and Nola to only last around 80 pitches for Philadelphia. While the Phillies will win this game more often than not, this 64% implied spread is one you can take advantage of on Opening Day while enjoying the game on ESPN+ for free.