Are the Phillies really this good? Or has their schedule just been easy?

With largely the same group of players as the past two seasons, the answer for Philadelphia can be both

The Philadelphia Phillies have the best record in baseball.

Through 50 games, the rollicking Fightin's are a robust 36-14, which puts them in elite company for hot starts in baseball history. They sit six games beyond the Atlanta Braves atop the National League East entering play Thursday. The five-game lead they held on Tuesday was the club’s largest division lead since the final game of the 2011 season. Bryce Harper, Alec Bohm and Bryson Stott are all hitting like All-Stars. Philadelphia’s starting staff, bolstered by the ascension of southpaw Ranger Suárez, boasts the lowest rotation ERA in MLB. The rip-roaring baseball circus that opened during the 2022 NLDS is rolling right along.

But how much better are these Phillies? Is this team actually an improved version of itself or simply the beneficiary of an outrageously cushy early-season schedule?

The answer is yes.

How easy has Philadelphia’s path been? So far in 2024, the Phillies have played just three games against a team with a record currently above .500, and all three of those came Opening Weekend against the Braves. Since then, Philadelphia has played 19 of its games against five of MLB’s worst six teams: the Reds, Rockies, Marlins, Angels and White Sox. Besides Atlanta, the Phillies have not seen a division leader.

Entering Tuesday, Philadelphia’s opponents’ combined winning percentage this year was .465, by far the lowest in MLB. The next-easiest schedule belonged to Tampa Bay at .477. No other team had an SOS under .480.

That’s a Charmin ultra-soft schedule. Cozier than Egyptian cotton. Far from a gauntlet. The smoothest possible sailing. But multiple things can be true at once: The schedule has been bad, and the Phillies have been better.

Before Tuesday's 5-2 victory and Wednesday's 11-4 win against the Rangers, the starting rotation had a league-best ERA of 2.63. By comparison, Philadelphia’s staff ERA was an ugly 4.87 at this point last year. The difference is not the personnel — most of these pitchers were in red pinstripes a year ago — but development from within.

Zach Wheeler and Aaron Nola have been their typically valuable workhorse selves atop the group. Behind them, lanky changeup artist Christopher Sánchez has improved into a dependable mid-rotation arm. Spencer Turnbull filled in phenomenally for Taijuan Walker, who has been the relative weak link since his early-May return. But by far the biggest development thus far has been the emergence of Suárez, who improved to 9-0 with Tuesday's dominant, 10-strikeout performance.

In '22 and '23, the cold-blooded southpaw performed like a capable No. 3 in the regular season before elevating his game in October. This year, after being hampered by various injuries and obstacles in spring trainings past, the 28-year-old Venezuelan was healthy and available for the entirety of camp. And that has made a world of difference: He currently has the second-lowest ERA in baseball and should be considered a legitimate Cy Young candidate.

Offensively, the Phillies have been propelled in large part by an Alec Bohm breakout campaign. The bushy-haired limb lord has been a contact-oriented hitter since his debut in 2020. But this year, the 27-year-old third baseman has added more power to his game without sacrificing his bat-to-ball skills; Bohm is barreling up the ball more often and hitting it harder on average. Also, his once substandard defense at the hot corner has improved significantly. Quite simply, Bohm has been MLB’s best third baseman in the early going.

His hot start has helped the lineup withstand Trea Turner’s lengthy stint on the injured list. Timely bursts from utility players Edmundo Sosa and Kody Clemens have filled in the gaps, too. Kyle Schwarber, Brandon Marsh and J.T. Realmuto have been more good than great, and Nick Castellanos’ continued offensive ineptitude is a real concern, but Harper and Stott have provided enough pop to keep the Phillies moving.

At its core, this Phillies club is remarkably unchanged compared to the previous two seasons. There’s a touch more depth on the roster, but nothing groundbreaking.

Before a recent game against the Mets at Citi Field, skipper Rob Thomson was asked whether 2024 is starting to feel like something special. The veteran baseball man offered something between a chuckle and a grumble, dismissing the notion and highlighting the continuity of his ball club while motioning vaguely toward the endless season and indicating that postseason success is the team’s true goal.

Backup catcher Garrett Stubbs echoed the sentiment after that day’s game.

“It’s felt [special], you know, since '22," he said. "You have a lot of the same guys here that were there on the '22 team, on the '23 team. Everyone's very comfortable with each other.”

He’s right. This team is mostly composed of the same guys, but thanks in part to an easier schedule, they’re just playing better.

And all the Phillies can do is continue to beat the teams in front of them. Their schedule will eventually get harder. An imposing stretch against the Twins, Guardians, Yankees, Mariners and Dodgers lurks just after the All-Star break. Their five-game head-start on the Braves in the division will be helpful when the dog days of summer come around.

Atlanta probably has more pitching depth, in both the rotation and the bullpen, but if the Phillies’ arms stay healthy, they’ll have a shot to take the East. Their chances of winning the division, per FanGraphs, have risen from 6.9% on Opening Day to 48% entering Thursday.

Even if Philadelphia doesn’t end up winning the NL East, the longer they keep things close, the more aggressive the Braves will have to be with their roster decisions down the stretch. That can only benefit Philly come October.

In the Braves’ ideal scenario, they’d have enough of a lead to give some or all of their starting pitchers a rest at some point during the summer. Reynaldo López and Chris Sale have been excellent, but neither has thrown more than 140 innings since 2019. Charlie Morton has been dependable, but he carries all the injury risks that come with being 40 years old. Managing workloads would be a simpler task for Atlanta with a lead in the division.

That also would afford Atlanta the opportunity to test out its two top prospects, Hurston Waldrep and AJ Smith-Shawver, in low-pressure starting roles. But the smaller the gap, the less Atlanta can plan ahead for the playoffs. It’s less of an issue with their position players because all the Braves play nearly every day, but it’s something to follow with Atlanta’s starting rotation.

It all presents a very different dynamic from the 14-game cushion the Braves enjoyed last season. Because while Harper and Co. reached the playoffs the past two seasons, they did so despite underwhelming springs. The club’s record 50 games into 2023 was 23-27. In 2022, Philadelphia was 21-29. Both years featured surging summers that enabled October baseball.

This time around, the Phillies have made things much, much easier on themselves. Instead of a hole to climb out of, they have built a perch, given themselves leash and leeway. They were afforded a peaceful path and have taken full advantage.