Atlanta Braves (97-65) vs. St. Louis Cardinals (91-71)
This smells like a series that’s going to go down to the wire.
The Braves feel like they’re here to represent the new guard. They’re young and flashy. They’re oozing with talent. They can hit the crap out of the ball. And they have home field advantage.
The Cardinals are postseason mainstays. They’re polished and veteran. They do all the little things right. They can shut down hitters with ease, and they’ve got some real pop of their own.
These teams are different stylistically, different in their strengths, and different in how they were built. Given all those differences, it’s a wonder they seem so evenly matched.
How Each Team Got Here
Let’s answer this literally for a moment:
The Braves got here by riding out a slow start to look like an excellent team from about a third of the season on, riding particularly dominant months of June (20-8) and August (19-9) to earn their most wins since 2003.
As for the how … while the Braves are a reasonably well-rounded club, they were especially impressive offensively, finishing fourth in the majors in WARP and seventh in runs, OBP, and DRC+. Ronald Acuna continued his rapid ascension toward becoming one of the best 10-or-so players in the game. Josh Donaldson proved an exceptionally wise buy-low investment. Ozzie Albies proved he’s the real deal, and Freddie Freeman was his regular, consistent brand of excellent. It’s no surprise that the Braves experienced such success when you consider that this offensive core supported a starting staff that finished top-7 in DRA.
The Cardinals had a bumpier ride en route to the NLDS, but per usual, they’ve Cardinals-ed their way out of it. A disastrous May (9-18) nearly killed them, but St. Louis played better ball in every consecutive month from May through August in order to claw their way back into the division lead. Then in September they deployed the tried-and-true strategy of letting the Cubs implode while doing just enough winning to fend off the Brewers.
How’d they do so? Well, playing the role of “wait, who is that?” this year for St. Louis is Tommy Edman, who emerged from utter obscurity to provide this organization with yet another better than league-average bat in the infield. Major offseason acquisition Paul Goldschmidt had a strong if non-elite season, and Marcell Ozuna played a capable (if oft-injured) Robin to his Batman.
But offense hasn’t served as the primary catalyst in letting the Cards get this far; the team was just 14th in WARP, 18th in DRC+ and 19th in runs scored. Instead, St. Louis relied on its pitching to save the day. Thanks in large part to an incredible breakout from Jack Flaherty, the emergence of rookie Dakota Hudson, and a moderate bounce back from Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals’ rotation finished top-8 in DRA; one spot behind Atlanta. Better yet, the Cards truly shined in the bullpen, finishing second in DRA (4.20, nice) to only the Dodgers. There are many arms the Cards need to thank, but chief among them are Carlos Martinez, Giovanny Gallegos, and John Brebbia.
So that’s the TL;DR for ya: the Braves rely on a strong offense and top-10 rotation. The Cardinals rely on an elite bullpen and a top-10 rotation. Now we can get into some specifics of how these two NL heavyweights will match up in the coming days:
|Dexter Fowler, RF||Ronald Acuna Jr., CF|
|Kolten Wong, 2B||Ozzie Albies, 2B|
|Paul Goldschmidt, 1B||Freddie Freeman, 1B|
|Marcell Ozuna, RF||Josh Donaldson, 3B|
|Yadier Molina, C||Nick Markakis, LF|
|Matt Carpenter, 3B||Matt Joyce, RF|
|Paul DeJong, SS||Brian McCann, C|
|Harrison Bader, CF||Dansby Swanson, SS|
|Matt Wieters, C||Tyler Flowers, C|
|Jose Martinez, 1B/OF||Francisco Cervelli, 1B|
|Tommy Edman, 2B/3B||Adeiny Hechevarria, INF|
|Yairo Munoz, INF||Rafael Ortega, OF|
|Randy Arozarena, OF||Adam Duvall, OF|
|Billy Hamilton, OF|
Despite the caveats above, it’s not as if St. Louis is running an embarrassing lineup out for the NLDS. Out of the players expected to start for the Cards in this series, only Molina, Carpenter and Bader finished with DRC+ numbers south of 100. While Molina and Carpenter are clearly in their decline phases, they’re also both established postseason performers who suffered through injury-mired years. Would you really be that surprised if either held their own at a minimum in October? Even if those veterans do collapse, Goldschmidt and Ozuna can mitigate their impact by continuing to drive in Fowler, Wong, and Edman, who all get on base at fairly high rates.
The Cardinals don’t figure to change their lineup much based on who’s on the mound, but expect both Edman and Wong to see time at second base. While Edman is the better story, Wong has clearly been the better player this season — in fact, Wong is second in the Cardinals in WARP. Unfortunately, Wong suffered a hamstring injury late in the season that could impact his playing time, though manager Mike Shildt is on record saying Wong will be in the starting lineup tonight. If Wong truly is ready to play every day, Edman might sub in some for Carpenter instead.
It’s good that the Cardinals’ lineup looks like it can hang, because they’re unlikely to get much help from the bench. Martinez is probably the best bench bat in the series, yes, but there’s pretty much nothing behind him, aside from whichever member of the Edman/Wong/Carpenter trio is sitting on a given day. Arozarena has 23 MLB at-bats to his name. Munoz can’t really hit. Wieters is only here in case Molina strains his neck while yelling at a Braves pitcher for throwing in his zip code. It’s possible the Cards could carry Rangel Ravelo or Tyler O’Neill instead of Munoz or an eighth reliever in order to add some extra pop, but even then, it’s a fairly weak group.
On the flip side, look for the Braves to make an impact offensively with their ridiculously potent top-four; Albies had the worst offensive season of that quartet by earning a DRC+ of 119. Moving down the line, neither Markakis nor Joyce may strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers, but both had quiet good years at the plate and may be able to feast on the all-righty rotation the Cardinals feature. Should the Cardinals try to attack this part of the lineup with a southpaw, the Braves have Duvall waiting in the wings. Flowers and McCann provide a serviceable one-two punch as far as catchers go, but unfortunately there’s no sugarcoating how bad Swanson has been since hurting his right heel — his injury marred a very promising first-half of the season.
As is the case with the Cardinals, Atlanta won’t be able to rely on much help from their bench. Duvall is a legit pinch-hitting threat, and Hamilton will be a fun weapon to deploy on the bases, but it’s hard to get excited about much else here. It’s a bummer that Ender Inciarte, Johan Camargo, and Charlie Culberson are all hurt, as any would go a long way toward improving this group. Also, it seems a bit odd that the Braves would choose to roster Ortega over Austin Riley, but then again, if either is seeing substantial playing time something has gone horribly wrong for the Braves anyway.
Projected Pitching Staff
|Miles Mikolas, RHP||Dallas Keuchel, LHP|
|Jack Flaherty, RHP||Mike Foltynewicz, RHP|
|Dakota Hudson, RHP||Mike Soroka, RHP|
|Adam Wainwright, RHP||Max Fried, LHP|
|John Gant, RHP|
|Dominic Leone, RHP||Josh Tomlin, RHP|
|Genesis Cabrera, RHP||Darren O’Day, RHP|
|Tyler Webb, LHP||Anthony Swarzak, RHP|
|Andrew Miller, LHP||Sean Newcomb, LHP|
|John Brebbia, RHP||Chris Martin, RHP|
|Giovanny Gallegos, RHP||Shane Greene, RHP|
|Carlos Martinez, RHP||Mark Melancon, RHP|
It’s a shame that Flaherty pitched too recently to start Game 1, as having him face off against Keuchel would be a hell of a way to start any series. As it stands, Mikolas vs. Keuchel will have to do. While that matchup may appear to favor Atlanta based on name recognition, DRA says Mikolas has actually slightly outperformed Keuchel this season. Factor in that two out of Keuchel’s final three regular season starts were pretty poor, and this is closer to a push (if not an outright advantage for St. Louis) than you might think.
Game 1 will be fun, but if you really like Great Stuff™, Game 2 is the one for you. Since he resurfaced from his mid-season demotion, Foltynewicz has looked much more like the breakout ace of 2018 than the bust of the first half, posting a 2.65 ERA while holding batters to a .211/.270/.357 line in 10 starts. Now that he’s back to form, his triple-digits fastball and wipeout slider could make some Cardinals hitters look pretty silly.
It’s important for Atlanta that Folty has looked like himself as of late, because it means they at least have a prayer against Flaherty, who our metrics peg as a top-five pitcher in all of baseball this year. Somehow, that understates Flaherty’s recent dominance, as the young righty has a 0.77 ERA over his last 12 starts, having allowed just seven earned runs while striking out 100 in 82 innings. One could say he’s on a roll.
Once we get past the first two starters for each club it’s a bit harder to project who has the advantage in part because both Hudson and Fried could end up being used in relief depending on how Games 1 and 2 break, which could in turn impact what’s asked of Soroka and Wainwright.
As such, it’s perhaps more informative to look at the bullpens, where the Cardinals have a pretty distinct advantage. In Martinez and Gallegos, the Cards have a pair of arms with sub-4.00 DRA marks who are striking out more than a batter per inning and who don’t give up a ton of home runs. In today’s game, they’re both rarities. Brebbia and Webb are solid complements, but it’s worth pointing out that Miller has not pitched like we’re accustomed to this year. With his struggles and Jordan Hicks out for the year, the Braves can take some solace in the fact that this very good bullpen is at least less devastating on paper than it could be.
The Braves did all they could to fix their bullpen at the trade deadline, adding Melancon, Greene, and Martin to the mix, and they should be commended for it. That trio has helped settle the unit for sure, but this is still a collection of talent that lags behind St. Louis’. Atlanta may be able to mask this disadvantage to a certain extent with Fried, but they’re likely to be climbing uphill if this turns into a battle of the bullpens.
One Reason Each Team Will Win
As good as the Cardinals pitching is, it’s awfully right-handed. That could be a problem against the Braves, as Freeman, Acuna, Donaldson, Joyce and Markakis all have TAv marks of .290 or better versus right-handed pitching. With Miller struggling, St. Louis’ only real recourse against the tough lefties in the Braves’ lineup may be Webb. That probably won’t cut it — especially since Atlanta can counter with Duvall in most cases — and as such we might see some of the Braves talented left-handed sluggers/switch-hitters feast.
For the Cardinals, the recipe for success in a short series like this is pretty simple: ride your best arms early and often. If Flaherty can pitch in a hypothetical Game 5 as well as in Game 2, that gives St. Louis a pretty massive advantage, especially if Martinez and Gallegos can follow suit. It’d be risky, but if Game 1 looks within reach for the Cards, could they max out Hudson and Martinez early, knowing Flaherty looms to give them a potential 2-0 lead? One good way to neutralize a potential platoon disadvantage is to use arms that are so devastatingly effective that the opposition almost doesn’t matter.
One Reason Each Team Won’t
At the risk of highlighting the obvious, the Braves could run into trouble with their bullpen. Melancon has been lights out as of late, and in general Atlanta’s bullpen had a strong final six-or-so weeks of the regular season. But it’s not a particularly deep group, and if the Braves end up unable to rely on Fried much in relief, it could get pretty ugly for them before they reach the Martin/Greene/Melancon portion of their reliever core.
Conversely, the Cardinals might not just run into platoon issues when they’re pitching; their hitters could, too. None of Molina, Bader, Fowler, Ozuna, nor DeJong was particularly effective vs. right-handed pitching this season. Say what you will about Atlanta’s relievers, but they don’t lack for effective righty-vs.-righty options. Melancon (.244 TAv against) and Greene (.183 TAv against) have been particularly potent.
The Braves took the season series 4-2 against the Cardinals this season, for whatever that is worth. Perhaps most notably, Flaherty faced the Braves twice. One time he shut them down completely, but the other the Braves were able to score three runs off of him. However, both appearances came before Flaherty decided to do his best Greg Maddux impression starting in July.
What PECOTA Thinks:
Braves 52%, Cardinals 48%
Not very helpful, PECOTA! This matchup looks even on paper, and PECOTA clearly agrees, essentially saying its a coin toss before throwing a few percentage points Atlanta’s way. Must be for the home field advantage.
A Stray Observation
It’s completely justifiable but still somewhat sad that the Braves opted to leave former staff ace Julio Teheran off their postseason roster. Teheran wasn’t bad this year, posting a sub-4.00 ERA and in excess of two WARP, but he’s been lapped many times over on Atlanta’s depth chart. Perhaps he’ll rejoin the Braves if they make it to a seven-game series or if another arm goes down with an injury, but it’s a let down nonetheless that Teheran’s prime didn’t coincide with Atlanta’s ascension. Also, how crazy is it that Teheran is still only 28? He seems like exactly the type of arm who might have a late-career resurgence with, like, the Cardinals or something. Oh god …
As we’ve mentioned once or twice now, this matchup is about as even on the surface as it can get. Were we headed for a longer series, it’d be easy to see Atlanta’s superior offense getting more chances to attack the underbelly of St. Louis’ pitching staff. Plus, while we’ve spent lots of time waxing poetic over Flaherty and co., it’s not as if the quartet of starters the Braves will lean on lacks upside. It is well within the realm of possibility that Folty can outduel Flaherty, and that Keuchel outlasts Mikolas, and that Soroka shows up Hudson.
The bet here, however, is that the Cardinals will be able to ride Flaherty and their elite bullpen arms to eke out a series win against a Braves team that probably has more overall top-end talent. Can’t you just see Carpenter rising from the dead to hit a game-winning double? Can’t you see the uptick in Google searches for “what is a Tommy Edman?” Don’t you understand what a competitor Adam Wainwright is?
It’d be more fun if the Braves advanced, but it’d be more baseball for the Cardinals to do so. St. Louis in five.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now