By: Chris Larson
After two exciting Wild Card games, the attention now shifts to the Divisional Series for both the American League and National League. The Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals officially square off against each other in one of the National League Divisional Series later this afternoon and it is bound to be an eventful series for both teams. Although the series is going to garner less attention nationally than the other NLDS between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals, there are still some very exciting things to look forward to.
The Atlanta Braves finished the 2019 regular season with a (97-65) record, which allowed them to finish four games ahead of the aforementioned Washington Nationals, for the American League East divisional crown. Going into the 2019 regular season, many people expected the Atlanta Braves to be good, but most likely didn't expect them to be as good as they were. In fact, on here, we predicted the Braves to finish fourth (yes, fourth!) in the division because we went along with the belief of others, that there were significant concerns regarding the health of their pitching staff, and were worried that some of their young stars wouldn't be able to replicate the success that they had during their rookie season in 2018.
However, all of those concerns were quickly eliminated after the first few weeks of the season, as the Atlanta Braves overcame their opponents with a very stellar lineup and a pitching staff that could get outs when they mattered the most. As a team, Atlanta finished the year tied for the ninth highest wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) value at (102) with the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs. Furthermore, Atlanta's lineup scored a total of (855) runs, posted the eighth highest Isolated Power value at (.195) in baseball, and had the sixth highest on-base percentage at (.336) over the span of 6,302 plate appearances. A lot of those numbers came from the fantastic contributions of Atlanta's hitters such as Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, and even Nick Markakis when he was healthy.
Besides being able to score quite a few runs, power was another thing that Atlanta's lineup was famous for throughout the course of the regular season as well. As such, the Braves finished with the second highest hard-hit percentage in baseball at (41.3%), which put them behind only the aforementioned Los Angeles Dodgers. On top of that, the Braves hitters lived off of curveballs this season, as (12.1%) of their total pitches this season were curveballs hit with an average velocity of (84.9 MPH). If you were to rank that figure with the other 29 teams in baseball, it would put the Braves in fourth place. For comparisons sake, the Washington Nationals were tied for last with the San Diego Padres in curveballs, at (9.6%).
Switching over to the pitching now, the Atlanta Braves had their struggles in both the starting rotation and bullpen at various points this season, but were able to find some stability especially in the bullpen following the July 31st Trade Deadline. In the starting rotation, the most effective starting pitcher was Mike Soroka, who some feel as though belongs in the discussion for the National League Cy Young Award. Soroka wrapped up the 2019 regular season with a 2.68 ERA over 174.2 innings of work. Over that span, Soroka recorded a (3.45) FIP (Fielding Independent Percentage), held opponents to a (.234) batting average against, and lived off throwing a pitch repertoire that consisted of a low-90's fastball, mid-80's slider, and a changeup that averaged a velocity of (81.3 MPH).
As a whole, the Atlanta Braves pitching staff ranked finished the year with a 4.20 ERA over 1,450.2 innings pitched, which put them tenth in all of baseball based on ERA. More specifically, the Braves starting rotation finished the season with the thirteenth best starting rotation, based on ERA, at (4.20) over 873.0 innings of work. Over that span, Atlanta's starters combined for a (4.32) FIP, had a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) value of (11.3), and induced the ninth highest amount of soft contact at (17.6%) in all of baseball. In terms of the bullpen, Atlanta's bullpen finished the season with a 4.21 ERA over 577.2 innings pitched. During that span, Braves relievers combined for a strikeouts-per-9 rate of (9.32), which put them fifteenth in baseball in that category, along with a strikeout-to-walk percentage of (14.2%) and a held opponents to a (.250) batting average against.
Looking at the St. Louis Cardinals now, who have the leg up when it comes to pitching, have a commanding leader in their starting rotation in Jack Flaherty who will play a key role in this series. Depending on how long the series goes will depend on how many times the Atlanta Braves have to square off against Flaherty, but as it stands right now Flaherty would pitch Game 2 and would take the mound again in Game 5, a potential clinching game for either team. If you're the Atlanta Braves, you want to have no part of going up against Jack Flaherty especially based on the way he pitched during the second half of the 2019 regular season.
Over the course of the second half of the season, Jack Flaherty posted a 0.91 ERA over 99.1 innings of work holding opponents to a cumulative batting line of: .142/.208/.217 with a (.189) wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average). Expanding the sample size to the entire length of the 2019 regular season, Jack Flaherty proved that he could pitch in any type of situation from low-leverage to high-leverage and strived in situations with men on base and men in scoring position. With men in scoring position, Flaherty held the opposing team to a cumulative slash line of: .186/.281/.392 over 28 innings with (18) hits, (2) doubles, (34) earned runs, (6) home runs, (13) walks, and (32) strikeouts. Where Jack Flaherty really strives is in situations against righties, where he posted a strikeouts-per-9 rate of (12.26) and a (0.89) WHIP this season.
Given that Jack Flaherty is only 23-years old and can handle any type of situation that he is thrust into is extremely impressive and a huge boost for the St. Louis Cardinals who have hopes of playing deep into the playoffs. Another important member of the St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff lies in the bullpen with reliever Giovanny Gallegos, who the St. Louis Cardinals acquired from the New York Yankees in exchange of first baseman, Luke Voit and international bonus slot money. Gallegos wrapped up the 2019 regular season with a 2.31 ERA over 74.0 innings pitched with an ERA+ of (185), (93) strikeouts, and a (3.05) FIP. During the season, Giovanny Gallegos squared off against the Atlanta Braves over the span of 4 games, in which he held the Braves lineup to a slash line of: .273/.273/.545.
On the hitting side of the equation, the St. Louis Cardinals lineup has shown streaks of being very dominant throughout the course of the regular season and very dismal at other times. In fact, you could easily make an argument that the Atlanta Braves have a clear advantage when it comes to the offense because of their number 1-5 hitters and the offensive potential of all 5 names. However, the Cardinals do have a couple of guys that can cause some damage at certain points in a ballgame including: Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Marcell Ozuna, and Yadier Molina. As a team, the Cardinals finished the 2019 regular season with a wRC+ value of (95), which put them right smack dab in the middle of all 30 teams. Furthermore, Cardinals hitters recorded (764) runs, which put them nineteenth in baseball in that category, had an Isolated Power value of (.170) putting them in the bottom third of baseball, and a cumulative on-base percentage of (.322) which was right around the league average of (.323).
One quiet. under-the-radar player in the St. Louis Cardinals lineup this season has been outfielder, Tommy Edman. Edman showed multiple times this season that he is a gritty type of player that knows a thing or two about stealing a base and can do damage with his bat as well. Over the course of the season, Tommy Edman recorded (15) stolen bases giving him an overall BsR (Baserunning) rating of (6.6). That speed is going to be essential for the St. Louis Cardinals during the course of this series because it is going to allow Mike Shildt and his coaching staff to deploy Edman in an opportune situation to swipe a bag and try to score a run. In addition, over the span of 349 plate appearances, Edman put up a slash line of: .304/.350/.500 with (11) home runs, (36) RBI, a (.346) BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play), and had a hard-hit rate of (41.1%).
Now that we have surveyed the landscape of both the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals from a pitching and hitting standpoint, let's dive into the next part of this discussion which will be based around five questions to look for during the course of this series.
1. Will health be a factor for the Atlanta Braves lineup? - Towards the end of the regular season, Ronald Acuna Jr. ended up having to be shut down with a groin strain. According to skipper, Brian Snitker, Acuna Jr. is healthy and expected to be playing at full level during this upcoming series. Although the Braves say that he is healthy and ready to go, it has yet to be seen if the injury will affect the way Ronald Acuna Jr. performs at the plate, in the field while making defensive plays, or even on the base paths. In addition, first baseman Freddie Freeman, has been dealing with bone spurs in his right elbow. As is the case with Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman is reportedly healthy and at full strength as well, but it will be something to watch especially if this series ends up going the entire 5-games. If the Braves end up not having Ronald Acuna Jr. performing at peak level and lose Freddie Freeman, that could damper their hopes of moving onto the next round of the playoffs. On the other hand, if Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman are performing at their best and healthy, it only makes the Atlanta Braves lineup that much deeper and that much more powerful, as mentioned before.
2. How will the Atlanta Braves defense end up stacking up against the St. Louis Cardinals defense? - When you compare the defense of the St. Louis Cardinals with the defense of the Atlanta Braves, the differences have been quite stark over the span of the 2019 regular season. When it comes to Ultimate Zone Rating, the Cardinals ranked first in all of baseball with a value of (32.8) and were third in Defensive Runs Saved with (95) over 12,996.0 innings. Kolten Wong, whose status is still unknown for this series as he continues to recover from a grade 2 hamstring strain, is tied with shortstop Paul DeJong, for the team lead in Defensive Runs Saved with (14). If the Cardinals are without Wong, that could potentially jeopardize their ability to capitalize from a defensive standpoint. On the other side of the field, the Atlanta Braves haven't been as successful from a defensive point of view. When it comes to Ultimate Zone Rating, the Braves finished the season with a (-10.3) rating, which puts them twenty-first in all of baseball. In regard to Defensive Runs Saved, the Braves recorded (37) of them, which put them eleventh out of all thirty teams. As you can see from the numbers, the differences are stark when it comes to defense and that could be the make or break between both teams in this series.
3. How will Andrew Miller perform for the St. Louis Cardinals out of the bullpen? - As discussed before, the St. Louis Cardinals main key cog in their bullpen has been righty, Giovanny Gallegos, but Andrew Miller is going to be a critical component of their bullpen makeup as well. If you recall a few postseasons ago, Andrew Miller was virtually the one guy that the Cleveland Indians rode on their way to an appearance in the World Series and he came through clutch on a number of different occasions. Since then, Miller hasn't been nearly as dominant, but he still has the stuff and the talent level to be an effective difference maker over the course of a postseason series. On the season as a whole, Andrew Miller finished with a 4.45 ERA over 54.2 innings of work with (27) earned runs, a walks-per-9 rate of (4.45) and a (5.19) FIP. During the second half of the season alone, Andrew Miller gave up (15) earned runs, (5) home runs, (15) walks, and recorded (27) strikeouts while posting a 5.13 ERA over 26.1 innings pitched and held opponents to a cumulative batting line of: .219/.339/.385. It's going to take more than just Giovanny Gallegos for the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen to be successful so Andrew Miller is going to need to step up and be the guy that can add significant depth to the back end of the Cardinals pen.
4. Will home field advantage give the Atlanta Braves any type of advantage? - When you look at the numbers that the St. Louis Cardinals put up at home versus on the road, things get a bit interesting. At Busch Stadium, the Cardinals put up a (50-31) record, good enough for a (.617) winning percentage, while allowing (294) runs and scoring (388). However, on the road, the Cardinals had a cumulative record of (41-40) or a (.506) winning percentage and allowed (368) runs, while scoring (376). Interesting splits for sure and you have to wonder if the Atlanta Braves are going to have an advantage especially with the first two games of the series taking place at home in Atlanta at SunTrust Park. During the middle part of May, when the St. Louis Cardinals traveled to Atlanta, the Braves ended up taking home the series win (2-1) and given the atmosphere of SunTrust Park, especially during a playoff game, it's going to likely play a big factor in the final results. In comparison, the Atlanta Braves finished the 2019 regular season with the exact same home record as the Cardinals (50-31), good enough for a (.617) winning percentage, while allowing (367) runs and scoring (433). On the road, the Braves had a (47-34) record, which resulted in a (.580) winning percentage, allowing (376) runs and scoring (422).
5. How will the Atlanta Braves utilize their bench? - Yesterday afternoon when their roster was revealed, the Atlanta Braves mentioned that they had left starting pitcher, Julio Teheran, off the final roster to go with a deeper bench. As a result, the Braves will have a bench that consists of three catchers Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers, and Francisco Cervelli, SS Adeiny Hechavarria, and outfielders Billy Hamilton, Matt Joyce, and Rafael Ortega. Of those options, there are definitely some intriguing names who can be used as defensive replacements as the game goes on or even as speed options off the bench. As we saw in last night's American League Wild Card Game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics, defensive replacements were relied on heavily by Tampa Bay as early as the third inning and it will be interesting to see if the Atlanta Braves end up following the same approach. Given the strength of their starting lineup 1-5, the Braves will likely hold off using defensive replacements until later on in the game (such as past the 6th or 7th innings), but it certainly gives Brian Snitker and his coaching staff an intriguing variety of options. For example, Billy Hamilton and Rafael Ortega are gritty type of players, who have plenty of speed on the base paths, while Adeiny Hechavarria finished the season with a (.400) on-base percentage over 70 plate appearances and Tyler Flowers is as good of a defensive catcher as anyone in the game.
To wrap up the preview on this series, it's time for a prediction. Look for the Atlanta Braves to pull off the series win against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5. It's going to be a difficult task given that they are going to face Jack Flaherty during that game, but the Atlanta Braves big hitters are going to come through against the Cardinals bullpen and end up sending them off to the next round. For the St. Louis Cardinals, the biggest thing that will hold them back over the course of this series is their ability to hit with runners in scoring position and getting key hits when they matter the most.