NL Wild Card Series Preview: Atlanta Braves vs. Cincinnati Reds

The Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds are set to play each other in a three-game postseason series beginning on Wednesday. But before we break down that matchup, let’s start with how they got here.

The Braves were projected to go 33-27, and they finished just above that at 35-25. Meanwhile, the Reds were projected to go 31-29 and hit that mark exactly. Does that mean both teams saw their seasons — COVID-19 permutations excepted — pretty much go as expected? Not in the least.

The NL East champs persevered despite the decimation of a starting staff that was supposed to comprise some combination of Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried, Cole Hamels, Felix Hernandez, Sean Newcomb, and Mike Soroka. Between injuries, ineffectiveness, and King Felix’s opt out, that sextet combined for just seven wins. All were credited to Fried, whose spotless record was augmented by a sparkling 2.25 ERA.

Fried will be joined in Atlanta’s opening-round rotation by youngsters Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright. The duo exudes potential — each is a former first-round pick — but to this point in time they’ve combined to make all of 18 big-league starts. It’s hard to imagine either having a particularly long leash in the days (and possibly weeks) to come.

The Reds expected to have a potent, well-balanced offense. Instead, the NL Central’s third-place club scored the fourth-fewest runs of any team in baseball. Moreover, their .212 batting average was the lowest in franchise history. That’s since 1882, folks. Bid McPhee’s old team did hit dingers, but by and large the offense fell flat.

Six games under .500 as late as September 13, they caught fire down the stretch. Cincinnati won 11 of its last 14 games and clinched a ticket to playoff baseball on the penultimate day of the 2020 campaign. Count Chris Welsh among those who isn’t surprised. The Reds TV analyst was quoted as follows in a FanGraphs Sunday Notes column on September 6:

They just haven’t clicked yet. They haven’t made a run, but I think they have it in them. I’m expecting it to happen any time.

Trevor Bauer, who will start Game 1 for the Reds, shared the following postseason thought in this past Sunday’s Notes column: “It’s not necessarily the best team that wins. It’s the hottest team that wins.”

The Braves basically treaded water throughout Cincinnati’s hot streak, winning eight and losing six. Part of that was a lack of urgency. While their forthcoming opponents were battling for their postseason lives, Hank Aaron’s old team locked up a playoff berth — ditto a division title — with a full week remaining on the schedule.

What should fans know about the 2020 Braves, and what is the club’s most under-appreciated quality? I asked Brian Snitker on Saturday.

“Maybe our defense,” responded the Atlanta manager. (The numbers don’t necessarily agree). “But we’re a very good offensive team. We’ve scored a lot of runs, we’ve hit a lot of homers, we’ve won a lot of games coming back. Our bullpen has been really, really good. Our starting pitching has started to come around at a good time… So it’s a fun group of guys to watch. They’re very entertaining. We’re like an NBA game: nothing happens until late in the game most of the time, so you don’t want to leave early.”

The Braves can bash. Led by MVP candidates Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna — not to mention young superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. — they scored the second-most runs, and hit the second-most home runs, in baseball. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers had more of each. In terms of offense, Atlanta is loaded.

Brandon Hyde agrees with Snitker on the quality of Atlanta’s bullpen. Baltimore hosted the Braves in mid-September, and the Orioles’ manager came away bullish on a deep relief staff that includes Shane Greene, Chris Martin (who left Sunday’s game with groin discomfort), Mark Melancon, AJ Minter, Darren O’Day, and Will Smith.

“Their bullpen is dynamite,” Hyde told me over the weekend. “If they have the lead after the fourth, they’re very tough to beat. Their offense is extremely good, and then they have three or four closers pitching the last few innings. They have weapons both right- and left-handed.”

Smith could end up playing a key role in the series. The veteran southpaw — a 2019 All-Star with San Francisco Giants —allowed just 11 hits all year, but seven of them left the yard. That’s how the Reds typically score: an eyebrow-raising 59.7% of their runs came via the long ball, easily the highest percentage in either league.

As a whole, the Braves staff isn’t homer prone. Their 69 fence-clearers allowed was tied for fourth-fewest in the senior circuit, and only 35% of their runs surrendered came via the long ball. That was the lowest percentage in either league.

What should people who don’t follow the Reds know about David Bell’s team?

“The one aspect that people do know is our starting pitching,” the Cincinnati manager said on Saturday. “That’s the strength of our team — there’s no question — [and] if you could choose any one strength, that would be it. I would say our bullpen is much better than people may realize. We’re deep. We have guys that are pitching really well right now.”

For those not in the know, that depth is akin to Atlanta’s. Raisel Iglesias is the primary closer, while Tejay Antone, Archie Bradley, Amir Garrett, Michael Lorenzen, and Lucas Sims offer admirable support.

And then there’s the enigmatic offense. Many of the individual numbers are perplexing. Future Hall of Famer Joey Votto slashed .226/.354/.446. Eugenio Suárez slashed .202/.312/.470. Nick Castellanos, who started the season on fire, fizzled so badly that he finished .225/.298/.486. That’s the heart of Cincinnati’s lineup.

Much as Welsh predicted a Reds revival that came to fruition, Bell is seeing signs that the bats are ready to come alive.

“We haven’t broken out yet,” Bell said. “We haven’t fully gotten it going yet as a team, offensively. I think we’re capable of even more. This group of hitters has worked extremely hard. They’ve shown a ton of toughness, because luck hasn’t always been on our side. It’s never been an excuse, or anything like that, it’s just a fact [Cincinnati’s .245 BABIP was the worst in either league; conversely, Atlanta’s .322 mark was the highest]. But the hits have started to come, slowly but surely. When that continues to happen, we can score runs.”

The Reds will need to focus on putting runs on the board to beat the Braves. As good as Cincinnati’s pitching is, holding down the Atlanta offense is a tall task. As Orioles announcer Geoff Arnold put it when he recently ranked the Best of the East, “There isn’t a great way to pitch to this team, because they can hurt you up and down the lineup.”

Can Bauer, Luis Castillo, and Sonny Gray limit the damage enough for an unpredictable offense to outscore an Atlanta team that tallied seven or more runs 24 times this year? Can Atlanta’s fresh-faced starters hold the fort long enough to allow the bullpen arms to seal the deal?

The last time the Braves and Reds met in the postseason was in the 1995 NLCS. Atlanta swept that series and went on to capture the Fall Classic. What will happen in this year’s best-of-three? This one looks fun, and it should ultimately come down to which team pitches best, as it usually does.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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TKDC
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TKDC

It seems very unfair to me that the Cardinals got the 2-seed over the Reds without having to actually play the last two games. However, despite the daunting task of facing the Reds starting pitchers, I am thrilled to not have the Cardinals again, who I’m sure would find a way to win the series on something like catchers interference.

ascheff
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ascheff

The Cardinals got the #5 seed, but I assume you meant #2 in the division. And while the Reds probably are better than the Cards this year, they did go 4-6 against them. I think the way the tiebreakers were handled was as fair as can be – asking the Cards to play another double header on the off chance they lose both would have been unfair to them, imo.

Also, I’m not sure the Reds would switch places with the Cardinals even if they could. The Braves are a good team, but they’re not as good as the Padres. St. Louis likely will have to play both the Padres and the Dodgers, which is a tough draw.