After winning their respective divisions, the Atlanta Braves will face off against the St. Louis Cardinals starting on Thursday. This series looks evenly matched, with our Depth Charts projections (53%) and ZiPS (55%) both seeing the Braves as slight favorites. Before we get to the meat of the preview, let’s lay out the schedule. All games will be televised by TBS.
When and Where:
- Game 1: Thursday, October 3, 5:02 PM EST in Atlanta
- Game 2: Friday, October 4, 4:37 PM EST in Atlanta
- Game 3: Sunday, October 6, time TBD in St. Louis
- Game 4 (if necessary): Monday, October 7, time TBD in St. Louis
- Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday, October 9, time TBD in Atlanta
What We’ll Be Watching For:
Ender Inciarte will remain out for this series, at least, after a hamstring injury struck him down in mid-August. Matt Joyce and Adam Duvall have platooned some with Inciarte out, though the Cardinals have no lefty starters, so the 35-year-old Joyce could play a big role in the series. He hasn’t shown a ton of power the last few years, but he’s walked 15% of the time against righties since the beginning of 2016 with a decently low 21% strikeout rate. Inciarte’s replacement in center actually meant an upgrade as Ronald Acuña Jr. took over, but the Braves’ star outfielder has injury concerns of his own; an apparent hip injury was classified as a groin strain and it is unclear how that injury might affect his superb baserunning or his defense in center field.
The health worries don’t end there for the Braves. Freddie Freeman has a bone spur in his right elbow, which he is still favoring, and though he played over the weekend, he struck out four times in 11 plate appearances and didn’t come up with an extra base hit. It was only the third three-game stretch all season during which Freeman struck out that often and didn’t get an extra base hit. All three stretches have come in the last six weeks. Every player is going to have sporadic, three-game down stretches, but given what we know about Freeman’s elbow, look for a lot of inside pitches to test whether the injury will continue to hobble the Braves’ first basemen. Josh Donaldson sat out the last game of the season after being hit on the hip with a pitch, but that injury appears less severe. Donaldson, Acuña, and Freeman have accounted for half of the 27.9 WAR accumulated by Braves’ position players this season (Ozzie Albies is the only other position player with more than 2.1 WAR); Atlanta would be a completely different team without that trio at full strength.
The Cardinals’ injury concerns are far fewer. Kolten Wong missed the last 10 days of the season with a hamstring issue and his availability for the Division Series is in doubt. He has been one of the best defenders in the game and was instrumental to the Cardinals’ excellent defense all year long. Without him, the team has moved Tommy Edman from third base to second base and put Matt Carpenter back in the lineup. Carpenter, who has put up a solid 115 wRC+ since coming off the Injured List at the beginning of August, lost his job at third base to Edman, who is the superior defender. With Wong out, Carpenter’s bat has been good; he’s notched five extra base hits in his final 11 games, ensuring the Cardinals didn’t lose much from the lineup overall during the home stretch.
If Wong is back, the Cardinals will have a lineup conundrum on their hands. Edman has put up a surprising three-win season while doubling his ISO between the majors and minors this season compared to previous years. The ball used in Triple-A and the majors this year could be helping, though using his legs to turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples has likely helped as well. Look for Edman to start for sure against lefties like Dallas Keuchel and Max Fried, as his right-handed side is more powerful. Matt Carpenter might get the Foltynewicz start, particularly if it is the second game of the series with the strikeout-fly ball combination of Jack Flaherty on the mound for the Cardinals.
Mix of Young and Old
The Braves are no doubt considered a young team on the rise thanks to two, under-23 stars in Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña Jr. to go along with 25-year-old Dansby Swanson, but those three players are the only likely starting position players under 30 on the team, with Freddie Freeman celebrating his 30th birthday last month. Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, and Brian McCann are all 35 years old; Josh Donaldson turns 34 in December. The average age of the projected starting eight is right at 30 years old and just a bit older than the Cardinals’ average age of 29.6 years. The Cardinals have 37-year-old Yadier Molina behind the plate, with 33-year-old Dexter Fowler in right field and 32-year-old first baseman Paul Goldschmidt the only other players over 30 in the projected starting lineup. Kolten Wong and Marcell Ozuna are in their late-20s, and Paul DeJong (26), Harrison Bader (25), and Tommy Edman (24) are all a few years younger. The rotations provide a further mix with Jack Flaherty (23), Max Fried (25), Dakota Hudson (25), and Mike Soroka (22) taking up half the starter slots, with Dallas Keuchel and Miles Mikolas both 31 years old, and Adam Wainwright up there at 38. Mike Foltynewicz is the only pitcher in the traditional late-20s prime in either rotation.
In the second half of the season, Justin Verlander was arguably the only pitcher who pitched better than Flaherty. In 15 starts, Flaherty pitched 99.1 innings with a 2.22 FIP and 4.1 WAR. That WAR total is ahead of Jacob deGrom’s 3.9 during that stretch, and no other NL pitcher is even close (Noah Syndergaard and Yu Darvish were each worth 2.5 WAR). Flaherty’s 0.91 ERA topped baseball since the All-Star Break, with deGrom half a run behind him. Flaherty has used a more aggressive approach to hitters in the second half, and it has paid off; his strikeout rate jumped from 26% to 34% while his walk rate decreased from 8% to 6%. The Cardinals used Flaherty in the final game of the season to increase the odds of a division title, but due to two potential off days, Flaherty can still start Games 2 and 5 for the Cardinals. The two rotations are filled with solid pitchers, but only Flaherty resembles a true ace with the ability to be a difference-maker in the series.
The Braves remade a struggling bullpen in the second half of the season. Trades for Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, and Chris Martin have altered the dynamic for Atlanta at the end of games. Greene has been mostly pedestrian since the trade deadline, but Martin and Melancon have combined for 46 strikeouts and just three walks in 38.2 innings. Adding that trio to the underrated Luke Jackson gives the Braves a much better chance at closing out a lead. At the trade deadline, the Braves had the worst pen in baseball, but it has been among the top 10 in the game since. If the Braves are forced to use the pen early in a game and Max Fried is called upon, it might make the bullpen stronger, but the Game 4 starter weaker. As for the Cardinals, Carlos Martinez has stepped forward as a closer after Jordan Hicks went down for the season with Tommy John surgery. Martinez’s 2.61 FIP since taking over as closer has made him one of the top five relievers in the National League. Before the Cardinals can get to Martinez, they have a parade of relievers with question marks. Free agent acquisition Andrew Miller had an up-and-down season with more homers this year than in his entire tenure with Cleveland. Giovanny Gallegos has been the team’s best reliever this season, but has struggled some in August and September. John Brebbia has been solid, but St. Louis might need younger, lesser known relievers like Ryan Helsley and Junior Fernandez to step up in the middle innings.
Matchup That Piques My Interest
The Cardinals and Pitch Types
In terms of results, the Cardinals are one of the best teams in baseball at hitting four-seam fastballs, and better than only the Marlins, Tigers, Giants, and Padres at everything else.
The gap between what St. Louis can do with four-seamers and everything else is the biggest in baseball. If you include two-seamers, against which the Cardinals are average, the disparity looks even worse due to poor numbers against the slider and change. While the league seems to be moving to the four-seamer, the Braves are one of the top sinker-throwing teams in the game. In the second half, their sinker usage is first in baseball with only the Cubs, Mets, and Mariners throwing fewer four-seamers. Of the Braves starters, Fried and Teheran feature four-seamers, but Soroka, Keuchel, and Foltynewicz all throw their sinkers as their primary fastball. If the Cardinals are going to succeed, they will probably have to do some damage on a pitch that isn’t the four-seam fastball.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.