Postseason Preview: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Atlanta Braves

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:

Injured Players
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.

Jack Flaherty
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 Bullpens
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.

We hoped you liked reading Postseason Preview: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Atlanta Braves by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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stever20
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stever20

I think game 1 is crucial for Atlanta. Lose that and to win the series you have to beat Flaherty at least once. It’s especially tough since so many of their key guys didn’t play much last week. If Atlanta has any rust and it costs them game 1, they are going to be really behind the 8 ball having to face Flaherty in game 2.

vslyke
Member

I’m not all the worried about Flaherty particularly, anything can happen in 1 (or 2) game(s) and the Braves have prior experience with a flaming hot pitcher suddenly fizzling out in the playoffs (Kris Medlen in 2012). I’m much more worried about the health concerns Craig brings up, particularly Freeman, who hasn’t looked well for a while. As a secondary concern, I’m concerned about how much rope Snitker will give his starters, particularly Keuchel.

stever20
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stever20

I’d rather not have to beat a red hot pitcher like Flaherty. Not to mention losing game 1 means you lose game 2 and you have to win 2 in St Louis to just get back to Atlanta to see Flaherty again.

I’m almost of the mind that if I have 1 ace like this, in the LDS round, I’m starting him in game 2 instead of game 1.

emh1969
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emh1969

Last 21 games, Freeman hit .235/.346/.279 with a ,308 BABIP. So he’s making contact and getting on base but there’s no power at all.

TKDC
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TKDC

Game 1 is crucial for every team in every playoff series, especially 5-game series.

stever20
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stever20

I’d say it’s moreso when you are facing a teams ace in game 2. St Louis has a simple formula. Win both of Flaherty’s 2 starts, and then steal 1 game.

TKDC
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TKDC

The degree to which you seem to think Flaherty is a foregone conclusion to win is wildly overstated. He’s actually unlikely to win two starts. If that is the strategy, and it really isn’t, it would be a bad one. The “simple formula” for every team is the same: win 3 games (or 4).

stever20
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stever20

I’d rather not be in a position if I were the Braves where after the first game, I know I have to beat him at least once to advance…. With how he’s pitched recently (only guy in the 2nd half better than him, someone named Verlander). He’s got a 0.91 ERA/2.22 FIP the 2nd half of the season. In the 4 home team game 1’s of the LDS- the Braves have the most pressure to win their game 1 I think- by far.

stever20
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stever20

I just don’t think folks realize just how good of a run that Flaherty is on. For guys with more than 70 2nd half innings since I guess 2002(that’s as long as is on splits leaderboard). only Jake Arrieta in 2015 was better than he was.

Anon21
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Anon21

He’s on a great run, but during his much-ballyhooed September, he has not faced any lineup as good as the Braves. We also know he’s pitching over his head some given how insane his numbers have been in the second half and September, so the reasonable expectation for his pitching performance in this series isn’t like a sub-2.25 FIP. Steamer sees him as a 3.64 FIP guy going forward, and that’s just nowhere near good enough to say that winning his two starts is a foregone conclusion.

stever20
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stever20

I’d just personally rather not have to beat him to win the series.

And it’ll be interesting to see just what the Braves lineup is like. Missing 2 of their key bench guys in Inciarte and Culberson. And who knows how healthy Freeman and Acuna are.

The run also isn’t just September. It’s since the All Star Break. And 2 of the teams in there- Dodgers and Astros. And those lineups are better than the Braves.

Famous Mortimer
Member

Seems odd to quote the projection system that absolutely did not come remotely close to correctly projecting his post-ASB performance.

emh1969
Member
emh1969

And what did Arrieta do in the playoffs?

3 starts with an ERA of 3.66 and a FIP of about 2.84. Nowhere near as good as his second half numbers.

Cubs went 2-1 in his starts. He dominated the Pirates in the wild card game (complete game shutout) but gave up 4 runs apiece in his NLDS and NLCS starts.

stever20
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stever20

I’m sure other guys who were just a smidge behind Flaherty had good playoff runs though…

I just would rather not have to beat him to advance… If I beat him it’s gravy. And I think it does put more pressure on the Braves to win today to avoid having to beat him to not go to St Louis down 2-0.

emh1969
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emh1969

In his final 16 starts, Flaherty posted a 0.91 ERA. And yet the Cardinals only went 10-6 in those games. Other teams have good/great pitchers too.

stever20
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stever20

But do the Braves have any of those? The guy that the Braves are starting in game 2 is Foltynewicz with a 4.54 ERA.

Anon21
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Anon21

The Braves don’t have a pitcher as good as Flaherty, but they have a better lineup than the Cardinals. That’s why this series is so evenly matched.

stever20
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stever20

If they’re healthy.

Anon21
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Anon21

Even with low-grade Freeman, the Braves have a better lineup. As far as Acuña goes, no real reason to think he’s not healthy today; the Braves never even had him stop taking hitting and fielding practice.

stever20
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stever20

Acuna might be healthy, but he definitely had some other issues yesterday. Made both teams upset with him. Have to hand it to the guy, that takes some serious talent.

jwnhl4
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jwnhl4

Fair point but in the second half Foltynewicz has a 2.65 ERA so hes on a nice run as well.

Icebox
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Icebox

When the series is just five games long, identifying any one of them as “must-win” from the outset is perilously close to a useless tautology, regardless of the rationale.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas

Flaherty averaged ~6.5 innings per start during his hot stretch. It’s not like he’ll likely be pitching 9 innings. ATL’s bullpen and lineup advantage plus the randomness of 1 game mitigates a lot of the Flaherty advantage for STL.

stever20
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stever20

bullpen advantage? at best it’s a push for the Braves.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas

think so? since mid August their 3 pick ups have had a sub 2 ERA.

stever20
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stever20

your post didn’t age that well…. Jackson and Melancon 6 er in 1.2 innings pitched. That’s not good.

And now, yeah I’d say tomorrow is a total must win for Atlanta. Go down 2-0 and heading to St Louis?

Anon21
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Anon21

And look at that, they did win, with Foltynewicz outdueling Flaherty. It’s almost like weird stuff happens in a five-game series and no pitcher is a lock to win any given game.