Yesterday, I broke down all three phases of the Cincinnati Reds — rotation, offense, and bullpen. I also wrote a separate piece on the formula for defeating them in the Wild Card Series. If you haven’t read them, be sure to check them out. However, while this series between two great teams could be decided by the tiniest decision, I have a feeling it will come down to the Braves’ potent offense versus the Reds’ outstanding rotation — the strength of each respective team.
From start to finish, Atlanta’s offense has been nothing short of unstoppable, which is pretty amazing considering the problems they have faced over this sixty-game campaign.
For the first month of the season, the Braves got next to no offensive production from third base — a spot that was a position of strength for them last season with Josh Donaldson. Austin Riley and Johan Camargo platooned at third base to begin the year, and both struggled to hit over the Mendoza line until Riley finally established himself as the everyday starter. Still, he didn’t stay over .200 until August 26th and finished the season with a -0.1 fWAR. However, his average is now up to .239 thanks to a solid final two months that saw him hit a respectable .261 with seven homers — good for a .765 OPS. Not too shabby for a guy that will be hitting 7th or 8th for the Braves in the postseason.
Aside from the lack of production at third base, Atlanta also had to deal with multiple injuries to some of their best players. Ronald Acuña was forced onto the IL and dealt with several other minor issues, limiting him to just 46 games. Ozzie Albies missed over a month with a wrist injury, limiting him to just 29 games.
Still, the Braves’ offense never wavered, thanks to players like Travis d’Arnaud, Dansby Swanson, and Adam Duvall putting together career-years, while Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna played like MVPs. Even though Acuña and Albies missed 45 games combined, Atlanta still finished second in runs scored — just one run behind the Los Angeles Dodgers. Atlanta also finished first in OPS, second in batting average, and second in home runs. When at full strength, this is the best offense in baseball, and they showed that down the stretch.
I’ve given the Reds’ starting rotation plenty of credit when breaking them down. They run four deep, and they may only need two or three of them in this short Wild Card Series. Trevor Bauer is likely to win the NL Cy Young award, Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo are both All-Star caliber starting pitchers, and Tyler Mahle has put together a career-year at 25-years-old. This might be the best starting rotation — depth-wise — in the National League and perhaps even all of baseball.
With that being said, the Braves offense has the firepower to make this group look average. While Bauer’s been elite this year, he’s a season removed from posting a 4.48 ERA, including a 6.39 mark in ten starts with the Reds. In only two of his nine MLB seasons has he recorded an ERA less than four, and he boasts a 3.90 mark for his career. We aren’t talking about Jacob DeGrom here.
Sonny Gray has revitalized his career in Cincinnati, which can’t be easy to do given their home ballpark. However, he’s shown over the years that he can be taken advantage of. Castillo is who I believe actually has the most talent of the bunch, but even he hasn’t had much success against the Braves in his career, posting a 3.86 ERA in three starts and averaging less than five innings per outing.
My point is, the Braves have seen plenty of pitchers as good or better than who they are about to face in the Wild Card Series, and they’ve won most of those matchups despite their rotation problems. The Reds have benefited from playing a lot of teams that don’t have particularly good lineups. Only one club they have faced finished in the top half of the league in runs scored, and that was the White Sox (5th). The rest of the teams in the NL and AL Central — Cubs, Twins, Tigers, Indians, Royals, Brewers, Cardinals, and Pirates — all finished 18th or worst in runs scored, with four of them finishing in the bottom six.
Atlanta knows what it is like to face top-flight pitchers and have success. This will be the first time this Cincinnati pitching staff has seen a lineup like the Braves. All respect to what the Reds’ starting pitchers have accomplished this season, and pitching typically reigns supreme come October, but the advantage in this matchups lies with Atlanta. They just have to do what they’ve done all season long.