Braves: Previewing the Wild Card Series

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The last time the Braves faced the Reds in the postseason was the 1995 campaign, which, save for the one just completed this past Sunday, was MLB’s most-recent shortened season. The ’95 season featured a lot more games (144) than in 2020, not to mention a very different style of baseball in general. Still, for Braves Country, it serves as a rather enjoyable recollection of the team’s latest matchup, as it was then that Atlanta swept the Reds in four games and combined to outscore Cincinnati 19-5 in the NLCS, before eventually defeating Cleveland in the ’95 World Series.

However, this isn’t the mid-90s, and both teams today are nothing like they were a quarter-century ago. In fact, the second-seeded Braves and seventh-seed Reds of 2020 are actually exact opposites of their former selves from that ’95 season, for this year, Atlanta is an offensive juggernaut, and Cincy wields a dangerous starting rotation.

Wednesday, the Braves’ lineup and Reds’ pitching will collide and battle it out in a three-game series, with the winner advancing to the National League Division Series. We’re just hours away from first-pitch so let’s preview the upcoming series:

 

Starting Rotations 

Reds

  1. Trevor Bauer, RHP – 1.73 ERA, 2.5 WAR
  2. Luis Castillo, RHP – 3.21 ERA, 2.4 WAR
  3. Sonny Gray, RHP – 3.70 ERA, 1.7 WAR

That Bauer guy was really good during the 2020 regular season; there’s no denying that. However, when eight of your eleven starts are against NL Central opponents (plus two outings versus the lowly Tigers), you’re not exactly facing very many dangerous hitters. The best lineup Bauer faced in 2020 was the White Sox (114 team wRC+), and he got tagged with the loss as he allowed two home runs and struck out five (which tied for his lowest strikeout total in a start this season). With 12+ strikeouts per nine and the NL’s best ERA (1.73) during the 2020 season, I’m most definitely not saying he isn’t the real deal. But I will say Bauer hasn’t faced an offense like the Braves this year. Plus, as good as he has been overall, Bauer hasn’t been very good at missing barrels this season, ranking in the 59th-percentile among MLB starters in barrel-rate. 

He hasn’t gotten as much attention as Bauer above, but Castillo is having a career year himself. His run-prevention obviously isn’t as impressive, but he allowed just five home runs all season, and unlike Cincy’s no. 1 starter, Castillo has done a much better job missing barrels. The Braves can hit the fastball, and because of that, I’m more worried about Castillo than I am Bauer, given the former throws his offspeed more than any other offering, not to mention the pitch accounted for almost 60% of all his strikeouts in 2020. Castillo has four pitches (change, fastball, sinker, slider), and he’s going to use every single one of them during his start. 

Like Castillo, Gray will oftentimes throw the kitchen sink at batters as he wields five total pitches and will throw four of them at roughly the same frequency, with the curveball and sinker yielding the best results during the regular season. 

Gray’s 2020 ERA is roughly a run higher against left-handed batters (4.09 / 3.13), and when pitching on the road, he’s allowing almost two more runs per nine (4.68 / 2.90). Plus, the 30-year-old hasn’t started off outings effectively at all this season, posting a 5.91 ERA in the first-inning, compared to a combined 1.35 mark in innings two through three. Gray just seems super finicky, and if the Braves force a Game 3 and he’s the opposing starter, I really like Atlanta’s chances.

 

Braves

  1. Max Fried, LHP – 2.25 ERA, 1.6 WAR
  2. Ian Anderson, RHP – 1.95 ERA, 1.1 WAR
  3. Kyle Wright, RHP – 5.21 ERA, -0.1 WAR
  4. Josh Tomlin, RHP – 4.76 ERA, 0.5 WAR

For Fried, he probably couldn’t have asked for a better postseason assignment. The Reds as a team hit just .212 during the regular season and ranked within the bottom-four in the majors against both the slider and curveball (per FanGraphs’ Pitch Value) — two pitches Fried combined to throw over 43% of the time this season. Also, five of the nine regulars in the Cincy lineup are lefty hitters, including two of the team’s big power guys in Jesse Winker & Joey Votto — only two of Winker’s 12 homers have come off southpaws, as well as just two of eleven for Votto. This is almost a perfect matchup for Fried. 

Even though Anderson has done everything you could ask for (and more) through his first six big league starts, I’ll admit that I’m nervous for the 22-year-old righty. It’s situations like this — a rookie pitcher making his very first playoff start — that I’m glad there won’t be fans in the ballpark until the League Series. However, as long as he can remain calm, I don’t see any reason to doubt him, especially against a below-average lineup.

The strides Wright made during his last three outings of the regular season allow me to believe that perhaps the time has finally come for the former first-round draft pick. The Nationals, Mets, and Red Sox aren’t exactly world-beaters, however, all three of those lineups finished the year with a higher wRC+ than the Reds. This season Wright picked up his first career win in the majors, but now it’s time to grab his first postseason victory. 

A three-game series technically requires only three starters, but I have Tomlin listed as a no. 4 simply because this is the Braves and it wouldn’t surprise me. Anderson / Wright at nos. 2 and 3 (or vice versa) appears to be the plan at the moment, but if the Braves drop Game 1, I could see them going with the perceived safer pitcher in Tomlin, in a must-win Game 3 scenario (albeit, I don’t really agree). For two innings or 20-30 pitches, Tomlin could be extremely effective against the Reds. Still, then you have to think about bullpen management for later, for starting the 35-year-old is undoubtedly going to exhaust several relievers. Regardless, Tomlin didn’t end the regular season on a very good note performance-wise, so I’m not sure he’s even the safer pitcher at this point.

 

Bullpens

REDSBRAVES
4.53 ERA3.50 ERA
10.93 K/99.31 K/9
4.34 BB/93.53 BB/9
1.54 HR/90.99 HR/9
-0.24 WPA1.50 WPA
1.4 WAR2.3 WAR

Reds

With a bit of an all or nothing approach, Cincinnati’s relief core features plenty of strikeout stuff (ranking second in the majors in strikeout rate) but is also susceptible to the home run (allowed the sixth-highest homer rate). All-in-all, the Reds wield a middle-of-the-road bullpen. 

Cincy’s closer, Raisel Iglesias, matched his 2019 WAR total (1.1 WAR) in a third of the innings this season and has been absolutely dominant with his fastball/slider/changeup combo. He even out-performed his 2.74 ERA by posting a 1.84 FIP.

After Iglesias, there’s a rather vast dropoff inside the Reds’ bullpen, as right-handers Tejay Antone and Lucas Sims (former Brave) haven’t been nearly as stingy but solid nonetheless as the team’s second and third best relievers (per WAR) — Antone posted a 1.89 ERA during the regular season, to go along with 12+ K/9. However, his work came primarily in low and medium leverage situations, while Sims, who actually led the Cincy bullpen in innings-pitched (25.2), finished 2020 with a 2.45 ERA and 11.92 K/9. Rounding out the higher-leverage arms, Michael Lorenzen (4.88 ERA / 7.88 K/9) and Amir Garrett (2.45 ERA / 12.76 K/9) come after Iglesias in terms of pitching in critical times of the game. 

 

Braves 

We’ve talked about it all season long, but this Braves’ bullpen is probably the best we’ve seen in decades. The group cooled off a bit as the regular season came to an end, but it managed to rank seventh in the majors in bullpen WAR (2.1). 

Tyler Matzek, the bullpen’s top performer of the regular season, should enjoy facing all of Cincinnati’s left-handed batters (even though he faced more righties this year). The lefty reliever held same-handed batters to a .190 AVG this season and struck out 13.34 batters per nine to go along with a 2.79 ERA.

Chris Martin will be available for the Wild Card Series and is within half a WAR of Matzek as the Braves top reliever. He will handle several high-leverage situations during the postseason, along with Shane Greene (2.60 ERA) and A.J. Minter (0.83 ERA). Closer Mark Melancon (2.78 ERA) has converted 11 of 13 save opportunities and is once again having a strong season, despite a drastic drop in strikeouts. Luke Jackson (6.84 ERA) and Grant Dayton (2.30 ERA), the primary low-leverage guys, are a bit touch and go, though Dayton (5.06 xFIP) has benefited from a good bit of luck this season.

 

Offenses

REDSBRAVES
4.2 R/G6.0 R/G
.715 OPS.832 OPS
91 wRC+121 wRC+
11.3 BB%10.2 BB%
25 2 K%24.4 K%
5.1 WAR11.2 WAR

Reds

Like most of the NL Central this season, offense isn’t the Reds strong suit as they rank 23rd in the majors in WAR. The lineup does have some power, slugging the seventh-most homers in baseball (90), but Cincy is what you’d call a three-true-outcome team (walk, strikeout, home run), and those sort of offenses struggle in the postseason. 

Designated-hitter Jesse Winker and third baseman Eugenia Suarez (the team’s home run leader with 15) are by far the Reds best run creators currently, as both are nos. 1 and 2 in WAR on the team, respectively, with Winker also leading in wRC+ (146). After those two, it’s down to a trio of first baseman Joey Votto (114 wRC+), catcher Curt Casali (131 wRC+), and third baseman Mike Moustakas (109 wRC+), with the latter’s pitiful .230 AVG leading the way.

Nick Castellanos has been exactly what Cincy wanted this season, in terms of power (14 HR), but he’s getting on base at just a .298 clip and striking out nearly 30% of the time. The Reds just don’t have any pure hitters, and the lineup also lacks any depth. This looks like an offense that could get hot and score eight runs per game, or get stuck in a rut and barely score at all. Braves pitchers definitely don’t need to mess around, though, because one thing the Reds are elite at is drawing walks; they rank second in the majors in walk rate. 

 

Braves

We finally make it the good part: the Braves’ lineup. By the end of 2019, it felt like this core of hitters was cooking up something special, and this season, that momentum has continued about as well as you could ask. The Braves concluded the regular season second in the majors in homers, runs scored, and AVG, as well as third overall in wRC+. Hitting was undoubtedly the best aspect of the 2020 Braves, and it’s a good thing because without it, the team most likely wouldn’t be here today.

Seven of the nine regulars in the lineup concluded the 2020 regular season with a 100 or better wRC+, and the top-four all posted marks above 125. First baseman Freddie Freeman (187 wRC+) was almost a win better in WAR than the team’s second-best hitter, thanks to perhaps the most prolific September of his career, featuring a .375 AVG, 1.246 OPS, and eight home runs in 26 games to end the year. This is Freeman’s MVP as he enters Wednesday’s postseason game leading Mookie Betts from the NL in WAR (3.4 to 3.0).

Outfielders Marcell Ozuna (179 wRC+) and Ronald Acuna Jr. (159+) may have finished the season roughly one WAR behind Freeman, but each wound up with more homers than the first baseman. Ozuna’s 18 long balls was third-most in the majors during the season as the 29-year-old finished the year with the best slash-line of his career (.338/.431/.636). Acuna hit the ball harder and more frequently than he ever has while slugging .622 against fastballs and once again being a menace as the team’s lead-off hitter. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud (145 wRC+) rounds out the Braves who managed to hit at least 25% better than the league-average in 2020, and he surprised with a pure-hitting line of .321/.386/.533 to go with nine home runs. Shortstop Dansby Swanson, outfielder Adam Duvall and second baseman Ozzie Albies all had their moments this season, with the latter of those three perhaps the hottest right now, ending the year with an .826 OPS during the final eight games.

 

Defenses

REDSBRAVES
Eugenio Suarez, 3B

1 OAA

Ozzie Albies, 2B

4 OAA

6 DRS-8 DRS
-6.0 UZR-8.1 UZR
-5.0 Def-12.1 Def

The comparison of defense is a bit confusing on paper. According to Statcast, the Braves roster more above-average defenders, with Albies leading the way in OAA (Outs Above Average). However, while both defenses are rated below-average, the Reds come in 21st in Defensive WAR, compared to 28th for the Braves. It’s difficult to really know without watching a ton of Reds’ games this season, for defensive metrics are incredibly noisy in a 60-game sample.

 

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