The postseason kicks off for the National League on Wednesday with the Braves and Reds beginning the festivities at noon — the first of eight playoff games on the day. The matchup will feature two NL Cy Young candidates — the Braves’ Max Fried, and most likely the eventual winner of the award, the Reds’ Trevor Bauer.
Atlanta versus Cincinnati is a battle of two baseball towns with very little recent success in the postseason. In fact, neither team has won a playoff series since 2001 when Atlanta swept the Houston Astros. The Reds haven’t won a postseason series since 1995, which happened to be the last time the Braves won the World Series. However, while Cincinnati hasn’t been to the playoffs much over that stretch, Atlanta has. They’ve just been unable to get the job done once they get there, including the past two seasons in which they lost to the Dodgers and Cardinals in the NLDS.
Something has to give between these two teams, and if the Braves want to overcome their demons, here’s what they’ll have to do to get past the Reds.
Get to the bullpen
Much has been made about the Reds’ rotation, and for good reasons — four of them to be exact. Cincinnati features four starters with sub-four ERA’s and K/9s of 11+, including a couple of former All-Stars — Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo — and the aforementioned Bauer. This is arguably the most complete starting rotation in the majors. However, their bullpen isn’t nearly as reliable.
The Reds are 22nd in bullpen ERA, carrying a 4.72 mark into the postseason, and they aren’t much better in terms of FanGraphs WAR, finishing the season 19th (0.6 WAR). This group received a bit of a boost from Archie Bradley, who they acquired from the Diamondbacks at the trade deadline, and they do have some high-powered arms suited for the later innings. If the Braves allow the starters to go 6+, it will be very difficult for them to win, making it especially important for Atlanta’s bats to work counts, even if they have trouble scoring runs.
Fried and Anderson must be lights out
It goes without saying that, if the Braves are to make a deep playoff run, somebody in their rotation not named Max Fried or Ian Anderson will have to step up. However, in this series, it’s pivotal that Atlanta’s top guys pitch out of their minds.
Looking at this three-game series with the Reds, there isn’t a starting pitching matchup that will favor the Braves. Max Fried has been outstanding this season, but even he will be up against Trevor Bauer, and Ian Anderson will have to face either Luis Castillo or Sonny Gray. Fried and Anderson have to look their best because the Braves are at a severe disadvantage in a potential Game 3, which will feature one of the Reds All-Star pitchers against either Kyle Wright or the Braves’ bullpen.
Throw strikes and avoid the long ball
The Reds don’t have the type of lineup that will string many hits together and produce great at-bats. They do two things well — draw walks and hit home runs. For the most part, the Braves have been pretty good at keeping the ball in the park, but walks have been an issue at times. It’s imperative that they don’t give up free passes in this series, creating the opportunity for big innings. As long as they can throw strikes and avoid the middle of the plate when pitching to specific hitters, they should be able to shut down the Reds’ lineup.
Rely on the bullpen
The Braves and Reds have two different pitching formulas. While Cincinnati heavily relies on their starting pitchers, Atlanta has the third-best bullpen in the majors in terms of ERA, and Brian Snitker has been forced to turn them early and often throughout this 60-game season. More times than not, they have thrived when pitching 4-5-even-6 six innings. If any of the starters experience trouble early on, the Braves’ manager should not show any hesitation turning to his relief core. There’s no time for second-guessing, and this is the group that has carried the Braves the whole way. They should be relied on heavily in this three-game series.
Unleash the offense
The Reds’ starting rotation deserves all the credit in the world. They truly are an amazing staff. However, the Braves have the type of offense that can make the best pitchers look silly, and they’ve done it all season. As good as Bauer, Castillo, Gray, and Mahle are, we aren’t talking about Jacob DeGrom out there. The Braves easily have the offense to take Trevor Bauer to the woodshed, and I say that while completely understanding Bauer’s dominance over this shortened season.
Atlanta is second in the majors in batting average, first in OPS, and second in both home runs and runs scored — behind only the Dodgers, who only scored one more run than the Braves. If Atlanta’s offense gets rolling, there really is nothing the Reds can do to win this series.