The MLB playoffs are in full swing as we’ve already completed both the American and National League Wild Card rounds. With the two ALDS series set to begin tonight, now is a good time to discuss a few takeaways from the 2021 postseason so far, and how what we’ve learned could impact the Braves upcoming Division Series versus the Brewers. Below are a few noticable aspects of the playoffs that should be of significance for Atlanta as it begins its playoff push…
Ace starters can and will fall
It’s way more significant in a Wild Card round, but both the AL and NL play-in games featured two unanimous aces that ended up struggling. On Tuesday, in the Yankees-Red Sox matchup, New York’s starter Gerrit Cole — who finished the regular season with the second-most fWAR in the AL — lasted just two innings as he got the hook after 50 pitches. Boston did exactly what it needed to do in that do-or-die game, coming through with two outs in the opening inning to push two runs across and take an early lead. A two-run homer by Xander Bogaerts in the first quickly gave the Red Sox the momentum it needed to do the unthinkable, which is get to Cole. In terms of pitch-count, it was by far the shortest outing of the superstar pitcher’s 2021 campaign and a huge blow for the Yankees.
At Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night, another ace hit the showers earlier than anticipated in the NL Wild Card game, although fortunately for the Dodgers, it wound up not costing the team the win. The 37-year-old Max Scherzer struggled all night to consistently find the strike zone, and with one out in the fifth inning, he had already thrown 94 pitches. As we now know, it wasn’t enough for St. Louis, but the Cardinals also struck in the opening inning when Scherzer threw a wild-pitch that scored Tommy Edman. After averaging 11.8 strikeouts per nine during the 2021 regular season, the LA righty walked off the mound last night with only four punch outs, making it just the third time all year Scherzer ended a start with less than five strikeouts. Too bad the Cards couldn’t tack on some insurance runs before the Dodgers scored a pair in the final frame to go on and win.
The Braves will certainly have their hands full in Game 1 on Friday when they go up against the Brewers Corbin Burnes, who paced the entire sport in FanGraphs WAR this season (7.5). Like Cole and Scherzer above, the 26-year-old Burnes is a power-pitching starter that makes his living generating swings and misses, and on a night in which he’s on, he could easily put the team on his back with a gem. But like we witnessed on Tuesday and Wednesday, it really doesn’t matter how great your numbers are as a starting pitcher. If the opposing lineup can string together a few hits and maybe run into a homer, things can get ugly quickly. Starters operate on very short leashes in the playoffs, so the Braves just need to make it appear like they’re getting to Burnes. Getting the Brewers ace starter out of the game might not be as difficult as we think.
Every defensive play MATTERS
This is has always been the case in the postseason, but boy has defense been important so far in this year’s playoffs. Just two games in, and a few plays on defense have already made the difference for both clubs that advanced.
First there was the play at the plate in the sixth inning of the Yankees-Red Sox game, which proved to be huge in Boston’s win. With a 3-1 lead in the sixth and one out, the Red Sox were barely holding onto its advantage as Ryan Brasier had relieved starter Nathan Eovaldi after the latter surrendered a lead-off home run to New York’s Anthony Rizzo and a single by Aaron Judge. With the Yankees obviously threatening, Giancarlo Stanton crushed a 2-1 pitch by Brasier off Fenway’s Green Monster, which appeared as if it would easily score Judge from first. However, Boston outfielder Kiké Hernández played it almost perfectly and relayed it to Bogaerts, who threw a bullet home to just barely nab a sliding Judge at home plate. Just like that, New York went from possibly cutting the lead to one with one out, to remaining down by two with two outs. The play was incredibly clutch for the Red Sox.
The importance of defense continued in Wednesday’s NL Wild Card matchup, though one of the game’s most impressive plays could’ve perhaps cost the Dodgers. The Cardinals came out of the gate with a decent rally as Edman led off with a single and stole second. Paul Goldschmidt followed with a walk, bringing up the powerful Tyler O’Neill with runners on first and second and no outs. On the first pitch thrown by Scherzer, O’Neill popped the ball into foul territory on the right-field side where right fielder Mookie Betts got there just in time to make a nice grab against the waist-high wall. The play by Betts was impressive, but his location on the field — along with all of his momentum falling over the wall — prevented him from getting the ball back in the infield before a tagging-up Edman advanced to third. Moments later, Scherzer tossed a wild pitch and Edman scored from third to give St. Louis a 1-0 lead. The decision by Betts to make the catch was an impossibly-difficult one to think about in the moment, but perhaps he should’ve let it fall so Edman couldn’t advance from second in the first place. Obviously, it’s a moot point given LA won the game.
The Dodgers provided another clutch grab later in the game on Wednesday, and this time it was definitely the right choice. In the eighth, with the score tied at one apiece and LA reliever Blake Treinen still on the mound from the previous inning, the Cards were in a pretty good spot, with Dylan Carlson on first and just one out. On the very first pitch by Treinen, St. Louis seventh-place batter Edmundo Sosa slapped a line drive to left that, if not for a nifty snatch by outfielder Chris Taylor, would’ve most likely scored Carlson and given the Redbirds a 2-1 advantage. It wasn’t the coolest-looking grab, but nonetheless, it was critical in keeping the score tied so the Dodgers could mount their ninth-inning rally to win.
I’m sure there will be at least a few defensive blunders by Braves defenders during this year’s postseason, but it’s all about keeping them to a minimum. The absence of outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. is certainly a blow to the team’s outfield. Although, oftentimes, it’s the simplest plays that wind up coming back to haunt a team trying to advance. And you can simply quit worrying about the regular season defensive stats — none of that matters in the playoffs. Hell, the Dodgers ended 2021 as a below-average defense, according to Statcast, ranking 18th in OAA (Outs Above Average) as a team.
As usual, when to pull the starting pitcher is crucial
Managing a baseball game is an entirely different job in the postseason compared to the regular season, and for a skipper, it’s really all about timing your moves correctly. This is where I sometimes worry about Braves manager Brian Snitker.
So far, in the two wild card games on Tuesday and Wednesday, I believe all four managers did a pretty damn good job with their pitching moves. Yankees manager Aaron Boone perhaps had the toughest decision to make, given it was such a quick hook and it was freaking Gerrit Cole on the mound. But already facing a 2-0 deficit, and the Red Sox clearly seeing the ball pretty well, Boone had to make sure the game didn’t get out of hand. New York’s lineup just simply didn’t have an answer for Eovaldi, so I’m not putting that loss on the manager.
Even though their team’s outcome was different, both Red Sox manager Alex Cora and Cardinals manager Mike Shildt had pretty easy decisions when it came to their starters. As I’ve already mentioned, New York couldn’t really do anything against Boston’s Eovaldi and Wainwright was mostly dealing for St. Louis. If the starting pitcher is both comfortable and keeping runners off the bases, you might as well see how far they can go, which is what both skippers ultimately did. Shildt just got burnt by a ninth-inning bullpen swap when he brought in reliever T.J. McFarland with two outs.
It’s been a mixed bag for Snitker in 2021. He’s had his moments where he’s made the right call with his starters, but there’s also been a combination of him leaving guys out there too long… or simply not letting them come back out when it was obvious to do so. It’s impossible to know how he will manage the upcoming series, but one things for sure, this could very well be the deciding factor for the Braves in this year’s postseason. I’d hate for it all to end up coming down to a bad decision by Snitker, but you and I both know it’s happened plenty of times in the regular season. The best thing the Braves can do is simply score enough runs on offense that it really doesn’t matter who’s on the mound. Multi-run leads will no doubt be Atlanta’s best friend.