Braves vs Cardinals NLDS Preview

Alex Kielar | October 3rd, 2019

In what should be a very tight series, the Braves and Cardinals face off in the NLDS starting today at 5:02 PM ET. The Braves are slight favorites based on Fangraphs projections. Before diving into the key players, matchups, and what to watch for, let’s take a look at the schedule.

Schedule

  • 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

The Starters

St. Louis Cardinals (5th in ERA, 9th in xFIP, 14th in WHIP, 20th in K%, 8th in BB%)

The main reason for the Cardinals jumping from third in the division at the All-Star Break to winning the division was ace Jack Flaherty. Flaherty, the Game 2 starter, had a Cy Young type second half for the Cardinals, leading all starters in ERA (0.91), WHIP (0.71), soft contact (23.4), HR/9 (0.5) since the All-Star break. The Braves will have a tough time against him in Game 2, but they do have the possible advantage of already seeing him twice this season.

Back in May, in two starts against the Braves, Flaherty allowed a total of three earned runs, six singles, five walks, and struck out 13 over 12 innings. The fact that Flaherty had to pitch in Game 162 to insure that the Cardinals won the division, is why he won’t be seen in Game 1 today. That could be significant, as he won’t be available again until Game 5. But if the series does go the distance, he would be the pitcher the Cardinals would like to have on the mound in a winner-take-all game.

The starter getting the ball in Game 1 today will be Miles Mikolas, who after receiving an extension this offseason, did see some regression. Mikolas still had a pretty solid season, posting a 4.16 ERA, 4.18 xFIP, 1.22 WHIP, 18.9 K%, and 4.2 BB%, with an even mix of four-seam, slider, sinker, and curveball. His most effective pitch of the four has been his curveball, as hitters have only hit for an xwOBA of just .283 against it.

Something of note is that Mikolas has not fared nearly as well on the road as at home with a 5.40 ERA on the road and a 3.01 ERA at home. In his one appearance against the Braves this season, he allowed three runs and seven hits while striking out nine over seven innings. The Braves offense may be able to pounce on Mikolas early in this one and get an early 1-0 series lead.

The starters following the first two games are yet to be known, but I would imagine veteran Adam Wainwright will get the ball for Game 3 in St. Louis. The Cardinals should benefit from Wainwright’s leadership and experience, as he is the only pitcher still on the roster from the 2011 Championship team. Wainwright (4.19 ERA, 4.39 xFIP, 1.43 WHIP, 20.5 K%, 8.6 BB%) missed most of the 2018 season but bounced back this year to have a productive season. Wainwright has been vastly much better at home this season than on the road, as he held a 2.56 ERA at Busch Stadium compared to a 6.22 ERA on the road, so he should benefit from starting at home. In his only start versus the Braves this season, however, Wainwright was roughed up for five runs on five hits and five walks in four innings.

I would expect the potent Braves offense to do more of the same against him as he held a 41.7 Hard Hit% this season along with a 44.8 Pull%. He just isn’t the same pitcher he used to be, but maybe he can find some of the postseason magic again. Dakota Hudson will probably get the ball in Game 4 if it gets there, as it should, as he made a push late in the season. He held a 2.36 ERA, .180 BAA, and allowed a .301 slugging since August 1. The main concern with Hudson is his control with an 11.4% walk rate, highest in the league, facing a lineup with the third-highest walk rate at 9.8%. Hudson will be available out of the bullpen during the first two games.

Atlanta Braves (12th in ERA, 9th in xFIP, 17th in WHIP, 29th in K%, 20th in BB%)

The Braves pitching has been very solid all year, led by rookie of the year candidate (winner if not for Pete Alonso) Mike Soroka (2.68 ERA, 3.85 xFIP, 1.11 WHIP, 20.3 K%, 5.9 BB%), Dallas Keuchel (3.75 ERA, 4.06 xFIP, 1.37 WHIP, 18.7 K%, 8.0 BB%), who they signed late into the first half, and Mike Foltynewicz (4.54 ERA, 4.73 xFIP, 1.25 WHIP, 21.4 K%, 7.5 BB%). Keuchel will toe the slab for Game 1 today, who has plenty of Postseason experience and success, which is the main reason they signed him to such a big deal back in June.

In his ten Postseason appearances, Keuchel is 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 51 2/3 innings. Game Two starter Foltynewicz struggled early on which led to a demotion in June, but after returning to Atlanta on August 6th he put up a 2.65 ERA in ten starts in which the Braves went 9-1. Soroka was the Braves’ best starter all season and will get the ball in Game 3. The Braves pitching will be tough for the Cardinals offense to overcome and could be the difference in the series.

Advantage: Braves

The Lineups

St. Louis Cardinals (17th in OBP, 23rd in SLG, 21st in OPS, 15th in wRC+)

After questions around whether or not second baseman Kolten Wong would be available after coming back from a hamstring injury, the Cardinals confirmed he will be available for Game 1 today. Wong (.285/.361/.423, 11 HR, 59 RBI, 24 SB) has been a big part of the Cardinals lineup this season along with first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (.260/.346/.476, 34 HR, 94 RBI), shortstop Paul DeJong (.233/.318/.444, 30 HR, 78 RBI), and outfielder Marcell Ozuna (.243/.330/.474, 29 HR, 89 RBI). The Cardinals definitely have the firepower to score runs in bunches, but they can also struggle to get anything going especially against tough pitching.

Atlanta Braves (7th in OBP, 8th in SLG, 7th in OPS, 10th in wRC+)

The Braves have an extremely potent offense with a lot of firepower and a mix of young and old. First baseman Freddie Freeman (.295/.389/.545, 38 HR, 121 RBI), outfielder Ronald Acuńa Jr.(.280/.365/.518, 41 HR, 101 RBI), third baseman Josh Donaldson (.259/.379/.521, 37 HR, 97 RBI), catcher Austin Riley (.226/.279/.471, 18 HR, 49 RBI), and second basemen Ozzie Albies (.295/.352/.500, 24 HR, 86 RBI), have all had strong seasons offensively and will be threats in the series.

One key missing bat will be Ender Inciarte who was ruled out after trying to come back from a hamstring injury. The Braves roster would definitely look more complete with a healthy Inciarte in it, but they still have a lot of pop in the lineup and off the bench as it is. If a game turns into a shootout, the Braves would probably have the advantage. They were third in the NL in runs scored and OPS and fourth in the NL with wRC+.

Advantage: Braves

Bullpens

St. Louis Cardinals

Andrew Miller is always the big guy in the bullpen for the Cardinals that Mike Schildt is never afraid to use in any situation. Miller hasn’t been the best overall this season and was pretty horrible down the stretch as well. Since the beginning of August, in 24 appearances, Miller pitched to a 6.38 ERA with 10 walks and three home runs over 18 1/3 innings. Most of the damage, however, occurred in two games, which obscures the numbers a bit. Giovanny Gallegos was pretty rock-solid effective all season, but he even faltered down the stretch. He put up a 6.21 FIP resulting from a decreasing K% and an elevated BB%.

The absence of powerful closer Jordan Hicks will be key, but his replacement, Carlos Martinez was brilliant in the final month. If he can keep up the success he will be a great weapon in a bullpen that really struggled down the stretch. The importance of other relievers finding it again will be huge, as I believe this series will come down to the bullpens.

Atlanta Braves

The duo of Chris Martin (1.83 FIP) and Mark Melancon (1.63 FIP), both acquired at the trade deadline, has been great down the stretch. Melancon slipped into the closer role and is a big weapon for the Braves. Shane Greene was also acquired at the deadline, but he was not as solid of the trio acquisitions, putting up a 3.94 FIP, as his K% took a hit. Luke Jackson and Sean Newcomb will also be available, along with starters Max Fried and Julio Teheran. Jackson has a massive 60% groundball rate and a 33% strikeout rate. Fried lost out on a possible Game 4 start by struggling a bit, but he should be available for long relief. Newcomb was alright all season and was never one of the top relievers, as Fried will probably take more of his innings.

Advantage: Braves

Verdict

Even though I am giving the advantage to the Braves in all three categories of starters, relievers, and lineup, this series will still be tightly contested. They have the advantage on paper, for sure, but that doesn’t mean they will be perfect. That also doesn’t mean the series will go five. Every game will be close for sure. I see the Cardinals being able to shut down the Braves offense in a close Game 2 with Flaherty on the mound, but that will be the only win for the Cardinals. The Braves have the better firepower on both sides, and in close games, the Braves have the advantage in closing those out or getting to the Cardinals bullpen. Braves in four is my prediction.

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