GUEST WRITER: ANDY SIMMS OF
The Boys are Back, ready to kick the door to the World Series right off the hinges.
Usually when a team takes on the mantle of “underdog” and claims to have been disrespected all season it’s mostly bluster mixed with a fair amount of B.S. For the Atlanta Braves, however, the 2019 season qualifies in every regard as an underdog campaign, completely lacking in respect from any but the most ardent Braves fans for what they accomplished in winning the East in 2018 and the team that GM Alex Anthopoulos assembled coming out of Spring Training. Apologies are coming fast and furious nowadays, however, with even MLB Network Radio posting this on their Twitter account:
So naturally, you’d assume the Braves players would be all over the “underdog” story line, claiming how no one thought they’d repeat, no one respected them, and how they look forward to proving every last one of them wrong all the way to the World Series, right? Wrong. This group of Braves ain’t about that life. In fact, they’d much rather talk about how many role players it took to get through a season fraught with adversity and how every time they turned to one of those role players they came through in the clutch every time. They will tell you they didn’t give any thought to the doubters because frankly they had their own ambitions to worry about, and with the injuries and inconsistencies of a 162 game season the random musings of baseball insiders has little effect on their mindset.
This goes a long way to prove the method Anthopoulos used in building this team and his reliance on veteran leaders in lieu of the more flashy free agents that were available this offseason. Those veteran leaders all bring something different to the table, but one thing is certain: the kids are listening and learning from them. This is great news for Braves fans, of course, but I doubt the Cardinals are too pleased at what they have seen from this very talented and deep roster. This is setting up to be a very entertaining series despite MLB’s desire to steer hijack the narrative by announcing Sam “Outfield Fly Rule” Holbrook as the crew chief for the proceedings. I won’t waste words on that debacle except to say there was plenty of buzz around this series without artificially inflating it. Enough said. On to the matchup:
The Cardinals had to use their best arm in Jack Flaherty to secure the division against the foundering Cubs while the Braves have been meticulously setting up their rotation for the last week. The Cardinals have to this point not revealed their starter for game 1, but it appears likely they will turn to Miles Mikolas to face off with Dallas Keuchel in the series opener on Thursday. That would allow Flaherty to return on regular rest for game 2, and Dakota Hudson would be the likely choice for game 3 with Adam Wainwright available for game 4 as necessary. How does that stack with the Braves rotation?
Mikolas 9-14 4.16 ERA 1.32 HR/9 7.04 K/9 and a 4.18 xFIP
Keuchel 8-8 4.72 ERA 1.28 HR/9 7.27 K/9 and a 4.06 xFIP
The Braves signed Keuchel because he knows what it takes to win in the post season. in 10 appearances (9 starts) he has a 4-2 record with a 3.31 ERA. By comparison, the similarly aged Mikolas has zero post season experience. This is a close matchup on paper, but the experience has to tip the odds in Keuchel’s favor on the mound,
Flaherty 11-8 2.75 ERA 1.15 HR/9 10.59 K/9 and a 3.64 xFIP
Foltynewicz 8-6 4.54 ERA 1.77 HR/9 8.08 K/9 and a 4.73 xFIP
On paper this matchup strongly favors the Cardinals, but thankfully the games are not played on paper. Since his return from exile in Gwinnett, all Folty has done in the 10 games he’s pitched is go 9-1 with a 2.65 ERA with 55 k’s in 57.2 IP (8.65 K/9) and 7 HR (1.10 HR/9). Flaherty has been dominant during that span as well, and he’s pitching deep into games.
Dakota Hudson 16-7 3.36 ERA 1.14 HR/9 7.03 K/9 and a 4.53 xFIP
Mike Soroka 13-4 2.68 ERA 0.72 HR/9 7.32 K/9 and 3.85 xFIP
Hudson has had a stellar season in his first full MLB stint, but there are cracks in the armor of the 25 year old rookie. He led all of baseball with 86 walks and his WHIP was 7th highest among qualified starters. His team has supported his starts to the tune of 5.2 runs per game he has started, which has propped him up a bit. Soroka, on the other hand, might have won rookie of the year honors if not for Pete “don’t call me Babe” Alonso and should get some strong Cy Young consideration. I’d call this matchup in favor of Soroka, especially on the road where he has been the best pitcher in baseball this year, but he’s also showing some signs of withering under the stress of his first full season.
If the series goes to a game 4, both teams will have interesting decisions. The Cardinals have franchise pitcher Adam Wainwright waiting in the wings while the Braves could counter with a franchise pitcher of their own in Julio Teheran or a burgeoning star in Max Fried. Alternatively both teams could look to bring back their game 1 starters on short rest.
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This is where the series looks to turn in the Braves favor.
C – Molina v/s McCann – There is no doubt that Molina has the bigger reputation defensively behind the dish, but McCann has been the superior offensive threat. Molina also has the edge in post season experience, so in this matchup I’d give the edge to the ageless future HOF from St Louis.
1B – Goldschmidt v/s Freeman – Braves fans are sick and tired of hearing how great Goldy is defensively. We get it, he’s good, but nobody saves errors better than Freddie Freeman, and that just doesn’t show up in WAR like it should. Provided he can be healthy, the edge in this matchup tilts on the offensive ability of Freeman, and it’s not particularly close.
2B – Kolten Wong/ Ozzie Albies – Advantage to the dynamic Albies here. Wong is a very good 2B, but Albies hits for power, average, plays gold glove defense, and provides an emotional lift to this team that can’t be measured. Oh, and if you bring in a lefty to face him, do so at your own peril.
SS – DeJong/Swanson – I don’t think either team comes into this game expecting their short stop to win a ballgame for them, but the power of DeJong and his 30 HR does give the Cardinals something to hope for. Swanson was having a pretty solid start to his 2019 until the injury bug got him, but in the last week of the season he was showing signs of life. Defensively both are solid up the middle, so I’d have to give the slight edge to DeJong due to the quick strike ability. With that said, Swanson has a history of being clutch from the 7th inning on, so the edge is razor thin here.
3B – Carpenter/Donaldson – One of the easiest matchups to call, Donaldson wins this in a landslide. You have to count in Tommy Edman here as well, so this tightens up the gap a little, but if we’re being honest there have only been a handful of better 3B this season and even fewer in the 2nd half than Josh Donaldson.
OF – Ozuna/Bader/Fowler vs Markakis/Acuña/Joyce – in RF it’s potential v/s production between Ozuna and Markakis. Ozuna has the potential to take over a game offensively but Markakis is probably going to bat .290 over this 5 game series and drive in a handful of runs with two outs. Bader is better defensively in CF but is a non-factor offensively when compared to what RAJ brings to the table. The Fowler/Joyce matchup is a wash with either one having the ability to come up big out of nowhere and snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat. Advantage Braves here on the back of Acuña and the veteran savvy of Markakis.
The national media is calling this in favor of the Cardinals, primarily based on the fact that Carlos Martinez has been dominant in place of Jordan Hicks and Giovanny Gallegos has been a revelation for them in a setup role. The problem with handing that matchup right over to the Cardinals fails to take into account how great Melancon and Greene have been since a really bad week in August and the likely addition of Max Fried to the mix. The Braves bullpen has rounded into an actual strength of this team when used properly, and with every game being a critical game and plenty of rest to be had, I fully expect Brian Snitker to be able to utilize his pen effectively.
Wrap it up
This is going to be a close series. These teams match up well against each other in what will likely be a strength on strength type of series. The Braves have home field advantage, and the passion of the fanbase that has been kindled by the young kids Albies and Acuña is finally going to be on display in a big way. Two classy organizations fighting it out for the chance to unseat the hated Dodgers. Buckle up, Braves fans. This is going to be one hell of a ride! Prediction, Braves in 4 games. Chop on.