Starting this Thursday, the Braves are going to be locking horns with the St. Louis Cardinals for a chance to advance on to the next round of the playoffs. If you haven’t paid much attention to the NL Central champs since the Braves played them six times in May, consider this your cheat sheet on most of the faces, bats, and arms you’re likely to see over Atlanta’s next three-to-five games. The players below are sorted in 2019 fWAR order, which seems like a half-decent way of putting the guys that might matter more at the top... except that in reality, the playoffs are random enough that a good regular season is hardly predestination for a successful playoff performance.
1. Jack Flaherty - Starting Pitcher
Flaherty may not be the most recognizable face and name on the Cardinals, but his 4.8 fWAR in 2019 puts him in the top 15 among all pitchers. Flaherty went absolutely nuts in the second half of 2019: his 112 ERA- and 110 FIP- through June were likely to fall thanks to a 91 xFIP-, but nothing portended the insanity of the 29 ERA-, 56 FIP-, and 75 xFIP- he posted since the start of July. He only allowed 16 runs (15 earned) in 17 starts over his final three months of play, and aside from his start on July 2, where he allowed four runs, every other outing featured the opposing team notching just three runs or fewer off of him. In nine of 17 starts since the start of July, he held the other team scoreless. The Braves may have caught a small break in that the Cardinals chose to use Flaherty in Game 162, thus making him less of a certainty to start Game 1 as that would require short rest... let’s hope it matters.
As a pitcher, Flaherty has basically done everything well in 2019, so there’s not much to specifically exploit. You can hope that the Braves get good results when they make contact off of him, as his contact management is pretty generic and he’s really more about the whiffs than the weak balls in play, but if the St. Louis defense is up to snuff and the BABIP or HR/FB gods aren’t with the Braves, it could be a long game when he takes the hill.
2. Paul DeJong - Shortstop
DeJong started the season like a man possessed, with a 163 wRC+ through the end of April. He then collapsed, with fewer above-average months (just August, 108 wRC+) than awful ones offensively (63 wRC+ in June, 72 wRC+ in September). As a result, he ended his season with a dead-average 100 wRC+, but managed 4.1 fWAR in 664 PAs on the back of some truly stellar, Andrelton Simmons-esque shortstop defense (+12 UZR, +13 DRS).
DeJong hits the ball in the air, which is nice when it stays in the park and not so nice (for his opponents) when it doesn’t. Unless he somehow channels his monstrous April self, he’s not a huge concern in the St. Louis lineup, but the Braves should probably avoid hitting grounders in his vicinity (and really, avoid grounders altogether, something DeJong has learned to do).
3. Kolten Wong - Second Base
Wong has missed the last half of September with a hamstring injury, but that didn’t impair him from posting the best season of his career to date, with 3.7 fWAR in 549 PAs, and he’ll likely be good to go for the NLDS. Wong’s improved offensive output this season (108 wRC+) is mostly mirage, as he’s outhit his xwOBA by over .030; he remains a pesky, slap-oriented hitter that makes some of the weakest contact around — his barrel rate, exit velocity, xwOBA on contact, and hard-hit rate all in the bottom 10 percent of major leaguers. But, he’s sure to bedevil the Braves with his decent batting eye, high contact/foul rate, and strong-to-elite defense (+6 UZR, +14 DRS) anyway. He also runs really well.
4. Tommy Edman - Utility Devil Human
Cardinals devil magic, thy name in 2019 is Edman. A sixth-round draft pick from 2016 with a 40 FV slapped on him, the Redbirds rookie is another in a long line of St. Louis prospects and/or non-prospects that make a mockery of industry expectations regarding their productivity. Edman has put together 3.2 fWAR in just 349 PAs this season and seems to love the juiced ball, as his slugging percentage exceeded .500 for the first time in his career in both Triple-A and the majors in 2019. (Previous high: .439 in A-ball.) Edman’s mostly played second and third for the Cardinals this year, with some cameos at all three outfield spots, and has generally been an effective defender. On the one hand, he pairs really well with Kolten Wong as another xwOBA-outperformer (league-average .327 xwOBA; very good .360 wOBA that translates to a 123 wRC+) who isn’t that intimidating at the plate, but those are famous last words reserved for someone who hasn’t had the fear of devil magic seared into his soul yet.
Edman has made good contact and has enough eye and pop that you can’t hope he just winds his way into an out. He’s also a switch-hitter that’s been better against lefties, which is at least a minor saving grace as he’s more redundant with the rest of the righty-heavy Cardinals lineup in this manner. He’s also super-fast. Fun.
5. Paul Goldschmidt - First Base
While the Cardinals were probably hoping for more than 3.0 fWAR when trading for Paul Goldschmidt in what ended up being a pretty bad but apparently not-franchise-maiming-even-though-it-could-have-been trade during the offseason, 3.0 fWAR and Goldschmidt’s worst season since either his partial rookie year in 2011 or his first full season in 2012 is what they got. Goldschmidt managed just a 116 wRC+, suffered through massive slumps in June and August, and didn’t do much of anything (108 wRC+) against righties all year. He’s still a good first baseman (+3 UZR, +6 DRS), but in a lineup where he was supposed to be an incredibly terrifying centerpiece, he’s been anything but. Still solid, and still capable of ruining your day, but just a bit more agreeable than your darkest fears.
6. Marcell Ozuna - Left Field
After a 5.0 fWAR campaign in 2017, the Cardinals may have thought that the Ozuna they were acquiring from the fire-saling Marlins was primed to become a perennial All-Star. Instead, Ozuna has spent the last two seasons prior to hitting free agency being Just A Guy. Now, Just A Guys, especially at arbitration salaries, are fine. But, corner outfield defense combined with two consecutive years of xwOBA underperformance have tanked Ozuna’s production.
Despite his 2.5 fWAR in 2019, during which he missed some time with a finger injury, no one should take him lightly. He has one of the best xwOBAs in baseball, hits the ball super-hard, and strikes out less while walking more than league average. He still hits way too many grounders for his power potential, but made huge strides in that department this year. He won’t chase much, but will whiff when he does — with his power and contact quality, though, you better hope you don’t miss your spot. He only managed a 110 wRC+ this year, but his offensive inputs are much scarier. He’s a top-10 xwOBA underperformer this year among anyone with 100 or more PAs; change the metric to 200 or more, and he’s third, behind the shiftable Kendrys Morales and the very unlucky Justin Smoak.
Defensively, Ozuna is a weird case, with profoundly negative OAA/CPA metrics from Statcast but positive UZR/DRS marks, even for the isolated range components. Also he had that weird “Fail Spiderman” play. Good times.
7. Miles Mikolas - Starting Pitcher
Mikolas was very good in his return stateside in 2018, and followed that up with a pretty generic starting pitcher campaign in 2019, with a 98 ERA-, 99 FIP-, and 94 xFIP-. His extreme pitch-to-contact-ness works symbiotically well with the Cardinals defense, and he doesn’t walk anyone while not being particularly easy to square up, either. After a dreadful April, Mikolas has actually been pretty good all year, so he may be in better-than-generically-average form at this point. If Mikolas and Dallas Keuchel really do face off in Game 1, it may be the most Rob Manfred-approved pitching matchup of the postseason.
8. Adam Wainwright - Starting Pitcher
For the second time in his career, Adam Wainwright returned from an injury-shortened campaign to do pretty well for the Cardinals. He barely pitched in 2015 and rebounded for a 2.8 fWAR campaign in 2016; he made just eight starts in 2018 and took the hill 31 times with 2.2 fWAR in 2019. Wainwright’s performance has been nearly dead-average in 2019 across the board, with a 99 ERA-, 100 FIP-, and 99 xFIP-. Nearly his entire profile is that sort of generically-average “crafty veteran surviving on his wiles” stuff at this point, but like Mikolas, he gets lots of grounders for the Wong/DeJong duo to gobble up. One advantage the Braves might have over Wainwright is that he’s really struggled with lefties lately, and the Braves have their fair share of those to deploy against him.
9. Giovanny Gallegos - Relief Pitcher
A 28-year-old rookie right-hander, Gallegos is an annoyingly-interesting asset for the Cardinals to deploy in the NLDS. He’s worked as both a short-stint and a longer-exposure reliever, and has little in the way of platoon splits despite being a 50-50-ish fastball/slider guy. Overall, he finished the year with a 55 ERA-, 70 FIP-, and 81 xFIP-, none of which are numbers that make you particularly jazzed that he might be around to eat two or three innings at least twice in the series. He strikes out everyone, doesn’t walk much of anyone, throws hard, and doesn’t get knocked around that much even when he allows contact. He’s gotten a little lucky results-wise this season, but either way, he’s been good. The Braves will just have to hope that his diminished results down the stretch carry over and that he isn’t as dominant as he was at his zenith (2.62 FIP, 2.98 xFIP before the All-Star Break).
10. Harrison Bader - Center Fielder
In 2018, Harrison Bader looked like a surface-level star, pairing an average batting line with best-in-class center field defense to post 3.6 fWAR in 427 PAs. However, a bit of a deeper look revealed some offensive challenges (.295 xwOBA that he was overperforming by .032; substantial contact issues, especially in the zone). Through the end of July, Bader had made some xwOBA improvements over 2018 (up to .307 from .295), but a spate of bad luck made his line look terrible (73 wRC+ due to underperforming his xwOBA by .023), and he was sent back to the minors.
He’s been somewhat better since he returned (.327 xwOBA), and the net result has been 1.6 fWAR in 406 PAs. Basically, he’s kind of been the Cardinals’ version of Ender Inciarte: great defense, okay-ish bat, weird-at-times baserunning decisions. His offensive profile is still a work in progress, even as it evolves — he still strikes out a lot, but he’s improved his z-contact; o-contact remains a challenge despite not much chasing. He seems to really struggle with non-fastballs as well as understanding when he will or won’t get pitches to hit, and represents a place where Atlanta pitchers may be able to go for outs if they’ve done their homework on him. A note to Atlanta hitters, though: don’t hit it to him. Hit it over him. Far, far over him.
11. Dexter Fowler - Right Fielder
Fowler’s 1.6 fWAR in 2019 may not seem like a number that warrants description as having salvaged anything, but after his horrific -1.1 fWAR last year, maybe the description works? Fowler’s game is all red flags at this point; even with a decent 2019 xwOBA, he’s been a poor-to-mediocre defender, makes a lot of weak contact, and has some scary stuff going on with his year-over-year contact and whiff rates that suggest 2020 and beyond might end up particularly dire. But, he’s been okay in 2019, punishing fastballs just enough to stay relevant and avoiding losing too much playing time to other candidates.
After a career of hitting lefties better than righties as a switch-hitter, Fowler’s tendency in this regard has flipped this year. I don’t know whether that’s really trustworthy as a heuristic, but if so, that bodes at least somewhat poorly for the Braves, who now have to consider treating him like a legitimate left-handed bat in a righty-heavy lineup.
12. John Brebbia - Relief Pitcher
Brebbia was a decently-good reliever this year; he was a notably good one this year, though his FIP-xFIP gap (85 ERA-, 72 FIP-, 109 xFIP-) suggests that there’s room for regression there. Unlike Gallegos, Brebbia’s fastball-slider combo is very vulnerable to left-handers, so he might really be a guy you see brought out to face Ronald Acuña Jr., Josh Donaldson, or Dansby Swanson here and there. Brebbia is your basic hard-throwing two-pitch reliever who limits his walks and misses enough to go from okay to notably good. He’s also very much a fly ball aficionado, which can either be frustrating or fortuitous for the Braves, depending on how the HR/FB wind (and literal wind) happens to blow at any given point.
13. Matt Carpenter - Third Base
Yes, it’s weird to see Matt Carpenter, legitimate world-beater from 2013 through 2018, appear this far down on a list of his teammates ranked by fWAR, but that’s where his 1.2 mark for 2019 places him. Last year, Carpenter struggled for a while to start the year and then went nuclear on the league; this year, Carpenter struggled, got better, struggled, got hurt, was okay, and finally had himself a good month just as the year was winding down. Combine his overall 95 wRC+ with bad-to-mediocre (0 DRS, -3 UZR) defense at third base, and you have yourself a down year.
Carpenter’s decline and problems aren’t really associated with any one aspect of his game or performance. Like Goldschmidt, he’s just been somewhat worse all-around, and unlike Goldschmidt, the being worse has turned him from above-average to below-average.
14. Carlos Martinez - Closer (?)
Martinez has had an odd career evolution over the last two years. He was the Opening Day starter for the Cards last year, but despite some solid pitching, he was shuttled to the bullpen after being shelved a couple of times with injury. Despite not always having the best rotation (see: Michael Wacha’s implosion this year), the Cardinals have kept him in the bullpen for all of 2019, and he slid into the closer role for manager Mike Shildt after insanely-hard-throwing-human Jordan Hicks went down for the year after Tommy John Surgery.
Martinez has been plenty good as a reliever (75 ERA-, 66 FIP-, 85 xFIP-, 1.2 fWAR in 2019), but one still wonders whether he’d be better off as a starter or bulk guy, even if the Cardinals want to manage his workload a little better. He pitched some longer outings earlier in the year, but hasn’t faced more than six batters at a time since mid-July. He gets grounders, manages contact well, and doesn’t have his fastball obliterated too often, so it may be a blessing if the Cardinals limit him to shorter stints in this series.
15. Yadier Molina - Eternal Catcher
The ageless Molina brother has finally clocked in a season below 2.0 fWAR, finishing 2019 with 1.1, for the first time since 2007. Molina’s framing and throwing have declined with age, but the Cardinals traded away Carson Kelly and the waste receptacle conspicuously wearing a Matt Wieters jersey has been (unsurprisingly) unable to wedge its way in to more playing time to lighten Molina’s workload.
Don’t count Molina out entirely — his 87 wRC+ is in part the product of bad luck, as he has a fine .320 xwOBA on the year and can still drive a pitch here and there — but this isn’t 2009-to-2013 framing-and-throwing-and-hitting-god or even the 2014-to-2018 some-combination-of-framing-throwing-and-hitting-is-still-pretty-good-I-guess guy anymore.
16. Dakota Hudson - Starting Pitcher and/or Julio Teheran in disguise
Dakota Hudson reminds me of Julio Teheran, mostly because I don’t really want to think too hard about either of them. The 79 ERA- on top of a 114 FIP- and 103 xFIP- should give you a clue as to why. On the one hand, Hudson’s best-in-class-ish groundball rate works really well given his present circumstances; on the other hand, he has a double-digit walk rate and doesn’t get many strikeouts while also not managing contact quality particularly well. I don’t know if Cardinals fans feel about Hudson drawing a start in the NLDS the way Braves fans feel about Teheran doing the same, but it could be a pretty funny foil to a Keuchel-Mikolas Game 1 if the matchup happens to work out that way in Game 4.
17. John Gant - Former Brave Relief Human
A former Brave who was incomprehensibly shuttled to the Cardinals for one non-competitive year of Jaime Garcia, Gant started pitching quite well in relief for the Redbirds early in the year before seriously fading down the stretch. His final season line includes 0.9 fWAR, dual 86 ERA- and FIP- marks, a 98 xFIP-, and a severe allergy to left-handed bats despite a five-pitch mix that features two fastballs and a changeup as his primary non-fastball offering.
Unlike most good relievers, who are good because they overpower hitters and keep the free passes low enough to survive, Gant presents as an odd duck. He walks a lot of guys (too many) and doesn’t get very many punchouts despite throwing very hard. Instead, he gets a lot of suboptimal contact to end PAs. It’s hard to see him being used in dramatically different fashion from the other John in the St. Louis bullpen (Brebbia), but they’re not actually all that similar — it’s just that a situation in which you’d use one, you could also probably use the other. Hopefully that doesn’t give the Braves fits.
Some other guys that might appear, I guess
- Matt Wieters - oh, yes, please, Cardinals. Use Matt Wieters as much as possible in this series. Please. Please please please.
- Yairo Muñoz - very light-hitting generic utility guy that I’m not sure is actually worthy of the utility guy label due to suspect defense, but you know he’s somehow going to kill the Braves in this series anyway.
- Jose Martinez - a fun story in 2017-8 as a late bloomer who pounded the snot out of baseballs while being unable to field, Martinez took a step backwards this year in hitting, which combined with his lack of fielding and xwOBA underperformance for a very blah season.
- Tyler O’Neill - didn’t get much of a showing this year despite a good quarter-season last year, O’Neill is kind of the St. Louis version of Austin Riley, but left-handed and much faster.
- Andrew Miller - 105 ERA-, 120 FIP-, 100 xFIP-, -0.86 WPA, -0.4 fWAR (team-worst), and the Cardinals still owe him upwards of $10 million for another season. Miller became both fly ball-prone and homer-prone this year while losing some fastball velocity. His slider is still devastating, but he’s been hurt on his fastball more and more, which has led him to become more predictable. Of course now that I wrote this, he’ll dominate the Braves in the NLDS. Sorry.
- Tyler Webb - another potential lefty the Braves might face given how many left-handed bats they have, Webb is really just a generic reliever who happens to throw left-handed; he isn’t even particularly good at getting lefties out.
- Ryan Helsley - he’s like Tyler Webb, but right-handed, and gets crushed by lefties. Might be good against righties?
- Genesis Cabrera - I mostly just wanted to type the words “Genesis Cabrera.” Hopefully, if he comes into the game, the Braves can grant the Cardinals an exodus from the NLDS.