On paper, the difference is significant.
It would be hard for anyone to argue against the fact that the Atlanta Braves were a significantly better offensive team than the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019. They scored 855 total runs compared to 765 for the Cardinals. Atlanta produced a .332 wOBA as a team compared to a .314 wOBA for St. Louis. The Braves had a team OPS of .793 and ISO of .195, while the Cardinals had a team OPS of .737 and an ISO .170. The Braves were seventh in Average Exit Velocity; the Cardinals were 29th. Overall, the Braves were among the top 10 in the league in several offensive categories while the Cardinals were in the bottom third.
The reason for the difference in offensive production is fairly easy to see when looking at the two lineups. This series will feature seven of the top 40 offensive bWAR producers in the National League in 2019. Atlanta’s lineup contains four of the top 18 overall. St. Louis’s contains three that rank between 31st and 40th. The Braves lineup has simply been more productive due to better talent.
However, what matters most for both teams now is the current status of their lineups. More specifically, health questions are impacting both teams as they get ready for the first round of the playoffs. Finally turning his significant potential into long awaited production with a breakout 2019 season, Kolten Wong has been one of the Cardinals’ best offensive players this season. However, a hamstring injury has made his availability for the NLDS uncertain. Even if he can play, it is uncertain if he will be able to provide the same production he offered before the injury.
Unfortunately, Atlanta has even more health concerns than the Cardinals. Both Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman, arguably the two best offensive players among both teams in this matchup, are dealing with ailments of their own. Freeman admittedly is less than 100%, but feels good enough to play and contribute. While Acuña has participated in workouts and batting practice as he normally would, it is fair to question how he will contribute after being off for more than a week when Game 1 arrives Thursday.
Without a doubt, Atlanta’s lineup is still at its best with lesser versions of Acuña and Freeman in it. However, if both players are less than 100 percent, the offensive advantage Atlanta seems to have on paper significantly decreases. Even with Wong struggling/unavailable for half of September, the Cardinals still outproduced the Braves offensively over the last month of the season. As a result, this series has become more even over the past few weeks than some might be willing to admit.
Obviously, if Wong is unavailable, St. Louis will need to replace his production. While their lineup has been inconsistent and frustrating at times, they still have plenty of names that can win a game, even by themselves, at any time. While some names are obvious, others have seen their importance significantly grow throughout the second half. The end result is a lineup that Atlanta’s staff will have to navigate with caution and maximum effort to keep quiet.
While no part of the Cardinals lineup should be overlooked, here are the key contributors that should warrant Atlanta’s attention the most:
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Paul Goldschmidt - There should be no doubt that Paul Goldschmidt remains the most feared and respected bat in St. Louis’s lineup. Yes, Goldschmidt clearly had his worst offensive season since his rookie year in 2019, ending a steak of six consecutive All-Star appearances. However, he has looked more like his old self since the All-Star Break. Goldschmidt has produced a .267/.349/.538 triple slash in the second half of 2019, good for .886 OPS to go along with a .270 ISO measure. Over 73 games, he has contributed 18 home runs and 60 RBIs.
While his best offensive month of the season was July, Goldschmidt produced a .954 OPS along with five home runs and 24 RBIs in the month of September. St. Louis’s pitching has been the main reason they emerged as the NL Central winner. However, Goldschmidt has been a significant reason as well. He has, at times, played at a similar level that has earned him four previous top 10 MVP finishes. Furthermore, in his career, Goldschmidt has a .936 OPS against the Braves in his career in 233 plate appearances. It is by no means a stretch to say his production, or lack thereof, could tilt the series either way.
Marcell Ozuna- It is no secret that Marcell Ozuna has disappointed over the past two seasons for St. Louis since he was acquired from the Miami Marlins. At that time, his acquisition was viewed as one of the best of the 2017 offseason. However, he has struggled more than he has succeeded for the Cardinals. That is especially true as of late, at a time when the Cardinals need him the most.
So why is Ozuna a key hitter for St. Louis? Because, outside of Goldschmidt, he arguably offers the highest ceiling of any hitter in their lineup.
The Cardinals are 20-8 in the 28 games in which Ozuna hit his 29 home runs in 2019. He has produced a .987 OPS in wins for St. Louis this year compared to a .584 OPS in losses among the games he has played. Ozuna is a very streaky hitter, and when he is hot, the combination of Goldschmidt and Ozuna mirrors the effectiveness of Freeman and Josh Donaldson for the Braves. Furthermore, the Cardinals become extremely tough to beat. While Goldschimdt may still find some success against Braves’ pitching, Atlanta must ensure that Ozuna does not do the same. If he does, the Braves chances of winning the series significantly decrease.
Tommy Edman- It seems nearly every year the Cardinals make the playoffs, a big reason why is due to a young rookie that emerges as a key contributor out of nowhere. In 2019, Tommy Edman proved to be one of the best examples of this in recent memory. While regulars such as Harrison Bader, Matt Carpenter, and Jedd Gyorko (since traded to the Dodgers) struggled, Edman has made more than 10 starts at four different position for St. Louis. Furthermore, his overall production has been historic for a rookie. Edman is the first MLB rookie since 1882, 137 years ago, to produce at least 3.5 bWAR and an OPS of .850 or better in less than 350 plate appearances.
Along with his versatility and overall production, Edman’s consistency has been a saving grace for the Cardinals lineup. The Cardinals are 20-11 in the 31 games in which Edman has registered multiple hits, and since moving up to batting second in the lineup, Edman has produced a .930 OPS in 20 starts from that spot. Simply put, the Cardinals lineup has improved significantly now that Edman, Goldschmidt, and Ozuna are in the second, third, and fourth spots in their lineup. Furthermore, with 15 steals, it will be essential for Atlanta to keep Edman off the basepaths. While Goldschmidt and Ozuna have proven to have very high ceilings in the past, no hitter in the Cardinals order may be more important to their success right now than Edman.
Matt Carpenter- Like Ozuna and Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter has struggled in 2019, but to an even greater extent. Before September 2nd, Carpenter produced a .215/.325/.366 triple slash line in 429 plate appearances. That was good for a .691 OPS (nearly 150 points lower than his career mark), along with a .302 wOBA and 87 wRC+. Due to his lack of production and the emergence of Edman and consistency of Wong, Carpenter began to lose starts as the season proceeded into September. Fortunately for St. Louis, Carpenter responded by returning to his old ways of being one of the more underrated players in the National League this decade.
Since September 4th, both off the bench and as a starter, Carpenter has produced a .302/.397/.566 slash line along with an 11.1% walk rate in 63 plate appearances. He has produced at a similar level as he did last season when he single-handedly willed the Cardinals back into playoff contention. While Carpenter may be declining a bit overall, he has certainly bounced back over the past few weeks. Now batting sixth or seventh in the order most nights, he makes the Cardinals’ lineup as deep as it as been all season at just the right time.
Jose Martinez - It is very likely that Jose Martinez will not make a start for the Cardinals during the series. However, in terms of bench options between both the Braves and Cardinals, he is by far the most dangerous pinch hitter either team could feature in a late game situation. As a result, it is very likely that he will be utilized in critical situations in each game of the series. With a career .840 OPS off the bench and .966 OPS versus lefties, Martinez is absolutely a match up problem for Atlanta that they need to proactively plan for.
As mentioned above, there should be little doubt that in terms of natural talent, the Braves have the better lineup. However, among hitters on both teams with at least 60 plate appearances since September 1st, Edman, Goldschmidt and Carpenter have been three of the four most productive hitters (Ozzie Albies is the lone Brave.) While Atlanta may have the talent, the Cardinals logically have overall health and recent production on their side.
For the Braves to win the series, they will have to throw strikes and make the Cardinals put the ball in play. Along with the Cardinals being 29th in average exit velocity as a team in 2019, Atlanta’s pitchers have produced the second best opponent average exit velocity in the majors (h/t to fellow TCer Anthony Traurig). If the Braves can limit baserunners and hit their spots consistently, Atlanta should find a way to win the series. If they cannot, the Braves will have to hope their offense can simply outproduce the Cardinals.
Overall, the Braves offensive advantage should be highlighted, but not something anyone hangs their hat on. St. Louis always seems to find a way to make thing interesting and succeed in the playoffs, often through timely hitting. The Braves must consistently take advantage of their opportunities at the plate and on the mound to advance to the NLCS.