It took all 162 games to decide, but now the Braves know who they’ll face in the National League Divisional Series – the NL Central champion St. Louis Cardinals. These two storied franchises have plenty of history, but I won’t even bring up the infield fly rule that extended well into the outfield one October night in 2012, I promise. My therapist tells me I’ve made a lot of progress since then, so let’s move on.
Here’s to focusing on the present, where the Braves match up against an excellent Cardinals pitching staff. Pitching has undoubtedly been the Cardinals’ strength this season. Their 3.84 ERA ranks fifth in baseball on the year, and their 3.44 ERA in the second half ranks third. (They’re 11th and sixth in FIP over these two stretches, which is a testament to just how good their defense has been at helping the pitching prevent runs.) With a good rotation anchored by Jack Flaherty and a bullpen that is deep and consistent, the Braves will have to scratch for every run in the series.
There are, however, reasons to hope that the Braves can exploit some matchups against Cardinals pitching. Mainly, the Cardinals are likely to carry only two left-handed pitchers on their NLDS roster in Andrew Miller and Tyler Webb, who are both relievers. The Braves have hit righties well this season, as their position players have a 111 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers, which ranks them fifth in MLB. The Braves can put out a lineup that boasts seven of eight position players who have at least a 100 wRC+ against righties this season (shortstop being the only position not included).
Here is a look at some of the Cardinals’ pitchers that the Braves are likely to see the most of in the NLDS.
Any discussion of the 2019 Cardinals’ pitching staff is obligated to begin with Flaherty. He is the main reason that the Cardinals find themselves in the NLDS after propelling themselves from third in the division at the All-Star Break. If there were a Cy Young Award given for the second half, Flaherty would be the obvious winner. He leads all starters in ERA (0.91), WHIP (0.71), soft contact (23.4%), and HR/9 (0.5) since the All-Star Break. Unfortunately for the Braves, Flaherty has shown no signs of stopping his dominance, as he has allowed only four earned runs and an OPS of .344 against him in 44 innings in September. Additionally, Flaherty pitched well in his two starts against the Braves in May, allowing a total of three earned runs, six hits (all singles), five walks, and striking out 13 over 12 innings.
The only silver lining for the Braves is that, because the Cardinals needed to clinch the division in game 162, Flaherty took the mound on Sunday, throwing seven innings on just 69 pitches. Unless his relatively low pitch count on Sunday has changed the Cardinals’ plans, Flaherty is not expected to pitch until Game 2 of the NLDS. This is significant because he likely would not be available again unless and until Game 5, as Game 4 would come on two days’ rest.
After a stellar 2018 season that landed Mikolas a lucrative contract extension, the right-hander regressed a bit in 2019. However, his 4.16 ERA, 4.26 FIP, and 2.5 fWAR this season made for a solid campaign. Mikolas mixes his four-seam fastball, slider, sinker, and curveball well, using each at least 21% of the time, per Statcast. His curveball has been his most effective pitch this season, as opponents have hit to an xwOBA of just .283 against it.
The Braves are likely to face Mikolas in Game 1 of the series, which means that he could also be available to pitch later in the series. Perhaps notable for the Game 1 matchup in Atlanta, Mikolas has not fared as well away from home with a 5.40 ERA away versus a 3.01 ERA at home. (While his FIP is also much worse on the road, his xFIP has actually been worse at home; go figure.) He has performed well of late, pitching to a 3.34 ERA (but with a 4.73 FIP) in September. In his only appearance against the Braves this season, Mikolas allowed three earned runs and seven hits (two home runs) while striking out nine over seven innings.
After missing most of 2018, Wainwright bounced back to have a productive 2019 season. The 38-year-old, who was drafted by the Braves in 2000, posted a 4.19 ERA and 2.2 fWAR on the year. The Cardinals will undoubtedly benefit from having his experience and leadership on the roster, as Wainwright is the only pitcher still on the Cardinals’ roster from their 2011 World Series Champion team.
Wainwright will likely toe the rubber for the Cardinals in Game 3 in St. Louis, where he has pitched very well this season. He holds a 2.56 ERA at Busch Stadium this season versus a 6.22 ERA on the road (and unlike Mikolas, everything is worse for him away from home). Left-handed hitters have given Wainwright problems this season by hitting to a .883 OPS and .368 wOBA against him. The Braves roughed up Wainwright in their only appearance against him this season by scoring five earned runs on five hits and five walks over four innings pitched.
Hudson has made a strong push at the end of the season to get an NLDS start. Since August 1, Hudson holds a 2.36 ERA and has held opposing hitters to a .180 average and .301 slugging percentage over 61 innings pitched. However, walks have been Hudson’s Achilles heel. He has the highest walk rate (11.4%) of any pitcher with at least 100 innings pitched this season. This could be problematic for Hudson facing a very patient Braves lineup that has the third highest walk rate at 9.8%. It will be interesting to see whether the Cardinals use Hudson as a starter or in a long relief role.
Another Cardinals pitcher to keep an eye on is Wacha. His availability for the NLDS is in serious jeopardy after he left his last start of the regular season with a strain to his pitching shoulder. Wacha will try to throw again sometime this week, but it appears likely that the Cardinals would need to advance past the NLDS before Wacha would be available again. Wacha has had a disappointing 2019, posting a 4.76 ERA and 5.61 FIP which brought him below replacement level for the first season of his career. While Wacha was unlikely to have made an NLDS start, he could have been considered for a bullpen role if healthy.
The Cardinals’ bullpen has been strong for much of the season. Their 3.88 ERA ranks sixth in baseball; their 4.01 FIP is fifth. The strength of their bullpen lies in its depth. In Giovanny Gallegos, John Brebbia, and Carlos Martinez, the Cardinals have a trio of high quality relievers that can handle the late innings well.
Gallegos has been very impressive this year pitching to a 2.31 ERA while striking out a third of the batters he faced and walking only 5.7 percent of them. This strikeout-to-walk ratio ranks ninth in baseball this season among pitchers who threw at least 70 innings.
Brebbia has been a staple out of the bullpen for the Cardinals. He has pitched to a 3.59 ERA and 3.13 FIP over 72.2 innings this season. However, he has struggled lately, allowing five earned runs, five hits, and three walks while recording just six outs in his last three outings.
Martinez is the Cardinals’ current closer after assuming the role after flame-throwing Jordan Hicks tore his UCL and required Tommy John surgery in June. Martinez has accumulated 24 saves with a 3.17 ERA and 2.86 FIP. He has been excellent at avoiding home runs. His 0.4 home runs per nine innings ranks fourth in baseball among pitchers with at least 45 innings pitched. Martinez has excelled at inducing groundballs, which he has done at a rate of 56.5%. The Braves can expect to see a lot of Martinez in late inning and high leverage situations.