That is the first word that comes to mind since the day has finally arrived. All the anticipation and speculation has been set aside, and now the Braves and their fans get to experience, embrace, and enjoy the one thing that connects us all: the joy of baseball! Luckily, we get to cheer for a team that is pretty darn good at playing that game as well.
Obviously, as the Braves welcome the Cardinals to Suntrust Park for Game 1 of the NLDS, there are numerous avenues, both quantitative and qualitative, that one could take to breakdown this series. However, in regards to how Game 1 might go, one key statistic stands out. Since the beginning of last year, for pitchers with at least 300 innings of work, both of tonight’s starters, Dallas Keuchel and Miles Mikolas, rank in the top 20 of hits allowed per nine innings, with Keuchel at 9.28 H/9 and Mikolas at 8.87 H/9, respectively.
The significance of that statistic is that it likely gives us a good idea on how tonight’s game will develop. There is going to be a lot of contact made, and likely multiple scoring opportunities for both teams as the game progresses. This train of thought should generate both hope and concern regarding the Braves. Atlanta was 6th in wOBA, 9th in wRC+ and 7th in OPS in the major leagues versus right handers. St. Louis was 18th in wOBA, 13th in wRC+, and 18th in OPS versus left handers. Furthermore, Atlanta was 7th in the majors as a team in Average Exit Velocity in 2019, while St. Louis was 29th.
While the view from the entire season certainly tilts tonight’s matchup in the Braves favor, the Cardinals have been the better offensive team since September 1st. Furthermore, the main reason is that Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, and Tommy Edman (all with OPS marks above .900 since September 4th) have come alive at the right time. While injuries have lowered the talent options for Atlanta over that span, the gap between the current ability of both offenses may not be as big as people might hope.
It seems that tonight will simply come down to how effectively the Braves execute when they have the opportunity to score. If they are at full health, the Braves will simply be featuring the more talented offense in a match up where plenty of balls will be put into play. However, that talent only matters if it is utilized. After some much needed rest, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman, and Josh Donaldson must perform to a level that makes the Braves offense one of the best in the game.
While the Braves may have the upper hand in terms of overall talent and top of the order production, neither of those observations should take away from the importance of the bottom of the order. On paper, the bottom half of each order seems to be pretty even. While the Braves, with Matt Joyce, Dansby Swanson, and Nick Markakis may be more consistent, the Cardinals, with Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong, and Matt Carpenter could have the higher ceiling. The advantage for the Braves is the ability to utilize platoon advantages as the game moves along if the situation calls for it.
While Keuchel (3.75 ERA, 4.72 FIP, 4.06 xfIP) may not enter tonight’s game as the ace of the Braves’ staff, he certainly has the most postseason experience. Over 51 2⁄3 innings, Keuchel has produced a 3.31 ERA, supported by measures of 7.5 H/9, 8.4 K/9, and 2.8 BB/9 over 10 career appearances (9 starts). Though he struggled in two of his last three starts in 2019, the Braves are 7-4 overall in Keuchel’s 11 starts since his forgettable blunder in Miami. He has produced a 2.55 ERA over that span, and has 9 quality starts. If Keuchel could again provide a quality start or better tonight, the Braves will have to feel pretty good about their chances to win.
Mikolas (4.16 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 4.18 xFIP) has not been the same pitcher in 2019 as he was in 2018, but he has still remained effective on most nights. While his style of pitching has regressed now that the league has seen him multiple times, Mikolas has had good success as of late and against the Braves overall. Since he allowed five earned runs in three consecutive starts in mid-August, Mikolas produced a 3.03 ERA/3.91 FIP/3.88 xFIP slash line over his final six starts of 2019, a stretch in which the Cardinals went 4-2. Furthermore, in four career games (3 starts) versus the Braves, Mikolas has a 2.61 ERA over 20 2⁄3 innings. While he does have a career record of 1-2, the Braves have not had much success scoring runs. They will need to quickly figure out how to make that happen tonight.
Overall, with two similar starters in terms of profiles and levels of effectiveness on the mound, this game will likely come down to which offense can execute better early in the game. With the Braves overall talent and higher level of production against right handers, they certainly seem to have the upper hand. Furthermore, as the game progresses, and both teams begin to use their relievers, Atlanta again seems to have the advantage. Not only have they been the better bullpen since the trade deadline, their relievers have been among the best in the game since the Miami Meltdown on August 10th.
Again, you could make countless arguments as to why both teams could have the advantage tonight. However, when looking at the three main facets of offense, starting pitching, and the bullpen, the Braves seem to be more talented in two of the three categories and on equal footing in regards to the starters. As a result, for the Braves to have the best chance to win, they simply need to play to their potential to get the job done.
As many have noted, the last time the Braves won a playoff series was in 2001. Not to get too political, but this means that those born at the same time as our last playoff series win are now able to vote. With that in mind, in terms of my vote and the Cardinals, I vote that we quickly and thoroughly kick their ass in relentless fashion.
I am confident we will take a successful first step toward that tonight.
CHOP ON and GO BRAVES!
Game Date/Time: Thursday, October 3rd, 5:02 PM
Location: Suntrust Park, Atlanta, GA
Radio: 680 AM / 93.7 FM The Fan, Rock 100.5, Braves Radio Network