Game 1 of the NLDS for the Braves came and went in less than ideal fashion. The Braves dropped a one-run game that they arguably should have won, and as a result, must win three of their next four games to advance. It’s very intuitive that since the start of the Division Series, the team that’s won Game 1 has advanced 72 percent of the time; not only is the better team more likely to win Game 1 in the first place, but even if the better team loses Game 1, it confers a pretty sizable advantage regardless of the odds to win the remaining games. Case in point: the ZiPS real-time postseason projections gave the Braves around a 55 percent chance to claim the series before last night’s loss, and now give them only a 35 percent chance to do so. But hey, the Braves have been here before, and by here, I don’t mean “on the wrong side of the postseason success spectrum.” Rather, this Braves team was only projected to have around a 35 percent chance of success (on average, ish) before the season, and went a whole calendar month to start the year with no real improvements to those numbers. And honestly, if you’re not watching the MLB playoffs to see the improbable happen, then it’s not clear what you’re even in for, because that’s most of what they’re good for.
In the end, though, the Braves have to contend with a few realities that are not particularly comforting. First and foremost, probabilities aside, they have zero wins in this series, and the Cardinals already have one. Second, they have to face Jack Flaherty today, which sets them up to face him again in any eventual Game 5 on regular rest. That’s... not great.
Flaherty finished his season as a top-15 pitcher in baseball. If you set the calendar to August 1 and move forward, he was the top pitcher in baseball by fWAR. His 3.4 fWAR over the past two months is higher than the seasonal total for any Braves hurler not named Mike Soroka, and all but five Braves, total. We’ve covered Flaherty on Talking Chop in a few places (here and here) and I don’t know if there’s much more to say that really helps to set the stage for this one particular game: Jack Flaherty is good, he’s been even better lately, and the Braves are still going to have to find a way to survive unless they want to be facing elimination as soon as they set foot on the Busch Stadium grounds for Game 3.
As they prepare to do some damage against Flaherty, the Braves will also put some of their egg-hopes in the “Hey, Mike Foltynewicz is back!” basket. Foltynewicz’ numbers are nowhere near Flaherty’s lofty peaks, but he was a top-35 starter in baseball by fWAR after his return from Triple-A Gwinnett, which is at least pretty neat. He’s managed to at least salvage his season after a horrifically dreadful (or dreadfully horrific start), and while postseason domination won’t scour the statsheets of his overall crappy 2019, it may at least help some people forget just how badly he was being crushed, game-in, game-out, before being sent down to the minors.
Foltynewicz’ return to success isn’t that hard to parse. While this isn’t the only thing going on, the reality is that he went from “amoeba slider” to “not amoeba slider” since returning to the majors, and it’s made a huge difference. See below, and recall that the average horizontal break for a slider is about five inches...
Before his return in August, Foltynewicz was throwing enough non-breaking (or even reverse-breaking, yeesh) sliders that his average horizontal movement on the pitch was about half of what you’d expect. This didn’t mean every slider he threw had little break, only that the pitch was so erratic that sometimes it’d find a barrel by failing to break (or breaking towards the bat) when the goal was to have it break more. It was only when he returned that the slider went back to “normal.” The results have been self-evident, but they’ve also consisted of a skyrocketing whiff rate on the pitch, and while this didn’t happen in August, the xwOBA against Foltynewicz’ slider finally went back to 2018 levels in September.
Before his demotion, Foltynewicz only had a few good starts by any measure, but his best one in those two months came against the Cardinals. In that outing, he went six innings and allowed zero walks and zero homers, yielding just an unearned run on five hits while striking out seven. It was the first time in the 2019 season that he hadn’t given up a homer. If the Braves get something similar from him this afternoon, things could get interesting. We’ll see what happens (we have no choice).
St. Louis Cardinals @ Atlanta Braves
Friday, October 4, 2019
4:37 pm EDT
SunTrust Park, Atlanta, GA
Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, Rock 100.5, Braves Radio Network, ESPN Radio
MLB.tv haha just kidding why would MLB want people to watch their prestige postseason product I don’t know