Let’s start with a disclaimer: this is not an analysis. Nothing contained below talks about how the Braves match up with the Reds, how one team’s weakness can be exploited by the other’s strength, or anything like that. This is a thought exercise with more modeling than thought, and that’s about it.
Probably the coolest thing about baseball is the variety. In chess, there are 400 possible board states after each player takes one move; this number balloons to nearly 200,000 after two moves, and well over 100 million after three moves. Baseball is even more complex, given that there are counts, base-out states, and of course, runs. If we’re all living in a computer simulation, there are a lot of simulated monkeys with simulated typewriters banging on the keys very, very fast to churn out all the stuff that happens in a single baseball season. Yet, for all that variety, it’s hard to claim that many baseball games don’t feel same-y. This happens in a macro sense, i.e., “Oh hey, another game where the team hit a three-run homer early and couldn’t generate much offense while the pitching narrowly hung on,” (which happens to every team quite a lot), as well as a micro sense, i.e., “Oh hey, Pitcher X struggled with his command and was pulled early, but Batters Y and Z, in the midst of insane seasons, keyed a couple of rallies and gave their team a late-inning win.” I bring this up only to say that while all baseball games are different, most of them probably look like other games you’ve seen. Every game, we see things we haven’t before — but we can only parse that uniqueness because most of the rest is something we’re well-acquainted with.
Given the schedule of this oddball season, we don’t have any specific Braves-Reds experience that we can extrapolate from. But, that doesn’t mean we have nothing. After all, the Reds have an offense that looks similar to others the Braves have faced this season, and the Braves’ bats have faced pitching-and-defense that looks like what the Reds will have on tap in this series.
So, here’s what I did: I took every game the Braves played this season, and broke it down into whether the Braves faced a Reds-esque starter or not. I dropped all the “nots.” I then took all the individual starts by Max Fried, Ian Anderson, and Kyle Wright, and dropped all the ones against non-Reds-esque offenses. I then randomly picked a pitching half and a hitting half and wove it into a hypothetical, simulated game. Again, this has no meaning. None. It is just an example of how this series might transpire. The below is one such example.
Game 1: Trevor Bauer vs. Max Fried
Max Fried takes the reins in his first playoff start and mostly cruises, giving off the impression that he’s toying with the Reds more than he is threatened by them. The Reds get a baserunner in every inning, including a couple of two-out doubles in the second and third early on, but never manage to plate a run.
Meanwhile, Trevor Bauer hangs tough, but not that tough. Freddie Freeman and Travis d’Arnaud both double in the first, giving the Braves their first lead of the series. In the fourth, d’Arnaud gets a leadoff single and scores on a one-out double by Nick Markakis, doubling the lead. The big blows, though, come in the sixth. Bauer is facing the lineup a third time through, and despite the deficit, David Bell trusts him to get at least one more inning rather than go to his bullpen. Adam Duvall and Ozzie Albies both connect for two-run shots, and the Braves are ahead 6-0.
Fried finally gets pulled after a couple of baserunners with one out in the seventh, but this game is mostly sewn up. Nick Senzel pops a homer off the bullpen, but that’s it; the Braves cruise to a 6-1 win.
Game 2: Luis Castillo vs. Ian Anderson
In a nightmare scenario for the Reds, Luis Castillo gets BABIPed with his team facing elimination. After a one-out double and a walk, the Braves serve a couple of balls into center in the first and lead 2-0 despite a baserunning mistake that turns into the inning’s third out. Castillo escapes two more bloops in the second by getting a double play, but in the third, it’s basically Reds-pocalypse. An error starts the inning, and across two walks and two well-placed doubles, the Braves lead 5-0 with two on, none out in the third. That’s it for Castillo, and the rest of the game is a laugher — the Braves tack on nine more against the weak part of the Cincinnati relief corps before all is said and done, including two more in the third.
While the Reds lose big thanks to Castillo (and the bullpen), they actually make a game of it early. Ian Anderson can’t quite manage to pump in strikes despite the lead; his own throwing error and an RBI single by Freddy Galvis make it a 2-1 game in the second (before the Braves erupt in the third), and he finishes a two-walk, 36-pitch third after giving up another run. The run itself doesn’t matter too much at this point, but he’s lifted in favor of Josh Tomlin, who gives up a couple more in the fourth but pitches two scoreless innings afterwards.
The Braves end up winning 14-4, hitting four homers across the late innings just for good measure. They then turn their eyes to Chicago to await the outcome of the Cubs-Marlins series.
What’s the point of all this, anyway? Really, only to show you that there are paths to winning that we’ve seen before, on all sides of the ball. Yes, the Reds will throw some good pitching out there, but the Braves have hit real-good pitching well over their last 60 games. They’ve faced some below-average hitting, too, and the results have sometimes been great (the randomly-picked Fried outing), and sometimes not so much (the randomly-picked Anderson outing).
None of the above is a blueprint. All it is intended to do is serve as a little reminder that while this three-game Wild Card series is something new, it’s still a set of baseball games featuring the Braves, and we’ve seen a bunch of ways that those games can play out, with many of those ways resulting in wins. And, beyond any specific matchup stuff, that’s how the Braves might beat the Reds — by winning two of three baseball games, which is something they’ve done a bunch in this 2020 season.