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What to watch for in Wednesday night’s Cardinals-Braves game

Weakly-hit fly balls; Fried’s big split

Los Angeles Dodgers v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Braves used early offensive outbursts to fell the Cardinals on consecutive nights. They go for the series win tonight in a battle of staff aces: Miles Mikolas faces off against the incomparable Max Fried. Here are some curiosities to be aware of.

Mikolas, weakly-hit flies, and the Braves

Miles Mikolas has 1.8 fWAR and 3.1 RA9-WAR on the season. He isn’t a big strikeout guy, and leaving all the strand rate and BABIP shenanigans aside, his success this year (1.8 fWAR is top 30 in MLB right now among starters) is due to a combination of not walking anyone and limiting hard contact in the air.

Right now, Mikolas is essentially in the top 10 among all pitchers with 100-plus batted ball events in lowest exit velocity allowed on fly balls. To be honest, I’m not sure that’s really a pitcher “skill” — it’s likely driven by the types of batters he’s faced as much as anything he’s doing himself — but it’s a big reason his numbers are where they are. The Braves, though, don’t align neatly to this gameplan-slash-thing-that-has-happened-to-Mikolas so far. They hit fly balls very hard (third-highest average exit velocity in MLB), and their overall exit velocity tends to be dragged down by mishit grounders, which they don’t hit very hard at all, in aggregate.

Statcast has both a generic “FB%” category, as well as a category of balls hit “under,” i.e., poorly-hit flies that are unlikely to be a hit. (FB% captures the rate of all fly balls, not just well- or poorly-hit ones.) If you take FB% and subtract under% from it, you get a pretty good proxy for how much damage teams are doing on contact (it correlates with xwOBACON quite well), and the Braves are first among all teams in this measure. Basically: among all teams, they have the highest proportion of well-hit fly balls, or alternatively, the lowest proportion of do-nothing routine fly balls.

So, what’s going to give in this game? Are the Braves going to play in Mikolas’ hands and hit the fly balls he’s far from loath to allow, just not very well? Or is Mikolas going to run into a buzzsaw with “we crush balls we hit in the air” emblazoned on the side?

Max Fried’s big lefty-tormenting split

Max Fried keeps changing it up on us, but rarely in any way that’s consequentially worse. One thing I’ve noticed is that he has a fairly big platoon split this year.

While it’s not weird for an exaggerated split in a half-season, given how finicky splits tend to be with all but robust sample sizes, it’s still pretty interesting.

Fried was really good with a sizable split in 2019, went the contact management approach in 2020, which seems to have narrowed if not reversed it (but small sample warnings are blaring!), went back to traditional strikeouts-and-walks in 2021 without much of a split at all, and now has a giant split in what’s shaping up to be his best season yet. It’ll be interesting to see what the Cardinals or do or don’t do in response — whether they start some combination of Albert Pujols and Edmundo Sosa, both of whom have been awful this year, or not. The Cardinals may need to rely on a combination of Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Tommy Edman, and Brendan Donovan tonight, as basically no one else on their roster has done anything against lefties.

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