Do you smell that?
No not that, you sicko.
The aroma of postseason baseball is in the air, and that’s what you were supposed to be smelling before you ruined my opening schtick.
This year, the format for the playoffs – like everything else in this oddity that is 2020 – is drastically different from years past. The tournament kicks off with eight teams in each league competing in best-of-three series at the home site of the higher seeds.
The National League side of the bracket lays out like this:
No. 1 Los Angeles Dodgers vs. No. 8 Milwaukee Brewers
No. 2 Atlanta Braves vs. No. 7 Cincinnati Reds
No. 3 Chicago Cubs vs. No. 6 Miami Marlins
No. 4 San Diego Padres vs. No. 5 St. Louis Cardinals
Now, those other three series are all wonderful and special in their own ways, but if you’re reading this site, you only care about that second one, a matchup between the Braves and the Reds.
A Brief Braves/Reds History
As many have already noted, the Reds were the Braves’ NLCS opponents when they last won the World Series back in 1995. In that series, Atlanta’s Hall of Fame pitching destroyed everyone in the Cincinnati lineup not named Barry Larkin, holding them to a series OPS of .543 and ZERO home runs.
So how will this series play out, 25 years later? (Yes, 1995 was 25 years ago.)
Let’s break down how these teams compare in the three main facets of the game. You may be thinking there’s a fourth facet, the bench bats, but I’ll sum that up quickly. Both teams will have one capable bat on the bench each night and a bunch of “meh” otherwise. It’s a tie. So let’s get to the other stuff.
I’m not going to mince words here. The Braves, on paper and likely in reality, have an enormous advantage here.
Atlanta can put six players in a starting lineup that played most or all of the regular season and carry an OPS of at least .800. Three of those players – Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna – have an OPS of .980 or higher. Both Freeman and Ozuna finished the season with OPS marks greater than 1.000, and with both of them in the batting title hunt and Ozuna leading the league in home runs (18) and RBIS (56), cases could be made for either as NL MVP.
There is power up and down the Atlanta lineup. Five different Braves hit double-digit home runs in the 60-game season, with Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall joining the three aforementioned stars. Additionally, Travis D’Arnaud (9) and Austin Riley (8) hit enough homers to be on a 20-homer pace for a full season.
This comes with a caveat, though. While the Reds don’t have the numbers the Braves do, with just two or three regulars clearing the .800 line in OPS, they do have four players in the mix with double-digit home runs. A couple more would be on that 20-homer pace. This effort is led by Eugenio Suarez, whose 15 homers include 10 away from Great American Ballpark. This visiting team can still rake at times.
Comparing Starting Rotations
Listen, I don’t need to tell you that the starting rotation has been an issue for the Braves this year. The much-maligned group has seen 14 men start a game, with several who pitched multiple games and were removed due to ineffectiveness.
The good news is that the top of the rotation has settled out nicely for Atlanta at the perfect time. If Max Fried is truly recovered from some injury issues, he’s as formidable a No. 1 as you’ll find, posting a 7-0 record with a 2.25 ERA and a 1.089 WHIP over 11 starts this season. Follow that up with Ian Anderson, who has a stellar 1.95 ERA in six starts, and the new version of Kyle Wright, who has covered 19 innings with a 2.37 ERA and allowed a .164 average in his last three starts, and the Braves are in much better shape than we thought they’d be.
Perhaps unfortunately for Atlanta, this is the Reds’ strongest suit this season. Game 1 will go to Trevor Bauer, who posted a 1.73 ERA and 0.795 WHIP with 100 strikeouts in 11 starts this season. That ERA drops to 1.35 away from the Reds’ hitter-friendly home ballpark. Behind him will be Luis Castillo (3.21 ERA, 1.229 WHIP) and Sonny Gray (3.70, 1.214), and if any of them struggle, fourth starter Tyler Mahle (3.59, 1.154) is likely an option. Further, all four of them struck out at least 11 batters per nine innings this year.
This area is not near the death sentence for the Braves that it might have been a couple weeks ago, but it’s certainly not a strength.
This would be an easy category to just write over to the Braves immediately, and for good reason.
The Braves have eight relief options – Mark Melancon, Grant Dayton, Shane Greene, A.J. Minter, Grant Dayton, Chris Martin, Darren O’Day and Jacob Webb – that have pitched at least 10 innings with a sub-3.00 ERA. That doesn’t include Will Smith, who has been much better of late. Martin left Sunday’s game with a groin injury, but there are lots of good options there. Perhaps most notably, Minter gave up just two earned runs and struck out 24 batters in 21 2/3 innings this year.
Simply put, the Braves’ bullpen is absolutely loaded with reliable options, but the Reds are not hurting in the relief department.
Frankly, Cincinnati hasn’t had to cover as many bullpen innings as Atlanta has, so they only have seven “at least 10 innings” options total outside of their rotation. That number is eight if you include Wade Miley, who finished the year in the bullpen after a stint in the rotation.
Either way, four of them have sub-3.oo ERAs for this season, and closer Raisel Iglesias posted a 2.74 ERA with a 0.913 WHIP with 31 strikeouts in 23 innings. The Reds also added Archie Bradley in a trade deadline deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and all he did was put up a 1.17 ERA and a 0.522 WHIP in 7 2/3 innings for Cincinnati.
I think Atlanta is still the better overall group, but it probably won’t be easy to tack on runs late against the Reds, either.
Let me say up front that I’m not going to make a series prediction here. Honestly, if I did, most of you wouldn’t like it. So maybe I sort of did make a series prediction, actually.
On paper, I think the Braves are the better team and should win the series if they can get quality starts from their rotation. The bats are superior, even though the Reds’ staff will be tough to score against at every point of every game. Atlanta has done well against good pitching this year, and it would be reasonable to expect that to continue.
But what we’ve seen over the last almost two decades is that it frequently doesn’t matter what happens on paper. This matchup is much closer than a No. 2 vs. No. 7 playoff matchup has any right to be, and it will be a difficult one for the Braves to win.
That is especially true if ghosts of postseasons past continue to haunt Atlanta. Let’s hope that isn’t the case.