1. The Braves have home-field advantage
Speaking of the rotations, they’re somewhat fluid depending on how the early games of the series go, but here are the expected matchups:
Health is a worry for Atlanta heading into this series. Most notably, star outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. was shut down late in the regular season with a groin strain. He’ll almost certainly be in the lineup, but it remains to seen how that injury will affect him at the plate, on the bases, and in the field. As well, star first baseman Freddie Freeman has been limited by bone spurs in his right elbow. Outfielder Ender Inciarte recently suffered a setback in his recovery from a hamstring injury, and he’s been ruled out for the NLDS. The Braves’ bench is also in a compromised state with injuries to Charlie Culberson (struck in face by pitch) and Johan Camargo (fractured shin). Neither is expected to play again this season.
|The Braves finished the regular season with a record of 97-65, whereas the Cardinals wound up at 91-71. By virtue of the superior regular-season record, the Braves have home-field advantage for this series. That means Games 1 and 2 will be in Atlanta, and Games 3 and 4 (if necessary) will be in St. Louis. Should the series go the full five games, then that deciding Game 5 would be back in Atlanta. Home-field advantage in MLB isn’t as pronounced as it is in the NFL and NBA — the home team in MLB wins a relatively modest 54 percent of the time, roughly speaking — but it’s something. This season, the Braves were 50-31 at home, while the Cardinals were 41-40 in road games.||In the service of wrapping up the division title and avoiding a tiebreaker against the Brewers, the Cardinals started surging young ace Jack Flaherty in the final game of the regular season (Flaherty allowed a total of 12 runs over his final 16 starts). Miles Mikolas was also on full rest, but manager Mike Shildt opted to take the obvious path. The good news for the Cardinals is that Flaherty can still make two full-rest NLDS starts against the Braves, provided the series goes the full five games. He’ll get the ball in Game 2, and thanks to the two scheduled off days — following Game 2 and Game 4 — he can also start a deciding Game 5 back in Atlanta on four-days’ rest.||As noted above, the Braves finished six games ahead of the Cardinals in the regular season standings. However, there’s more to it than that. First, if you look at run differential, things are much closer: the Braves are at plus-112, while the Cardinals are at plus-102. That means at the level of the run scored and the run allowed, the Braves and Cardinals were pretty much the same team, and often that says more about underlying strengths and weaknesses than overall records do.||The Braves and Cardinals met six times during the regular season, and the Braves won four of those six games. However, they outscored the Cardinals by just two runs, 29-27, in those contests.||The Braves and Cardinals met six times during the regular season, and the Braves won four of those six games. However, they outscored the Cardinals by just two runs, 29-27, in those contests.||The Braves and Cardinals met six times during the regular season, and the Braves won four of those six games. However, they outscored the Cardinals by just two runs, 29-27, in those contests.||SunTrust Park|
2. The Braves took the regular-season series
Game 1: Miles Mikolas (STL) vs. Dallas Keuchel (ATL)
Game 2: Jack Flaherty (STL) vs. Mike Foltynewicz (ATL)
Game 3: Mike Soroka (ATL) vs. Adam Wainwright (STL)
Game 4: Max Fried (ATL) vs. Dakota Hudson (STL)
Game 5: Flaherty (STL) vs. Keuchel or Foltynewicz (ATL)
3. Braves’ better record isn’t the whole story
The Cardinals could potentially face lefty starters in three of the five games, and that’s notable given the Cardinals’ righty-heavy lineup and superior results against left-handed pitching (especially since Tommy Edman arrived). Given the way Julio Teheran struggled over his last three starts of the regular season, the guess here is that he’s in the bullpen for this series.
Game 3: Atlanta at St. Louis
4. SportsLine sees this as a close one
Flaherty can still start twice
In keeping with what you just read above, the SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter) sees this series as a fairly close one. Right now, the system gives the Braves a 54.2 percent chance to advance to the NLCS. That’s not quite coin-flip territory, but it’s not far from it.
As well, we can look at the BaseRuns standings available at FanGraphs, which correct for some of the sequencing and clustering effects inherent in run differential. Basically, it’s a measure of how good a team is at controlling the fundamental outcomes of the batter-pitcher encounter. It yields what a team’s record should be based on core skills. Per BaseRuns, the Cardinals and Braves each played like a 90-72 team during the regular season.
* – if necessary
The numbers tell the story here. This season, the Cardinals among NL squadrons ranked first in Ultimate Zone Rating, third in Defensive Runs Saved, second in Defensive Efficiency Rating, and first in fielding percentage. The Braves in contrast ranked, respectively, 12th, seventh, 10th, and second in those measures.
Game 1: St. Louis at Atlanta
5. The Braves have some injury concerns
6. The Cardinals should have the edge on defense
On top of all that, let’s note that the Cardinals finished ninth in terms of opponents’ average winning percentage, while the Braves wound up 22nd. Yes, the Braves had the better record during the regular season, but applying full context reveals the two teams to be much closer than those records would suggest.
7. The Braves have the better offense
8. Shildt hasn’t shied away from using Miller in big spots