ATLANTA -- One year after claiming an unexpected National League East title, the Braves have returned to the playoffs with the expectation of winning a postseason series for the first time since 2001. They will begin their bid on Thursday, when they host the Cardinals in Game 1 of the NL Division Series.
There will be great focus on Ronald Acuña Jr., who is expected to be fine after spending this past weekend resting a strained muscle between his left hip and groin. More concerning is how much cooperation Freddie Freeman will receive from his right elbow, which has been recently bothered by a bone spur.
But while health will certainly influence the outcome of this series, there are a number of other variables that will determine whether the Braves visit the NL Championship Series for the first time since their pitching staff still included Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
The Braves will win the series if:
1. Their right-handed hitters damage Mikolas
With Jack Flaherty lurking in Game 2, there is a greater importance for the Braves to be successful against St. Louis’ expected Game 1 starter, Miles Mikolas, who was doomed by the back-to-back homers Dansby Swanson and Freeman hit to begin the sixth inning of Atlanta’s May 24 win at Busch Stadium.
Left-handed hitters produced a .784 OPS and right-handed hitters a .739 OPS against Mikolas this season. But while the right-hander has recovered from a rough August stretch by posting a 3.03 ERA over his past six starts, righties have produced a 1.011 OPS and lefties a meager .409 OPS against him.
The larger sample size suggests left-handers can be successful against Mikolas, but the recent trend also indicates that Atlanta’s right-handed sluggers -- Acuña and Josh Donaldson -- could do some damage.
Mikolas mixes his four primary pitches well, throwing each -- four-seamer, two-seamer, slider and curveball -- between 21 and 28 percent of the time. Still, there are some slight tendencies. He has thrown his slider 36.4 percent of the time when behind the count against right-handers and used his curveball 28.4 percent of the time when ahead against left-handers.
Per Statcast, Donaldson ranks 10th (min. 20 plate appearances) with a .609 slugging percentage against sliders thrown by right-handers. Acuña (.490 SLG) and Swanson (.440 SLG) have also had some success when seeing this pitch in right-on-right matchups. Mikolas’ tendency to throw four-seamers with two strikes against right-handers could be beneficial to Tyler Flowers, who hit .338 (22-for-65) against this pitch vs. righties.
2. Continue to win the late innings
The Braves led MLB with 308 runs scored and 94 home runs hit in the seventh inning or later. Much of this production was necessary, as they spent a little more than four months attempting to construct a reliable bullpen. But the relief corps also became a valuable asset, as it produced the NL’s second-best bullpen ERA (3.53) from Aug. 15 through the end of the season.
The Cardinals ranked 10th in the NL in runs scored in the seventh inning or later. St. Louis' bullpen produced a 3.94 ERA dating back to Aug. 15.
Freeman (.999), Donaldson (.979), Acuña and Swanson (both .910) all ranked among the top 20 NL players in OPS produced in the seventh inning or later. Kolten Wong (.979), who is questionable for this series, was the only Cardinals player to do so.
3. Neutralize Goldschmidt
With Wong possibly sidelined, the Cardinals will enter this best-of-five series with even greater concerns about their offense. Rookie Tommy Edman was one of the NL’s best players in September, producing a 1.078 OPS over 115 plate appearances. Paul Goldschmidt did his part with a .954 OPS. But Paul DeJong, Dexter Fowler and Marcell Ozuna all produced a sub-.700 OPS during the season’s final month. If Atlanta keeps Goldschmidt quiet, the Cardinals might have to ask more of the rest of their lineup than should be expected.
Goldschmidt went 7-for-19 with no extra-base hits against the Braves this season. He recorded a pair of singles against Mike Foltynewicz on May 24 and matched that output against Mike Soroka the following day. The Cardinals first baseman has gone 3-for-18 in his career against Game 1 starter Dallas Keuchel, who was still a free agent when these teams completed their season series in May.