ATLANTA -- As manager Brian Snitker put it, the Braves’ most significant reason for confidence heading into Game 6 of the National League Championship Series is that unlike a year ago, when they blew a 3-1 lead to the Dodgers, their rotation has become “more solidified.” Max Fried didn’t have it in Game 5, and that happens. But the Braves still have a strong pair of starters set to pitch in the final two games at Truist Park.
First up is Ian Anderson, who will take the ball Saturday in Game 6. Although technically still a rookie, Anderson is in his second season and will be making his seventh career postseason start. He understands what it’s like to pitch on this stage.
“We’re still in a good spot,” Anderson said after Game 5. “The vibes are still good, and we’re going to hop on a flight, head home, and be ready to play.”
Despite his confidence, Anderson must make some adjustments if he wants to deliver the Braves their first NL pennant since 1999. Chief among them:
Avoid first-inning damage
It is a pattern that has become too prevalent to ignore: Anderson starts a game. Anderson immediately allows one or more runs. Anderson is all but untouchable after that.
In the regular season and postseason, Anderson has produced a 6.58 ERA in the first inning of games. From the second through the sixth, that number falls to 2.53.
It was a problem in NLCS Game 2, when Anderson allowed a two-run, first-inning homer to Corey Seager and walked two other batters before settling down to retire seven of the final nine Dodgers he faced. The Braves removed Anderson at that point, effectively making it a bullpen game that they came back to win, 5-4. But they can ill afford to fall behind again on Saturday if they want to avoid the randomness of a winner-take-all Game 7.
This issue is especially relevant given the state of Atlanta’s bullpen. High-leverage relievers Will Smith, Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson and A.J. Minter have all received multiple days off in a row (and, in Jackson’s case, three consecutive nights of rest). The Braves don’t need Anderson to pitch deep into Game 6. They simply need him to provide four or five shutdown innings, so that they can hand the ball off to their dynamic relief corps.
Anderson cannot achieve that if he struggles in the first.
Change things up
Two starts ago, in his scintillating NL Division Series Game 3 performance, Anderson leaned heavily on his changeup -- and for good reason. Of the 31 that Anderson threw, Brewers batters swung at 18 of them, missing on 10. The 56 percent whiff rate on Anderson’s changeup was the third largest of any game in his career, while his 10 total whiffs on the pitch ranked second most. All told, Anderson threw a well-above-average 31 changeups on the afternoon.
It’s a statistically dense way of saying the pitch was working, and he threw it a lot.
For whatever reason, however, Anderson leaned less on the changeup in NLCS Game 2 despite Los Angeles’ below-average expected slugging percentage against that pitch type. Maybe it was a feel thing. Maybe it was the fact that Anderson fell behind in the count to six of his first 10 batters. Maybe it was because he was facing a lineup composed mostly of right-handed hitters.
Unsurprisingly, the Dodgers couldn’t hit Anderson’s changeup, putting only two of them in play. But he didn’t throw it quite as often, allowing hitters to tee off on a fastball that has generated one swing-and-miss across his two playoff outings.
For his career, Anderson has held batters to a .176 average on his changeup, making it by far his most potent pitch. He would do well to throw more of them in Game 6.
Feed off the ballpark’s energy
Working in Anderson’s favor will be Truist Park, where he held opposing hitters to a .603 OPS during the regular season compared to .732 on the road. The Braves went 9-2 in his home starts (plus another two victories so far this postseason) but 4-9 in his road outings. They’ve never lost in Anderson’s four career playoff starts at home.
While there’s probably some element of randomness baked into that sample size, it’s still a comfort for Anderson to pitch at home. The Braves leaned into the statistical significance before the series began, scheduling Anderson for Games 2 and Charlie Morton for Game 3 in part because of Anderson’s home-road splits.
Until his Game 2 no-decision, Anderson had never pitched in front of a crowd so large: 41,873 souls packed into the ballpark, plus thousands more crammed into bars and restaurants around the Battery district. Game 6 figures to provide the same type of atmosphere for a pitcher who has seemed to feed off it early in his career.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Anderson said. “We were able to win the first two at home, and we played well there all year.”