With an extra loss to the San Diego Padres retroactively added to Atlanta’s record, the Braves had not spent a day above .500 until August 6.
On September 30, Atlanta closed out its sixth straight win, its 86th on the season. After sitting at 56-56 through 112 games, Atlanta tore through baseball with a 30-16 stretch (105-win pace over 162 games). With this excellent stretch, Atlanta ended the Philadelphia Phillies’ season in a sweep to clinch the division.
11 games stand between the Braves and their fourth World Series as a franchise. How can the Braves win those 11 games and make it back on top for the first time since 1995?
Atlanta will head to Milwaukee to face the Brewers in the NLDS. It will be the first time that the two franchises have met in the playoffs. By virtue of having the superior record, Milwaukee will have home-field advantage for the season, including a potential do-or-die Game 5. Milwaukee finished with a 45-36 record at home, and they will finish with a better road record. Atlanta is in a similar boat as they finished 46-35 away from Truist Park.
Let’s see how the squads match up.
After an assortment of catchers used throughout the season, Travis d’Arnaud is fully healthy and will man the dish for the Braves. Opposing him is 2021 All-Star Omar Narvaez. While d’Arnaud missed two-thirds of the season, he has been better at the plate since his return. In his first 33 games back from injury, d’Arnaud posted a .745 OPS. While that is far from anything special, he had been under .600 for much of the beginning of the season.
Narvaez holds the advantage based on full-season statistics, but he has struggled since the All-Star Break. To use the same set of games as d’Arnaud, Narvaez has just a .614 OPS since mid-August. Both catchers are trending significantly down over their last 250 plate appearances.
Atlanta trots out the same unit from their run to the 2020 NLCS. Freddie Freeman mans first base. Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson will be turning double plays up the middle. Austin Riley mans the hot corner. The quartet has combined for 120 home runs, led by Riley’s 32. Swanson is the lone member to have an OPS+ below 100, but he brings good base running, good defense, and some pop from the shortstop slot. Atlanta may not have the best infield in baseball, but it is among the top tier.
Milwaukee has cobbled together a strong infield in their own right. Daniel Vogelbach is a former All-Star at first base. Kolten Wong has back-to-back Gold Gloves, and he has a 109 OPS+ this season. Luis Urias has had a breakout season at third, hitting 22 home runs en route to a 109 OPS+. Milwaukee’s star man is Willy Adames. After struggling with the Rays to start the season, Adames headed to Milwaukee and started to mash the baseball. His 136 OPS+ with the Brewers is the top mark by any projected starter in the season.
Atlanta will be rolling with an outfield full of players that did not begin the season with the Braves. The Opening Day outfield of Marcell Ozuna, Cristian Pache, and Ronald Acuna Jr. are out of baseball, in triple-A, and out for the season respectively. In their places, Atlanta uses a rotation of four primary outfielders with Guillermo Heredia coming in when needed for defensive purposes. Jorge Soler has slugged 12 home runs in his first 53 games with the Braves, and he has a 123 OPS+. Adam Duvall is a boom-or-bust hitter, but he has been one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball in 2021. Joc Pederson and Eddie Rosario have been splitting time as the third and fourth outfielders. Rosario has been better with the Braves, but it came in a smaller sample size.
Christian Yelich is the star man, but he only has a 102 OPS+ since his 2019 NL MVP runner-up campaign. Both Jackie Bradley Jr. and Lorenzo Cain are elite defensive centerfielders, but both are below-average hitters. Avisail Garcia has had a spectacular season in right field. He has saved eight runs defensively, and he has a 118 OPS+ on over 500 plate appearances. Milwaukee has a higher ceiling than Atlanta with Yelich’s past as one of the best hitters in baseball and past playoff performances from Bradley and Cain. However, Atlanta provides the higher floor.
This is simply not a contest. Milwaukee has the top three starters in the series with Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, and Brandon Woodruff. All three deserve serious Cy Young contention. Burnes in particular has been sensational. He has a 2.29 ERA and a FIP of 1.55. All three allow a WHIP under 1.000.
Atlanta’s starters are not without postseason experience, however. Charlie Morton has a career 3.38 ERA in the playoffs, and he was integral in Houston’s 2017 World Series victory. Max Fried pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA in the 2020 NLCS. However, the ace in Atlanta’s sleeve is Ian Anderson. With the necessary grain of salt that Anderson has pitched in one postseason, he worked to a 0.96 ERA across four starts in 2020.
There is some nuance to this conversation. Milwaukee has the single best arm with the unstoppable Josh Hader. However, Atlanta likely slightly edges out Milwaukee based on the depth of their arms. With Milwaukee’s No.2 out of commission (Devin Williams), they will be relying on the likes of Brent Suter and Brad Boxberger when their starters are pulled. Suter and Boxberger have been good, but they are not quite as good as the early bullpen arms that the Braves.
Will Smith is the walking heart attack at the end of the line, but he has pitched to a 125 ERA+, so it could be worse. The relievers before Smith have been lights out for much of the season. Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson, Jesse Chavez, and Richard Rodriguez have each compiled 25 innings out of the pen while posting an ERA under 3.00. In particular, Jackson has been the hot hand. In his first four seasons in Atlanta, he was whacked to the tune of a 97 ERA+. In 2021, he has an ERA+ of 233, striking out 10 batters per nine and rarely allowing the long ball.
9th Inning Advantage: Milwaukee
Before the 9th Advantage: Atlanta
Atlanta has the superior lineup, and they have many familiar faces from their run to the 2020 NLCS. Milwaukee has a massive advantage in the starting pitching department, and they may be able to pitch deep into games as if they can take advantage of Atlanta’s aggressive hitting approach.
Milwaukee will be favored in the series, but do not be surprised if the Braves force a Game 5 or win the series outright.
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