Thursday, October 3, 2019

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, October 3, 2019 -- Braves/Cardinals Preview

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 25 years.

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 11, No. 88
October 3, 2019

The Rule:
 The least important words in a playoff preview are the last ones.


This series, despite being between two longtime successful franchises and two division champions, runs the risk of being the one that gets a bit lost. It has late-afternoon start times through Sunday, and it’s the one Division Series that doesn’t feature one of the three top teams. At that, though, this could be the best of the first four.

The Cardinals come in having taken the NL Central away from the Cubs with a four-game sweep two weeks ago, then holding off the Brewers over the season’s final week. They did have to burn Jack Flaherty in the process, pitching him on the season’s final day to clinch, but the way the schedule falls there is very little cost to doing so; Flaherty starts Game Two on full rest and can start a Game Five on the same.

Flaherty struggled in the first half, allowing 20 homers in 18 starts, pitching to a 4.64 ERA. The stuff and the skills never left, though -- a 26% strikeout rate even at the worst of it. After the break he started throwing his four-seam fastball less and both his sinker and curve more, producing an Arrieta-like run: 15 starts, a 0.99 ERA, a .142 batting average against. The Cardinals’ path to a championship, and certainly through the Braves, rests largely on Flaherty’s right arm.

It’s not just Flaherty's overall skill set that makes that true. Flaherty (6.8% walk rate) is one of a small handful of Cardinals pitchers who routinely throws strikes. Another, Miles Mikolas (4.1%), is the Game One starter. Even with those two lapping up 380 innings, the Cardinals had the fifth-highest walk rate in the NL. Cards relievers had the fourth-highest walk rate in the league, and you can’t wave that off as a product of short-timers. Carlos Martinez, Andrew Miller, John Brebbia, John Gant...these guys are important pitchers for Mike Shildt and they don’t throw strikes.

The Braves are built to exploit just that flaw. They were second in the NL in walks drawn, with the fifth-lowest chase rate in the league. Of the nine position players -- including the catching platoon -- who will play the most for the Braves in this series, seven have above-average walk rates. The late innings of these games, and the entirety of games not started by Mikolas and Flaherty, will be all about the Cardinals looking for swings and the Braves not giving them. The Cardinals’ bullpen flies awfully close to the sun, with the lowest HR/FB rate and the second-lowest BABIP in the league, numbers that don’t have to regress this month but are worth noting.

Watch how Shildt uses Giovanny Gallegos, the hard-throwing rookie righty who had a 93/14 K/UIBB in 74 innings. Gallegos faded under heavy usage in September: no strikeouts in his final four appearances, just two over his final seven (22 batters faced).

The frustrating part about this, if you’re Mike Shildt, is that Cardinals pitchers have good reasons to throw strikes. Just two NL teams were better at turning balls in play into outs this year. The single best thing Shildt has done as Cards manager is free Kolten Wong to play without fear that every 0-for-4 would mean a benching. That, and playing Harrison Bader in center (around a demotion, it should be noted), gives the Cards a rangy defense up the middle. Every walk is an opportunity not given to this defense to make a play.

A year ago, the Braves rebuilt their bullpen heading into the playoffs. They did it a bit earlier this year, with deadline trades for Shane Greene, Mark Melancon, and Chris Martin that turned out...fine, I guess. Melancon saved 11 games after Greene had a rough few outings to lose the closer job. Combined, they had a 3.98 ERA in 63 innings with the Braves, although the underlying numbers, including a 67/8 K/BB, are much better. Darren O’Day did make the roster after eight regular-season appearances. Throw in the Dallas Keuchel signing, and there’s been a lot of turnover from the Opening Day staff.

Keuchel gets the Game One, and presumably Game Five, starts, to my dismay. The Braves are burying their ace, Mike Soroka, in Game Three, guaranteeing him just one start in the series, while setting Keuchel up for two and using Mike Foltynewicz as the #2 starter. There’s no matchup reason for this; the Cardinals have a small platoon split as a team and just one left-handed hitter you’d bother planning around. Maybe not even that, given Matt Carpenter’s year. This choice seems to be motivated at least in part by Soroka’s home/road split in 2019, numbers that are entirely noise, no signal, for any pitcher in a single season. Soroka has great strikeout rates and K/BB both home and road; he’s allowed a .323 BABIP on the road, .248 at home, which is, again, noise over this number of innings. This is a clear mistake by Snitker.

In a best-of-five series, small things matter. The Cardinals are getting their best pitcher two starts. The Braves are getting their best pitcher one start.

The Braves should get away with it. The edges they have when facing Dakota Hudson, Adam Wainwright, and most of the Cardinals’ bullpen should define this series. I expect them to control a middling Cards offense that doesn’t really do anything, while drawing enough walks and hitting enough homers to make the Cards’ strong defense a non-factor. Late-season injuries to Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuña Jr. were minor and not a big concern heading into this series.

The Cards’ path through this series is winning the two Jack Flaherty starts and stealing one more, most likely tonight’s game behind Mikolas. It’s getting to that second Flaherty start that will be the challenge. Braves in four


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