While most writers and fans were focused on the plethora of trades and signings–ahem, Bryce Harper–made by the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East and ability for the Chicago Cubs to bounce back in the NL Central, the Braves and Cardinals were preparing to dash expectations.
Atlanta dominated the NL East practically from start to finish, and the Cardinals parlayed a big second-half into their first divisional title since 2015. Now, the two teams will go head-to-head for the chance to play for the pennant.
How did they get here?
Perhaps the rest of the MLB should have taken notice when the Braves captured the NL East crown in 2018. After all, their success was built on youngsters like Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies and the steady hitting machine that is Freddie Freeman.
When they added former AL MVP Josh Donaldson in the offseason and signed starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel in June, their championship quest began in earnest.
Make no mistake, the crux of their winning season still rests with the youth. Acuna nearly put together a 40-40 campaign, and Albies excelled in the second half. In the rotation, rookie Mike Soroka developed into the ace of the staff, and fellow rookie left-hander Max Fried was tremendous in the final two months.
However, the veterans have rounded out the team. Donaldson had a huge bounce-back season, hitting 37 homers and driving in 94 runs.
When healthy, Nick Markakis added contact from the left side of the plate. Even in his absence, Matt Joyce has quietly been one of the most productive hitters in the game down the stretch. Then of course, there is Freeman, the consummate pro who continues to add to his Hall of Fame resume.
The Cardinals were also a team that were eventually propelled by their veterans, as well as one of the best second-half runs of any pitcher in the history of the game… from a 23-year-old.
Jack Flaherty entered the 2019 season as a dark horse to win the NL Cy Young Award, but he posted a 4.64 ERA in his first 18 starts. After the All-Star break, however, Flaherty almost single-handedly carried the Cardinals to the division title. He went 7-2 with a 0.91 ERA and 0.715 WHIP in 15 starts, holding opponents to a measly .424 OPS.
Although the Cardinals did not get the expected production from free agent signings Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller, the likes of Kolten Wong and Dexter Fowler had big years for the Redbirds. St. Louis stalwarts Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright were also major contributors in the second half.
St. Louis went 47-27 after the break, including a September sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field that all but clinched the division (despite a massive push from the Milwaukee Brewers). They have gotten hot at just the right time.
Atlanta’s postseason rotation looks a whole lot different than it did at the beginning of the season. Kevin Gausman was waived in August, and right-hander Julio Teheran essentially pitched his way off of the postseason roster with a 6.56 ERA in September. Instead, the Braves will rely on Sorokoa, Fried, Keuchel and Mike Foltynewicz to match up against the Cardinals rotation.
Soroka is hardly the most dominant Cy Young candidate, but he is immensely effective. The 22-year-old has a ground ball rate over 50 percent, and he uses his sinker-changeup combination to keep hitters off balance. Obviously, Soroka comes form the same mold as Keuchel, who had a 60 percent ground ball rate and mixes both cutters and sinkers in with his changeup.
Fried and “Folty,” on the other hand, are more dynamic. Fried almost exclusively throws his fastball and breaking ball, and his curveball has been as sharp as any pitcher in the majors.
Foltynewicz was a bona fide ace in 2018, but injuries and early-season struggles cast an element of doubt on just how effective he could be when he returned from the Injured List in August. Foltynewicz laid those doubts to rest almost immediately.
The right-hander went 6-1 with a 2.65 ERA and 1.075 WHIP in 10 second-half starts. Most importantly, his velocity is beginning to return, which bodes well for his ability to set up a wipeout slider.
Kuechel will be the one who gets the ball for the Braves on Thursday afternoon.
Flaherty is obviously the standout for St. Louis. He has incredible life on his fastball, and his slider has been almost untouchable this season. However, he is hardly the only guy getting it done on the mound.
Veteran right-hander Adam Wainwright was excellent in September aside from a pair of clunkers in Arizona and in the final series of the season against the Cubs. Wainwright has pronounced home-away splits, but he could be a potential X-factor at Busch Stadium.
Though Miles Mikolas struggled to live up to the hype that he induced during a spectacular 2018 campaign, he was far more effective in the second half. Mikolas is still reliant on getting ground balls, but he was more vigilant with his command and pitch selection.
The same can be said about Dakota Hudson, who was brilliant in August and September and has navigated around a high walk rate by inducing a ton of choppers. In fact, Hudson and Mikolas both rank in the top ten among all pitchers for most “Grounded Into Double Play” (GIDP).
Because Flaherty pitched on Sunday, Mikolas will start Game 1 for the Cardinals.
The Braves can put a hurting on opposing pitchers. Atlanta ranked third in the NL in runs scored and OPS and fourth in home runs.
Acuna is the table-setter, and the Braves are far more dangerous when he is putting the ball in play. The 21-year-0ld closed the season with a flurry over his final six games before being shut down.
Aside from his power, Acuna’s daring nature on the base paths is always something for opposing pitchers to keep in mind. Considering that Molina has not had the same success throwing out runners this season, expect Acuna to be aggressive when he gets on base.
Outside of Acuna, the Braves have big bats on both sides. The switch-hitting Albies has become far more dangerous from the left side of the plate (relative to 2018), and both Freeman and Joyce are relentless with their ability to work counts and battle with two strikes.
The Braves will also have options off the bench, with Ender Inciarte, Austin Riley and Tyler Flowers available as replacements. Do not forget about the speedy Billy Hamilton, either.
Goldschmidt may not have performed up to his previous standards, but he still hit 34 homers and is coming off a huge September where he drove in 24 runs. He also excels against left-handers, which is a troubling prospect for the Braves.
But even though Goldschmidt may be regarded as the biggest threat in the Cardinals lineup, Tommy Edman has been the best hitter as of late. The super utility man slashed .304/.350/.500 in 91 games, but he also clubbed six homers and slugged .660 in September while also swiping six bases.
Matt Carpenter was another guy who never put it together during the first several months of the season, but he too has been extremely productive down the stretch.
The Cardinals are at their best when their role players get going. St. Louis led the NL in steals, and guys like Harrison Bader and Wong add a new element to their game plan when they find a way to reach base. Of course, therein lies the problem.
St. Louis ranked just ninth in the NL in OBP during the regular season. They will need to scratch out more runs against an Atlanta team that can put pressure on opponents in a variety of ways.
Atlanta’s lack of quality depth in the bullpen was once again a major storyline at the start of the 2019 season, but some of those questions have been alleviated since the trade deadline.
The Braves ranked 9th in bullpen fWAR and 13th in ERA (4.01) over the final two months of the season, and Mark Melancon (acquired from the Giants at the deadline) has been fantastic. Shane Greene also rebounded from a brutal August and has seemed to benefit from moving out of the closer role, where Melancon is 11-for-11 in converting save chances.
There are still plenty of question marks. Sean Newcomb has vastly outperformed his peripherals, and Luke Jackson’s command disappeared in September. There will be a lot of reliance on the likes of Chris Martin, Anthony Swarzak and Josh Tomlin in the middle innings.
Whereas the Braves have seen some much-needed improvement from their relief corps over the course of the final month, the Cardinals have seen nothing but regression.
St. Lois relievers ranked 25th in fWAR and 24th in ERA (4.90) in September. Right-hander John Brebbia had a 7.36 ERA and has been dealing with command issues.
John Gant has been utterly woeful after dominating in the first two months of the season, and Andrew Miller seems to be feeling the rigors of both age and usage. Rookie Ryan Helsley has been all over the map. However, the Cardinals do have elite talents at the end of the bullpen in Carlos Martinez and Giovanny Gallegos.
Martinez has finally settled into the closer role, and he had his best month in September, posting an 11.6 K/9 while holding opposing hitters to a .437 OPS. Pitching in front of Martinez, Gallegos showcased some equally dominant stuff (though he also took a step back in September), and his slider is one of the best pitches in all of baseball.
The Cardinals should feel good knowing that they could have Flaherty pitch two games in a best-of-five series. The question is, can they prolong it to a deciding game?
Atlanta has had the luxury of resting a ton of their starters while also getting back to full strength. St. Louis, on the other hand, had to scratch and claw just to win the division on the final day of the regular season.
Mike Shildt is going to have to be at his managerial best in managing a struggling bullpen, especially against a high-powered offense that can hurt you from both sides.
The Cardinals will certainly test the Braves, but at the end of the day they have too many holes in the middle innings, and Atlanta’s ground-ball pitchers should have a lot of success throughout the series.