Cardinals vs. Braves: A Battle Between The National League's Top Two Teams (By Run Differential)

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 9: Skip Schumaker #55 of the St. Louis Cardinals breaks up a double play against Jack Wilson #1 of the Atlanta Braves at Busch Stadium on September 9, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cardinals beat the Braves 4-3 in 10 innings. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

In a way, it's fitting. After a historic 2011 Wild Card run by St. Louis aided by Atlanta's historic collapse, the two clubs meet this weekend as two of baseball's best in 2012. Fresh off a sweep of the Diamondbacks in Arizona, the Cardinals return to Busch Stadium tonight to host the Braves in what should be a highly competitive series between two very good offensive baseball squads.

If we go by run differential, the weekend series is a battle between the two best teams in the NL (if only just barely). At +75, the Cards are head and shoulder above the NL pack and lead all of Major League Baseball in run differential. The Braves have posted a run differential of +24, second to the Cardinals in the NL, barely ahead of the third place Dodgers (+23), and third in all of MLB behind St. Louis and Texas (+68).

Naturally, one of the ingredients to a good run differential is scoring runs. The Braves and Cardinals excel at this. The Cardinals lead the NL with 174 runs scored in 31 games, which works out to an average of 5.6 runs per game. Atlanta has scored 166 runs* in 32 games and average 5.2 runs per game; both of which rank second in the non-DH league.

*Diane Firstman has posted a good read on ESPN's Sweet Spot blog about the Braves' increase in run-scoring from 2011 to 2012. Also note that the Cardinals' increase from 2011 to 2012 has been pretty substantial as well.

Both clubs can hit for power. The Cardinals lead the NL with 40 homers as a team; the Braves are fourth with 34 dingers collectively. It's not surprising then that the Cards have the highest slugging percentage (.467) and ISO (.180) in the league. The Braves rank third in the NL in slugging (.414) and fifth in ISO (.149). The two clubs are first and third in wOBA, as well, with the Cardinals posting a ridiculous .362 wOBA to the Braves' .327.

The most interesting match-up of this weekend series may very well be the Cardinals pitching staff against the Braves bats. St. Louis ranks second in the NL in ERA at 3.07, second in FIP at 3.26, and first in xFIP at 3.33. With a K/9 of 7.22 that ranks toward the bottom of the NL, the Cards don't strike out a ton of opposing batters. Their strong FIP is due in large part to their microscopic collective 2.22 BB/9. The Cardinals are slated to start Jaime Garcia in the series opener, Adam Wainwright on Saturday, and Lance Lynn on Sunday. Will they be able to keep the Cards' early season pitching success going against a strong Braves offense?

This is one of those series that is a treat, even if it is only May. After a month-long slog against an NL Central that is looking increasingly mediocre, the Cards face one of the top teams from the NL East in what could very well be a postseason preview. It is a match-up that stands out against the grind of baseball's regular season and one that should be a lot of fun.

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