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Playoff Baseball is Hard to Analyze

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Look, guys, I don’t know.

MLB: NLDS-St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

One of the weirdest things about my little niche of the internet is that when baseball is at its most exciting, I have the least to say. The magic of baseball analysis is in the sample size; there are very few things you can analyze after one game or one pitch. For the most part, the way to figure out what to say is to wait patiently for huge samples to accrue, then swoop in from the sky with a conclusion that the crowds eat up.

Of course, now, when those crowds want a pronouncement, there’s really not much new to say. Before the series, it looked to me to be too close to call. The Braves have some lovely position players, really top notch. They also have some other players, not so lovely. The Cardinals have few truly poor hitters, and no truly poor position players; Harrison Bader is the closest thing to a hole in the lineup, and he was worth nearly 2 WAR this year in limited playing time.

The pitching is the other way. Jack Flaherty is a reasonable pitching facsimile of Ronald Acuna, the kind of player who makes you search for superlatives even as you instinctively know you won’t find any that capture his brilliance. Adam Wainwright and Dakota Hudson -- well, they aren’t that. The Braves, meanwhile, have five starters of somewhat interchangeable skill level, Soroka blending into Keuchel blending into Foltynewicz. Julio Teheran is even getting in on the act after Chris Martin’s injury.

My point is, nothing wildly unexpected or informative has happened so far. What does following a seven-spot with a shutout tell us about the Cardinals offense? That it’s inconsistent? Captain Obvious, star of some terrible commercial campaigns for Hotels.com, could have told you that, and he’s not even a particularly good baseball analyst.

Should I tell you that Jack Flaherty would like that pitch to Adam Duvall back? First of all... Well, yeah. He would. It didn’t matter, though -- not only do good pitchers sometimes make bad pitches, but that one didn’t even affect the outcome of the game. Flaherty is blameless, excellent -- he’s still not quite as good as you probably think he is and still one of the best pitchers in baseball regardless.

If I feel that I haven’t learned much new about the Cardinals and Braves, though, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had strong thoughts. I know that the Cardinals struggle with the exact kind of pitcher that Mike Foltynewicz is, a stuff monster with a nasty slider, and yet I find myself telling the TV, which surely can’t hear me, to sit on the spinny stuff and make him beat you. I’m not even sure that’s good advice! But I’ve said it all the same.

Here’s the real truth: in one game, anyone can do anything. Freddie Freeman was hitless today; Tommy Edman was 0 for 4 after batting roughly a billion in September. Want to get really weird? Tyler Webb was absolutely lights out today after being trash yesterday.

I’m not exactly sure what my point is here. Baseball exists in small samples, and today’s sample was awful while yesterday’s was perfection. So rather than wow you with any jawdropping analysis (Paul Goldschmidt didn’t do this one simple trick and now he’s a pumpkin, but if he does it he’ll turn back into an enchanted carriage!), let me tell you a few facts about the last two day’s games, only put differently.

In one of the games, the Cardinals had five of the seven hardest-hit balls. That’s good, of course. In the other, they had only two of the top seven, though even there, they had the single hardest-hit ball. Five is greater than two, of course, but both are kind of close. In both games, the Cardinals had five of the ten balls in play most likely to become hits.

Naturally, the game where they had five of the seven hardest-hit balls was the one where they got shut out and lost. Baseball is dumb that way. It’s even weirder, though, because Cardinals pitching was honestly kind of awful on Thrusday night. They struck out only six batters while walking four -- not great, Bob. They were far better today, with 10 strikeouts and only a solitary walk.

In one of the games, the Cardinals made three (or, fine, two, if you want to look at the final scoring) errors. In the other, they lost.

The single hardest hit ball in Friday’s game was a smashed liner from Dexter Fowler. Not the ball the Cardinals hit hardest; the hardest-hit ball, period. The second-hardest-hit ball was a grounder that Kolten Wong hit in the seventh inning. The line drive was caught; the grounder produced a double play. Sometimes baseball sucks.

When I’ve had more time to reflect, I’ll probably have more to say about the first two games of this series. My brain and my soul aren’t cut out for this kind of baseball; I’m alternately very aloof and unbelievably invested. I think that the Cardinals can never get Acuna out, and then I think that of course this game is just a coin flip and why am I even watching?

For now, though, let me just say go Cards. There will be plenty of time to look into whether the team had some fatal flaw that the first 162 games didn’t diagnose later -- which team ‘the team’ is will have to wait until we see who wins the series. In the meantime, enjoy the ride. Or, you know, sweat the ride out. Your call.