This is one of those series that pundits like to claim is “important.” Where the talking heads say that the results of a series between a division leader and the third best NL team by record means something, about where each team is at, and what it means for the playoffs. In truth, this series doesn’t actually tell us a grander statement. Baseball is too random over a small sample size for that. Back in 2006, the Cardinals faced the Detroit Tigers in the regular season and got swept. They later faced them in the World Series and only lost one of five games. It’s tempting to read too much into this series, but it has zero impact of what will happen in the future or our ability to predict it.
But it would be nice to “make a statement” as those pundits would say. Announce our presence. It doesn’t necessarily seem like it but the National League is the Dodgers and everyone else. But we’re right at the top of everyone else. We’re separated in wins and losses by a healthy margin from the Mets and the Braves, but run differential tells a slightly different story. The Cardinals are +120, the Mets are +124, and the Braves are +135. Yes, the Braves and Mets have a harder schedule by virtue of having to face each other plus the Phillies more while the Cardinals just have the Brewers. But also: that run differential was mostly without either Jordan Montgomery or Jose Quintana. This is a different team than the season record indicates.
The Braves have the 8th best offense in the majors by wRC+. Ronald Acuña Jr. is having a down year so far, with his lowest wrC+ of his career (118 wRC+) but his .374 xwOBA suggest he’s getting unlucky. That xwOBA would mark his worst xwOBA of his career though (barely just below his rookie season) and it would be the first year his xwOBA didn’t improve year-to-year. Matt Olson is a downgrade from Freddie Freeman but he’s doing what is expected. Newly extended Austin Riley just keeps improving and proving he’s worthy of his new contract.
The Braves also have two young players who jumped straight from AA, Vaughn Grissom and Michael Harris II. Both are playing a bit above their weight at the moment, but they’re also 21, so long-term they’re scary as hell. And Willson Conteras’ brother, William, is their backup catcher and designated hitter. Dansby Swanson learned how to hit along with great defense. They do have a couple black holes in the lineup. Eddie Rosario is having an absolutely terrible year with a 50 wRC+ and -1.2 fWAR. They traded for Robbie Grossman, who also has negative fWAR on the year. Marcell Ozuna is basically not playing right now, also with negative fWAR. Guillermo Heredia barely plays, but yep negative fWAR as well. They are guaranteed to play at least one below replacement player in this series and two if both catchers (Travis d’Arnaud being the main catcher) aren’t in the starting lineup.
They have a couple of name brand relievers, with both Kenley Jansen and Raisel Iglesias playing as you’d expect. Kirby Yates has only thrown 4 innings though and they haven’t been a pretty four innings. AJ Minter is a dominant lefty, Tyler Matzek is someone I hope the Cards face. Collin McHugh has been a pretty good multi-inning reliever. Really anyone who pitches has good stats except Matzek. So, somehow you got to score off their starters. One problem...
Friday - 7:15 PM
Spencer Strider (2.95 ERA/2.06 FIP/2.51 xFIP) vs. Jose Quintana (3.45 ERA/3.29 FIP/3.83 xFIP)
The Braves have become hateable again. Every single prospect they have seems to instantly become studs and they also sign team-friendly deals for dollars on the penny. It’s infuriating. Strider hasn’t signed that deal yet (and frankly from his extreme confidence in himself, I kind of think he won’t), but he does fit the “stud” profile. He strikes out literally everyone. He has a 37.3 K% and still manages to pair that with a walk rate below 10%. This doesn’t even come with a super low GB% either. He’s the real deal. He has 26 games pitched and 15 of them are as a starter, and annoyingly, he has better stats as a starter.
Quintana will be interesting to watch insofar as he looked really bad last time out. Obviously it was just a momentary glitch, but he looked like a vastly different pitcher than the one we saw in his first three starts. Atlanta will not be an easy matchup as they are 4th in baseball in wRC+ against left-handed pitchers.
My pick: Braves
Saturday - 6:16 PM
Charlie Morton (3.99 ERA/3.78 FIP/3.43 xFIP) vs. Jordan Montgomery (3.08 ERA/3.52 FIP/3.44 xFIP)
As fortunate as the Cardinals were to have two lefty starters go against the Brewers lineup - who were not good against lefties - the opposite applies to this series. Unlike Quintana, Montgomery has been on some kind of run. But it’s going to end at some point and the Braves’ offense is pretty good, so I’m not sure I’m terribly optimistic about this one.
Morton does not provide a whole lot of relief from Strider. He has been unbelievable since June. In his most recent 14 starts, he has a 34.5 K% with just a 7.3 BB%. In eight of those starts, he struck out over 30% of batters he faced and in six of them, over 40%. He struck out over 50% of the Mets just two starts ago. Expect a lot of strikeouts in the first two games.
My pick: Braves
Sunday - 6:00 PM
Jake Odorizzi (3.95 ERA/4.20 FIP/4.61 xFIP) vs. Adam Wainwright (3.11 ERA/3.62 FIP/3.91 xFIP)
Winning this series will be difficult but doable. This is the vital game they absolutely have to win though. It’s the only pitching matchup that favors the Cardinals. Figure out a way to win one of the first two games and then Waino puts the team on his back like he has so many times before.
Odorizzi is perfectly cromulent but also perfectly hittable. He just doesn’t compare to the first two pitchers in this series. He has a below average strikeout rate. You go from two of the leaders in strikeout rate among starters to a below average strike out rate. Recently traded to the Braves from Houston, if you’re worried he has been good recently, well he hasn’t. He has worse stats as a Brave. Not a lot of strikeouts and a good amount of homers. That’s a perfect fit with the Cardinals offense.
My pick: Cardinals
Yeah I’m picking a series loss. Just don’t love the matchup for either of the first two games. My real guess is that the Cardinals win one of the first two games but lose the Waino game because that’s exactly something baseball would do. Morton and Strider seem like really bad matchups for the Cardinals - Strider faced the Cardinals earlier, struck out 12 and didn’t allow a run; Morton faced them last year and threw 7.2 scoreless innings. I mean they’re bad matchups for everyone really, but it’ll be a struggle to score. And their bullpen doesn’t provide much relief either.
Individual Game Record: 32-25
Series Prediction Record: 7-11
I swear I was going to pick the Cardinals to sweep the Diamondbacks, but I balked at the last minute because I noticed they had a winning record at home. But since I can’t predict series at all, that’s not a bad thing necessarily. So me being bad at predicting series means a 2-1 series loss might not happen.