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Even for Reds’ sterling rotation, the Braves are a difficult challenge

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Cincinnati’s first postseason matchup in seven years has it facing one of the league’s best offenses.

Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

It has been 25 years since the Cincinnati Reds last won a playoff series. I’m sure it would have been a thrill for me, had I been more than 10 months old at the time. Alas, I have no memory of the day the Reds knocked off the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1995 NLDS. I do, however, remember the NLDS losses of 2010 and 2012, as well as the NL Wild Card loss of 2013. And you know what? I do not care for those memories. In fact, I would say I do not like them one bit. I wish my image of Reds playoff baseball did not exclusively consist of a no-hitter, a collapse, and a dropped ball.

This week, that wish will be granted. The Reds will take on the NL East division champion Atlanta Braves in a best-of-three series beginning Wednesday at 12 p.m. EST. After six-straight losing seasons, Cincinnati will finally add another chapter to its playoff history books. That, in and of itself, is good news. It would be even better news if that chapter included a series victory, allowing for more exciting stories to unfold as October goes on.

Despite being the No. 7 seed going up against the No. 2, the Reds have legitimate reason to feel confident going into this series. They ended the regular season as maybe the hottest team in baseball, winning 11 of their last 14 games, including a 7-3 record against playoff teams. The Cincinnati that was 15-21 through Sept. 1 and looked like a lost cause has disappeared over the last three weeks, giving way to a rotation that might be the best in baseball. It’s fitting, then, that their first postseason challenge may be the best offense in baseball.

The Braves also got off to a bit of a sluggish start this season. It wasn’t as poor as Cincinnati’s, but still below the team’s expectations. Reeling from the early losses of Cole Hamels and Mike Soroka in the rotation, Atlanta entered Aug. 15 mired in a four-game losing streak that had dropped its record to 11-10 for the season. Most teams would have been content with that, but for a Braves team coming off back-to-back titles in a division that was expected to be tightly contested once again, that mark left a lot to be desired. Replacing two key starting pitchers wasn’t going to be easy, and it didn’t have the kind of super-powered bullpen that can carry a staff on its own, so Atlanta turned to its only other option — start blasting the baseball into a oblivion.

Starting on Aug. 15, the Braves hit for a 133 wRC+ as a team over their final 39 games. No offense in baseball put up a better mark in that time. This is the group Reds pitchers need to deal with over the next few days:

2020 Atlanta Braves offense

Name PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB% K% wRC+ WAR
Name PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB% K% wRC+ WAR
Marcell Ozuna 267 0.338 0.431 0.636 18 14.2% 22.5% 179 2.5
Dansby Swanson 264 0.274 0.345 0.464 10 8.3% 26.9% 116 1.9
Freddie Freeman 262 0.341 0.462 0.640 13 17.2% 14.1% 187 3.3
Adam Duvall 209 0.237 0.301 0.532 16 7.2% 25.8% 116 0.5
Austin Riley 206 0.239 0.301 0.415 8 7.8% 23.8% 89 -0.2
Ronald Acuna Jr. 202 0.250 0.406 0.581 14 18.8% 29.7% 159 2.4
Travis d'Arnaud 184 0.321 0.386 0.533 9 8.7% 27.2% 145 1.4
Nick Markakis 141 0.254 0.312 0.392 1 7.1% 16.3% 89 -0.4
Ender Inciarte 131 0.190 0.262 0.250 1 9.2% 19.1% 40 -0.6
Johan Camargo 127 0.200 0.244 0.367 4 4.7% 27.6% 59 -0.2
Ozzie Albies 124 0.271 0.306 0.466 6 4.0% 24.2% 103 0.6

Had Acuna Jr. not missed two weeks in August with an injury, there would be three players in this lineup who are legitimate MVP candidates. Freeman may actually be the favorite now — he’s the NL’s leader in fWAR, and trails only Washington’s Juan Soto in a long list of offensive categories including average, on-base percentage, slugging and wRC+, and Soto played in 13 fewer games. But Ozuna, who settled for a one-year contract with the Braves last winter when his free agent market failed to develop, has had a career year to position himself very close to Freeman across the board, while Acuna Jr.’s walk rate is nearly double his career average.

Those three are only the beginning of the Reds’ problems this week. Travis d’Arnaud, at 31 years old, became this year’s most unexpected Statcast breakout, finishing in the 98th percentile in exit velocity, the 100th percentile in hard-hit rate, and the 91st percentile in expected slugging after posting merely average figures in those areas throughout his career; his 145 wRC+ was his first above-average number in that category since 2015. Then there’s Dansby Swanson, the former first overall pick who finally had a bit of a breakout this season, tying his career high in fWAR despite playing only about 40% of his typical single-season game total, and posting his first above-average offensive season since 2016. Finally, of course, there is Adam Duvall, the former Reds outfielder exchanged for Lucas Sims and two others who managed to become an everyday player in the Braves’ crowded outfield this season. You may have heard his name earlier this season when he homered three times in one game on Sept. 2, or maybe you heard it one week later, when he homered three times in one game again. He crushed 16 dingers this season, tying him for the third-highest total in the NL.

Simply put, the Braves’ offense up against that of the Reds is a mismatch. Cincinnati’s team wRC+ of 91 for the season puts it 30 points behind the Braves, and the gap only widens when more context is sprinkled in. This series will be played entirely in Atlanta, where the Braves had the fifth-best home wRC+ in baseball. The Reds, meanwhile, had the fifth-worst road wRC+ in baseball, thanks in part to a couple of regulars completely disintegrating away from home.

Reds Home/Road Splits, 2020

Name Home AVG Home OBP Home SLG Home wRC+ Away AVG Away OBP Away SLG Away wRC+
Name Home AVG Home OBP Home SLG Home wRC+ Away AVG Away OBP Away SLG Away wRC+
Joey Votto 0.326 0.458 0.684 194 0.121 0.238 0.207 26
Jesse Winker 0.244 344.000 0.577 137 0.268 0.430 0.507 154
Mike Moustakas 0.253 0.349 0.520 126 0.203 0.312 0.406 89
Nicholas Castellanos 0.222 0.300 0.491 101 0.227 0.295 0.482 103
Eugenio Suarez 0.180 0.324 0.427 97 0.220 0.301 0.505 110
Shogo Akiyama 0.234 0.366 0.273 83 0.256 0.348 0.321 88
Freddy Galvis 0.262 0.351 0.538 132 0.184 0.271 0.289 55

Some hitters, like Castellanos and Akiyama, are more or less the same guy regardless of ballpark, while Winker and Suarez are modestly better hitters on the road. Then there is Votto, who goes from hitting like an MVP at home to looking unplayable on the road, while Galvis sees his power completely vanish when he leaves GABP.

There isn’t any doubt that the Braves’ lineup is well ahead of Cincinnati’s, meaning that the Reds need the pitching side of things to tilt enough in their favor to balance things out. In some spots, that seems to be the case. While Cincinnati’s 3.47 FIP posted by its starting pitchers this season led all of MLB, the 4.98 FIP held by Braves starters ranked 23rd, and their 5.51 ERA ranked 28th.

Unfortunately for the Reds, however, the gap between these two pitching staffs may not be as great in a three-game series as fans hope. Cincinnati, after all, isn’t going to be getting any of the back-of-the-rotation arms the Braves tested throughout the season to plug holes left by injuries and ineffectiveness. The Reds will be facing only the top starters Atlanta has, and its first two are actually damn good.

Reds Probable WC Series Starters

Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Trevor Bauer 73 12.33 2.1 1.11 1.73 2.88 2.5
Luis Castillo 70 11.44 3.09 0.64 3.21 2.65 2.4
Sonny Gray 56 11.57 4.18 0.64 3.7 3.05 1.7

Braves Probable WC Series Starters

Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Max Fried 56.0 8.04 3.05 0.32 2.25 3.10 1.6
Ian Anderson 32.1 11.41 3.90 0.28 1.95 2.54 1.1
Kyle Wright 38.0 7.11 5.68 1.66 5.21 5.90 -0.1

There aren’t many people who would take the Braves’ rotation over the Reds’ in this series. Cincinnati’s was flat-out better this year, boasts a lot more experience than what Atlanta can, and can keep throwing darts well after the first two starters have been used up. With that being said, however, Fried was a Cy Young candidate neck and neck with Bauer until he lost steam late in the season, and Anderson has been incredibly impressive as a rookie this season. In a best-of-three series, the gap between these two rotations might not be all that noticeable, even if Atlanta admittedly may not wish to reach that third game.

Should either of these teams have a starter crumble early, both have bullpens who are well-equipped to deal with a high number of innings. After a nightmarish first couple weeks of the season, the Reds’ bullpen ranked seventh in the majors in ERA (3.57) during the month of September, while the Braves’ pen ranked 11th (3.84). Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen, Amir Garrett, Tejay Antone and deadline pickup Archie Bradley all finished the season looking exceptional for the Reds, and the Braves had an incredible eight relievers finish the season with a sub-3.00 ERA in 16 or more innings.

Whether or not you believe the Reds can win this series ultimately comes down to how much faith you have in the team’s offense, because we all know the team can pitch. Traumatizing meltdowns are always a possibility — ask any Braves fan about Game 5 of last season’s NLDS — but it isn’t something one would predict to happen to Cincinnati this week. We also know that manager David Bell is going to be aggressive in his decision-making, and has enough arms at his disposal for that strategy to be effective.

The pressure can’t be all on the pitching staff, however, to muzzle the league’s hottest offense. Of the Reds’ 31 wins this season, 25 came in games in which the team allowed three runs or fewer. When opponents scored four runs or more, the Reds were 6-21. For much of this season, Cincinnati had the fortune of being able to win with six or seven lights-out innings from a starter and one or two key swings. Expecting that to be enough against Atlanta, however, may ensure this is another chapter that ends quickly, with a disappointing conclusion.