Playoff baseball is finally back and our Atlanta Braves have managed to secure the #2 seed in one of the wildest seasons in recent memory. Just to recap a few of the biggest moments, the Braves saw their starting catchers sit out a week due to COVID, had their starting first baseman fighting for his life before putting together a campaign worthy of an MVP, went through a stretch of play where they had one single starting pitcher that was active on the roster and yet here they are about to welcome the Reds to Atlanta for the first series.
As a team the Reds come into the playoffs as the 27th ranked team in the majors in terms of runs scored, 22nd in fWAR (5.3), seventh in K% (25.2%), 17th in wOBA (.312), and 23rd in wRC+ (91). One thing that they do have working for them, however, is their walk rate as a team is a ridiculous 11.3% which is good enough for second in all of baseball - a stat that may be a problem for the Braves as their pitching staff has a walk rate of 3.79 per nine innings which puts them right at #12 in baseball.
Jesse Winker, DH
Leading the way for the Reds is designated Jesse Winker who hit .255/.388/.544 with an impressive 144 wRC+ and .396 wOBA. Winker walks an astounding 15.3% of the time and his batted ball profile is rather nice, especially for a DH, with a 40% HR/FB rate, and a 23.1% LD%. He is susceptible to grounding out, featuring a ground ball rate of nearly 50% (48.1%) so something the Braves will attempt to exploit. Winker also has an impressive average exit velocity of 92.1 MPH, which is further backed up by his 49% hard-hit percentage.
So the question becomes, how do you limit the Reds best hitter? According to baseball savant, Winker is most susceptible to the fastball - as he’s hit .228 against them while feasting on breaking balls to the tune of a .306 batting average (.264 XBA), and .612 slugging percentage. His zone charts show that he’s most prone to whiffing in balls up in the zone, as are many major league caliber hitters, but he’s hit just one homer on balls up in the zone.
His expected batting average also echoes this sentiment showing it’s best to avoid the lower 2/3rds of the zone while attacking him up high. Look at the Braves to at least try and live up in the zone versus Winker to start the series until he shows them that they must adapt.
Eugenio Suarez, 3B
Coming in as the second-best Reds’ hitter, according to fWAR, would be third baseman, Eugenio Suarez. Suarez is a complete wildcard because, despite his horrendous batting average (.202), he has a walk rate of 13% so his OBP sits at .312 and when he’s making contact he’s making it count - seen by his .470 slugging percentage which can also be seen by his 14.4% barrel percentage which is the highest of his career. With a 104 wRC+, this is easily Eungenio’s worst season as a pro, but with his track record and his .214 BABIP, he’s not someone you can just brush aside.
So how do you approach Suarez this series? Breaking balls. That’s it. That’s the entire section. Seriously, Suarez is hitting just .122 against breaking balls with an expected batting average of .155. He’s whiffing on them at an astronomical rate of 49.6%. If you can establish the fastball early, you can rely on the breaking pitches to put him away. Like Winkler, living with the ball up in the zone is important for Suarez seen here by his zone breakdown.
A majority of his 15 homers also came in the lower part of the zone so the Braves need to try and exploit this weakness. Between a mix of breaking balls, and staying up the Braves may be able to limit the explosive third baseman.
Curt Casili, Tucker Barnhart, C
Much like the Braves, the Reds get tremendous production out of the catching position with two catchers both accumulating 0.7 fWAR on the season two very different ways. Curt Casili is the Travis d’Arnaud of the Reds - hitting .224/.366/.500 (131 wRC+), while Tucker gets it done more with the glove than the bat though he did hit .204/.291/.388 for an 80 wRC+ which is solid for a catcher.
Curt owes a lot of his success to a tremendous swing that allows him to get almost an ideal launch angle for a power hitter (22.1°) and allows him to get it on to the sweet spot of the barrel 40.4% of the time. He will strike out, seen by his 31.2% strikeout rate, but he will also get his share of walks coming in at 15.1% walk rate. Tucker, on the other hand, has gotten tremendous value out of his glove - ranking in the 75% for framing, and a 4.8 defensive value on Fangraphs.
So how do you approach this impressive catching tandem? For Curt, you live with the breaking ball or anything off-speed as Curt has an xBA against breaking ball of .118 and xBA of .177 against offspeed pitches. Curt is hitting .295 against fastballs, but with an xBA of .226, that said - when he’s making contact with them he’s mashing fastballs with a slugging percentage of .705 against fastballs. Curt excels at avoiding groundballs (just 25.5% of the time), so instead of trying to induce weak contact by continuing to pitch him low in the zone, the Braves must make him live on a diet of offspeed pitches to help keep the ball out of the air and try and take advantage of the whiff rate.
Mike Moustakas, 2B
It seems like yesterday when Mike Moustakas was linked to the Braves as a free agent and today he finds himself on another playoff team but now as a second baseman. Like most of the Reds team, while Mike isn’t hitting the ball at an elite clip, he is walking at a strong rate of 11%. His .230/.331/.468 line was good enough for a 109 wRC+, and .340 wOBA. Mike grounds the ball at just a 36.2% rate, which is right about where he stands for his career but has seen his line drive rate jump to 20% which is the third-highest of his career. He’s avoiding soft contact (18.1%) and has seen his medium and hard-hit percentages come in at 44.8% and 37.1% respectively.
So how do you approach Mike? Like Casili, Mike is pounding fastballs with a batting average against them of .344 (.288 xBA) and is slugging .577 against them. Meanwhile against breaking balls Mike is hitting just .100 with an xBA of .182 and is struggling badly against offspeed pitches - hitting .222, however when he does hit them he’s hammering them at an elite rate (.611). So it appears that you establish the fastball early and then rely on your breaking balls to finish the job. Will be interesting to see how he fares against Anderson and his, what appears to be, a double plus changeup.
Joey Votto, 1B
I will be the first to admit it’s very odd that Joey Votto is this far down the list. While he’s potentially entering the twilight of his career (37 years of age) he’s still a name that commands respect, and he still provides with above-average production. For the season, Votto has hit .226/.354/.446 which is good enough for a 114 wRC+, and .347 wOBA. Votto continues to have an elite walk rate with this year coming in right at 16.6% - one of the lowest marks of his career yet still fantastic. Like Eugenio, Votto has also been victim to a low BABIP - coming in right at .235 which is the lowest of his career. His exit velocity ranks in the 25th percentile, hard-hit percentage at 35%, but with an xwOBA in the 82%.
How should the Braves approach Votto? According to baseball savant, Votto has had fits with offspeed pitches amounting to a batting average of .080 against them, with an xBA of .183 which hopefully means good things for Max Fried, and Ian Anderson. His average launch angle against offspeed pitches comes in at 2°, so the Braves must meet him with a mix of offspeed/breaking pitches because he is still hitting fastballs hard which can be seen by his .263 batting average (.273 xBA), and .585 slugging against them.
Nicholas Castellanos, RF | Freddy Galvis, SS | Shogo Akiyama, OF
Rounding out the rest of the main position players would be Castellanos, Galvis, and Akiyama. Despite being listed at the top of the depth chart at short, Luis Garcia has not had a good season and it’s hard to believe he will be seeing lots of time during the playoffs. First off is Castellanos who, after having a sizzling start to the season, has slowed down a bit and finished the season hitting .225/.298/.486. Unlike a majority of his teammates, Castellanos does not walk at an elite rate, though still sitting comfortably at 7.9%. His .261 ISO is the highest of his career, and combine that with a barrel% of 16%, also the highest of his career, and you have a .6 fWAR player despite hitting .225 with an OBP of .298. Like Votto, the key to facing Castellanos is going to be offspeed stuff, as Castellanos is hitting just .158 with an expecting batting average that’s LOWER (.151) while slugging just .263. Keeping the ball up will be imperative against Nick.
Freddy Galvis, listed as third on the depth chart at three positions, has played himself into perhaps the best year of his career. Though he’s not exactly instilling fear in the batter’s box, hitting just .220/.308/.404, he’s provided the Reds with lots of versatility and has accumulated a 0.5 fWAR in just 159 plate appearances. Like the rest of his teammates when Galvis hits a fastball he hits it hard shown by his .514 slugging percentage so look for the Braves to sit with a nice mix of offspeed/breaking pitches to slow down Galvis.
Finally, we arrive at Shogo Akiyama who in his first year in major league baseball has a 0.5 fWAR in an odd season. Shogo strikes out just 18% of the time and combines that with yet another fantastic walk rate - 10.1%. Shogo has hit .245 but because of that walk rate, his slash line reads .245/.357/.297. Yes, of his 38 hits 31 of them have been singles. He has a stolen base rate of 70% so don’t look for him to be running too much in the playoffs. According to Fangraphs he has an average launch angle of 2.9°, with an average exit velocity of 85.1 MPH so the key to success for Shogo will be to keep the ball in the zone and try and let him get himself out (0.8% barrel%).
All in all, despite the overall team production there is plenty to worry about with the Reds offense. They don’t hit the ball particularly often, but when they do they hit the ball hard. They are a relatively balanced team with solid production throughout the lineup that’s lead by designated hitter Jesse Winkler. Unfortunately for the Braves, they haven’t yet done that - as he’s hit .405/.469/.524 against them for his career but with the right approach, they hope to limit his production and force some of his teammates to take lead the offense.