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Starting Nine: Time for MVFree to have a defining October

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Reds vs. Braves is a matter of strength vs. strength, the pressure on Max Fried and home-field advantage in a season where it has mattered

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals
In three career playoff series, Freddie Freeman has posted an OPS no higher than .728, including .673 last season. 
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Reds vs. Braves is a matter of strength vs. strength, the pressure on Max Fried and the benefit of home-field advantage for a team defined by its late-game magic

The Reds’ vaunted pitching against the Braves’ high-powered offense.

There’s no denying the storyline that’s on the marquee for the National League Wild Card Series, which gets underway Wednesday at Truist Park, and features the potential league MVP in Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman and its Cy Young winner in Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer.

It’s time for the old adage that in the postseason good pitching beats good hitting to be put to the test.

“This offense, from top to bottom, it’s just incredibly hard to navigate,” Freeman said Tuesday. “They’re going to have to be on their A-game for every single pitch to every single hitter, cause each hitter can take you deep and we can beat you in so many different ways. ... It is true, good pitching is going to shut down good hitting. That’s just how it goes ... but hopefully they’re going to make mistakes and we’re going to be ready for those mistakes.”

With the Braves in the postseason for the third straight year and trying to end nearly two decades of frustration, the Starting Nine has some thoughts with this three-game series about to unfold.

1. Time for Freddie Freeman to be Mr. October

The last time the Braves advanced to the World Series, they were led by the eventual National League MVP. While it will be months before we know whether Freddie Freeman backs up a career season by joining Chipper Jones — the 1999 winner — on that list of MVPs, it’s undeniable the first baseman needs to follow his defining year with a defining postseason.

In the games that followed the first of these three consecutive NL East crowns, Freeman hit .250/.294/.438 against the Dodgers in the League Division Series with one extra-base hit and last season he had a .200/.273/.400 slash line with two extra-base hits against the Cardinals.

Both of those series saw the first baseman drive in one run — himself via home runs — and last year he went hitless three times in the five-game series, the elbow he’d eventually have surgery on playing a major factor.

“I feel great,” Freeman said. There’s no pain. ... It’s been a great year physically after COVID. I haven’t had any aches or pains this whole season. I feel great. Ready to roll. Hopefully it will be a different story this year.”

But if Atlanta is going to advance past the first round for the first time since 2001 — when we were all rooting for those crazy kids Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears to make it and the real political craziness played out on the West Wing — it’s hard to imagine it’s going to happen if Freeman doesn’t change that.

The depth and firepower within this Braves offense has been its biggest strength, as Freeman (1.102), Marcell Ozuna (1.067) and Ronald Acuña Jr. (.987) making it the first team since the 2004 Cardinals with three players with an OPS of .985 or higher. But Freeman has taken full advantage of the potency surrounding him, topping all qualified hitters at 164 percent above league average with runners in scoring position and a .573 wOBA, and his nine go-ahead RBI are tied for the team lead with Ozuna. It’s part of resume that saw him jump to the forefront of the MVP race with a 3.3 fWAR and 187 wRC+.

Freeman has also had success against the starting pitchers the Reds will trot out, hitting .400/.455/.700 with three doubles in 11 plate appearances vs. Bauer, the Game 1 starter and is 3 for 6 against Luis Castillo (Game 2) and 2 for 6 with a double vs. Sonny Gray, who gets the ball for Game 3, if its needed. Oh, and against right-handers this season, Freeman has a 216 wRC+ and .499 wOBA – both best in MLB – and all three of those Cincinnati pitchers are righties.

The stage is set for Freeman to finally deliver in October — where he has yet to be anywhere close to the player that has had no worse than an .841 OPS since 2013, with an OPS of .728, .732 and .673. in three career series.

By comparison, in the six times that Jones, Freeman’s mentor, advanced past the first round, he had one postseason in which he had lower than an .817 OPS – that MVP season – and was over .900 four times.

Freeman has already carved out his place in franchise history, reaching the 1,500-hit plateau this season, has four All-Star appearances under his belt and is the undeniable heart and soul of this generation of Braves baseball.

But it’s time for the next chapter. If any season was primed for it, it’s this one. It’s time for Freddie Freeman to put the franchise on his back and deliver in October.

2. Let’s talk about strength, baby

Bauer wasn’t mincing words when he said Monday “We’re either the best staff in baseball or the second-best staff in baseball, and in the postseason, it’s been proven many times pitching is what carries teams.” The Reds rode their starting staff into the playoffs, tying for second in MLB with a 5.4 fWAR in September and the fourth-best ERA (3.37) and finished the regular season with a 9.6 fWAR (fourth), 3.87 ERA (eighth) and the second-best batting average against (.213). Meanwhile, the Braves’ offense erupted for a 7.2 fWAR in the final month, best in MLB and scored more runs in that stretch (173) than anybody. For Cincinnati’s pitching, it all starts with Bauer, who built his Cy Young case by striking 100 with a league-leading 1.73 ERA, 276 ERA+ and 0.795 WHIP. But along with Freeman’s aforementioned 1.155 OPS against him, Tyler Flowers has a 1.662 vs. Bauer, Adam Duvall is at 1.333 and Ozzie Albies has posted a 1.300 OPS. While the Reds have three starters in the top 21 in starter fWAR — Bauer fourth at 2.5, Castillo sixth at 2.4 and Gray 21st at 1.7 — Atlanta has already faced 11 in all in the top 50 and got to them to a tune of a 4.62 ERA.

3. Pressure’s on Max Fried

The narrative on the Braves rotation has become tired, but largely still true. It is basically Max Fried, then cross your fingers. That’s no offense to Ian Anderson, who has been historically spectacular in his six starts. The right-hander’s 41 strikeouts are the most of any Braves pitcher through their first six appearances and his 1.95 ERA trails David Hale (1.83) for the best mark since the team moved to Atlanta in 1966. But he’s thrown all of 32 1/3 innings, and while Kyle Wright is on a roll with three consecutive quality starts (thanks in no small part to Josh Tomlin’s advice), he’s thrown just one other QS in his previous nine career outings. It’s an inexperienced and untested group, and even Fried for as spectacular as he’s been in 2020, has yet to make a start in the postseason, with his other eight appearances all coming in relief. Fried has been one of MLB’s stingiest pitchers, tying for third at 0.32 HR/9, though his September was forgettable. He registered a 4.91 ERA as he was tagged for a season-high three runs by the Nationals on Sept. 5, then went on the injured list after his outing against the Mets on Sept. 18 and when he returned against the Marlins last week, he gave up his first two homers of the year and left after tweaking his ankle. Fried reported no issues in his Sunday bullpen session, and the Braves are going to need the Max Fried that posted a 1.60 ERA and .199 batting average against through his first eight starts to set the tone for those young arms behind him.

4. Home-Field Matters

The crowds are fake, but the results have been real for home teams in the fan-less 2020. Across MLB, hosts were 500-398, a 55.6 winning percentage that’s tied with 2008 for the second best since 1998 — when the Diamondbacks and Rays came into existence — trailing 2010’s winning percentage of 55.9. The Braves were 19-11 at home, the fewest victories of any division winner, but they scored an average of 6.3 runs per game at Truist Park, tops in the NL and second overall, and have an .868 OPS in Atlanta, which is third overall and second in the circuit to the Dodgers’ .870. Will any of that matter in the postseason? Home-field advantage hasn’t meant much in the eight years of the wild-card era (2012-19), where home teams have gone 7-9 in the winner-take-all format. But considering the Braves are tied for the MLB lead with three walk-off wins in 2020, and since the stadium opened in 2017, the 11 wins to come in the final at-bat at Truist Park is second to Coors Field’s 12 among NL parks, the opportunity at that last at-bat in a regular season where home-field has meant something could become a much bigger factor in in a best-of-three format.

5. Red-hot Ozuna primed for more postseason damage

Freeman was named the NL Player of the Month behind a 220 wRC+ in September, but as great as he was in the month, there was still a fellow Brave that arguably ended the season on a hotter tear. Ozuna, the circuit’s Player of the Week to cap the regular season, hit 123 percent above league average in September, tops in the NL and third overall and hit 10 homers in that stretch, trailing just Duvall’s 11, to become the first Brave since Andruw Jones in 2005 to lead the NL in both HRs (18) and RBI (56). That season, Jones followed up his power-driven year by hitting .526/.571/.947 in the postseason with two doubles, two homers and five RBI. Ozuna has already delivered in Atlanta in October, slashing .417/.500/.583 in three games last season with two doubles and drove in three runs and no one on the Braves’ roster has more experience against current Reds’ arms with 132 plate appearances.

6. Limit the long ball, limit the Reds

Reds hit an MLB-worst .212 in the regular season and are just the third team to ever hold that distinction and still play into October, but they’ve been bolstered by a .191 ISO that trails just the Dodgers (.227), Braves (.215), Padres (.209), Yankees (.200) and White Sox (.192) and the seventh-most homers (90). Therein lies a key for Atlanta, which has allowed 1.18 HR/9, the fifth-best mark in the game and only the Rays (0.87) and Dodgers (0.82) have allowed fewer homers out of the bullpen among playoff teams.

7. Successes of 2019 postseason key for Duvall, Swanson

Freeman, NL home run and RBI leader Ozuna and Acuña — who said Tuesday his wrist issues are more mental than physical at this point — make the offense go-round, and since Sep. 9 they’ve made up the top three spots in the order and have been the second most productive Nos. 1-3 (181 wRC+ in MLB). But it’s the depth of this lineup that is its key and Adam Duvall and Dansby Swanson more than proved they can deliver on the postseason stage last season when they rescued the Braves offense in Game 3 against the Cardinals and had the second (Swanson at .977) and third (Duvall at .879) highest OPS on the team among those who played the entirety of the five game series. Swanson is coming off some September issues with a .175 batting average since Sept. 11 but is in the midst of a career year (116 wRC+) and Duvall hit 16 homers with a .295 ISO that ranked eighth in the NL. That duo’s success in the 2019 NLDS looms large, especially if there’s any rehash of last season when the heart of the order was 5 for 39 with runners in scoring position (.128).

8. The biggest factor in the bullpen is ...

The bullpen dodged a potential setback with Snitker saying Tuesday that Chris Martin will be available after leaving Sunday’s game with right groin discomfort. The righty has been stellar with a 1.00 ERA in 18 innings over 19 games and been a major key for a bullpen that’s second in the NL and fourth overall with a 3.50 ERA and has stranded 76.5 percent of runners (third in MLB), but if there’s an arm to watch in this bullpen in the series, it’s the resurgent A.J. Minter. The lefty has limited southpaw hitters to a .250 average, but he was even better when facing righties, holding them to a .176 average. The Reds are 29th against lefties this season with a paltry 78 wRC+ and their four most common batting orders include five left-handers in Jesse Winker (146 wRC+), Joey Votto (114), Mike Moustakas (109), Shogo Akiyama (85), Tucker Barnhart (80) and switch-hitting Freddy Galvis (91).

9. Prediction time

It’s been nearly a generation since the Braves won a postseason series, with 10 straight early exits since beating the Astros in the 2001 NLDS. Is this team year and the team that ends those years of heartbreak? In the modern era, there’s never been a more prolific offense, with the franchise’s 121 wRC+ the best since 1875. Yes, the rotation has been in disarray since losing Mike Soroka, but Atlanta got the No. 2 seed in the NL despite his season-ending injury and getting all of three innings out of Cole Hamels before he was shut down. It’s a brutal matchup for this offense with the Reds rolling out arguably the toughest 1-3 pitchers in the playoffs if the series goes the distance, but just once this season — Aug. 12-15 — has Atlanta gone through a three-game stretch in which it scored three runs or less and has plated five or more in 16 of the last 26 games and 14 out of 21 in September before clinching the division. The lineup is unmistakably what’s going to fuel the Braves in this series and it’s difficult to see it drying up, even against the Reds pitching. This one’s going the distance, but Atlanta takes the series 2-1 to earn a trip to the Houston bubble.