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Starting Nine: Storylines, players and stats to define Braves, Brewers’ NLDS clash

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Milwaukee’s starting pitching (and Josh Hader) figure to be a major test for Atlanta, which will look to its homer-bashing lineup to make a return to the NLCS.

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins
Austin Riley led the Braves with a 1.019 OPS against the Brewers during the regular season, while Freddie Freeman posted a .974 OPS in those matchups. 
Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Just getting in was difficult enough given that all the Braves had to overcome. But with another National League East title in hand, the mission now turns to getting the bad taste out of their mouths after finishing one wain from the World Series last season.

The 95-win, NL Central champion Brewers stand in Atlanta’s way, as they meet in the Division Series, beginning Friday in Milwaukee, an almost fitting matchup in the year we lost Hank Aaron with the franchise he wrote his legend (the Braves) vs. the city (Milwaukee) he began his career and the team (Brewers) where he played his final games.

If you’re looking for a good omen for the Braves, you’re in luck. This marks their fourth consecutive division crown, and the last time they were riding a streak of four in a row was 1995, they year they won it all.

If you’re looking for something a little more concrete in your analysis, you’re also in luck, as we dive into storylines, players, and stats in this NLDS primer.

Storylines

1. Brewers starters vs. Braves bats

There is no bigger storyline in this series, as the Braves lineup will likely have to solve the three-headed monster of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta if they’re going to make a return to the NL Championship Series. Burnes, the potential NL Cy Young winner, is the first Brewers pitcher to win the ERA title (2.43) in going 11-5 with 12.61 K/9 and a pitcher-best 7.5 fWAR. Not far behind, Woodruff fanned 10.59 per nine with a 2.56 ERA, 4.7 fWAR and 9-10 record and Peralta posted a 2.81 ERA and 4.0 fWAR with 12.16 K/9 and a 10-5 mark. That trio helped give the Brewers the majors’ second-best rotation fWAR (20.3), just behind the Dodgers’ 20.4 and no starting staff gave up fewer home runs at 77. The Braves were largely defined by the long ball this season, ranking second in the NL and third overall with 239, which included an infield that became just the second in MLB history with 25 or more at first base, second, third and shortstop. Adam Duvall hit 38 in all (second in the NL), and Jorge Soler smacked 27 between the Royals and Braves. It bodes well for Atlanta that it did have success against two Milwaukee’s starters in the regular season, piling up five runs in nine hits vs. Burnes on July 30 — chasing him after four innings — while getting to Woodruff for three runs on eight hits July 31. The Braves also homered off each of them in those starts. They didn’t fare quite so well vs. Peralta, who held the Braves scoreless over six innings May 16, fanning eight.

2. How much does momentum matter?

It took until the next to the last series of the season for the Braves to realize their rise from seven games back in the National League East to a championship. The Brewers, meanwhile, led the NL Central by as many as 14 games in a relative cakewalk that was finally cut to five games thanks to streak the historically hot Cardinals rode to the postseason. Atlanta was basically in playoff mode for nearly two months, taking over the division lead on Aug. 15, then needing to fend off the Phillies (a series the Braves swept) to punch their ticket. That mindset matters, and so does production. From July 31-on, only six teams have scored more runs than the Braves, while the Brewers are 18th in that category. In that same span, Atlanta’s pitching staff has posted a 3.38 ERA (third in MLB) to Milwaukee’s 3.84 and the Braves starters have posted a slightly better WHIP (1.05, second overall) than the Brewers (1.11, which is third). Maybe the Brewers are just good enough behind that trio of elite starters, to just flip the switch now that the regular season is over, but they had plenty of issues since mid-September, dropping 12 of 17. The Braves, meanwhile, were winners of 12 of their last 14.

3. The new guys

When these teams last met on July 31 — an 8-1 Atlanta win — it was the first time the Braves trotted out an outfield made entirely of deadline acquisitions. Adam Duvall manned left field that day, with Joc Pederson in center and Jorge Soler in right. The Braves proceeded to get to Woodruff for three runs in 5 1/3 that day. That didn’t include the other trade pickup in Eddie Rosario, who has hit .271/.330/.573 with seven home runs, four doubles and two triples in 96 PAs. The quartet of pickups have given Atlanta the second-best outfield ISO (.244) in the majors and the most homers (40) since July 31. These teams may have met five times, but only once did Milwaukee see most of the Braves’ new-look outfield, and it has yet to face off against it with Rosario added to the mix. Duvall, Pederson, Rosario, and Soler were crucial in Atlanta going 35-18 from the deadline-on and going from five back in the East to another division crown. Expect them to loom equally large in this series.

Players To Watch

4. Charlie Morton (Braves) & Corbin Burnes (Brewers)

We’re going to cheat a bit here and lump together the Game 1 starters. Burnes, as previously mentioned, may be picking up some hardware this winter as the NL’s top arm. He’s had a fantastic season, which includes a FIP (1.65) that’s second only to Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez in the divisional era. But he hasn’t pitched in the postseason in three years, and while he’s made six appearances, he’s never done so as a starter on this stage. He’ll be countered in the opener by Charlie Morton, who was brought to Atlanta for this exact purpose: to set the tone for a postseason rotation. The 37-year-old has made 13 October starts, including four last season in helping the Rays to an American League pennant and two more World Series starts with the Astros in 2017. The man has seen it, done it, and thrived doing so. The right-hander heads into the postseason riding the wave of his best work of the year with a 2.60 ERA in 34 2/3 September/October innings with a .211 batting average against. The Brewers have their biggest gun going in Burnes, and Morton is going to have to answer him at every turn.

5. Freddie Freeman (Braves)

The reigning NL MVP overcame his slowest start in five years — hitting a “mere” 15 percent above league average through June — with the best second half he’s had in a full season since, coincidentally, that same year of 2016, as Freddie Freeman has 144 wRC+ post-All-Star break. From July-on, only the Giants’ Brandon Crawford (.344), the Nationals’ Juan Soto (.342) and Dodgers/Nationals’ Trea Turner (.338), have out hit Freeman and his .337 average across both leagues and his .416 on-base percentage trails Soto (.515), the Phillies’ Bryce Harper (.456) and Dodgers’ Corey Seager (.417). Freeman penned a different kind of postseason, posting a .954 OPS after a .699 in the Braves’ previous two playoffs, and set the stage for more success with a strong regular season vs. the Brewers. He hit .320/.414/.560 with two home runs and seven RBI, a .974 OPS that was bested among Braves against Milwaukee by only Austin Riley’s 1.019 (more on him later), and no one slugged higher in those games than Freeman did.

6. Josh Hader (Brewers)

There’s not a better reliever in the NL than Hader, who led the circuit with a 2.6 fWAR and 1.69 FIP, while ranking second in ERA (1.23) and fourth in saves with 34. He fanned a ridiculous 15.65 per nine, with right-handers hitting .125 against him, while lefties batted .133. Dig into that fastball, which registered a 40 percent whiff rate, and he limited opponents to a .097 BAA. Freeman is the only Braves player to hit a home run off Hader — doing so May 18, 2019 — but that’s his only hit in five plate appearances. Collectively, Atlanta’s lineup is slashing .125/.163/.200 against him with 19 strikeouts. You can make the case that Braves have an answer for most of what the Brewers can throw at them, but Hader is the one player Atlanta may not be able to counter. It seems obvious that the Braves’ best chance is to keep Hader from opportunities to lock things down, which is going to mean clawing out some level of success against those vaunted starters.

Stats That Matter

7. Riley’s 146 wRC+ vs. right-handed pitching

Going from a potential breakout player to an NL MVP challenger is reason to enough to key in on Austin Riley, but so too is the damage he’s done against right-handed pitchers considering the Brewers will start three of them in Burnes, Woodruff and Peralta. Riley has 146 wRC+ against righties (compared to 98 vs. left-handers) and had a 1.019 OPS in 27 plate appearances in those regular-season matchups with Milwaukee. That included a home run off Burnes on July 30 at Truist Park, part of a second half in which Riley was even better against righties at 72 percent above league average. Only the Nationals’ Juan Soto (235), Phillies’ Bryce Harper (233) and Reds’ Joey Votto (188) topped the Atlanta third baseman, and it couldn’t be more crucial, with the Brewers starters holding right-handed hitters to a paltry .268 wOBA and .211 average, marks that are second best in the majors. That includes a .174 batting average against vs. Peralta, .179 vs. Burnes and .219 against Woodruff. Adrian Houser (.192) and Eric Lauer (.211), who could also see significant innings as well, have also been deadly vs. righties. Riley keeping up his mojo against right-handers figures to be a major key if the Braves are to advance.

8. Yelich’s 1.5 fWAR & Bradley’s minus-0.8 fWAR

Interesting note about Christian Yelich. His stepfather, Tom Battista, is the California crosschecker that scouted Freeman and ultimately got him to sign with the Braves. That connection and both Freeman and Yelich both being former MVPs is pretty much where the similarities end for the two of late. After back-to-back 7-fWAR seasons in 2018 and ‘19, Yelich had a mere 0.7 fWAR last season and slashed .248/.362/.373 with nine home runs for a 1.5 fWAR this year that is a career low for any full season. Meanwhile, Jackie Bradley Jr., who the Brewers signed to a two-year, $24 million deal in March, is following suit in hitting .163/.236/.261 for a minus-0.8 fWAR season, the worst for a once 5-fWAR player in any of his full seasons. This remaining a top-10 Brewers offense despite two major pieces having lackluster seasons speaks to this team’s depth, even if they haven’t been quite as explosive as the Braves. Whether Bradley and Yelich, with their track records, can break out of their year-long slumps at the perfect time for Milwaukee is a subplot that could spell trouble for the Braves.

9. Bullpen fWAR (3.6 vs. 3.2 fWAR) in favor of Braves

Despite the presence of Hader, the Braves’ bullpen has been statistically better. Atlanta’s 3.6 fWAR tops the Brewers’ 3.2 and so does the 3.97 ERA (Milwaukee is at 4.02 in that department). The Braves have been more impressive since the All-Star break, ranking fourth in MLB with a 3.24 ERA, while the Brewers are 18th (4.35). Hader has still been dominant since mid-July, holding opponents to a .122 average that’s second best overall, but the Braves’ Tyler Matzek doesn’t rank far behind with .154 BAA, and Will Smith (.180) and A.J. Minter (.186) give Atlanta two more relievers in the top 40 in opponents average in that stretch. Add in Luke Jackson’s 2.35 ERA (41st post-break) and Smith, despite his cardiac tendencies, leading baseball in second-half saves with 19, and it’s a group that has been stronger than it has been given credit for. The Brewers are also going to be missing a key component in Airbender-wielding Devin Williams, who broke his hand punching a wall, and will look to Brent Suter and Brad Boxberger in setup roles. Brewers relievers allowed the second most home runs per nine (1.9) since mid-September, a trend the Braves’ bats would no doubt like to continue.