The Braves will try to keep rolling against a tough opponent as they start a long homestand
After a 4-2 road trip that saw the Braves vie for two sweeps but fall short each time, they’re headed home to kick off a four-game set against a potent NL contender: the St. Louis Cardinals. The perpetually-competitive Redbirds are up to their old tricks in 2022, sitting squarely in the tier of playoff contenders with their 44-36 record (that will become 44-37 if they fall to the Phillies on Sunday night). That puts them 1.5 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central, with a 2.5-game lead over the Giants for the NL’s final playoff spot.
The Cardinals made most of their seasonal hay in May, going 17-12. Since then, they’ve played .500ish ball, and unless they come back against the Phillies tonight, they’ve won just one of their last five series. Overall, they’re a club with a potent position player corps: they rank seventh in wRC+ (Braves are eighth), 13th in defensive value (Braves are 19th), and fifth in total position player value (Braves are eighth). Where they’ve fallen short, though, has been their pitching — their arms rank 21st in MLB in fWAR, with a mediocre bullpen and a bottom 10 rotation. (Another potential team weakness: they’re bottom 10 in xwOBA but top 10 in wOBA, because of course they are; only the Rockies, who are always a special case because of their home ballpark, have a bigger wOBA-xwOBA gap right now.)
The St. Louis rotation has been a real mixed bag. Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright, the latter of whom the Braves will miss in this series, have been quite good. But the Cardinals have used nine other starters already beyond those two, and all of the other guys have ranged from okay to horrid. On the relief end, Ryan Helsey has been unhittable, and Giovanny Gallegos has been good, but everyone else is again, meh to awful.
Offensively, though, the Braves’ top-tier pitching staff is going to have its work cut out for it — especially if the Cardinals can keep defying their xwOBA. The combination of Paul Goldschmidt (second in MLB in fWAR with 4.2), Nolan Arenado (4.1), and Tommy Edman (3.6) gives the Cardinals three position players in the top 10 in fWAR. No other team even has two. (The Dodgers have three in the top 15, though; the Braves have two in the top 30.) Both Arenado and Goldschmidt are outhitting their xwOBAs to an insane degree (.450–>.396 for Goldy, .382—>.344 for Arenado). A few youngsters (Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman) have also chipped in. Truly, one of the only reasons why the Cardinals aren’t just pummeling the league offensively is because of how bad the combination of Albert Pujols, Corey Dickerson, Andrew Knizner, Lars Nootbaar, and Paul DeJong have been. Those five guys have combined for -2.0 fWAR in about a fifth of the team’s total PAs; at least from the Cardinals’ perspective, DeJong is in the minors and Dickerson is shelved with a calf injury right now.
Overall, the Braves have the on-paper edge in this series because they’re able to throw a much better array of starters than the Cardinals can match… but don’t count the devil magic out. The Braves can’t afford to relax, given that this series has relatively large playoff position implications.
Monday, July 4, 7:20 pm ET
Dakota Hudson (15 GS, 80 IP, 95 ERA-, 114 FIP-, 116 xFIP-, 122ish xERA-, 0.5 fWAR)
Extreme groundball guy Dakota Hudson will get the start for St. Louis in the opener. Hudson’s profile has made him a consistent peripherals-beater to date, something that’s held true even if you look at quality of contact measures. This year, he’s finally found a way to reduce the longball, but his peripherals are even worse than ever, which makes him a weird guy to think about in terms of what he might do in the future. Hudson’s season has been inconsistent so far — he had three starts, starting with May 27, where he had a 12/6 K/BB ratio and allowed just two total runs; in the three starts afterwards, he allowed 13 runs with a 7/10 K/BB ratio. Most recently, he held the Marlins to three runs in five innings.
Hudson last faced the Braves in the regular season back in 2019, when he had a very Hudson-esque 2/2 K/BB ratio and two runs allowed in 6 1⁄3 innings. He also started Game 4 of the NLDS in that series against the Braves, and again had a 2/2 K/BB ratio, along with four runs (one earned) yielded in 5 1⁄3 innings. The Redbirds won both games.
Kyle Wright (15 GS, 92 IP, 71 ERA-, 77 FIP-, 84 xFIP-, 81ish xERA-, 2.1 fWAR)
It’s now July, and Kyle Wright is still a top-20 pitcher in MLB by fWAR, which is still crazy if you think about preseason expectations for the right-hander. Wright had a couple of starts in the middle of June where he got BABIPed despite good peripherals, and then had a not-so-good outing against the Giants. His most recent outing, against the Phillies, was a bit of revenge for those recent tribulations, as he had just a 4/3 K/BB ratio and allowed a homer, but went seven innings and allowed just that solo homer run. It was his third-worst start of the season by both FIP and xFIP, but a good outing results-wise, so it’s balanced the scales a bit. Wright has never faced the Cardinals in his young career.
Tuesday, July 5, 7:20 pm ET
Andre Pallante (23 G, 5 GS, 55 2⁄3 IP, 52 ERA-, 105 FIP-, 98 xFIP-, 90ish xERA-, 0.2 fWAR)
23-year-old rookie right-hander Andre Pallante will make his sixth career start in Game Two. Pallante made the Opening Day roster for St. Louis, but worked in relief until ascending to the rotation in June. He is yet another extreme groundball guy with underwhelming peripherals, but has gotten by on strand rate and not allowing a lot of homers. Most recently, he allowed two runs in seven innings to the Marlins, with just a 2/1 K/BB ratio. He’s yet to strike out more than five batters in an outing.
Pallante has an incredibly weird four-seam fastball that lacks essentially any horizontal movement, and also sinks like crazy despite its grip.
Ian Anderson (15 GS, 76 1⁄3 IP, 124 ERA-, 114 FIP-, 108 xFIP-, 96ish xERA-, 0.4 fWAR)
Anderson’s third season in the majors is proving to be a challenging one, as the right-hander hasn’t really looked right since suffering a shoulder injury in the middle of 2021, and has struggled to find any kind of consistency in 2022. He’s yet to have back-to-back starts with an xFIP below 4.00, and what’s really killed him are the blow-ups: in 15 tries this year, he has four starts with an FIP between 4.00 and 5.00, and another six where it was 5.00 or above. Things came to a head for Anderson in his last outing, as the Phillies dealt him a career-worst outing in which he lasted just two innings and 14 batters. The Braves don’t appear to be changing course in any respect, and this could be a brutal matchup with him and the Cardinals attack — or he could surprise everyone and pull a run-prevention rabbit out of his hat. Like Wright, Anderson has never faced the Cardinals in his career.
Wednesday, July 6, 7:20 pm ET
Miles Mikolas (16 GS, 100 IP, 65 ERA-, 90 FIP-, 96 xFIP-, 83ish xERA-, 1.8 fWAR)
The Cardinals will throw yet another peripherals-beater at the Braves in Game Three, in the form of current staff ace Miles Mikolas. The righty wowed in his return from Japan in 2018 (4.2 fWAR), but was mediocre and/or injured after that, but is back with a bit of a vengeance this year. Unlike Hudson and Pallante, Mikolas manages contact without getting the ball on the ground — he pretty much just avoids the barrel without really changing the angle of contact. Combined with a low walk rate, that’s worked for him this year, though again (there’s that devil magic), a low HR/FB and elevated strand rate have helped him run-prevent like crazy.
The Phillies jumped all over Mikolas in his last start, giving him his worst FIP and second-worst xFIP outing of the year. Mikolas has faced the Braves a few times in his career, helped beat them in Game 1 of the 2019 NLDS, and closed out Game 4 as well.
Max Fried (16 GS, 101 1⁄3 IP, 62 ERA-, 65 FIP-, 72 xFIP-, 66ish xERA-, 3.1 fWAR)
What more can we say about Max Fried at this point? The southpaw is currently second in MLB (first in the NL) in fWAR, hasn’t had a start with an FIP above 2.62 in over a month, and hasn’t had a start with an xFIP of 4.00 or higher all year. He’s allowed four runs twice and five runs once in his 16 outings; half of his starts have featured allowing zero or one runs to the opposing team. And he’s got the peripherals to match.
Fried manhandled the Cardinals last year (13 innings, 13/3 K/BB ratio, one total run allowed). He also had one of his best starts ever against them in 2018, where he set his yet-to-be-broken career high in strikeouts with 11. We’ll try not to focus on the 2019 NLDS, when he didn’t get to start against them for some reason.
Thursday, July 7, 7:20 pm ET
Matthew Liberatore (5 GS, 20 2⁄3 IP, 141 ERA-, 139 FIP-, 131 xFIP-, 157ish xERA-, -0.1 fWAR)
The Cardinals are currently planning on starting promising southpaw Matthew Liberatore in the series finale, and Liberatore has not had a good time in the majors so far. Actually, that kind of obscures the story. In five starts, Liberatore has alternated awful shellings and scoreless, five-inning outings with fine peripherals. He’s technically due for the latter if the pattern holds, and his issues do seem to be about him than the opposition: he was blasted by the Pirates in his MLB debut, but then shut them down three weeks later.
Liberatore has a beautiful slow curve, but hasn’t shown much else of interest so far, and as always, his command has been a real battle for him so far.
Spencer Strider (18 G, 7 GS, 59 2⁄3 IP, 67 ERA-, 52 FIP-, 64 xFIP-, 75ish xERA-, 1.9 fWAR)
Like Fried, you probably know all about the mustachioed fireballer named Spencer Strider at this point. Since ascending to the rotation on May 30, Strider ranks ninth in MLB in fWAR in that span, tied with overall MLB fWAR leader Kevin Gausman. He’s struck out 11 batters twice in his last four starts, has issued a total of five walks in his last five starts, and is just generally awesome. This should be an interesting test for Strider — the Cardinals have a contact-heavy approach and tend to chase and spoil pitches a lot, which could mean either that Strider can get ahead early and then carve them up, or be frustrated by an inability to put them away. We’ll see.