Michael Cunningham: Braves can flip script and beat great pitching with great hitting

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Conventional baseball wisdom holds (and statistical evidence generally confirms) that great pitching beats great hitting in the postseason. There’s nothing conventional about a 60-game sprint to a 16-team playoff that begins with a best-of-three wild-card round. Maybe this is a year when great pitching doesn’t beat great hitting, which would be good for the Braves in their series against the Reds starting Wednesday.

“I think it still does,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said Tuesday. “I don’t know if that is ever going to change, in my opinion. If you are playing a baseball game, that applies.

“We have a really good lineup. It’s deep. We’ve had a lot of success. But we are going to face guys that are really, really good.”

OK, then, let’s try this. No doubt the Reds have three strong starters: Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Aaron Gray. But those pitchers haven’t faced the Braves this season, which was another quirk of the shortened schedule.

Isn’t that an advantage for Braves hitters?

“I think the edge goes to pitchers,” Snitker said.

Snitker has every reason to spin a tale about the Braves’ powerful bats overwhelming Cincinnati’s starters. Maybe he believes they can do that but doesn’t want to say so publicly. I think he’s just being realistic.

Braves slugger Freddie Freeman rightly calls lefty Max Fried “one of the best in the game.” Cincinnati’s trio has been better. Among MLB starters, Bauer and Castillo ranked among the top five in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement this season. Gray tied for 23rd. Fried tied for 28th.

The Reds pitchers have been more valuable than Fried because they strike out batters at a much higher rate. That’s key for postseason success. Hitters rarely make good contact on Fried’s pitches, but strikeouts keep balls out of play and strand runners on base. Bauer and Castillo especially get a lot of swinging strikes.

But one reason Braves hitters are a tough group is that they don’t strike out much for a power-hitting team, and they walk plenty. There was a time this season when the Braves were all-or-nothing, power or punch outs, but they eventually formed a well-rounded offensive machine.

The Braves finished 19th in the majors for strikeout percentage but second in extra-base hit rate (21.5%), tied for ninth in walk rate (10.2%) and first in on-base percentage (34.9). The Dodgers edged the Braves by one run for most scored in the majors. No other MLB team came close to matching the Braves for offense across those categories.

The Braves are a terror at the top of the lineup. Freeman and Marcell Ozuna ranked second and fourth, respectively, in adjusted on-base percentage plus slugging. Ronald Acuna was 17th, and catcher Travis d’Arnaud would have tied for 29th if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. The Padres are the only MLB team with three qualifying hitters among the top 30 in adjusted OPS, and those players were well behind Freeman and Ozuna.

The Braves lineup is deep: six hitters posted an adjusted OPS higher than league average and Ozzie Albies came close. The plate discipline is strong: five Braves regulars had strikeout and walk rates that were much better than MLB average. Their best hitters, Freeman and Ozuna, struck out less and walked much more often than league average while combining to hit 31 homers and 37 doubles with 109 RBIs.

There don’t appear to be any health issues that will weaken the Braves lineup. A sore elbow limited Freeman during the 2019 National League Division Series. Freeman said he “feels great” now, and you can believe him this time because his performance matches his health assessment. Acuna was scratched from Sunday’s game, but Snitker declared him “fine” for Game 1.

The Braves have a healthy and deep lineup of hitters who get on base even when they aren’t bashing the ball. That’s not easy to navigate, even for quality pitchers such as Bauer, Castillo and Gray.

“It is true that good pitching is going to shut down good hitting,” Freeman said. “But I think when you have to throw 100 to 110 pitches and every single one has to be mentally on your A-1 game, it’s tiring. Hopefully they make some mistakes and we take advantage.”

The obvious caveat for the Braves’ sparkling offense is that some of it came against subpar pitchers. The Reds have no weak link. Should the Braves advance, the Marlins are the only potential opponent with fewer than three good starters. But the Braves have proved they can generate offense against even the best pitchers, and it’s not always their top hitters doing the damage.

Nationals ace Max Scherzer gave up a season-high six runs to the Braves, including homers by Adam Duvall and Albies. Phillies right-hander Aaron Nola held the Braves to a run over eight innings Aug. 10; 11 days later, they sent him to his shortest outing of the season with four runs over 2-2/3 innings (homers by Travis d’Arnaud and Ozuna). Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom needed 104 pitches to make it through six innings in one of his two starts against the Braves.

Fried signs on to the notion that Braves hitters are so good they can flip the script about great pitching beating great pitching.

“Being able to see it for the last couple of years, how dynamic they can be, the talent they have with the approaches, how much they want this — I feel pretty good about the offense,” Fried said.

He should. I still don’t believe the Braves can make a deep postseason run with their thin rotation. Fried might be rusty after pitching only 11 innings this month because of injury. He should be OK, at worst. There’s just too much uncertainty after him.

Starters Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright have thin resumes, so it’s hard to know what they’ll provide. No off-days during the first three rounds means Snitker can’t lean heavily on his quality bullpen. If the Braves can ride their bats and bullpen to victory in the wild-card round, it’s hard to see that continuing in the best-of-five Division and best-of-seven Championship Series.

Still, it’s easy to see how the Braves can make my view, and the conventional wisdom, wrong. If they can score enough against tough starters and feast on relievers, their great offense can beat great pitching often enough to make a run during this unusual October.

“You’d like to think that,” Snitker said. “These guys are really good. It’s a really good lineup. We’ve worked really hard the last few years to put together a lineup and we have one. It’s legit.”


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