Two NL East teams advancing to face each other in the MLB playoffs is no surprise. The fact that the Atlanta Braves are in the NLDS again is anything but shocking. But that they are facing the Miami Marlins -- and not the Phillies, Nationals or Mets -- well, nobody saw that coming.
After rolling through a Wild Card Series sweep of the Cubs, the Marlins will enter this matchup in an underdog role once again. Here's what you need to know as the two NL East foes head to Arlington for their NLDS matchup.
Why this NLDS is worth the hype
If you wanted March Madness in October, the Marlins are for you. This is the Cinderella nobody saw coming getting past a household name in the opening round and hoping to make the run last as long as possible. Sixto Sanchez is must-watch when he's on the mound for Miami as the emerging ace of a dynamic young pitching staff. Starling Marte came over at the trade deadline and adds a multitalented skill set to the lineup. Not many people expected to see the Marlins here, but this team is still a lot of fun to watch.
Atlanta's offense is as good as any in the majors. Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies are two of the most exciting players in the game, and Freddie Freeman is a top candidate for NL MVP honors. The big question mark is the pitching, but if you haven't seen Max Fried and rookie Ian Anderson yet, you are in for a treat.
Numbers to know
Series odds: Braves have a 70.7% chance of winning series. (Odds courtesy of ESPN's Bradford Doolittle)
Season series: Braves won 6-4
Game 1: Tuesday, Oct. 6, FS1 or MLBN
Game 2: Wednesday, Oct. 7, FS1 or MLBN
Game 3: Thursday, Oct. 8, FS1 or MLBN
Game 4: Friday, Oct. 9, FS1 or MLBN (if necessary)
Game 5: Saturday, Oct. 10, FS1 or MLBN (if necessary)
How they got here
Braves: Led by their high-scoring offense, the Braves cruised to the NL East crown with a 35-25 record that netted them the No. 2 seed in the National League. With Freeman and Acuna leading the way, Atlanta finished second in the majors in runs scored with just one fewer than the MLB-best Los Angeles Dodgers.
Wild Card Series: Defeated Cincinnati 2-0
Marlins: The Marlins were 300-1 to win the World Series when odds posted for the season restart in July. There were questions about whether or not the team would actually be able to complete a season when a COVID-19 outbreak hit the clubhouse. But Miami's young pitching and emerging lineup continued to defy odds and locked up the National League's No. 6 seed as the NL East's second-best team behind the Braves.
Wild Card Series: Defeated Chicago 2-0
Keys for the Braves
1. Max Fried and Ian Anderson need to be great again.
Against the Reds, Fried tossed seven scoreless innings and Anderson tossed six scoreless innings. That picks up from what they did in the regular season, when Fried went 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA and Anderson went 3-2 with a 1.95 ERA in the first six starts of his career. What's interesting is how they do it. While high-spin fastballs are all the rage, Fried and Anderson both rely on low-spin fastballs (Fried ranks in the bottom 12th percentile of fastball spin while Anderson in the ninth percentile). This creates late sink and induces soft contact: Indeed, Fried ranked in the 98th percentile in hard-hit and Anderson in the 80th, which helps explain why Fried allowed just two home run in 56 innings and Anderson one in 32.1. (Anderson also mixes in a low-spin curveball that has been effective.)
The problem for the Braves is that while those two started 100% of the games against the Reds, they may only start 40% of this series if it goes five games. The rest of the rotation? A big problem, which is why the Braves finished 28th in the majors in rotation ERA. Kyle Wright is probably the No. 3 starter after finishing the regular season with two good outings (two runs in 13 innings against the Mets and Red Sox), but after that it might be a whole lot of relievers. That's not a worst-case scenario given the depth of the Atlanta bullpen -- we saw how deep it is in that 13-inning game -- but that also means it's imperative Fried and Anderson give some length in their outings so the bullpen can go full bore the rest of the series.
2. Watch the strikeouts.
We know how powerful this lineup is. With help from that 29-run game against the Marlins, they finished just behind the Dodgers for most runs per game in the majors, setting a modern franchise record with 5.80. Freeman, Marcell Ozuna and Acuna finished second, third and sixth in the majors in wOBA, and there is plenty of depth with Travis d'Arnaud, Albies, Adam Duvall and Dansby Swanson.
If the offense has one potential Achilles' heel, however, it's that the Braves do strike out a lot. They had the third-most whiffs in the majors (21st overall in strikeout rate) and we saw Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo carve them up in the wild-card round. The heart of the order is tough to navigate though, as Freeman actually had more walks than strikeouts and Ozuna had a below-average strikeout rate while walking a career-best 14.2% of the time. There was a lot of bad pitching in the NL East this year, but the Braves won't be facing the back end of the Mets' or Nationals' staff like they did in the regular season. In fact, while they slugged over .500 against the Mets, Nationals and Phillies, they were under .500 against the Marlins despite that 29-run run outburst and hit just .239/.316/.420 in 20 games against the AL East.
3. Will Mark Melancon lock down the ninth inning?
The Braves finished fourth in the majors with a 3.40 bullpen ERA and maybe that even undersells things a little bit because of the seven relievers who appeared against the Reds, only Will Smith had a season ERA on the wrong side of 3.00 (he allowed seven home runs in 16 innings). They have flexibility with Tyler Matzek, Smith and Grant Dayton from the left side and a deep group from the right side. What's interesting is the closer is arguably the least dominant of the group, as Melancon had just 14 strikeouts in 22⅔ innings. Melancon was 11 for 13 in save opportunities in the regular season, but he did allow just one home run on the year and tossed two 1-2-3 innings against the Reds. Still, he's the type of closer you feel like you have a chance against, and he did blow the first game of last year's division series against the Cardinals when he allowed four runs.
Keys for the Marlins
1. Follow the Reds' pitching roadmap
With a couple of days off, the Marlins can reset their rotation before kicking things off with Atlanta, with Sandy Alcantara and Sixto Sanchez ready to match up with Max Fried and Ian Anderson. That will be two really good matchups composed of four really young starting pitchers. The Marlins need to hold their own in this area, because their bullpen is not as good as that of the Braves.
However, if Miami can take one of the first two games, you can argue that the starting pitching matchups after that might swing in their favor. That would have been the case for the Reds had they been able to muster the modicum of offense that their pitchers needed to bring home a win to set up a deciding Game 3.
As dynamic as Alcantara and Sanchez have been at times, and promise to be in the future, they are not established at the level of Cincinnati's Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo. Bauer and Castillo went about attacking the Atlanta lineup in different ways, which makes sense. Bauer throws about 26 different pitches, but a changeup isn't one of them, at least not very often. For Castillo, it's all about setting up one of baseball's best change-of-pace offerings.
All of the Marlins' probable starting options feature changeups, with Sanchez and Pablo Lopez throwing them as often during the season as Castillo. However, Castillo slashed the usage of his change to about 19% during his outing in the wild-card round, 10% below his norm. The reason for that might have been that Atlanta's lineup is full of mashers who get fat by sniffing out offspeed stuff: Freeman, Ozuna, Duvall and Austin Riley combined for a 1.152 OPS against changeups during the season.
Castillo pitched well by laying of a bit off his bread-and-butter pitch. The Marlins hurlers might have to do the same, but it's going to be a delicate balance. No team in baseball did more damage off fastballs than Atlanta during the season. That balance might be found in videos of how Bauer and Castillo approached their outings.
2. Don't follow the Reds' hitting roadmap
ERA doesn't always tell the full story, but Atlanta's collective 0.00 ERA over 22 innings against the Reds during the wild-card round tells you all you need to know about that series. Given the strength of the Reds' pitching, which manifested against the Braves, and the strength of the Atlanta offense, which mostly struggled until they got to Raisel Iglesias in Game 2, that figured to be the heavyweight matchup of the series. If so, the Reds probably won that matchup, and yet if you don't score, you don't win. As Bauer suggested, you can't blame the pitchers.
The Marlins' offense is not the Reds' offense. It's more aggressive, far less dependent on homers (as is every other offense in baseball history), does more on the basepaths. Cincinnati's approach has been baffling all season, particularly when you consider how cutting edge its pitching operation is. Reds batters act as if someone heard the term "launch angle" on television, and that's as far as they got.
Atlanta's pitchers, particularly starters Fried and Anderson, inundated Reds hitters with soft stuff down and away, often off the plate, mixed with high, hard stuff. It's a classic formula, of course, but the keys were the mix: More soft than hard, more off the plate than in the zone.
Miami's approach against soft and breaking stuff during the season was to simply not try to do too much with it. The Marlins ranked 28th in isolated power against those pitches, but they were 10th in batting average and third in BABIP. They didn't try to crank everything out of the yard but, instead, tried to simply put the bat on the ball. It's the anti-Reds approach.
The unfortunate part of this plan is that as we've seen time and again, stringing together hits during the postseason is a tough way to put up runs. So when the Marlins get guys on base, they'll need someone like Jesus Aguilar, Brian Anderson or Garrett Cooper to muscle up, Reds-style.
3. Get Starling Marte healthy
The Marlins probably aren't better than the Cubs, given a large enough sample of games. But they are closer to Chicago than they are to Atlanta, and Chicago's current level might be closer to that of Miami than that of the Braves. The thing is, the Braves are just really good and after battling injuries all season, they have enough of their key weapons in place to be the Dodgers' biggest threat in the National League. (Especially given the injuries in the San Diego rotation.)
It goes without saying that the Marlins need all of their weapons. When Marte suffered a non-displaced fracture after being struck with a pitch in Game 1 against the Cubs, it might have taken Miami's best position player out of the mix. Hopes remain that he can play through the injury, but the Marlins closed out Chicago with Marte watching from the dugout.
Miami has a fraction of the firepower of the Braves, at least among position players. Marte helps close that gap a little bit. Any hope for Miami to pull off the upset relies on keeping scores low and hoping for one key, multi-run blow from one of their veteran hitters. Marte is among their most likely sources to provide such a blow.