The old baseball adage contends that “Good pitching beats good hitting.” That will certainly be tested in the 2021 NLDS between the Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves.
Milwaukee ranked in the top three in MLB in most meaningful pitching categories. That included Brewers’ hurlers finishing 2nd in K% (27%), hits-per-nine-innings (7.2 H/9), and opponents’ slugging (.358) and OPS (.655). The staff also ranked 3rd in ERA (3.50), ERA+ (123) and FIP (3.72). In most cases, they trail only the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers in these stats - the two teams with the best records in baseball.
Atlanta enters the postseason scoring 4.91 runs per game, good for 7th in MLB and 3rd in the NL. The only two NL clubs scoring more runs are - you guessed it - the Giants and Dodgers. Braves’ hitters rely on the long ball as their main weapon, blasting the 3rd-most dingers in baseball (239). They also sit in the top half of the league in slugging percentage, OBP and OPS; however, their OPS+ of 96 puts them below average, meaning they are likely getting a boost from their home park.
Regardless, the Braves have a number of dangerous bats with the ability to score every time they step in the box. Their four starting infielders all have 27+ home runs: Austin Riley (33), Freddie Freeman (31), Ozzie Albies (30), and Dansby Swanson (27). Riley and Albies each drove in over 100 runs, while outfielder Adam Duvall led the NL with 113 RBI between the Miami Marlins and Atlanta.
With all that in mind, it’s important to note that part of the Braves’ success apparently comes from swinging at half the pitches they see. Atlanta batters take a hack 49.3% of the time, the 2nd-highest rate in MLB. It’s that sort of aggressiveness that Brewers’ pitchers need to keep in mind and take advantage of throughout the series.
Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and many of the other hurlers have terrific stuff that can make sure those constant swings come up empty more often than not. That’s vital because the Braves will chase bad pitches at a high level, as well. Atlanta hitters have swung at pitches outside of the strike zone 32% of the time. Their 32% O-Swing% is the 4th-highest mark in the NL, giving opposing pitchers plenty of opportunities to get whiffs and weak contact.
Three Braves are in the top-25 (minimum 350 plate appearances) of highest percentage of swings at pitches outside the strike zone (Albies, Duvall and Eddie Rosario). Both Albies and Rosario have an O-Swing% over 38% while Duvall sits at 37.6%. Considering the power potential, Milwaukee would be best served pitching on the edges to get ahead, and then go with the Javy Baez treatment - offering nothing all that close to the strike zone.
Riley and Swanson have 168 and 167 strikeouts respectively. Albies owns a .310 OBP and Swanson finished with a .311 OBP. Duvall, the big-time run producer, has a .228 average, .281 OBP and 174 strikeouts to go with only 35 walks. Once again, why throw these guys (Duvall, especially) much of anything resembling an actual strike? They are swinging often, they are swinging for the fences, and quality stuff should create a ton of punch outs for Brewers’ hurlers.
A pitch like Burnes’ cutter, which he often teeters on the borders of the strike zone, could have an enormous effect on Atlanta’s bats. Unlike many of the Dodgers’ hitters who were able to lay off those pitches on Saturday, the Braves will keep swinging away. That plays right into the hands of Woodruff’s fastball/changeup mix, Freddy Peralta’s slider, Josh Hader’s high heat, and Burnes’...well, everything.
Yes, it’s likely other teams have had similar thoughts and plans to attack Atlanta’s aggressive hitters. Clearly the Braves have had their fair share of success scoring runs and putting their power on display. Of course, how often have they faced the enormous talent they’ll see with Milwaukee’s staff? Not only is there depth with the Brewers’ arms, but the elite levels that some have reached in 2021 creates an even greater challenge for any hitter.
When you have the elite arms like Milwaukee does, you have an immediate edge. The real key will be how many “mistake pitches” they make and how often the Braves make them pay. That is the way - likely the only way - that Atlanta will put up their usual amount of runs.
If the Brewers mostly get ahead in counts and avoid the middle of the plate, the Braves will be hard pressed to lay off the nastiness they’ll see on and off the edges of the zone. Success in the postseason starts and ends with pitching talent, but proper execution is needed to hold down quality offenses and win low-scoring affairs.
So back to the original premise that good pitching beats good hitting. If the Milwaukee Brewers get the usual performances from their pitchers, it would be wise to bet on the pitching 10 times out of 10.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference