The Milwaukee Brewers find themselves in a position they haven’t been in for a long time: playoff series favorites.
They also come into their National League Division Series with the Braves after a long layoff.
That means momentum may not be as big a factor — which honestly could be a good thing for the Brewers, given the way they eased off the accelerator at the end of the season.
Atlanta may have won a weak National League East division this year, but their second-half surge made it clear that they are a good team that’s capable of beating the Brewers, especially in a short series.
Your 2021 Atlanta #Braves NLDS Roster:#BattleATL pic.twitter.com/bvYt87KgLx— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) October 8, 2021
As we noted in our review of the first 6 games between these two teams this year, this is a lineup that was truly remade at the trade deadline. The Braves traded for four (!!) outfielders in Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario and Joc Pederson and a catcher in old friend Stephen Vogt. The lineups the Brewers faced in the first three or four games are nothing like the ones they’ll see in the next week.
Despite losing Ronald Acuna, Jr. in mid-July to a fluke torn ACL while trying to make a jumping catch (while Acuna was in the middle of a possible MVP season) and losing Marcell Ozuna earlier in the year, Atlanta’s proactive moves helped them go 44-28 in the second half of the season — including 18-8 in August — while the rest of the division collapsed around them.
Soler has been especially good, shining with a .269/.358/.524 line in Atlanta with 14 home runs and 11 doubles in 55 games. Duvall hasn’t hit nearly as well, but has provided plenty of pop with 16 home runs and 7 doubles in 55 games despite hitting just .226/.287/.513. It’s the kind of sudden power that might flip the script in a short series with a bunch of low-scoring games.
With all the new additions, it might actually be easy to forget sometimes that Atlanta has the reigning National League MVP sitting in the middle of their order. Freddie Freeman finished the year hitting .300/.393/.503 with 31 home runs and 25 doubles. Ozzie Albies also provided 30 home runs while driving in 106, but struggled to get on base consistently with a .259/.310/.488 overall line. Similarly, Dansby Swanson brought plenty of power — as the Brewers saw earlier this year, when he drove in 7 runs in a game — falling just short of being the fourth Atlanta player with 30 home runs this year, with 27.
But the breakout star for the Braves this year may have been Austin Riley. The third baseman hit .303/.367/.531 with 33 home runs and 33 doubles, leading the team with 6.1 bWAR and finishing second behind Freeman with 4.2 fWAR. An argument could be made that he’s the most dangerous bat in the Atlanta lineup this series.
This is where the series may be decided.
On paper, Atlanta has the ability to go toe-to-toe with the Brewers in the starting rotation — at least for the first couple games. We don’t know the pitching matchups beyond the first two games yet, but Atlanta’s starting rotation falls off a bit more steeply than the Brewers beyond the first two.
A fair assumption would be Freddy Peralta vs. Ian Anderson in Game 3, but after that things get a bit more murky for the Braves while the Brewers have their pick of Adrian Houser or Eric Lauer to fill out Game 4. That rotation depth also filters into the bullpen — with Craig Counsell being able to use (and maybe even being likely to use) some of his down-rotation starters out of relief.
The Braves don’t necessarily have that luxury, and have also struggled at times in the bullpen this year. That’s part of the reason why they went and got Richard Rodriguez from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline, although Rodriguez has been a bit of a disappointment with the Braves, striking out just 9 batters while walking 5 in 26 innings since the deal, allowing 23 hits but tightroping his way to a 3.12 ERA and 8 holds.
Old Friend Will Smith serves as Atlanta’s closer, but he’s about as boom or bust as a capital-C closer can be while still hanging on to the job. He did strike out 87 batters in 68 innings this year, good for a 11.5 K/9, but he also allowed 11 home runs and a 3.44 ERA on his way to 37 saves this year.
Game 1 - 3:37 p.m. Friday in Milwaukee - Charlie Morton vs. Corbin Burnes
The ageless Charlie Morton has been very good for the Braves this year, striking out 10.47 batters per 9 innings while only walking 2.81. He finished the year with a 3.34 ERA in 33 starts in his age-37 season, but his FIP was much better at 3.17. He did it all while largely relying on just two pitches — a 95 mph fastball and a truly elite 81 mph curve. He was in the top 10% in the league in limiting opponent barrels and hard-hit percentage.
Game 2 - 4:07 p.m. Saturday in Milwaukee - Max Fried vs. Brandon Woodruff
A tough lefty, Fried ended the year with a 3.04 ERA in 28 starts, striking out 8.58 batters per 9 innings while also limiting hard-hit balls very well. His average exit velocity allowed of 86.5 mph ranked in the top 10% of the league and helped him allow just 15 home runs all year — good for a HR/9 of 0.81. That, combined with the fact he just doesn’t allow baserunners with a WHIP of 1.09, made it extremely hard to score on him this year.
Like Woodruff, Fried is also a good-for-a-pitcher hitter, collecting 15 hits in 55 at-bats this year, driving in 5 runs.
Game 3 - 12:07 p.m. Monday in Atlanta - TBD vs. TBD
Game 4 (if needed) - 4:07 p.m.* Tuesday in Atlanta - TBD vs. TBD
Game 5 (if needed) - 4:07 p.m.* Thursday in Milwaukee - TBD vs. TBD
*Game times could change if the series between the Dodgers and Giants ends before these dates