The Braves, against all odds and all reason, are coming off of a series win against the Los Angeles Dodgers at home. Unfortunately, things won’t become any easier for the Tomahawkers as they travel to “Bush” Stadium (Home of the Best Fans in Baseball™) for a three-game set against the St. Louis Cardinals, a living, breathing exemplification of Satan. The Cardinals own the MLB’s best record at 61-34 and have a six-game lead in the NL Central despite it being one of, if not the, most difficult divisions in baseball. Their success comes despite losing Adam Wainwright before the season to an Achilles tear (pour one out for Jason Grilli), missing key pieces such as Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, and Jaime García for large portions of the season, and starting some guy named Randal Grichuk in centerfield. Like I said, it’s disgusting and almost certainly satanic in nature.
The Cardinals boast Major League Baseball’s eighth-best wRC+ (non-pitcher), best ERA (third-best FIP), and tenth-best DRS total. This is to say that they are a very strong team with no apparent weakness. They’ve also won nearly three-quarters of their home games in 2015. God, this is going to be so bad.
Of particular interest to Braves fans in this series will be right fielder Jason Heyward. As some may recall, Heyward was acquired by the Cardinals from Atlanta with Jordan Walden1 in November of last year for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. Heyward, in his final year before hitting the free agent market at the ripe age of 26, is having a year that’s pretty consistent with what we’ve come to expect from Heyward in the past few seasons. He’s been 15% above league average offensively by wRC+, has played excellent defense, and has produced ample value on the basepaths. Heyward’s been a tad better offensively this season than in 2014 despite a walk rate that has been reduced by 30% due to a modest uptick in power and a bit more BABIP luck. Overall, he’s been worth 2.6 fWAR and looks to be set to get paid a ton of money by the New York Yankees this offseason.
The only two position players for the Cardinals who have been below-average offensively are Mark Reynolds–who strikes out more than 30% of the time but still manages to hit for a decent amount of power and walk at a good clip–and, you guessed it, Yadier Molina! Molina is still valuable due to his excellent defense, but I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t warm the cockles of my heart to see him struggling offensively. The Cardinals have a number of quality offensive players, including Holliday, Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter, and Grichuk, a former first-round pick who has come out of nowhere at the age of 23 to post a 135 wRC+ and a .264 isolated power despite striking out 31% of the time. As a team, the Cardinals strike out at a fairly average rate and take an above-average number of walks, so it’ll be important for the Braves pitchers to throw strikes and exhibit good command.
On Friday the Braves will face junk-balling lefty Tim Cooney. The 24 year old lefty made his debut earlier this season and will be making his sixth big league start. Cooney has only used fastballs 47% of the time this season. He favors a diverse arsenal that includes a changeup, a curveball, and a slider. He’s a fly-ball pitcher who doesn’t miss many bats, but he also doesn’t walk a ton of hitters. Unfortunately, the Braves are the Majors’ third-worst team when it comes to hitting lefties and they’re pitching Manny Bañuelos that night, so don’t get your hopes up too much. Saturday’s matchup between Carlos Martínez and Shelby Miller is the best of the weekend, pitting two 2015 All-Stars and former teammates against one another. Martínez throws gas, averaging 95 mph on his fastball, the eighth-highest number in the league. He misses bats by combining his heat with a slider and an excellent changeup, and also generates a healthy percentage of ground balls. His Achilles’ heel is his propensity to walk batters, so the Braves would be smart to be patient on Saturday night. Finally, on Sunday, the Braves and Matt Wisler will face another All-Star in Michael Wacha. Wacha has not pitched well in his first two starts out of the break, allowing five runs in each outing. Much of Wacha’s success stems from his stinginess towards issuing free passes. He still strikes out a respectable number of hitters, and his 3.20 ERA is almost identical to his 3.21 FIP. He relies heavily on his fastball and cutter, and also mixes in an occasional changeup, an effective offering against lefties, and a slow, loopy curveball.
Things won’t get any easier for the Braves when they get into St. Louis’ bullpen. They own baseball’s best bullpen ERA and its fifth-best FIP. Trevor Rosenthal and Kevin Siegrist are a formidable one-two punch at the back of the Cardinals’ bullpen that strikes out a ton of hitters. Their LOOGY of choice is Randy Choate, who has been pitching for about the past 50 years and, like our LOOGY of choice, isn’t very good. But yeah, even if the Braves get into this ‘pen, things won’t get much easier.
This is probably the most difficult series that the Braves have partaken in this season. They have no clear pitching advantage in any of the matchups and the Cardinals are better than they are in every possible way. The Cards also get to play at home. I suppose that the Braves best shot at a win will be on Saturday, especially if Carlos Martínez can’t find the zone and Shelby Miller has a good day. Friday’s another possibility, I suppose, because Tim Cooney isn’t that great. But then again, neither is Bañuelos. I don’t foresee Sunday going well, because the Cardinals feast on right-handed pitching and Matt Wisler isn’t exactly the dominant righty that could shut them down. So yeah, I think I’m going to predict a Cardinals sweep here. Either enjoy the pain, or do something more productive with your weekend than watching this massacre.2