The champions of the NL Central, the St. Louis Cardinals, will take on the Atlanta Braves, champions of the NL East, in the NLDS. To set the scene for this best-of-five playoff clash to determine who advances to the NLCS, we’re here with eight things to know. Those things? Let us now know them … 

1. The Braves have home-field advantage

The Braves finished the regular season with a record of 97-65, whereas the Cardinals wound up at 91-71. By virtue of the superior regular-season record, the Braves have home-field advantage for this series. That means Games 1 and 2 will be in Atlanta, and Games 3 and 4 (if necessary) will be in St. Louis. Should the series go the full five games, then that deciding Game 5 would be back in Atlanta. Home-field advantage in MLB isn’t as pronounced as it is in the NFL and NBA — the home team in MLB wins a relatively modest 54 percent of the time, roughly speaking — but it’s something. This season, the Braves were 50-31 at home, while the Cardinals were 41-40 in road games. 

Relatedly, here’s the schedule for this particular NLDS encounter: 

Oct. 3 

Game 1: St. Louis at Atlanta

5 p.m. 

TBS 

SunTrust Park

Oct. 4 

Game 2: St. Louis at Atlanta

4:30 p.m. 

TBS 

SunTrust Park 

Oct. 6 

Game 3: Atlanta at St. Louis

TBA 

TBS 

Busch Stadium

Oct. 7 

Game 4: Atlanta at St. Louis*

TBA 

TBS 

Busch Stadium

Oct. 9 

Game 5: St. Louis at Atlanta* 

TBA 

TBS 

SunTrust Park 

* – if necessary

2. The Braves took the regular-season series

The Braves and Cardinals met six times during the regular season, and the Braves won four of those six games. However, they outscored the Cardinals by just two runs, 29-27, in those contests. 

3. Braves’ better record isn’t the whole story

As noted above, the Braves finished six games ahead of the Cardinals in the regular season standings. However, there’s more to it than that. First, if you look at run differential, things are much closer: the Braves are at plus-112, while the Cardinals are at plus-102. That means at the level of the run scored and the run allowed, the Braves and Cardinals were pretty much the same team, and often that says more about underlying strengths and weaknesses than overall records do. 

As well, we can look at the BaseRuns standings available at FanGraphs, which correct for some of the sequencing and clustering effects inherent in run differential. Basically, it’s a measure of how good a team is at controlling the fundamental outcomes of the batter-pitcher encounter. It yields what a team’s record should be based on core skills. Per BaseRuns, the Cardinals and Braves each played like a 90-72 team during the regular season. 

On top of all that, let’s note that the Cardinals finished ninth in terms of opponents’ average winning percentage, while the Braves wound up 22nd. Yes, the Braves had the better record during the regular season, but applying full context reveals the two teams to be much closer than those records would suggest.

4. SportsLine sees this as a close one

In keeping with what you just read above, the SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter) sees this series as a fairly close one. Right now, the system gives the Braves a 54.2 percent chance to advance to the NLCS. That’s not quite coin-flip territory, but it’s not far from it.  

Flaherty can still start twice

In the service of wrapping up the division title and avoiding a tiebreaker against the Brewers, the Cardinals started surging young ace Jack Flaherty in the final game of the regular season (Flaherty allowed a total of 12 runs over his final 16 starts). Miles Mikolas was also on full rest, but manager Mike Shildt opted to take the obvious path. The good news for the Cardinals is that Flaherty can still make two full-rest NLDS starts against the Braves, provided the series goes the full five games. He’ll get the ball in Game 2, and thanks to the two scheduled off days — following Game 2 and Game 4 — he can also start a deciding Game 5 back in Atlanta on four-days’ rest. 

Speaking of the rotations, they’re somewhat fluid depending on how the early games of the series go, but here are the expected matchups: 

Game 1: Miles Mikolas (STL) vs. Dallas Keuchel (ATL)
Game 2: Jack Flaherty (STL) vs. Mike Foltynewicz (ATL)
Game 3: Mike Soroka (ATL) vs. Adam Wainwright (STL)
Game 4: Max Fried (ATL) vs. Dakota Hudson (STL)
Game 5: Flaherty (STL) vs. Keuchel or Foltynewicz (ATL)

The Cardinals could potentially face lefty starters in three of the five games, and that’s notable given the Cardinals’ righty-heavy lineup and superior results against left-handed pitching (especially since Tommy Edman arrived). Given the way Julio Teheran struggled over his last three starts of the regular season, the guess here is that he’s in the bullpen for this series. 

On the other side, the Braves will face all right-handed starters in this series. The Atlanta offense has fairly balanced platoon splits this year, but they’ve been slightly better against right-handed pitching. 

5. The Braves have some injury concerns

Health is a worry for Atlanta heading into this series. Most notably, star outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. was shut down late in the regular season with a groin strain. He’ll almost certainly be in the lineup, but it remains to seen how that injury will affect him at the plate, on the bases, and in the field. As well, star first baseman Freddie Freeman has been limited by bone spurs in his right elbow. Outfielder Ender Inciarte recently suffered a setback in his recovery from a hamstring injury, and he’s been ruled out for the NLDS. The Braves’ bench is also in a compromised state with injuries to Charlie Culberson (struck in face by pitch) and Johan Camargo (fractured shin). Neither is expected to play again this season. 

As for the Cardinals, their big question is Kolten Wong. The slick-fielding second baseman has been a plus on-base threat this season, but he’s been sidelined with a grade 2 hamstring strain. His status for the NLDS, at this writing, is uncertain. That would be a blow to the Cardinals. While Edman is more than capable of filling in at the keystone, doing so presses Matt Carpenter into regular duty, and at this stage of his career he probably doesn’t belong in the lineup against lefties. As noted above, the Cardinals may be facing a number of left-handers in this series. 

6. The Cardinals should have the edge on defense

The numbers tell the story here. This season, the Cardinals among NL squadrons ranked first in Ultimate Zone Rating, third in Defensive Runs Saved, second in Defensive Efficiency Rating, and first in fielding percentage. The Braves in contrast ranked, respectively, 12th, seventh, 10th, and second in those measures. 

7. The Braves have the better offense 

During saison régulière, Atlanta placed third in the NL in both runs scored and OPS, while the Cardinals were 10th in runs scored and 11th in OPS. Of course, home ballparks can influence such numbers, and as such it’s worth noting that SunTrust Park played as a pronounced hitters’ park. Busch Stadium, meanwhile, suppressed run scoring. 

To correct for those distortions, we’ll use wRC+, or Weighted Runs Created+, an advanced metric that measures all phases of production at the plate and adjusts them for ballpark and league environments. The higher the wRC+, the better the hitter or team offense was. wRC+ is scaled so that a mark of 100 reflects league-average production. In the case of the 2019 Braves, they ranked fourth in the NL with a wRC+ of 102. The Cardinals ranked seventh with a wRC+ of 95. Of course keep in mind that the Braves’ two best hitters — Acuna and Freeman — may not be 100 percent right now. 

8. Shildt hasn’t shied away from using Miller in big spots

The Cardinals on paper have the better bullpen in this series, but one subplot to watch is how Shildt deploys lefty Andrew Miller. Miller has subpar numbers overall this season, and he was particularly bad down the stretch. Since the start of August — a span covering 24 appearances — Miller has pitched to a 6.38 ERA with 10 walks and three home runs allowed in 18 1/3 innings. On the other hand, a lot of the damage, at least in terms of runs allowed, has occurred in just two outings. Either way, Shildt has continued to use Miller in high-leverage situations. In September, for instance, 12 of Miller’s 13 appearances came in what can easily be termed a clutch situation. Whether Shildt still has faith in Miller to get big outs in the NLDS will be telling. 

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