The Cincinnati Reds finished above .500, though only just. They were 20-26 on the morning of Sept. 13. They won 11 of their final 14 games to climb to 31-29. Had they lost to Minnesota in extra innings on Sunday, they’d have met the standard for mediocrity.
They’re the National League’s No. 7 seed, which means they wouldn’t have made the postseason had MLB not expanded its playoffs in this irregular season. Their run differential over 60 games was minus-2. They finished 27th among the 30 big-league clubs in runs, and they play home games in a bandbox. Their OPS+, which accounts for ballpark conditions, was 87. The MLB average is 100. The Braves' OPS+ was 116.
If you’re just at lineups, this series is a mismatch. The Reds have one non-pitcher whose WAR value, as calculated by Baseball-Reference, topped 0.9. That’s Jesse Winker, who’s mostly a DH. The Braves had four non-pitchers above 2.0. The Braves finished 35-25, and that was after mailing in the final weekend. Even after being outscored 17-3 by Boston on Saturday and Sunday, their run differential was plus-60. Only the Dodgers and Padres trumped that.
The Reds aren’t an especially good team. They are, however, an especially troublesome matchup. They can’t much hit, but they can really pitch. They’re strongest where the Braves are weakest.
The Reds finished fourth in starters' ERA; the Braves were 28th. The Reds' starters finished first in WAR as calculated by FanGraphs; the Braves' starters were 25th. If we go by f-WAR, Max Fried would have been the Reds' fourth-best starter. (If we go by b-WAR, Fried ranks first among NL pitchers. WAR can get confusing, I know.)
Fried figures to start Game 1. The Braves are 10-1 when he works. There’s a chance he’ll finish second or third in the NL Cy Young voting. Trouble is, the Reds' Game 1 starter is Trevor Bauer, who figures to finish first. Something you already know: You don’t want to lose Game 1 in a best-of-three. This format beats the silly wild-card play-in game, but two-and-out isn’t far off.
Say the Braves do take Game 1, Bauer notwithstanding. Game 2 will match Ian Anderson, who has made six big-league starts, against Luis Castillo, who was an All-Star in 2019. Game 3, if necessary, would pair Kyle Wright, whose career b-WAR is minus-0.3, and Sonny Gray, whose is 18.9.
When the Reds were still thrashing around under .500, the worst possible Round 1 matchup figured to be Philadelphia – Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler in Games 1 and 2, or 2 and 1. The Phillies having again spit the bit, the Reds became an even bigger booby prize.
After the Reds clinched a playoff berth, the venerable first baseman Joey Votto – what Freddie Freeman is, Votto was – said of his team: “I think we’re a nightmare, and I think everybody knows that. … We’re as much of a threat as anyone.”
This isn’t to suggest that the Braves forfeit. Fried is great. Anderson has been very good. Wright seems to have sorted himself out. The Braves finished second in scoring to the 43-win Dodgers – by one run. Their bullpen had MLB’s fourth-lowest ERA; the Reds' relievers were 17th-best. If the game’s close after six innings, the Braves should prevail. But starting pitching, always the most important commodity in baseball, assumes even greater importance come the playoffs. It’s tough to win from behind. (It’s impossible when it’s10-nil after a half-inning, not to conjure up the latest October indignity.)
The Braves rebuilt – something else you already know – around young pitching. Their three presumptive starters in this series were acquired by John Coppolella, Fried in trade, Anderson and Wright with the No. 3 and No. 5 picks in the 2016 and 2017 drafts. They’re talented enough to win such games. (A better October memory: the 21-year-old Steve Avery and the 24-year-old John Smoltz in 1991.) Still, this seems worth noting: The total of postseason starts for Fried, Anderson and Wright is zero. Bauer and Gray have 11 playoff starts between them.
This being baseball in the strangest of all baseball seasons, it seems silly to make a pick. (Cue, yet again, John Sterling: “There’s no predicting baseball.”) I will say I’d have felt better about the Braves' chances were they facing the nothing-special Marlins or the sub-.500 Brewers, or even the accursed Cardinals. The Reds are the team nobody wanted to see in Round 1. Here they are.