Wild Card Preview: Cincinnati Reds vs. Atlanta Braves

The playoffs are here! Get primed for Atlanta and Cincinnati with us.

(2) Atlanta Braves vs. (7) Cincinnati Reds

We’ve survived a season as treacherous as any we might endure and we’ve finally arrived at the playoffs. The 16-team affair on the NL side kicks off Wednesday afternoon with the seven-seed Cincinnati Reds and two-seed, NL East winning Atlanta Braves. Sonny Gray told the media that the Reds have packed for a month and are ready for a big run. With their rotation of aces including him, Luis Castillo, and Trevor Bauer, it’s hard to fault him for feeling good. Meanwhile, Atlanta is coming off their third-straight divisional title. Freddie Freeman played all 60 games in the shortened season and did it like an MVP, slashing .341/.462/.640. The team recorded a wRC+ of 121 — good for second in all of baseball — and should serve as a big test for Cincinnati’s big three. The Cincinnati Reds will be previewed by James Schiano, while the Atlanta Braves are covered by Tim Jackson.


Series Schedule


Game 1: Wednesday, Sept. 30, in Atlanta, 12:00 PM ET on ESPN. Trevor Bauer v. Max Fried.

Game 2: Thursday, Oct. 1, in Atlanta, 12:00 PM ET on ESPN. Luis Castillo v. Ian Anderson.

Game 3 (if necessary): Friday, Oct. 2, in Atlanta, TBD. Sonny Gray v. Kyle Wright.

Game one will air on ESPN. Other games TBD. 


Atlanta Braves


As noted at the top, Atlanta wasn’t buoyed only by a career-best effort from Freddie Freeman. In addition to his 1.102 OPS, which was second in all of baseball to only Juan Soto, nearly every other regular was better than average at their position compared to the rest of the league. Marcell Ozuna socked 18 dingers. Ronald Acuña Jr. added another 14 in only 46 games played. Travis d’Arnaud was nearly as good in 44 games this season as he was through 104 in 2019. Adam Duvall showed unprecedented power, Dansby Swanson broke out, and Ozzie Albies came back from a bone bruise on September 9th and slashed .338/.372/.581. Rounding out the group is a struggling Nick Markakis, whose 89 wRC+ is the lowest he’s registered since 2013; Ender Inciarte and his above average defense; and utilityman Johan Camargo, whose bat has been asleep most of the year. By and large, though, they’re a team of talented dudes feeling the peel and taking advantage of the abbreviated season so far.

They also have to pitch, though, and that’s where things might get hairy. Their starting staff was the sixth-worst group in baseball. Max Fried is the only guy who started double-digit games. You know the breakers can be nasty but he’s had a harder time generating whiffs this year compared to last. Instead, those offerings are turning into more takes and walks. Fried’s velocity also dropped below 93 mph for most of the last month and as low as 92, before he came out on September 23 and pumped his fastball up to 93.2 mph. He only lasted an inning after tweaking his ankle in that start, though, as the team pulled him as a precaution. Seeing the heater hold up like that over five-plus innings would’ve been more relieving.

Top prospect Ian Anderson was called up from the team’s alternate training site at the end of August and immediately paid dividends against a tough but finicky Yankees lineup, going six strong innings with six Ks, one walk, and giving up just one earned run. When he pulls the string on his changeup, it can be devastating. He’s getting a whiff 20% of the time he throws it. The league average is barely 16%. But for as good as Anderson has been, he’s lasted anywhere between three and seven innings in his six starts so far.

For the team to make a deep run, or even get out of the first round, Fried and Anderson will have to give everything they can before turning it over to a bullpen that ranks ninth in baseball and third in the NL.


Cincinnati Reds


After an aggressive 2019 trade deadline and offseason, the Reds entered 2020 as a dark horse World Series candidate (I picked them to represent the National League in my preseason Bold Predictions). The additions of Trevor Bauer, Mike Moustakas, and Nick Castellanos seemed to firmly place them among the NL’s elite. Despite their prominence on paper, their bullpen proved unreliable and offense floundered. 6 weeks into the season, they were well outside the playoff picture with just 16 games to go.

Their tides turned after a contest with the Cardinals on 9/11. Luis Castillo twirled a CG 2-hitter to down St. Louis and the Red Legs have not looked back. They’ve taken every series since, rattling off 12 wins in 16 games to secure a spot in the postseason and a date with the Braves in Atlanta. The once-struggling offense woke up and their bullpen really tightened.

Reds’ Team Stats and League Ranks

The offensive turnaround can be tied to the changing fortunes of four key bats: Moustakas, Eugenio Suarez, Shogo Akiyama, and the great Joey Votto. Over the team’s first 44 games, those players’ combined fWAR was a lowly 1.4. Over their final 16, it was also 1.4! Mous struck out more than 12% less over the small sample. Suarez had possibly the biggest hit of the season last Monday, knocking a Brandon Woodruff offering over the left-field wall to give the Reds a lead late. Akiyama looked out of place in the big leagues earlier this season but has gotten on-base at a .415 clip over this stretch. Last but not least, Votto, the lone holdover from the Reds’ last playoff team, looks like the best hitter on the team. He has nearly matched his HR production (6 vs. 5) over the past 16 games and raised his SLG% from .388 to .446 in the process!

Additionally, Jesse Winker has enjoyed a breakout season slashing .255/.388/.544 and has been a mainstay in this lineup all season. Freddy Galvis (in a platoon with top prospect José García) and deadline acquisition Brian Goodwin are chipping in while being their usual sure defensive selves. Even Nick Senzel and Arisitedes Aquino have rejoined the big club with supplementary roles.

As far as the bullpen goes, Archie Bradley was a key deadline acquisition and has proven a vital 1B to 1A Rasiel Iglesias at the backend of this pen. Additionally, the ability to deploy both Tyler Mahle and Teejay Antone as either high leverage options or multi-inning weapons could go a very long way against the Braves and beyond. Moreover, Michael Lorenzen has proved himself not only useful but capable of getting his team outs when it matters.

I’d be remiss to go all this way without heaping praise on the Reds’ rotation. The best in baseball in terms of FIP (3.47), K% (29.3!), and fWAR (8.1), these starters are not to be trifled with. Bauer is the likely NL Cy Young after earning a career-best 36.0 K% and has been dripping with swagger. Castillo is on an absolutely torrid streak, striking out 29 batters over his last 26 2/3 IP while lowering his ERA from 3.95 to 3.21 in the process. Sonny Gray has been hot and cold this season but is waltzing into this Postseason with a 3.05 FIP: more than formidable. If need be (depending on how often Bauer is willing to go on three-days rest), Mahle is a plenty capable fourth option.



Head-to-Head History


Because of the wacky formatting for the abbreviated season, Cincinnati and Atlanta didn’t see each other during the regular season. The Reds won eight of the last 14 meetings the two teams had between 2018 and 2019, but even this recent history doesn’t serve us here. The teams are drastically different this year, with the Reds having added the likes of Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas while the Braves have had the likes of Dansby Swanson break out while tabbing Ian Anderson as an integral part of the rotation, among other moves.

Possibly worth noting is how Atlanta has fared against righties this year. Their .852 OPS is highest in the league and only the Dodgers and Padres have generated more hard hit balls. That makes sense when you consider the Braves are also the third-best team at keeping the ball off the ground against righties, too. They’ve really squared up on the ball and kept it in the air. Cincinnati’s starting staff is great but also entirely composed of right-handed pitchers.




Atlanta’s offense is so good, but it feels so, so difficult to pick against a top three of Bauer, Castillo, and Gray. The Reds had the best rotation in all of baseball during the regular season. I’ll take the Reds in three, but I don’t think Freddie Freeman & Co. will go down lightly. Who knows, maybe Acuña and Albies will dazzle as they showcase the next step of their bromance on the national stage. 

-Tim Jackson

This team is blazing hot, built the right way, and primed to make a run. I predict them to handle the Braves in two games and be a serious nightmare for the rest of the NL.

-James Schiano

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@FreshMeatComm on Twitter)

Tim Jackson

Tim Jackson is a writer and educator who loves pitching duels. Find him in the PL Discord, editing, managing, and podcasting with @BREAKINGPodPL here or writing at Baseball Prospectus.

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