Earlier this week, hours before the first-place Atlanta Braves would lose a game of baseball to the not-first-place Cincinnati Reds, this happened.
More information has come out since the initial report. The man, 48-year-old beer entrepreneur Todd Keeling, was helping SunTrust install a new pouring system that would get customers their beers quicker. Keeling had apparently been working on the technology, and his company DraftWell, since college.
At this time, police don’t suspect foul play but are still investigating. It’s a weird thing to happen to a baseball team, especially when you consider the man had almost no affiliation with the Braves. Still, I’d have to imagine it puts you in a weird state of mind before playing baseball.
Anyway, RIP Todd Keeling. You died doing what you loved and helping baseball fans get their beers in a quicker, more efficient manner.
Coming off an unexpected – that’s fair to say and I won’t apologize for it – series win against the Cleveland Indians, the Cardinals are right in the thick of a tough stretch of baseball. This series kicks off the first of three against teams the Birds might be battling with for a National League playoff spot – the Braves, Diamondbacks and Giants – so now would be a great time to take the momentum from the last series and turn it into an extended run.
The Atlanta Braves have been in rebuild mode since 2014, when they finished with a losing record in distant second place to the Nationals in the NL East. The following years were marked by acquiring young talent – and having to give some of said talent up because of an MLB investigation – and it looks like it’s finally paying off. The Braves hold a two-game lead over the Phillies for first in the East, and they currently sit four games ahead of the preseason favorite Washington Nationals. They’re in a bit of a funk, however, dropping two series in a row to very bad Orioles and Reds teams.
Let’s take a look at the pitching probables and lineup fixtures to see what we should expect.
- Julio Teheran (vs. Miles Mikolas, Friday): The once-future Braves ace is struggling this year. Known as a vicious sinker-baller – which is still his best pitch – Teheran is giving up his highest home run to fly ball rate in his career (15.6 percent), which probably meshes with the fact his hard contact percentage is also at a career high (37.8 percent.) He had one of his better outings of the year – six innings, no runs, 11 strikeouts – two starts ago, but followed it up by giving up seven earned runs in 4 2/3 against Baltimore last week.
- Brandon McCarthy (vs. Luke Weaver, Saturday): The journeyman starter, known almost as much for his tweets as his baseball prowess, hasn’t been much better than Teheran. His ERA and FIP have been an unsightly 4.92 and 4.72, respectively. However, he’s got an xFIP of 3.67, so he probably hasn’t been as bad as his numbers suggest. He’s always been very averse to walking anyone and, surprise surprise, he’s only got a 6.2 walk percentage. However, he’s been even more home run prone than Teheran; he has a 21.7 percent HR/FB rate.
- Mike Foltynewicz (vs. John Gant, Sunday): The 26-year-old fireballer is enjoying a breakout season with a 2.14 ERA, a 3.08 FIP and a not-to-shabby 3.53 xFIP. His strikeout rate is a career-high 28.7 percent and, unlike his rotation mates, he’s only giving up 8.5 home runs per fly ball and has a career-high 44.2 ground ball rate. His fastball has been solid this year, but it’s a wipeout slider that has been the big out pitch for him.
Past the starters, the Braves ‘pen has been fairly middle-of-the-road. They have a group of five solid-to-good options, including former Cardinal lefty Sam Freeman. Closer Arodys Vizcaino has been the team’s go-to late inning guy, though his xFIP of 4.04 is one of the bullpen’s worst. That 90.4 left on base percentage has to come down sometime. Dan Winkler has actually been the team’s best option so far. He’s got a 31.8 strikeout percentage and doesn’t give up a lot of hard contact. So, it’s not as if the Cardinals won’t have a chance against the bullpen, but they’d be better served getting to them early.
Now let’s take a look at the Braves’ lineup, which has been one of its strengths on the season.
- Ender Inciarte (L): The one-time centerfielder some Cardinal fans hoped for has had a rough go so far this year. He’s never been a great hitter, but always showed at least a bit of a knack for getting on base and letting his excellent base running skills take over. But so far this year, he’s running a career-low .314 on-base percentage. His BABIP is low (.279), but not so much to think that there’s anything wildly out-of-character. Without his on-base talent, Inciarte is a pretty mild threat at the top of the order. He did suffer an oblique injury in the Braves’ last series, so he might be touch-and-go this weekend.
- Ozzie Albies (S): The 21-year-old second baseman hasn’t been any better than his lineup predecessor at getting on base, also carrying a .314 OBP. However, Albies is a big slugging threat. His isolated slugging percentage sits at .239 on the season, and he’s already clubbed 17 dingers. Combine that with his good speed – he’s one of four Braves in Statcast’s Top 50 for Sprint Speed – and Albies is a major threat to do extra bases damage.
- Freddie Freeman (L): Freeman is very good, as always. He’s sporting a 155 wRC+ on the season, bolstered by his incredible .408 OBP and .230 ISO. And believe it or not, he’s actually still underperforming his .417 wxOBA by .015 points. Freeman will always be a threat, so it’ll be key to keep the bases empty ahead of him.
- Nick Markakis (L): The veteran outfielder is having his best season this decade, enjoying a solid 132 wRC+ mostly because his walk and strikeout rates are identical (10.2 percent). Markakis is more of an on-base threat (.392) than a power hitter (.157 ISO), but he does have some pop in his bat. He’ll be another tough out in the middle of the Braves lineup.
- Kurt Suzuki/Tyler Flowers (R): The Braves have two journeyman catchers that both play a fair amount, though Suzuki is the team’s leader in games and innings caught. Both are enjoying fine seasons in their own right. Suzuki is the better hitter of the two, with a 125 wRC+ and .197 ISO. He’s popped 8 home runs 206 plate appearances, good for a better than 20 per 600 output. Flowers is probably what you’d consider the defensive backup, but he’s got a 122 wRC+ himself. He’s less of a power threat, and more known for his on-base skills. Either way, another solid piece.
- Charlie Culberson (R): Culberson occupies the Swiss Army Knife role, having played five different positions for the Braves this year. He’s barely above league average (104 wRC+) but he does have a little bit of pop with 4 home runs in fewer than 150 plate appearances.
- Dansby Swanson (R): The former No. 1 overall draft pick still has time to realize his vast potential – he’s only 24, after all – but he’s still struggling to get it done with the bat. He’s been below average for the season, mostly because he struggles to get on base (.296) and he’s striking out way more than he’s walking. However, he does have some power (.177 ISO) and is another very fast runner, so he’s always got the potential to do something if given a chance.
- Johan Camargo (R): Another young Brave playing in the bigs, the 24-year-old infielder has had a quietly impressive season, with a 112 wRC+ and some decent power – 7 home runs in 211 plate appearances. He’s certainly not the most formidable part of the Braves lineup, but he’s also not the least.
- Ronald Acuña, Jr. (R): I almost forgot! 20-year-old phenom Ronald Acuña is rejoining the team in St. Louis after a stint on the 10-day DL. It’s hard to say exactly what Acuña is right now based on the small sample size element of his season. But he’s shown good power – 5 home runs in 129 plate appearances – and is a good runner. His batting eye probably still has a way to go, but he certainly won’t be a guaranteed out when he’s in the lineup.
Final (and extra) thoughts:
- It’s worth mentioning that the Braves also sport one of the league’s best defenses thanks to a lot of really good *checks notes* pitcher defense? Most of the Braves rotation is well above average in terms of defensive numbers. Swanson, Inciarte and the catchers are also very good defenders.
- As previously mentioned, the Braves are probably one of the Cardinals biggest playoff threats seeing as them, the Phillies and the Nationals will all be duking it out for two to three playoff spots at the end of the year. It would behoove the Cardinals to take a series win here.
- The Braves are a lot of fun to watch, so I’m pretty excited about this series. They’re young, they’ve got a lot of projectable, exciting talent. And a lot of their players have beautiful swings.
- Matt Carpenter and Marcell Ozuna both have absurd slash lines against Teheran: .500/.538/1.083 in 13 plate appearances for Carpenter and .405/.405/.667 in 42 for Ozuna.
- The Cardinals have a nice little run of promotional giveaways this weekend. Here’s a quick power ranking based on this list: (1) Carlos Martinez Mystery Hair bobblehead (2) Transplant Awareness hat (3) Margaritaville shirt (4) All Over Print Button-up (5) Bucket hat. I almost went with the Margaritaville shirt last on principle, but I have to admit, I really like the neon Busch on the back.