The inaugural Wild Card round (affectionately known as the Coin-Flip Round) takes place today and will feature a pair of exciting games. The first game on the docket matches up the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals with the Atlanta Braves, while game #2 has the Baltimore Orioles traveling to Arlington to take on the Texas Rangers. I suggest you cancel any plans you previously had for this afternoon/evening, because do-or-die baseball is here, which means that last year’s World Series combatants could be eliminated tonight. Let’s start by taking a look at the series over in the National League.
I took a sneak peek at this pitching match-up a week ago, but now is as good a time as any to revisit. The visiting Cardinals will send Kyle Lohse to the bump this afternoon in the hopes of continuing their title defense. Lohse has had the finest season of his career, putting up career best numbers in wins (16), ERA (2.86), WHIP (1.090), and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.76-1). He will be going up against the hottest pitcher in baseball in Kris Medlen, who’s got the lowest ERA (1.57) in baseball for any pitcher with at least 100 innings under his belt. Atlanta has a slight advantage in the starting pitching department, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to victory.
On offense, these two franchises also appear to be a nice match for one another. The Cardinals outscored the Braves by 65 runs over the course of the regular season, a testament to the depth in their lineup. St. Louis has 5 hitters with at least 20 homers, 5 hitters with at least a .290 average, and another 5 batters with at least 75 runs driven in. If the Cardinals are going to advance to play another day, they are going have to score runs, because this is where their advantage lies. Allen Craig, David Freese, Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, and Yadier Molina compose the most intimidating middle-of-the-order that Kris Medlen has seen all year, and each of those hitters knows how to draw a walk, which means they aren’t going to roll over and hit into quick outs.
Atlanta’s got some firepower of their own as well, not to mention a little bit of added incentive to win. As hard as it is to believe, Chipper Jones is still the best offensive player the Braves have, even though he’s on the brink of retirement, He hit .287/.377/.455 with 14 homers and 62 RBI this season and has provided plenty of walk-off magic. Jason Heyward isn’t too shabby either, and nobody in the NL has a lead-off threat like Michael Bourne. David Ross will be making the start behind the plate for the Braves, replacing the injured Brian McCann, which may work out nicely for Atlanta. Ross has hit 9 homers and gotten on base at a solid clip in nearly 200 plate appearances this year.
Now this is where things start to get a little bit interesting. Atlanta has the most efficient defense in the National League, converting balls in play into outs 70.3 % of the time. The Braves have the best defensive outfield trio in baseball in Martin Prado, Bourne, and Heyward, and the left side of their infield is fantastic. Rookie Andrelton Simmons has been dazzling in just under 50 games this season, displaying a gifted arm, acres of range, and a penchant for making the pretty play.
Not to be outdone, the St. Louis Cardinals have put together a solid defensive team as well, centered around the best defender in baseball, Yadier Molina. No catcher does a better job of eliminating base runners than Molina does, and his pitch blocking skills are second to none. As for the rest of the unit, the Cardinals convert balls in play into outs at a 68.6% rate, right around the National League average, but their real bread-and-butter on defense is the double play.
For years the Cardinal’s coaching staff (La Russa and Dave Duncan) preached a sinker ball/pitch-to-contact mentality, and in most years it payed off splendidly. 2012 is no different as the Cardinals turned the 2nd most double plays in baseball, only trailing the Miami Marlins. They may not be as smooth as Atlanta, but they get the job done. Jon Jay patrols most of the outfield for St. Louis, and he takes away damn near everything that’s hit his way, while Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran do what they can in the corners. The Braves have the edge in the field, but in a one game playoff, that shouldn’t matter too much.
There’s no doubt which team has the better bullpen in this game: the one backed with strikeout fiend Craig Kimbrel. The Atlanta closer posted the best strikeout ratio in baseball history (min. 50 inn) by whiffing 116 batters in just 62.2 innings. Eric O’Flaherty, Johnny Venters, and the rest of the pack tend to make short work of opposing lineups once Atlanta gets the lead.
The Cardinals don’t have that sort of luxury as the owners of a below average bullpen. Jason Motte ventures between looking electric one innings and imminently beatable the next, and it’s a grab bag of options in the rest of the ‘pen. Edward Mujica has been a nice surprise since coming over from the Marlin and the unit could get a boost from the return of Lance Lynn, who had an excellent season in the rotation, but the edge here still goes to the Braves.
The pick – Atlanta Braves
One year ago we witnessed what a team can do if motivated by the impending retirement of a legendary player/coach with the Cardinals run to the title under Tony La Russa. This year, if you want to play that card, no team fits the bill quite like the Braves and long-time legend Chipper Jones. I have a gut feeling his career will extend past today, and if Atlanta can survive this coin-flip game, I fully expect them to win the World Series. The Braves are deep in the rotation, talented enough on offense, and they do a better job than almost anybody in baseball at limiting an opposing offense’s chances by not giving away outs. All they have to do is win a coin flip, and I like their chances.