The St. Louis Cardinals have not made the playoffs since 2015. Can you believe that? Despite winning at least 83 games the last three seasons, the Cardinals fell short of meaningful October baseball. That isn’t the case this season, as the Cardinals took down the NL Central for the first time since 2015, but the team from St. Louis is an underdog to Atlanta in the NLDS. The Braves are -135 to win the series at BetOnline, with +115 on the comeback.

The Braves locked up their second straight NL East title and will make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 2012-13. The Braves won 94 games and were part of the first NL Wild Card Game back in 2012 and lost. They are in search of their first series win since 2001. No, that’s not a typo. The Braves have lost in the NLDS seven times and lost that Wild Card Game in 2012.

Atlanta won the NL East every season from 1991-2005, with the 1994 strike season exempted from that list because the playoffs did not happen. This probably isn’t the start of a similar dynasty, but this could very well be Atlanta’s best chance at winning a series since the early 2000s.

There is a lot to unpack about this series. The Braves would seem to have the upper hand. They have star power in Ronald ACuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman. We could even throw Ozzie Albies in that mix. The Cardinals have Paul Goldschmidt, who is coming off of a down year.

Youngsters like Mike Soroka and Max Fried garnered a lot of attention over the start of the year. Guys like Jack Flaherty were overshadowed early in the year because of the struggles to start the campaign.

The ironic thing is that the Braves, tied for the second-luckiest team in baseball by Pythagorean Win-Loss, really came back to the pack in the second half and were on par with the Cardinals. Atlanta’s vaunted offense, which was stellar in the first half, essentially performed at a league average level in the second half. The offensive numbers are nearly interchangeable between the two teams after the All-Star Break. Perception and reality are a lot different with these two teams.

To the Pyth W/L point, the Braves, despite all of their bullpen problems over the course of the season, went 28-16 in one-run games. Only the Giants and Twins had higher win percentages in that department. The 28 one-run wins for the Braves were second to San Francisco’s 38. The Cardinals were 25-22.

Both teams, though, are solid at a lot of positions. You don’t have stiffs and fringy players taking plate appearances. The 1 through 8 is pretty good for both teams. It would seem that the Braves have better starting pitching depth than the Cardinals, which is a key I will focus on in a little bit.

All in all, I would guess that there are some misperceptions about these two teams. To be honest, I fell victim to them before I dug deeper. The Braves won 97 games and the Cardinals won 91. The Cardinals are bland, but consistent, and the Braves are exciting, but had been inconsistent for a while as they built up to this point.

It makes for a great handicap.

Here are my three keys to the series:

  1. Cardinals Pitching

Jack Flaherty’s superhuman second half will make them a live underdog in any series, as he worked 99.1 innings across 15 starts with a 0.91 ERA and a 2.22 FIP en route to 4.1 fWAR. Beyond that, Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright, Dakota Hudson, and Michael Wacha are just “guys”. That’s really all that they are, but Flaherty will go on regular rest in Game 2 and if Game 5 is required, he’ll be good to go.

The bullpen did post a top-five FIP in the second half, so that could be the great equalizer. The Braves were 14th in FIP in the second half, as they trailed the Cardinals in K% and also gave up a lot more home runs. The Cardinals did have some serious BB% troubles with a walk rate of 10.4% in the second half.

Who will save this team in the games when Flaherty can’t pitch? Overall, Carlos Martinez was solid and John Brebbia was better than his ERA would suggest, largely because neither guy allowed many home runs. Andrew Miller was awful in the second half, but somehow wound up being one of Mike Shildt’s favorites in high-leverage. John Gant also fell off the face of the earth.

Who will be the multi-inning savior if Mikolas, Wainwright, or Hudson goes awry? Can Daniel Ponce de Leon be counted on for a fireman role like that in the middle innings? Genesis Cabrera? Will somebody like Gant or Brebbia have to be stretched? Maybe Giovanny Gallegos? That is the single biggest concern for the Cardinals in this series.

A taxed bullpen and a shallow rotation will make it tough to keep games lower-scoring, which is what the Cardinals want. They only gave up 4.1 runs per game this season, but also only scored 4.7 runs per game. That was the lowest offensive output of any division winner by 0.6 runs per game. The Cardinals were 17th in runs scored. The other division winners were first, second, third, fifth, and seventh.

  1. Where’s the Offense?

In the first half, the Atlanta Braves offense was making waves. The team was fifth in SLG, sixth in wOBA, eighth in wRC+ (For what it’s worth, the Cardinals were 26th, 23rd, 21st, respectively in the first half). In the second half, the Braves offense was 15th in SLG, 10th in wOBA, and 13th in wRC+ (The Cardinals were 16th, 16th, and 11th). Ultimately, it was Atlanta’s walk rate (10.6%) that saved the second half from being really pedestrian offensively. Nobody in baseball drew a higher percentage of walks in the second half.

The Braves will need to cash in those chances. The Cardinals ranked third in Defensive Runs Saved and third in Ultimate Zone Rating, so balls are going to need to find holes. The Cardinals excelled at run prevention in large part because of their defense.

There is no defense against a walk, though. St. Louis needs to trust the defense in this series, which can be scary, but this isn’t a high-strikeout staff anyway. Avoiding free passes will be a big deal.

  1. Braves Bullpen

Fortunately, the Braves will be able to move some starters around and get some bullpen innings that way, but this group needs to be consistent. Neither bullpen stands on particularly solid ground coming into this season, but the Cardinals bullpen was a lot better in the second half. The underlying metrics, however, suggest that the Cardinals bullpen is a regression candidate.

St. Louis’s relievers had a 3.91 ERA with a 3.96 FIP, but a 4.84 xFIP and a 4.40 SIERA in the second half. The Braves had a 4.94 ERA with a 4.48 FIP and then a 4.34 xFIP and a 4.17 SIERA. The difference was largely in the home run department. If the Braves bullpen can avoid allowing home runs, things can go a lot better. The Cardinals were 17th in home runs in the second half. Of course, the Braves didn’t hit for power at the same clip that they did in the first half, but still. St. Louis is unlikely to be able to exploit Atlanta’s biggest pitching weakness and that is the bullpen’s propensity for allowing dingers.

Collectively, the Braves rotation was on par with the Cardinals rotation in the second half, even with Flaherty going nuclear.

In my research and analysis, I’ve found this series to be a little bit more equal than people think. The Cardinal Way™ is boring and bland, but the player development staff continuously churns out solid Major League talent. What the team lacks in star power, it makes up for in not having scrubs on the bench or in everyday roles.

The Braves have that, too, though, and they actually have some of the upper echelon talent to go with it.

As far as the series price goes, the Cardinals have a great equalizer in Jack Flaherty, who can pitch Game 2 to either even the series or take a 2-0 lead. He’d also be on full rest in Game 5, if it got to that point. He’s the best pitcher in the series for either team. With the Braves only -127 in Game 1 and with Flaherty looming in Game 2, the Cardinals +115 isn’t a bad investment. Worse comes to worse, you could probably play back for a small arbitrage on the Braves if the series goes to St. Louis at 1-1.

St. Louis is the starting point at +115 for me and then we’ll see how the series plays out going forward.