MLB Playoff Predictions: Atlanta Braves Will Send Chipper off as a Champ

Geoff Ratliff@@geoffratliffContributor IIIOctober 3, 2012

MLB Playoff Predictions: Atlanta Braves Will Send Chipper off as a Champ

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    When the 2012 Major League Baseball playoffs are over, Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones will end his Hall of Fame career exactly the way it began—as a World Series Champion. 

    Jones ended his 1995 rookie campaign by bringing the city of Atlanta its first World Series title—the franchise’s third—in 1995. While he may not be the offensive force in this year’s postseason that he was 17 years ago—Chipper hit .364 in 14 postseason games that year including 10 runs scored, three home runs and 8 RBI—the outcome for the Braves will be the same.  

    This year’s postseason will even have a familiar feel for Jones. The ‘95 playoffs introduced the first two wild card spots, while 2012 will add two more postseason entrants to the dance card—one in each league. 

    It’s fitting that the Braves will host the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Wild Card Game this year. They defeated the 1995 NL Wild Card representatives, the Colorado Rockies, en route to their last World Series championship.

    Atlanta may also be forced to conquer the NL Central-winning Cincinnati Reds on their way to this year’s title. The Braves swept the Reds in the ’95 League Championship Series after Cincinnati reached the playoffs by winning their division that year as well. Go figure.

    Nostalgia aside, here are five reasons why the Atlanta Braves will provide a storybook ending to Jones’ spectacular career.

The Magic of Kris Medlen

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    Kris Medlen was having a spectacular season as a member of the Atlanta’s bullpen, but his move to the starting rotation saved a beleaguered Braves pitching staff.  

    Staff ace Brandon Beachy—who was well on his way to the NL Cy Young award in mid-June—was lost for the season following Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow.

    Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, two stalwarts of the 2011 rotation, have been largely ineffective throughout the 2012 season. Medlen replaced Jurrjens in late July, and Atlanta has been rolling ever since.

    Medlen is 9-0 as a starter this year while sporting an ERA and WHIP below 1.00 during that time. He’s also striking out nearly a batter per inning and has held opposing batters to a batting average below .200.

    The Braves have won all 12 of his starts this season and 23 consecutive games in which Medlen has started dating back to 2011. That record favors Atlanta heavily as he prepares to take the mound in Friday’s NL Wild Card game against the Cardinals.

The Element of Surprise (Sort of)

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    The Braves haven’t fared particularly well against Cincinnati or the Washington Nationals this season, one of which they’ll face in the National League Division Series. However, most of Atlanta’s struggles against the two division winners came B.M.M.—Before Medlen and Maholm. 

    Medlen didn’t join Atlanta’s starting rotation until July 31, the same day that left-hander Paul Maholm was acquired from the Chicago Cubs in a pre-deadline trade.

    Atlanta is 1-5 against the Reds this season but hasn’t faced them since getting swept in a four-game series in Cincinnati in late May.

    The Braves are just 8-10 against their NL East rivals in Washington. That record improves to 4-2 in the A.M.M. (After Medlen and Maholm) era, including a three-game sweep in Atlanta in the most recent meeting between the two clubs. 

    The relative lack of familiarity for the Reds and the recent dominance over the Nationals suggest that the Braves have a favorable matchup against either of their NLDS opponents.

Defense Wins Championships

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    In a National League playoff field that features four of the Senior Circuit’s top five pitching staffs, Atlanta’s superior defense will make all the difference. Runs will be at a premium in each postseason round, so the team that’s best at preventing them will have a decided advantage.

    The Braves led the NL with a league-low 86 errors and a .986 fielding percentage during the regular season. The Reds were a close second to Atlanta in both categories with 89 errors and a .985 fielding percentage. 

    The Braves will likely face the one of the American League’s most potent offenses in the World Series in either the Texas Rangers, New York Yankees or Detroit Tigers. Keeping extra base runners off the paths will become even more important as those teams look to out-slug Atlanta. 

    If they have to face the pitching-rich Oakland Athletics, the Braves’ superior defense will be even more important in what will likely be a more NL-style Fall Classic.

    Regardless of the opponent, recent World Series history has proven how crucial timely fielding can be. Just ask the 2011 Rangers or 2006 Chicago White Sox how costly poor fielding was to their championship causes.

A Historically Good Bullpen Helps Too

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    Atlanta actually owns the second-best bullpen ERA (2.80) among 2012 playoff participants. But the historic season posted by Craig Kimbrel gives them a slight edge over the Reds (2.66), despite the presence of Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman.

    Kimbrel leads the National League in saves with 42, narrowly edging Chapman by four. His other pitching statistics dwarf those of Chapman though, providing a more convincing case for who the better pitcher is in 2012.  

    He has a lower ERA (1.02 to 1.51) and WHIP (0.65 to 0.81) while blowing less saves (three versus Chapman’s five) and striking out more batters per nine innings pitched (16.62 to 15.32). Kimbrel’s K/9 rate is the highest single-season mark in MLB history for any pitcher with more than 50 innings pitched. 

    Much of the Braves’ bullpen dominance was a result of Medlen’s presence for more than half of the season. However, young guns Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters are equally up to the task of shutting down opposing lineups.

That Quirky All-Star Game Rule

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    The Braves will benefit greatly from the National League’s 8-0 victory in July’s MLB All-Star Game. Three of the five American League playoff teams have at least 50 wins at home this year, and the A’s could become the fourth with a victory over the Rangers on the season’s final day.

    Only the Baltimore Orioles are more than seven games above .500 on the road (46-34 entering Wednesday’s finale at Tampa Bay), and Atlanta was an impressive 48-33 at Turner Field. 

    The Braves are an impressive 45-35 on the road with one game remaining in the regular season (at Pittsburgh). That’s a better road mark than every American League team outside of Baltimore, so Atlanta should feel at home no matter where the postseason games are played.

    Their last World Series title was clenched in front of the home crowd, so it only makes sense that the Braves would repeat the feat in Chipper Jones’ farewell tour through the MLB playoffs.