How the Atlanta Braves Can Solve the Kershaw/Greinke Duo
Congratulations, Atlanta Braves! You just won 96 regular-season games, won the National League East by 10 games and are in the postseason for the third time in four years.
As a reward for all that hard work from April through September, you get to face Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in the first two games of the National League Division Series starting on Thursday night.
The good news is the Braves, by virtue of finishing with four more wins than the Los Angeles Dodgers, get to start the NLDS in Atlanta where they went 56-25 in 2013.
Of course, nothing that happened in the regular season matters much anymore. The Braves and Dodgers will be throwing their best starters and lineup out there, but while there aren't a lot of questions about what LA needs to do against Atlanta's pitching, the Braves' hitters against the Dodgers' top two starters is a great mystery.
Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball, taking the throne from Detroit's Justin Verlander. He's going to win the NL Cy Young award, and he recorded his third straight season with at least 229 strikeouts and an ERA+ of at least 150 (194).
Oh yeah, Kershaw also became the first starting pitcher since Roger Clemens in 2005 with an ERA under 2.00. Other than that, he isn't very good.
Greinke shrugged off a slow start, resulting in a pedestrian 3.49 ERA and 68-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the first half, with one of the best stretches of his career. In the second half, the former Cy Young winner had a 1.85 ERA, 80-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio and allowed 91 baserunners in 92.2 innings.
So what is the Braves' plan of attack going to be against Kershaw and Greinke so they can take this series out to Los Angeles not facing a 2-0 hole?
How Atlanta Can Beat Kershaw
I'm not going to lie, if Major League Baseball coaches and players haven't been able to figure out how to hit Kershaw beyond a 1.83 ERA, the odds of me having a workable formula are slim.
The first thing I can definitively say is the Braves are not going to do anything against Kershaw's curveball. Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times pointed out this incredible Kershaw stat on Twitter.
How many extra-base hits did Clayton Kershaw give up on curveballs this year? Zero, according to Bloomberg Sports. #Dodgers— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) October 1, 2013
For proper perspective, Kershaw threw 3,428 pitches in 2013, and the curveball accounted for 12.5 percent of those (approximately 429). On 429 curveballs thrown, not one hitter turned it into an extra-base hit.
On top of those numbers, Kershaw allowed just 44 extra-base hits in 842 at-bats (5.2 percent). He does not give up a lot of big hits because everything is located so well, and the stuff is better than ever from the left side.
It's hard to give the Braves a good blueprint because the only times Kershaw struggles are when he beats himself. His worst start of the year came on September 2 at Colorado, not exactly a pitcher's paradise, when he gave up 11 hits and five runs (all earned) in five innings.
Kershaw made six starts against playoff teams this season. Here are his stat lines from each of those games:
|Date, Team||Stat Line|
|April 6 vs. Pittsburgh||7 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 K|
|May 26 vs. St. Louis||7 IP, 7 H, 4 R (4 ER), 3 BB, 5 K|
|June 15 at Pittsburgh||7 IP, 3 H, 1 R (1 ER), 3 BB, 8 K|
|July 26 vs. Cincinnati||8 IP, 6 H, 1 R (1 ER), 0 BB, 8 K|
|August 6 at St. Louis||6 IP, 6 H, 2 R (2 ER), 2 BB, 5 K|
|August 11 vs. Tampa Bay||8 IP, 3 H, 2 R (1 ER), 2 BB, 8 K|
There is no discernable trend you can spot in those games. The Braves can't mimic what the Cardinals did because the lineups are completely different. St. Louis is geared for contact and taking an extra base when available.
Atlanta has a lot of power hitters who can drive the ball a long way but are equally capable of going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. That's not the kind of lineup you want when facing Kershaw.
If there is one thing I can say in Atlanta's favor heading into Game 1 against Kershaw, it would be to take advantage of the home-field advantage.
The Braves have hit much better at Turner Field than on the road. They are fourth in home runs, sixth in on-base percentage, seventh in slugging percentage and eighth in runs scored at home.
By comparison, the Braves rank 18th in on-base percentage, 19th in slugging percentage, 19th in runs scored and 24th in average away from Atlanta.
Basically, the best strategy for the Braves will be to start the game in patient mode to see if Kershaw is locating or not. If he is, it's going to be a long day. If he's not, then we have some evidence to suggest that Kershaw can give up a few runs here or there to get into the bullpen quicker.
How Atlanta Can Beat Greinke
For all the great things that Greinke has done throughout his career, the postseason has not been kind to him. It's a small sample size of three games and 16.2 innings, but 23 hits and four home runs is alarming for a pitcher whose control is usually precise.
How will Atlanta fare vs. LA's top two starters?
There are also a few trends that have started to develop as Greinke gets ready to turn 30 on October 21. He's not missing bats at the same rate he once did, going from a career-high 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings in 2011 down to 7.5 this season. That's still a good rate, just not an elite rate.
Another thing that could come back to bite Greinke this season is the amount of luck he's had. His career batting average on balls in play is .305, but that number dropped all the way to .276 in 2013 despite the lower strikeout rates. His home run rate fell from 0.76 in 2012 to 0.66 this year.
Those numbers wouldn't be as alarming if Greinke's groundball rate went up, but it actually decreased by almost four percent from 2012-13 (49.2 to 45.6) even though his line-drive rate went up from 21.7 percent to 23.8 percent.
That works in Atlanta's favor, as the Braves boast seven players with better-than-league-average home run-to-fly ball ratios. Power hitters like Justin Upton, Brian McCann and Evan Gattis could conceivably have a field day against Greinke.
(Dan Uggla would have been included in that group, but he is reportedly being kept off the Braves' NLDS roster.)
If Greinke's luck doesn't continue in this game, the Braves can tee off on him because we know that they have the power to take any pitcher in baseball deep.
Unlike Kershaw, whose few weaknesses are hidden by his ability to manipulate a baseball any way he wants, Greinke has proven he can be had under the right circumstances.
The Last Word
Despite my reservations about Greinke heading into the postseason, I am not at all suggesting it is going to be easy for the Braves to score runs off him. This is what October baseball is all about.
You want to see a staff like the one LA can offer at the top, to see if it can hold down the fort long enough for an inconsistent lineup to get the offense on the board.
The Braves have been on cruise control since July, yet no one seems to give them much of a chance against the Dodgers with Kershaw and Greinke starting the first two games of the NLDS. I think we are wildly underestimating them because one half of that equation isn't as strong as the name value suggests.
Even while I think the Dodgers will win the series, Atlanta is going to keep things interesting because of the strength in the middle of the lineup and a deep pitching staff that includes the best bullpen in baseball.
If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments.
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