MLB playoff preview: Braves, Marlins and lots of fastballs - Sports Illustrated

Why Fastballs Will Decide the Braves-Marlins NLDS

Miami loves to throw fastballs and Atlanta love to hit them. Who wins?
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HOUSTON — The cute narrative about the Miami Marlins is that they lost 105 games last year, began the year ranked as the third-biggest long shot to make the playoffs (behind only Baltimore and Seattle) and made 174 roster moves largely to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak that struck 18 players. From “Bottom Feeders,” as Phillies analyst Ricky Bottalico called them, to the National League Division Series. That’s the Netflix version, anyway. (Slow Burn. Uplifting. Binge-worthy.)

You want the unsanitized baseball version of what they are doing here against the Atlanta Braves? Their bevy of young, hard-throwing pitchers aim to throw high-octane fastballs down the throats of any lineup.

You can break down this NLDS all you want. Search under every rock for some marginalia that will decide the series.

But the story of the series is as obvious as a Sixto Sánchez heater. The Marlins love to throw fastballs and the Braves love to hit them.

“We have to attack the strike zone,” Miami manager Don Mattingly said. “We’ve got good stuff. Don’t give them anything. Make them earn it. We have to go attack these guys.”

Country hardball begins Tuesday at Minute Maid Park. The Marlins blew away the Cubs with fastballs in the Wild Card Series. They threw Chicago 75% fastballs—a ridiculously high percentage—at an average speed of 95.8 mph. The Cubs were overwhelmed by all that power. They hit .157 against Miami’s heat.

Truth be told, the Cubs never gave Miami a reason to deviate from their game plan. The fascinating hook to this series is whether the Braves can stand up to such fastball-heavy bullying tactics and force Miami to go to Plan B.

“They have a little better mix of pure hit and power,” Mattingly said.

The Braves are not just a good fastball hitting team. They are the best fastball hitting team in recent memory. They hit .311 against fastballs, the highest in MLB since the world champion 2015 Royals hit .312. They slugged .551 against heat, the highest in the 13 seasons such data is available. There is a reason the Braves saw only 49% fastballs in the regular season, seventh fewest in baseball, and even less against the Reds in the Wild Card Series (43%).

Freddie Freeman (.439), Marcell Ozuna (.409), Travis d’Arnaud (.378), Ozzie Albies (.333) and Dansby Swanson (.328) all crush fastballs. Freeman, with that wickedly quick short stroke, is a wizard against fastballs. This is one of the most outrageous stats I’ve come across in years: Freeman hit .500 against pitches 95 mph and greater.

Take a look at the expected Miami starters in this series and you begin to understand how much fun this series could be:

Sandy Alcantara, 25: He threw 249 two-seamers this year that averaged 97 mph. Batters hit .194 against it with one extra-base hit and only five flyballs. He threw a career high 77 fastballs vs. the Cubs.

Sixto Sánchez, 22: He threw seven pitches clocked at 100 mph against Chicago, the most by a postseason starter since Noah Syndergaard five years ago.

Trevor Rogers, 22: A 6-foot-5 lefty, he throws fastballs 55% of the time at an average speed of 93.4. Only three other left-handed starters threw fastballs so often and so hard.

Pablo López, 24: He threw a career-high 63% fastballs this year.

The Braves will counter with Max Fried, 26, Ian Anderson, 22, and Kyle Wright, 25. It would be the first postseason series ever with the first three games started by pitchers 26 and younger.

For the Marlins, it’s a bit reminiscent of 2003, when they entered the playoffs with young power arms Dontrelle Willis, 21, Josh Beckett, 23, Brad Penny, 25, and Carl Pavano, 27, with Mark Redman, 29, adding a different look. They knocked out the Giants, Cubs and Yankees to win the World Series that year.

You will know quickly where this series is headed. The Braves don’t just devour fastballs, they also are one of the most aggressive-swinging teams that love to jump on first pitches. Led by Freeman, the King of Ambush, Atlanta led the majors in slugging, home runs and RBI when attacking first pitches.

An aggressive power pitching staff against an aggressive, high-scoring lineup? Now that’s binge-worthy.