In our next position comparison ahead of the NLDS, how do the St. Louis Cardinals’ outfielders match up with those on the Braves?
The outfield for the St. Louis Cardinals has been much more of a strength in 2019 than it was in 2018. After down years last year, Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler have bounced back wonderfully and the group as a whole has been a strength.
Back in the NLDS for the first time in three years, the Cardinals are clashing with the Braves who also happen to find their outfield being one of their strengths.
As the NLDS starts on Thursday in Atlanta, the Cardinals will have to contend with the Braves outfielders but the question is, who’s group is stronger? For the purpose of this article, I am only going to look at the three regular starters for each team. Let’s dig in.
As mentioned before, Marcell Ozuna has had an awesome bounce back in 2019. After the Cardinals acquired him before the 2018 season, the expectations were high and Ozuna’s near average .758 OPS was a huge letdown.
Other than a freak accident where Ozuna broke some fingers diving back into a base, Ozuna was healthy all year and his numbers showed it. With an .804 OPS, Ozuna put up 29 homers and 89 RBI’s and was a great compliment to Paul Goldschmidt in the cleanup spot.
The pending free agent was a +2 defender in left field and while arm strength is still not great, it was overall a solid 2.1 bWAR season from the 28-year-old. Ozuna struggled mightily in September though with just a .622 OPS over the final month. This could’ve been due to a lack of rest but 2019 is Ozuna’s first trip to the postseason so hopefully, he can turn it around.
The Braves have had a bit of a revolving door in left field in 2019 as Nick Markakis, Ronald Acuna Jr. , Austin Riley, Adam Duvall, and Rafael Ortega have all started games in left. The turnover was mostly due to performance issues as Austin Riley started hot then sizzled out, Duvall is more of a bench guy, and due to lack of performance from Ender Inciarte, Acuna spent a lot of time in center.
I am not going to break down just one player, but according to FanGraphs.com, the Braves have the second-most productive left field position in the league. The Cardinals aren’t shy at 7th, but due to mostly Acuna, left field has been a strength for them. Due to the injury to Ender Inciarte, Nick Markakis will slide to left and Acuna will slide to center.
It has been a tumultuous sophomore year for Harrison Bader. After looking like a breakout candidate last year, Bader has proven this year that he still needs to adjust to major league pitching. Bader had just a .205 average and an anemic 78 OPS+ this year.
After a reset at AAA, Bader came back strong but then cooled off. He’s streaky but can run into a ball every once in a while. He won’t be the starting center fielder for long if he can’t improve upon that for next year.
Defensively, Bader is still great with 13 DRS in center and might win the gold glove this year. His big-play ability in the field helps offset his bat, but he needs to be as close to average as possible for the Cardinals to keep him out there consistently.
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For the Braves, Ronald Acuna Jr. has been everything they could’ve asked for and more. Last year’s Rookie of the Year winner is still not even 22 years old and was three stolen bases away from a 40-40 season.
Acuna paired his .280/.365/.518 slash line with 41 homers, 101 RBI’s, and a 5.5 WAR out of the leadoff spot as a dangerous top-of-the-order threat. While Acuna plays all over the outfield, he is the regular center fielder and had a +1 DRS tally this year out there. Defensively he’s no Harrison Bader but with average defense and his bat, it’s more than enough to make the Braves happy.
Acuna dealt with tightness in his hip and that kept him out of games since September 24th but with the Braves clinched, there was no reason to push it. It will be interesting to see if there are any residual effects from that injury or if he’s rusty. The Braves also picked up speed demon Billy Hamilton this season and he spent time in center field as well.
Ender Inciarte won the gold glove in center field in 2018 with 17 DRS, but due to injury and lack of performance (.740 OPS), Inciarte’s playing time has been cut down mightly. Due to leg injuries, Inciarte isn’t playing in the NLDS.
Dexter Fowler has had a great bounce-back year. I wrote recently on his bounceback and while some still complained that he’s no Bryce Harper, he is a valuable commodity out there. His .238 batting average isn’t pretty but with a .346 OBP and a career-high in homers (19) and RBI’s (67), he has stabilized the leadoff position.
Fowler has led the Cubs to a World Series from the leadoff spot and at the top of the lineup, he’s a huge key to the entire offense.
In right, the Braves have had the Georgia-born iron man Nick Markakis who is still the same old hitting machine that he as always been at the age of 35. A career .288 hitter, Markakis batted .285 this year with a .776 OPS with nine homers. He’s not great defensively anymore but his leadership and talents in right field are still immense.
Again, Markakis is probably playing left field most of the series and Matt Joyce will take his spot. On the year, Joyce is batting .295 and has a stellar .408 OBP and seven homers. This time of the year, you have to do whatever you can with injuries, but Joyce isn’t a bad option at all in right.
Overall, the Braves’ outfield group is stronger for sure due to the force of Acuna out there. The total bWAR for the Cardinals outfield is 5.8 and 6.9 for the Braves. Outside of Acuna, there isn’t a ton of balance for the Braves but Acuna’s presence is so large that it doesn’t matter as much.
It’s going to be a great series either way and it’s no secret that the Braves have a better offense. It isn’t surprising that the Cardinals don’t stack up as well head to head in the outfield. Pitching beats offense most days of the week so it’s going to be a fun series either way.