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October 06, 2023

Three important questions ahead of the Phillies-Braves series

To pull off another October upset against the Braves, Rob Thomson will need to stay creative and the Phillies need to slow down Ronald Acuña Jr. at all costs.

For the Philadelphia Phillies, a rematch a year in the making is days away. After dismantling the Miami Marlins 2-0 in the Wild Card Series, the Phillies have a date with a familiar foe: the MLB’s best regular season team in 2o23, the Atlanta Braves, who the Phillies dominated to the tune of a 3-1 series victory in the Division Series as part of their run to the World Series in 2022.

The two rivals are set to kick off their best-of-five series on Saturday, but there are important questions without obvious answers lingering.

Could the Phillies consider an opener for Ranger Suárez?

The Phillies have very rarely used openers since the concept became popular within the majors. But, with the lefty Suárez lined up to likely pitch Games 1 and 4 (if necessary) of this series, it’s worth discussing.

The Braves’ potent lineup begins with Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley. All three of those hitters absolutely obliterate left-handed pitching. Take a look at each player’s career righty-lefty splits, using weighted runs created plus, a stat which compares a hitter’s output to the league average, per FanGraphs. An average wRC+ is 100:

Player Career wRC+ vs RHP  Career wRC+ vs LHP
Ronald Acuña Jr. 144  142 
Ozzie Albies 98 145
Austin Riley 121  143 

So, before handing the ball to Suárez, Phillies manager Rob Thomson should at least consider using one of his right-handed relievers to begin the game. Thomson managed his way through the postseason in 2022 by identifying pockets of each opposing lineup that were ideal matchups for his arms. While this seems like an extreme idea, when you face a 104-win juggernaut, every possible way to generate an advantage should be seriously considered.

Who will start for the Braves?

Veteran right-hander Charlie Morton will not pitch in this series due to a finger injury, leaving the Braves in a difficult position as they try to assemble their starting rotation.

Flame-throwing starter Spencer Strider — who easily led baseball in strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings — should be ready to go for Brian Snitker’s club, but after that comes a whole lot of confusion.

Lefty starter Max Fried, perhaps Atlanta’s most reliable starting pitcher when healthy, finished the season on the injured list due to concerns stemming from a blister on his finger. Fried has dealt with blister issues off and on during his career, though it has not stopped him from becoming one of the game’s most effective southpaws. Fried is eligible to pitch in this series, and it sounds like he will barring a setback.

There are three off days in this series if it goes to a deciding fifth game, so each team can utilize just three starting pitchers and have them all pitching on regular rest if they choose to do so. Assuming Fried makes his start, after he and Strider go, the Braves do not have a third starter who will strike fear in the Phillies.

Righty starter Bryce Elder made the All-Star team in his first full season this year, but has struggled mightily ever since. Prior to the break, Elder had a 2.97 ERA in 18 starts. In 13 starts after the break, that number climbed to 5.11. There is no doubt that Elder is capable of giving Atlanta good innings, but whether he actually will against the Phillies’ deep lineup is questionable.

Kyle Wright, a 21-game winner for the Braves last season, did not make a start between May 3 and September 11, and has been a shell of himself since returning. Wright made two starts against the Phillies in the month of September, throwing just seven innings between the two starts and allowing 10 earned runs. He has since made two appearances out of the bullpen.

Can the Phillies neutralize Acuña Jr.?

Acuña Jr. just completed a season for the ages, smashing 41 home runs, leading baseball in total bases and swiping 73 bases (yes, you read that right). Perhaps no player has benefited more from the new rules designed to increase action on the basepaths than the presumptive Most Valuable Player in the National League.

There is no stopping Acuña Jr., but the Phillies must try to at least contain him. He is the rare player impactful enough to swing games on his own, and he does it atop the best lineup in baseball.

The primary way to limit Acuña Jr.’s damage, of course, is to prevent him from getting on base in the first place. But when he inevitably does, a game within the game emerges: Acuña Jr.’s speed versus the Phillies’ ability to control the running game.

This effort starts with Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, who year after year impresses with his ability to mow down runners. Many of his base-running prevention numbers dipped a bit this season, but Realmuto did still own the single best average pop time (the amount of time between the catcher catching the ball and the infielder catching it at the base) in baseball, at 1.84 seconds.

It will not be an easy task limiting this version of Acuña Jr. at the plate or on the basepaths. But the Phillies may need to do it if they want to upset the Braves for the second consecutive October.

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