Mike Check

Michael Cunningham’s ramblings from the world of sports

Braves newcomers won’t fold under playoff pressure


A big reason why it was so fun to watch the Braves make their unexpected run to the National League East title is because they are young. They are good now and you can imagine them one day being great. There’s also pleasure in how the Braves play with so much joy, and the youngsters have a lot to do with that. 

I like Ronald Acuna’s little bat flips after he smashes homers with that quick, powerful swing. Even a cynical old hack like me can’t help but smile at Acuna’s boyish dugout celebrations with fellow rookie Ozzie Albies. The same goes for the playful infield interplay between Albies and his double-play partner, Dansby Swanson. 

These Braves are ahead of schedule, and you get the sense that part of the reason for that is that so many of them don’t know any better. They are young, they are good and they’re having fun. They helped the Braves win the East and, starting Thursday, they’ll get their shot at the Dodgers in the NLDS. 

Bring it on.

“The only thing I want them to do right now is to continue to play like they have, which is aggressive, with a lot of emotion, with a lot of energy, and that will be good enough,” Braves manger Brian Snitker said. 

Those are the traits of a good, young team. It worked for the Braves over 162 games, and I think it will keep working. The Braves may not best the Dodgers, but it won’t be because their young players wilt in the hotter spotlight of the postseason. 

Besides, there’s no good evidence that the Dodgers’ big edge in playoff experience will matter. Sabermetric research hasn’t shown that it has a significant effect at the team or player level. Writes Russell A. Carton of Baseball Prospectus: “Prior playoff experience has no predictive power over outcomes in the postseason.” 

That’s a good sign for the Braves. They will depend on several players taking their first crack at the playoffs. 

At least four of the eight players in the lineup will be postseason newcomers, five if shortstop Dansby Swanson (hand) plays. Among those players, four are inexperienced major leaguers, period: Acuna, Albies, Swanson and Johan Camargo are 24 years old or younger. The other is Ender Inciarte, a fifth-year major leaguer. 

There’s lots of playoff novices on the pitching staff. Right-hander Mike Foltynewicz’s first postseason start will be in Dodger Stadium for Game 1 on Thursday. Left-hander Sean Newcomb would make his playoff debut if he starts, a real possibility because of his success against the Dodgers, who aren’t great against lefties. (Julio Teheran’s only postseason experience was a bad one: he lasted 2-2/3 innings against the Dodgers in Game 3 of the 2013 NLDS). 

Lots of Braves relievers are in line for their postseason debuts: Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter and Jesse Biddle. Rookies Max Fried and Touki Toussaint also could pitch out of the bullpen. 

Include Snitker, 62, among the playoff newbies. Well, that’s technically not true — he was Braves third-base coach for three postseasons — but that’s nothing like running the show. 

“I’m kind of excited to see what it is,” Snitker said. “I’ve managed a lot of games, but this is a little different.” 

Snitker will be up against Dodgers counterpart Dave Roberts. He has the luxury of managing a team so deep that he can mix and match lineups and still have plenty of capable subs for whatever situations come up. 

“We are not that team,” Snitker said. 

The Braves counter with a lineup that’s good one through eight. Their two veteran All-Stars, Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis, are surrounded by young-but-capable hitters. It’s a lineup that has hit left-handers well, and the Dodgers will deploy two or three lefty starters (Clayton Kershaw, the most accomplished among them, has had an off year by his standards). 

The Braves are good on defense in large part because of their young, athletic infield (though it wouldn’t be as good without Swanson). As for their young relievers, well, the Braves must hope they stop issuing so many walks. 

It’s fitting that the NLDS Game 1 starter for the Braves is Foltynewicz, who was among the first crop of prospects they acquired for the rebuild. 

“We’ve wanted ‘Folty’ to be the guy for a couple of years now and to me, right now, he’s established himself as our legit first guy,” Snitker said. 

The 2017 Dodgers offer some proof that the 2018 Braves can make a postseason run despite their youth. Last year’s Dodgers had six first-timers in the playoffs. Two of those players, Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor, helped them win the pennant. 

Bellinger was like Acuna and Albies: a touted prospect who made it to the majors quickly and immediately established himself as a star. Taylor, the NLCS MVP, made it to his first postseason after becoming a lineup regular at 26 years old, somewhat like Inciarte’s path to this year’s playoffs. 

These Braves will rely on first-timers in the playoffs more than those Dodgers. Yet the Braves made it here, anyway, and who’s to say those young players won’t keep them going? 

“This is a maiden voyage for most concerned,” Snitker said. “This is part of the journey we’ve been looking to go on. It’s going to be a really fun time for all the guys involved.” 

It will be fun for the rest of us to watch to see if the young Braves can keep beating the odds.


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About the Author

Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.