The stage is set for an NLDS rematch five years in the making. Making their first trip to the postseason since that 2013 divisional series, the Atlanta Braves hope to exact revenge against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the best-of-five set that begins on Thursday at Dodger Stadium. While the Braves stumbled through four losing seasons between NLDS appearances, 2013 marked the Dodgers’ first of six straight NL West titles. The Dodgers are clear favorites in this series, but they can’t overlook the Braves if they want to advance and reach their goal of getting back to the World Series—and this time, finishing the job. Atlanta’s mix of young talent and established veterans allowed it to cruise to the NL East title and will give the Braves a fighting chance to advance to their first NLCS since 2001.
How They Got Here
The Dodgers got off to a remarkably slow start for a team that was a game away from a championship and brought everyone back. On April 30, they fell to 12-16 and also lost star shortstop Corey Seager for the year to a UCL strain. They finally got hot in June behind Max Muncy’s 10-homer month and stayed hot the rest of the way. The Diamondbacks’ awful September turned a three-team NL West race into two, and the Rockies and Dodgers ended up tied at 91–71. Two-run homers by Cody Bellinger and Muncy helped the Dodgers win Game 163 and keep their division-winning streak alive.
Atlanta was the only team in the NL that didn’t have to deal with the drama of Monday’s tiebreaker games. Thanks to a disappointing season from the Nationals and a historic collapse by the Phillies, the Braves clinched the division back on September 22nd and have been able to sit back and watch as the other four NL playoff teams fought for the other three NLDS spots. The Braves were consistently strong all season, posting a winning record in every month but July.
In the each of the past five postseasons, the one sure thing for the Dodgers was that Clayton Kershaw would be on the mound in Game 1 of the NLDS and any subsequent series (unless he had just pitched in a close-out game). That’s why it was so strange to see the Dodgers announce Hyun-Jin Ryu as their Game 1 starter, even if it makes sense on paper. Ryu has simply been better in 2018 with a 1.97 ERA compared to Kershaw’s 2.73. The decision may also have been influenced by Kershaw’s habit of underperforming in October during his run as the clear best pitcher in baseball. He’s no longer the pitcher he once was, but it’s not a bad thing when you have Clayton Kershaw ready to go in Game 2. Somehow, the Dodgers’ Game 3 starter might be better than both of the guys going before him. Rookie Walker Buehler is on fire right now, having just shut down the Rockies in the tiebreaker. He’s only allowed more than two earned runs once in his last 12 starts and may have the best stuff on the staff right now. Inconsistent lefty Rich Hill would start a potential Game 4 and Ryu would be up again for Game 5.
The Dodgers’ disappointing bullpen is much more of a concern than their rotation. After finishing third in WAR by relievers in 2016 and 2017, LA’s pen fell to 16th this season. To understand why, look no further than closer Kenley Jansen. Here are his numbers over the past three seasons:
Jansen went from being the best reliever in baseball to an average, homer-friendly one. His once-unhittable cut fastball has lost much of its effectiveness; in his most recent outing on Monday, Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story took Jansen cutters deep for back-to-back homers. Elsewhere, Tony Cingrani is injured and guys like Pedro Baez, Kenta Maeda and Scott Alexander are far from elite options.
The best word to describe the Braves’ pitching staff is solid. There are no household names in the rotation or bullpen, but they are not devoid of talent. Atlanta’s Game 1 starter is righthander Mike Foltynewicz, who has been among the 15 or 20 best starters in baseball in his breakout year (2.85 ERA, 3.9 WAR). If you take out a four-start slump in July, Folty’s season ERA comes down to 2.25, which would be fourth among qualified starters. He mixes an upper-90s fastball with a sharp slider, but still walks too many batters (3.34 BB/9). Folty vs. Ryu has the potential to be an outstanding, underrated pitching matchup on Thursday night.
The Braves’ Game 2 starter will be 34-year-old Anibal Sanchez, with Kevin Gausman seeming like the probable option for Game 3. Sanchez has a 2.83 ERA, is coming off an outstanding September, and has a 2.79 ERA in 38.2 postseason innings. Gausman posted a 2.87 ERA in 10 starts since coming over from the Orioles in a trade and gave up one run in 8 postseason innings in 2014. Teheran and young lefty Sean Newcomb are possibilities for Game 4.
Out of the bullpen, closer Arodys Vizcaino and lefty AJ Minter are the biggest names to know. Overall, it’s a merely competent bullpen that really struggled to throw strikes (collective 4.41 BB/9 is the highest in the league). It will be interesting to see if Brian Snitker deploys any of his young, raw starters—such as Touki Toussaint, Newcomb, or Max Fried—out of the pen.
The Dodgers have one of the best offenses in all of baseball. They have nine players with 20-plus homers and can beat you from up and down the batting order. Despite having a payroll in excess of $200 million, their best hitter has been Muncy, a 27-year old who put up a 161 OPS+ and 35 homers in 2018 after spending all of last season in triple-A. Not far behind Muncy is Gritty lookalike Justin Turner, one of the most well-rounded hitters in baseball. What makes the Dodgers’ offense so dangerous is its depth. Manny Machado, Yasiel Puig, Cody Bellinger, Matt Kemp, Yasmani Grandal, and Joc Pederson all have an OPS+ at 120 or better. Chris Taylor and Kiké Hernandez are above-average hitters, too. Good luck, Braves pitchers.
If Atlanta is to win this series, it will need its offense to score more than the 2.6 runs per game it managed in seven regular season games (five losses) against the Dodgers. The stars of the lineup are Freddie Freeman, one of only five players on these two rosters who was around for the 2013 series (the others are Teheran, Kershaw, Jansen, and Puig), and 20-year-old rookie Ronald Acuña Jr., who might be the best player in baseball in a few years. Acuña’s combination of power and speed makes him incredibly fun to watch, and he can change games all by himself. Veteran Nick Markakis is a good middle-of-the order presence. The Braves will need to find production from elsewhere in the lineup, though; this was just a decent-to-above-average offense overall. Contributions from Charlie Culberson and Johan Camargo would be huge. Ozzie Albies hasn’t been the same player in the second half.
Dave Roberts won Manager of the Year in 2016 and led the Dodgers to the World Series a year later. Still, with all the talent on his roster, it’s fair to wonder whether he should’ve been able to lead the Dodgers to a division title without having to play a 163rd game. LA’s Pythagorean record of 102–61 is ten games better than its actual record, although it’s admittedly impossible to know how much of that is due to coaching. Snitker has been outstanding in his third year managing the Braves. This will be his first taste of the postseason.
At this point, it should be pretty clear that the Dodgers are the better team in this series. All of the advanced metrics back up their advantage in both hitting and pitching. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 71% chance to reach the NLCS. That said, the great thing about October baseball is that anything can happen. A five-game series is such a small sample size, and the Braves do have a few things potentially working in their favor. X-factors for Atlanta could be speed and defense. Ender Inciarte is worse than league average as a hitter, but he’s a threat to steal if he can get on base, as are the young duo of Acuña and Albies. And Inciarte is one of the best defensive outfielders in the league, accounting for 17 of the Braves’ 52 Defensive Runs Saved (3rd in MLB). Psychologically, the Braves might have the advantage of playing with lower expectations. The Dodgers could feel the pressure of trying to get back to the World Series, especially if the Braves manage to steal Game 1 or 2 in Los Angeles.
There’s just too much talent on this Dodgers team. Ryu, Kershaw, and Buehler will all be sharp in leading their team to a sweep and a berth in the NLCS against Milwaukee or Colorado.
Dodgers in 3