MLB playoffs: Key questions for Dodgers vs Braves NLCS - Sports Illustrated

Three Questions That Will Decide the Dodgers-Braves NLCS

The top two team teams in the NL playoff bracket are the last two standing—shocker. Here are three questions that will steer the direction of the series and determine which team wins the NL pennant.
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Welcome to the next round of the playoffs. The NLCS is giving us the most obvious pairing—No. 1 Dodgers versus No. 2 Braves—but there are still plenty of questions about how it will play out. So here are three that will help to decide the series:

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What Will the Dodgers Get from Walker Buehler?

The Dodgers’ starter can look like one of the best in baseball when healthy. But it’s unclear just what we’ll see from him here—he missed two starts in September with a blister that has continued to be a factor into October. That’s not to say that it’s stopped him from pitching well. In fact, quite the opposite: Buehler became the first pitcher in playoff history to strike out at least eight in a start of four or fewer innings, and he did it twice, both in the wild-card round and NLDS. But read between the lines there and note that he exited after the fourth in each start. In the NLDS, he required 95 pitches to do so, and he also tallied eight walks, struggling with his command more than usual. He’s said that the blister is not as bad as it was when it sidelined him. (“I’m just trying to not worry about it too much… I expect to be myself, regardless of it,” he told reporters before his start in the NLDS.) But he’s clearly not been pitching as well as he does when he’s at his best.

A somewhat diminished Buehler is not an end-all-be-all for a team as balanced as the Dodgers, of course. (And, again, “a somewhat diminished Buehler” still set a playoff strikeout record twice.) But against such a stacked Braves lineup, the difference between full capability and anything less could be critical.

Who Will Start for the Braves in Game 4?

The Braves have gotten through the playoffs so far with a standout trio of starters: Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright. But the best-of-seven series here will probably involve a need for a fourth starter, and for Atlanta, that represents a big question mark. The fourth guy on the depth chart is 22-year-old Bryse Wilson, who showed some promise in his two starts this year, though he has yet to definitively establish himself in the role. There’s also fellow 22-year-old Huascar Ynoa and veteran Josh Tomlin. (Both Wilson and Ynoa were left off the roster for the wild-card round but added back for the NLDS.) Manager Brian Snitker could go with Wilson in a Game 4; he could go with an opener and use one of the aforementioned three as a bulk guy; he could try some sort of piggybacking bullpen game. The answer will likely depend on just what the series outlook is at that point, but regardless, the question is clear: Who’ll be the fourth playoff starter on a team that doesn’t have an obvious one?

Who’ll Hit Harder?

These two teams generally match up evenly. But the area where they align the most closely? Hard contact.

The Dodgers are the hardest-hitting team in baseball—in terms of both average exit velocity and percentage of contact that is hard-hit—but right behind them are the Braves:

Average Exit Velocity (Rank)Hard-Hit Percentage (Rank)

Dodgers

90.0 mph (1st)

43.8% (1st)

Braves

89.5 mph (4th)

42.7% (2nd)

Turn around to look at their pitching staffs, and you’ll see just about the same thing: The Dodgers and Braves are as good at suppressing hard contact when they’re on the mound as they are at creating it when they’re at the plate.

Avg. Exit Velocity Allowed (Rank)Hard-Hit Percentage Allowed (Rank)

Dodgers

87.7 mph (5th)

32.7% (1st)

Braves

87.7 mph (6th)

33.9% (2nd)

So we’re left with a sort of immovable-object-meets-unstoppable-force deal. Which of these will crack?