Four of the last five National League MVPs will be playing in this year’s NLDS—one on each of the four remaining teams. The Dodgers are the most star-studded team in a star-studded NL playoff field. Los Angeles has four former MVPs on its roster alone. The Giants have two, while the Brewers and Braves each have one. The outcomes of these two division series will hinge on the performances of their award-winning stars, as well as those marquee players and up-and-comers whose acclaim has not yet been fully recognized.
Freddie Freeman (MVP 2020) and the Braves were one game away from playing in the World Series last year, and despite the injuries to a number of the team’s key players this season, Atlanta still has a thunderous lineup that could be dangerous to even the best of pitching staffs.
Christian Yelich (MVP 2018) has not been the same since a gruesome knee injury cost him the final weeks of the ’19 season. He was actually playing better than he did when he won the award the year before. Various injuries have diminished his power considerably over the last two seasons, but he is still very much a threat in the middle of the Brewers’ lineup. What might a fully healthy Yeli do on the national stage of the NL playoffs? Braves pitchers shouldn’t be too eager to find out.
Cody Bellinger (MVP 2019) was worth -1.5 WAR this season. Injuries have derailed his 2021 campaign. He started slowly while coming back from offseason right-shoulder surgery, and then he missed almost two months with a hairline fracture in his left leg. A few weeks ago, he went down with a left-side rib fracture, but after his third IL stint of the year, vowed to play through it. It takes a while for hitters to regain their strength after shoulder procedures, even after they are fully cleared to return to games. What the injuries have taken from him is his timing at the plate. Every time this season when he’d try to get into some sort of rhythm, he’d have to miss another stretch of games, negating whatever progress he’d started to make.
That said, when Belli is right, there are few players who can change a single game in as many ways. Look at what he did in Wednesday’s NL wild-card game against the Cardinals. Batting eighth, with manager Dave Roberts facing questions of whether Bellinger should be in the lineup at all, the center fielder reached base three times, stole two bases off Yadier Molina (well, more off the two St. Louis pitchers but still an accomplishment) and scored the deciding run on Chris Taylor’s walk-off two-run homer. Bellinger’s regular-season numbers are not a reflection of how good he really is.
And then there’s Kris Bryant (MVP 2016). He’s the only one of these four whose MVP season came with a different team. Bryant was traded to the Giants moments before this year’s trade deadline, and his impact as a middle-of-the-order bat and versatile fielder was immediate. He fits perfectly into San Francisco’s game plan because of how this team likes to play matchups and move guys around, and he’s quite happy with his new team. His offensive production dropped off with the Giants (113 OPS+, compared to his 130 OPS+ this year with Chicago), mainly because he hit just one home run in September. Don’t expect that dinger drought to last too much longer—Bryant has 10 home runs in 40 career games against the Dodgers.
Yes, this year’s NLDS will be defined by its stars. In total, the players on the four teams have a combined 10 MVPs (three from Albert Pujols) and seven Rookies of the Year. We won’t include the seven Cy Young awards, because all seven of them were won by pitchers who are currently on the Dodgers’ active roster or injured list.
But the players who have yet to win that end-of-season hardware could make just as much of a difference. Just to name a few: Trea Turner, Justin Turner and Walker Buehler from the Dodgers; Kevin Gausman, Logan Webb and Brandon Crawford from the Giants; Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Willy Adames from the Brewers; Charlie Morton, Max Fried and Austin Riley from the Braves.
Alas, there are too many stars for them all to stay in the spotlight. As those in Southern California know all too well, celebrity status is fleeting. By the end of the NLDS, two of the teams will be eliminated, and at least until they play again, their stars will fade into the shadows of those from the two remaining clubs. So let’s enjoy every moment we have with this A-list cast of players. It’s going to be one for the ages.
1. THE OPENER
“The public sees him as a cerulean-eyed Express model and perennial All-Star who threw to first for the final out of the Cubs’ first World Series title in 108 years. He is also a 29-year-old father who has endured on-field struggles, a crisis of confidence and a devastating personal loss.”
Stephanie Apstein paints a beautiful, moving portrait of Kris Bryant in today’s SI Daily Cover story. She frames the piece around his trade from Chicago to San Francisco, where he has found himself rejuvenated and appreciated. Of course, like any great profile, this expands far beyond its framing device. I encourage everyone to read it.
Lance McCullers Jr. Is Emerging As a True Postseason Ace by Tom Verducci
Rays’ Small Defensive Adjustments Add Up in Game 1 Win by Emma Baccellieri
Rays’ Randy Arozarena Steals Home to Make History by Madeline Coleman
3. WORTH NOTING from Tom Verducci
ALDS Game 1 presented a new dilemma for White Sox manager Tony La Russa: needing to win three of the next four games, how does he cover them with a suddenly vulnerable rotation? Typically reliable Lance Lynn is clearly a bad matchup against Houston. The pitcher who throws the most fastballs vs. the best fastball-hitting team in baseball has lost six straight starts against the Astros. Dallas Keuchel isn’t even on the roster. Carlos Rodón has shoulder fatigue and is down to about 90 mph, and barring severe improvement in the next day or two, is not an option. Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease can cover the next two games, but La Russa may have to give a start to Michael Kopech or Reynaldo López and play a bullpen game once or twice. The White Sox won the AL Central with the best swing-and-miss staff in the league and a deep rotation, but Houston’s 6–1 win over Lynn in Game 1 suddenly puts La Russa in a planning bind.
4. WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Pitching staffs don’t get much better than the one the Braves will face in their series with the Brewers, who boast perhaps the most formidable rotation trio in baseball. Corbin Burnes is a bona fide ace and one of the many deserving Cy Young candidates in the National League. He led the majors with a 2.43 ERA and 12.6 strikeouts per nine this season. Behind him is Brandon Woodruff, who despite his 9–10 record pitched to a 2.56 ERA and struck out 211 batters across 179 1/3 innings. Then there’s Freddy Peralta, whose dominance tapered off in the second half of the year—he had a 2.39 ERA in his first 18 games; in his 10 starts since, he has a 3.69 ERA. Still, he’s nasty, and one of the most daunting No. 3 starters in the playoffs. How well these three starters navigate a potent Braves lineup will determine which team advances from the NLDS, which begins today at 4:37 p.m. ET at American Family Field in Milwaukee.
5. THE CLOSER from Emma Baccellieri
If you thought Randy Arozarena couldn’t possibly beat his 2020 postseason performance, well, he seems intent on proving you wrong. He made history in his first playoff game of ’21—becoming the first player to hit a home run and steal home in a postseason game. So what’s his secret? He says it’s ... a pair of cowboy boots. “I put the boots on before the game today, just like I did before the first game of the playoffs last year, and in that playoff game against the Yankees, I hit a home run,” he said with a grin. “I hit a home run today, so that just shows that the magic is working from the boots.”
That’s all from us today. We’ll be back in your inbox tomorrow. In the meantime, share this newsletter with your friends and family and tell them to sign up at SI.com/newsletters. If you have any questions for our team, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.