Dodgers, Giants Meet for Season’s Final Showdown With NL West Up for Grabs

It’s already September, and maybe you’re still processing that fact. I’ll do you one better by pointing out that the Dodgers and Giants are about to play each other for the final time in the regular season. This is the earliest in the year that these rivals’ last series has occurred since way back in 1968, when Willie Mays and Don Drysdale were fixtures of the rivalry.

With Los Angeles and San Francisco tied atop the division and both teams on pace for 100 wins for the first time since 1962, I thought it prudent to break down what we might expect in this big weekend series.

The Series So Far

Season Series
May, 21 2 @ 1
May, 22 6 @ 3
May, 23 11 @ 5
May, 27 4 3
May, 28 5 8
May, 29 6 11
May, 30 4 5
June, 28 3 2
June, 29 3 1
July, 19 2 7
July, 20 8 6
July, 21 2 4
July, 22 3 5
July, 27 1 @ 2
July, 28 8 @ 0
July, 29 0 @ 5
September, 3 @
September, 4 @
September, 5 @

The Dodgers and Giants have split their 16 games so far (with San Francisco winning five of the last seven), featuring stellar pitching, unlikely heroes, home run robberies and blown saves. A four-game series in mid-July was full of drama, including Tyler Rogers giving up a walk-off homer to Will Smith, his second three-run outing against the Dodgers this season.

The very next night — actually the next two nights — it was Kenley Jansen who was handed a ninth-inning lead but walked off to a booing home crowd both times after giving up seven combined runs.

That’s just how this series has gone; no lead is safe from a disaster.

Pitching Matchups

I hate to spoil the fun, but there is no Max ScherzerKevin Gausman matchup this weekend. In fact, neither is pitching at all. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts opted to give the rotation an extra day of rest last week, passing on the chance to have his big three lined up this weekend. Clayton Kershaw also won’t appear, as he’s still on the IL.

For the Giants, Logan Webb, their best pitcher over the last two months, is not lined up for this weekend. Alex Wood will miss his scheduled Saturday start as he deals with COVID, and Sunday’s scheduled starter Johnny Cueto just hit the IL with an elbow issue. So this series doesn’t have the marquee matchups you might expect. Thankfully, we get to see Walker Buehler, a Cy Young contender, on Sunday night, but who he’ll face is still largely up in the air. Giants manager Gabe Kapler will likely go with a pseudo-bullpen day and try to get as much as possible from the recently claimed José Quintana, who looked fantastic on Tuesday against the Brewers.

On Saturday we’ll get a matchup of young lefties as rookie Sammy Long and Julio Urías face off. The former is coming off a rough outing last weekend against the Braves but has pitched some important innings for the Giants. He’s got a fastball, curve and changeup, all of which he tries to keep at the bottom of the zone. His big-breaking curveball is particularly nasty and has allowed only a 52 wRC+.

Urías should be quite familiar to Giants fans; he’s made more starts against them (13) than any other team, and his performance has been stellar, with a 2.69 ERA. The lefty has already blown past his career high in innings, but thanks to their rotation injuries, the Dodgers haven’t had the luxury of slowing his pace. They are doing their best to manage his workload, though, as he’s only gone six innings twice since the All-Star break. Don’t be surprised if he’s pulled after about 85 pitches.

The Dodgers will start the series, though, with David Price. His recent performance and velocity dip have not inspired confidence; his last time out, Roberts elected to use an opener in front of him. With a fresh bullpen, he likely won’t let Price pitch through too much trouble. On the other side for the Giants will be Anthony DeSclafani. Dodgers fans may be salivating at that idea, thinking back to May when Los Angeles tagged him for 10 earned runs. But that start aside, DeSclafani has been one of the quieter success stories for the Giants this season on the back of his improved slider. He’s had trouble keeping that pitch out of the heart of the plate in his last month or so, though; it had a .356 wOBA against in August.

Dodgers’ Bullpen Vs. Giants’ Pinch-Hitters

You may know the Dodgers for their star power up and down the roster, and you may know the Giants as the squad of resurgent veterans, but the bullpen and bench are where these two teams truly stand out. I’m particularly interested in how the Dodgers’ relief corps will execute against Kapler’s ability to find good matchups for his pinch-hitters.

Jansen has rebounded since his back-to-back flubs against the Giants; he has a 1.69 ERA since then and hasn’t given up a run in his last seven outings. In fact, the entire bullpen has been on a roll, with a 2.39 ERA since August 1. That comes with a 3.62 FIP, however, as the collective walk rate has been high.

Dodgers’ Bullpen Since August 1st
Pitcher IP K% BB% ERA FIP
Kenley Jansen 15 35.7 7.1 1.8 2.36
Blake Treinen 14.2 37.7 11.3 1.23 2.54
Alex Vesia 11.1 41.5 9.8 1.59 3.51
Phil Bickford 14.1 35.2 7.4 1.88 3.16
Brusdar Graterol 14 22.6 9.7 2.57 4.01
Joe Kelly 5 22.7 18.2 5.4 6.16

One of the big turnarounds has come from Vesia, who has a nasty high-spin fastball that gets whiffs no matter where he leaves it — and he is prone to leaving it in bad spots. He pairs that with a slider that plays well off of his fastball, with a lot of vertical bite.

Vesia had a rough first month, with three multi-run outings and a 6.52 ERA, but he’s drastically improved since being recalled on July 9, with a 1.27 ERA in that span. His success has come as he’s doubled his slider usage up to 19% in that time period, although he has given up homers in his last two outings.

Treinen is having another terrific season for the Dodgers (1.97 ERA, 2.72 FIP), but he’s doing it differently than when he was dominating with the A’s. Instead of relying so heavily on his power sinker, he now splits that usage with his cutter — one that hitters have a 68 wRC+ against this season.

This bullpen is going to be tasked with facing a deep Giants bench that Kapler will deploy in the late (and even middle) innings. San Francisco leads baseball with 14 pinch-hit homers, and Kapler’s aggressive use of his bench means the team leads the league in pinch-hit opportunities as well. There are few everyday players on the Giants’ roster — Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Kris Bryant are about it — and this strategy helps keep everyone fresh but not rusty. What’s more, it also provides Kapler with plenty of platoon options and opposite-side bats to deploy against relievers.

Giants’ Reserves
Position PA wRC+ Vs. Lefty Vs. Righty
LaMonte Wade Jr. RF/LF 284 124 28 136
Darin Ruf 1B/LF 256 152 166 140
Mike Yastrzemski CF/RF 450 103 49 122
Alex Dickerson LF 302 100 137 96
Austin Slater CF 282 92 127 39
Tommy La Stella 2B 151 84 76 85
Mauricio Dubón CF/SS 169 69 74 66
Thairo Estrada 2B/SS 103 107 55 147
Curt Casali C 197 84 -4 116

Ruf has been a key factor in the Giants’ success with the way he’s slugging against lefties and righties this season, and he’ll certainly be getting big at-bats in this series, whether he starts in the game or not. One thing to note: He has pulverized sinkers this year (five homers and a 308 wRC+), so you can bet Kapler will try to match him up against the sinker-wielding Price, Treinen and Kelly.

How Much Will The Catchers Play?

Both these teams have been riding the success of catchers who find themselves in the MVP conversation, but it’s all but a given that they’ll each be getting a day off in this series. The Giants have been rigid in their planned rest for Buster Posey, who hasn’t caught a full three-game series once this year. His resurgence with the bat stalled in August, as both his wOBA and xwOBA went into a sharp decline that coincided with his legs starting to hurt again. The Giants desperately need him healthy and back on track for the final stretch.

Smith may be eight years Posey’s junior, but the Dodgers are still giving him plenty of rest. He also isn’t likely to start all three games, though with how hot he’s been of late, I’m sure it’s a tempting proposition. He actually has severe reverse splits, so look for the Saturday game against the lefty Long to be a good day for him to sit (though he’ll surely be available off the bench for a rematch with Rogers).

Giants’ Outfield Defense

San Francisco’s outfield has been a strength of the team this season, with the fifth-most Outs Above Average in baseball. But the personnel has changed over the last month. Steven Duggar and Mike Tauchman are down in Triple-A after coming down on the wrong side of a roster crunch at the end of July, with centerfield now being manned by a combination of Slater, Yastrzemski and Dubón — all three carrying limited centerfield experience. Statcast likes their work so far, but that’s based on a small sample of roughly 600 combined innings.

This new alignment will be put to the test this weekend, as the Dodgers have the highest fly-ball percentage in baseball, with Justin Turner, Mookie Betts and Smith all boasting fly-ball rates over 43%. They will be putting the ball in the air all weekend, especially with the Giants’ top two ground-ball starters, Webb and Wood, not appearing.

Can The Series Just Start Already?

The Giants come into this series limping as much as they have all year, having lost back-to-back series and dealing with their biggest COVID outbreak of the whole pandemic. The Dodgers, on the other hand, look like the team everyone expected to blow past 100 wins this year. Corey Seager and Betts are both healthy, newcomers Scherzer and Trea Turner haven’t skipped a beat, and I haven’t even touched on NL MVP candidate Max Muncy and the ever-versatile Chris Taylor. It feels like we are at the point when the Dodgers will take command of the NL West and never look back. But hey, nobody thought the Giants would be here; they might just surprise us again.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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1 year ago

I’m looking forward to a winter of articles on the Giants’ formula. There’s some innovation going on here, and it goes beyond the tip of the iceberg narrative of bounce back seasons from veterans

1 year ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

maybe, but its almost an understatement to say “bounce back” seasons. Veterans that played (for long stretches) better than they ever have before is more accurate. i don’t even think the staunchest giants fans saw this coming

1 year ago

That’s what I mean. Crawford and Belt aren’t having career best seasons at their age by accident, neither is Posey producing his best year in close to a decade. I think this Giants team is a perfect example of the difference that a good front office/player development staff can make

1 year ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

With NO DATA in front of me. My wild guess is that giants are exploiting baseballs bias against age. The dodgers found value with reclamation projects of players just past prospect age but still young enough to improve and contribute. The giants seem to be using a similar tactic by targeting players similar, but even older by a couple of years etc.

1 year ago
Reply to  gtagomori

I wouldn’t say it’s a bias. I think you have to be really good at player development to do what the Dodgers do. Like I think if Justin Turner signed with 28 other teams after the Mets non-tendered him then he’s probably a career quad-A player

In other words, I don’t think the Dodgers sign any more older projects than other teams, I just think they’re better at turning trash into treasure. The team I root for signs a couple 27 year old minor league free agents/non-tenders every offseason but they invariably never work out

1 year ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

I would agree with you about position players, but for pitchers the Dodgers sign a lot of older projects.

1 year ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

Justin Turner changed his swing with the women’s and Marlon Byrd. The Dodgers got lucky on JT. I think Muncy and Taylor are two they can take credit for. But not JT.

1 year ago
Reply to  dodgerbleu

Women’s = Mets

1 year ago
Reply to  gtagomori

I definitely agree. More specifically, the idea seems to be that older positional players can still be very effective if they’re given a lot of rest and we assume that they’re going to get injured more and stay injured longer–what’s needed is a lot of depth and players who can play multiple positions to cover for them. When they got Bryant I wrote here that it was a great move particularly because Longoria and Belt were both coming back from injuries and if either had problems, Bryant could cover for them. If Longoria had problems (which is what has happened), Bryant could replace him at 3rd, while if Belt had problems (which hasn’t happened but could have and might yet), Bryant can play the outfield while Wade and/or Ruf move to 1st.

Jason Bmember
1 year ago
Reply to  gtagomori

“With NO DATA in front of me. My wild guess is that giants are exploiting baseballs bias against age.”

If they had gone out and acquired a bunch of old folks, perhaps. But amongst their regular position players, only Longoria was an acquisition; the other olds (Posey, Belt, Crawford) are lifetime Giants.

1 year ago
Reply to  Jason B

Also Ruf. He’s 35 and he’s been really important. He leads the team in slugging.

1 year ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

IMO the really striking thing is GB%. Giants’ batters have the lowest GB% of any MLB team (35.7%) whiel Giants’ pitchers have the highest GB% (45.9%). The idea is clearly ‘If we hit fewer ground balls than the other team, we’re going to win’.

1 year ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

Here’s the in-depth analysis of the SF turnaround:

Giants hire Zaidi

1 year ago
Reply to  skrewbawl

And push Bochy to retire.