NL Division Series Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. San Diego Padres

Note: The Padres did indeed include Mike Clevinger on their roster, which was submitted on Tuesday morning, but not Dinelson Lamet. For more on the impact of both teams’ rotation and roster decisions, please see here.

Despite some nail-biting moments in their respective Wild Card Series, the Dodgers swept the Brewers and the Padres outlasted the Cardinals to produce a Division Series matchup that just so happens to pit the National Leagues’s two best teams by both won-loss record (the Dodgers went 43-17, the Padres 37-23) and run differential (+136 for the former, +84 for the latter) against each other. In that regard, it’s a pity the two teams only get a best-of-five series to settle things instead of a best-of-seven. With MVP candidates Mookie Betts, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Manny Machado — not to mention past MVPs Cody Bellinger and Clayton Kershaw — and perhaps some future Cy Young candidates, this one has the potential to be as entertaining as any later-round series.

The Dodgers, after playing at a 116-win pace during the regular season — not necessarily the best omen, mind you — never trailed the Brewers during the Wild Card Series. They didn’t exactly run away with things in their 4-2 and 3-0 wins, but none of their pitchers had to work back-to-back days. The Padres, who played at a 100-win pace but lost starters Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet to arm injuries during the final week of the season, won their first playoff series in 22 years, beating the Cardinals despite not getting more than 2.1 innings from a starting pitcher in any of the three games. They lost Game 1 and had to climb out of a four-run hole in the later innings of Game 2, but won the rubber match via a nine-pitcher shutout, an unprecedented postseason showing. Four of their pitchers worked all three games, though none threw more than three total innings.

During the regular season, the Dodgers beat the Padres in six out of 10 games, and outscored them 60-48. A single 11-2 win on August 13 — during which Chris Paddack was shellacked for six runs in three innings while Julio Urías pitched 6.1 strong innings — accounted for the lion’s share of that run differential.

Worth noting: this series will be played in the Globe Life Field, the brand new home of the Texas Rangers. It’s covered, and has artificial turf, and with outfield dimensions of 329′-372′-407′-374′-326′ from left to right, it’s shorter to the power allies but deeper to center field than its predecessor. It plays as a pitcher-friendly venue, and could help the more fly ball-oriented Padres staff more than the Dodgers. The 66 homers hit there this year ranked 22nd in the majors, so for all the power these two teams showed during the regular season, there may not be as many fireworks.

Rotations

Dodgers and Padres NL Division Series Potential Starting Pitchers
Pitcher IP K% BB% K-BB% HR/9 GB% EV Barrel% ERA FIP WAR
Clayton Kershaw 58.1 28.1% 3.6% 24.4% 1.23 53.0% 87.8 8.0% 2.16 3.31 1.4
Dustin May 56.0 19.6% 7.1% 12.5% 1.45 54.7% 87.9 6.7% 2.57 4.62 0.4
Julio Urías 55.0 20.1% 8.0% 12.1% 0.82 32.9% 87.1 5.0% 3.27 3.72 1.2
Tony Gonsolin 46.2 26.1% 4.0% 22.2% 0.39 34.2% 88.7 4.9% 2.31 2.29 1.8
Walker Buehler 36.2 28.6% 7.5% 21.1% 1.72 35.5% 90.0 6.5% 3.44 4.36 0.5
Zach Davies 69.1 22.8% 6.9% 15.9% 1.17 41.3% 87.5 10.3% 2.73 3.88 1.4
Dinelson Lamet 69.0 34.8% 7.5% 27.3% 0.65 36.9% 88.7 7.3% 2.09 2.48 2.4
Chris Paddack 59.0 23.7% 4.9% 18.8% 2.14 47.1% 90.9 11.0% 4.73 5.02 0.3
Mike Clevinger* 41.2 24.7% 8.6% 16.0% 1.30 34.3% 88.2 7.4% 3.02 4.15 0.7
Craig Stammen 24.0 19.0% 3.8% 15.2% 0.75 59.5% 88.2 2.5% 5.63 3.36 0.3
Adrian Morejon 19.1 31.6% 5.1% 26.6% 3.26 46.0% 86.7 12.0% 4.66 5.93 -0.1
*Statistics include both San Diego and Cleveland

Despite not having a single pitcher qualify for the ERA title — though Kershaw, May, and Urías all came within five innings — Dodgers starters led the NL in innings (538.2), ERA (3.03), and FIP (3.79). The depth of their rotation (all homegrown, incidentally) puts them at a real advantage in a series without off days. Buehler will start Game 1, possibly piggybacking with Urías again, followed by Kershaw in Game 2, with Gonsolin, May and then back to the piggyback or Urías if there’s a Game 5.

The Dodgers aren’t without their concerns here, the biggest of which might be Buehler’s blister on his right index finger, an ongoing problem that has prevented him from throwing more than four innings in a start in his three appearances since September 2; he maxed out at 73 pitches in his Game 1 Wild Card Series turn. The 26-year-old righty, whom the team instructed to shut down from throwing when the COVID-19 pandemic closed spring training, has been playing from behind all year, flashing outstanding stuff but stringing together strong back-to-back outings only once, that against NL West doormats Colorado (August 21) and Arizona (September 2) and separated by an Injured List stay due to the blister. The best news regarding their likely Game 1 starter is that even given the homer he served up to Orlando Arcia during the opening round, he’s yielded just four in his last 32 innings, compared to four in his first 8.2. His knuckle curve, via which he’s given up three of those eight homers, was particularly effective against the Brewers.

As for Kershaw, after trimming his walk and homer rates and posting his lowest ERA since 2016 and his lowest average exit velocity and xwOBA (.263) since ’17, he authored one of the best postseason starts of his career in the Wild Card Series clincher, striking out 13 (his career postseason high) while allowing just three hits in eight innings. He generated 20 swings and misses with his slider while averaging 91.8 mph with his fastball, his highest average velocity in any postseason start since 2017. Whether his offseason work at Driveline, and a change in his between-starts routine that he believed aided the outing against the Brewers, continues to pay dividends remains to be seen.

While the 23-year-old May was the higher-rated prospect (14th on our Top 100 list) and certainly turned heads with his flowing ginger locks, high-kick delivery, and the extreme horizontal movement of his high-90s sinker, the 26-year-old Gonsolin (83rd on the prospect list) was the more effective pitcher, and possibly the NL Rookie of the Year. Gonsolin’s fastball (95.1 average)/splitter/slider/curve combo has befuddled hitters, generating the rotation’s highest swinging strike rate (14.0%) while helping him do an excellent job of limiting walks and homers. Among NL pitchers with at least 40 innings, only Corbin Burnes, Yu Darvish and Jacob deGrom had lower FIPs. As for May, he had the rotation’s lowest swinging strike rate (8.2%) as well as strikeout rate, and he’s by far the most vulnerable to lefties, yielding a .336 wOBA (Kershaw’s .258 was next-highest). That’s no small concern in a lineup with a considerable lefty presence (Jake Cronenworth, Trent Grisham, Eric Hosmer, Mitch Moreland, and switch-hitter Jurickson Profar). As for Urías, a grizzled vet at 24, he posted the lowest strikeout rate of his career (down from 26.1% last year) in a remixed repertoire that emphasized his curve instead of his slider, and saw his changeup get pummeled; otherwise, he did a good job of limiting hard contact. He’s hell on lefties (.212 wOBA allowed) and handles righties well too (.288 wOBA allowed).

As for the Padres, LOL. I don’t say that because of the lack of quality but rather the difficulty of previewing their plan, as even the vaguest outline of it may not be clear until they submit their rosters on Tuesday by 11 AM ET. The 29-year-old Clevinger, who was diagnosed on September 25 with a posterior elbow impingement and received a cortisone shot, and the 28-year-old Lamet, who left his start that night due to biceps tightness. Clevinger has worked his way back to the point of throwing two bullpens, but Lamet has yet to throw one. It’s difficult to imagine either of them — both high-quality pitchers who miss bats — working six or seven innings under the circumstances and given the risks, but if either or both is cleared, they might be able to supply a few innings.

At this writing, there’s more optimism about Clevinger answering the bell than Lamet. Though his average four-seam fastball velocity (95.1 mph) was barely down from 2019 and his average exit velocity on the pitch barely higher (92.4 mph), batters slugged .564 against it this year, up from .341; meanwhile, his swinging strike rate on the pitch dipped from 12.7% to 9.7%. His slider remained lethal, his curve not so much. Lamet, meanwhile, rode his high-spin 97.1 mph heater/slider combo to a breakout season worthy of Cy Young consideration, placing third in ERA, FIP, K%, and K-BB%, and tied for fourth in strikeouts (93) and WAR.

Amid those question marks, the two starters most likely to get turns are the 24-year-old Paddack and the 27-year-old Davies, who started Games 1 and 2 last week but both fared poorly. Paddack, who gave up six runs in 2.1 innings in the opener, was not able to replicate his rookie magic in 2020, as his mid-90s fastball lacked the command and late life that typified it last year; where batters managed just a .204 average and .283 xwOBA against his heater in 2019, they hit for a .308 average and .379 xwOBA this year, with an average exit velocity that rose from 89.3 mph to 92.7. Davies uses a high-80s sinker, cutter and diving changeup to generate more strikes below the zone than any starter in the majors, but as the Cardinals showed in Game 2 while cuffing him for four runs in two innings, he’s up a creek if they lay off.

Morejon, a 21-year-old lefty with a live arm, entered the year with 36 innings of Double-A and eight in the majors as well as a track record full of injuries. He averaged 96.6 mph with his fastball, but as Eric Longenhagen explained this spring, “from a spin axis/efficiency standpoint, his fastball is the sinking type that tends not to miss bats,” which goes only so far to explain why batters slugged .808 against the pitch. He’s capable of going as long as three innings, but it’s not hard to imagine the Dodgers lighting him up before things get that far. Experience may give the edge to the 36-year-old Stammen, who served as an opener in Game 3, if the Padres go back using one — and from this vantage it’s tough to see how they can avoid it at least once.

One pitcher who would have figured to get a start under the circumstances is Garrett Richards, but the Padres moved him to the bullpen in the second half of September and have remained committed to keeping him there; he’s gone more than one inning just once in six relief appearances, maxing out at two innings and 24 pitches on September 26 against the Giants. On the other hand, the team may have an October surprise in MacKenzie Gore, the third pick of the 2017 draft and the number three prospect on this year’s Top 100 list, whom Longenhagen described as “an ultra-athletic and competitive lefty with a deep, dynamic repertoire that is elevated by Gore’s deceptive mechanics.” The 21-year-old southpaw spent the season at the team’s alternate training site, where he reportedly had some mechanical difficulties that needed ironing out. He’s in the bubble now, and could become the first pitcher to make his major league debut in a postseason game; if he does, it won’t be as a reliever.

Since the Padres aren’t likely to tip their hands on this one before they submit their rosters, I may follow up with an Instagraphs once we learn more.

Bullpens

Dodgers and Padres NL Division Series Bullpens
Team IP K% BB% K-BB% HR/9 GB% wOBA vs LHB wOBA vs RHB ERA FIP WAR
Dodgers 262.1 24.3% 7.1% 17.2% 0.82 51.0% .222 .289 2.74 3.45 3.5
Padres 234.1 26.2% 9.2% 16.9% 1.23 43.9% .290 .324 4.38 4.08 2.0

Though the bullpen was the key to the Padres’ advancement through the Wild Card Series, the Dodgers appear to have a significant advantage with a unit that led the NL in ERA, FIP, WAR, and both walk and homer rates; they were second in K-BB%. Indeed, this might be the deepest bullpen they’ve taken to the postseason since at least 2017, even after losing lefty Caleb Ferguson to Tommy John surgery. The hitch is that Kenley Jansen — who did post his lowest FIP (3.03) since 2017, and lowest home run rate (0.74) since ’16 — has been trending downward with the velocity of his cutter, not just relative to seasons past but to where he was through much of the year; he’s lost speed annually since 2017, and not only was this year’s 90.9 mph down 0.8 from last year, but he went from 91.3 in August to 90.4 in September to 88.1 mph in his lone postseason appearance, after which Dave Roberts expressed concern and then tried to walk it back. Jansen has done a good job of integrating a four-seamer and a slider into his arsenal, which helped him hold opponents to an 82.7 mph average exit velocity and .255 xwOBA.

Ahead of Jansen are Blake Treinen and scrapheap pickup Jake McGee, both of whom rebounded from sub-replacement level seasons elsewhere. Treinen posted his lowest strikeout rate (20.6%) since his 2014 rookie season but halved his homer rate relative to last year while shaving more than a run off his ERA and nearly two runs off his FIP (he finished at 3.86 and 3.15, respectively). McGee went to an all-fastball arsenal (well, 97%) and posted his highest average velocity (95.0 mph) since 2014 while setting career bests in strikeout and walk rates (41.8% and 3.8%) and FIP (1.67).

Joe Kelly, who was limited to 10 innings due to shoulder inflammation and a five-game suspension, is still working his way back to higher velocity — he averaged 98.5 in his first appearance of the year but was at 96.8 in his five September outings — and higher-leverage duty. Brusdar Graterol, whose fastball averaged 99.3 mph but who struck out just 14.8% of hitters is a groundball machine (61.5%) but the same can be said of Kelly, Treinen, and lefties Adam Kolarek and Victor González, all of whom were above 60%, and Dylan Floro isn’t far off (56.0%). Floro was left off the Wild Card Series roster despite a very solid season (2.59 ERA, 2.66 FIP) of lower-leverage work, and could be handy if other relievers get used on back-to-back days, or against lefties, whom he held to a .181 wOBA. Human rain delay Pedro Báez, who likewise was very tough against lefties (.140 wOBA) remains a good reason to get up, stretch one’s legs, and make a snack. Kolarek held the 40 lefties he faced this year to an .093 wOBA, while González, a 24-year-old rookie, did so at a .181 clip; against righties, they were at .320 and .211, respectively.

As for the Padres, deadline arrival Trevor Rosenthal, who rebounded from a disastrous post-Tommy John surgery campaign, has taken over closer duties. He posted strong numbers this year (1.90 ERA, 2.22 FIP, 41.8% strikeout rate); the runs he allowed in the first two games of the Wild Card Series were his first earned runs since being acquired by the Padres. Lefty Drew Pomeranz and righty Emilio Pagán are the setup guys. The former was outstanding (1.45 ERA, 2.39 FIP, 39.7% strikeout rate) while handling batters of either hand (.198 wOBA vs. lefties, albeit just 16 of them, and .226 vs. righties). The latter was shakier (4.50 ERA, 4.69 FIP) but came up big in the Wild Card Series, with scoreless frames in all three games.

Stammen and lefty Tim Hill are the groundball specialists (59.5% for the former, 52.9% for the latter) with the former possibly reprising his role as an opener. Lefty Matt Strahm and righty Pierce Johnson were, within their small sample sizes, effective against lefties as well, holding them to wOBAs of .179 and .182, respectively — lower than Hill’s .296 — though both were lit up by righties. Richards, though he’s gained a bit of velocity with the move to the bullpen (from 95.1 mph as a starter to 96.3 as a reliever) has largely worked in lower-leverage duty, which makes his move to the bullpen all the more puzzling, at least until one considers the .365 wOBA he posted against lefties.

Offenses

Dodgers and Padres NL Division Series Offenses
Team R/G HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Dodgers 5.82 118 .256 .338 .483 122 -5.1 60.8 -15.3 12.6
Padres 5.42 95 .257 .333 .466 115 2.1 44.7 7.4 12.9

These are two of the most potent offenses in the league. The Dodgers ranked first in scoring, homers, slugging, and wRC+, with the Padres third in all of those categories. The Dodgers had the second-lowest strikeout rate (20.3%), the Padres the fourth-lowest (21.5%). The two were seventh and eighth in walk rates (9.8% for the Dodgers, 9.1% for the Padres). Both teams beat up righties; the Dodgers’ 126 wRC+ tied for first in the league, while the Padres’ 119 was fourth. Against lefties, the Dodgers ranked fifth at 113, the Padres seventh at 106 — a stat that matters more for the latter, since Kershaw and Urías will have a much larger presence in the series than any Padres lefty. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two offenses is that the Padres run a lot by today’s standards; they led the league with 55 steals, and at an impressive 80.9% success rate to boot; the Dodgers stole just 29 bases but at a 78.4% rate. Tatis (11-for-14), Grisham (10-for-11), Profar (7-for-8), Machado (6-for-9) and Pham (6-for-6) are all threats to run to some degree, while Betts (10-for-12) and Bellinger (6-for-7) were the only Dodgers with more than three steals.

Neither team gives opposing pitchers much place to hide. The Dodgers have seven players who posted a 131 wRC+ or better, including catcher Will Smith (who will work the non-Kershaw games and could DH when Austin Barnes is behind the plate), Corey Seager (151), Betts (149), and DH/third baseman Edwin Ríos (145 in 83 PA); Bellinger (114 wRC+) and Max Muncy (100) had down seasons but woe to thee who leaves a pitch in their happy zones, as they each bashed 12 dingers. Bellinger was significantly stronger against righties (126 wRC+) than lefties (86), so expect to see Tingler maneuvering to get Pomeranz to face him in a big spot. The offense’s weakest links — lefty-swinging Joc Pederson (88) and righty-swinging Enrique Hernández (83) — won’t get the kind of reps they usually do via platoons, as AJ Pollock and Chris Taylor (who moved from second to left field late in both Wild Card Series games to supplant Pollock) have both been swinging the bat well lately; Joc and Kiké combined for just one plate appearance in the first round.

In Tatis, Machado, Grisham, Hosmer, Cronenworth, Wil Myers and deadline acquisitions Moreland and Austin Nola, the Padres have eight players who put up a 121 wRC+ or better, and Profar (111) wasn’t far off. Myers ranked ninth in the league with a 154 wRC+, Tatis 12th at 149, and Machado 14th at 148. Pham, who hit for just a 78 wRC+, struggled amid a variety of minor ailments as well as a missed month due to a fractured hamate bone in his left hand, but his 6-for-13 showing in the Wild Card Series ought to assuage some concerns. He’s the lineup’s weakest link even when Jason Castro (86 wRC+) is catching; Castro didn’t play at all in the Wild Card series but figures to give Nola a breather in this one. Power-wise, Tatis ranked second in the league in homers with 17, Machado tied for third with 16 alongside Betts, Pollock, three other players, while Myers tied for ninth (with Seager and Eugenio Suárez) with 15.

One concern for the Padres is that the lefty-swinging Moreland (89), Hosmer (63) and Cronenworth (58) were all particularly vulnerable against southpaws, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if one of the three sits while Kershaw pitches, with Profar either DHing, playing second base, or left field while Pham DHs. Dave Roberts will maneuver to use Kolarek or González against these guys in key spots.

While the table above shows the Padres with a defensive edge based on UZR — the Padres led the NL at 14.2, the Dodgers were 11th at -6.4 — other metrics favor Los Angeles. The Dodgers had a massive edge in defensive efficiency, .729 to .695, and DRS, 29 to 3. The large outfield should make Bellinger and Betts, the Dodgers’ two star defenders, increasingly important, but the advantage in the infield probably belongs to the Padres given the strengths of Machado and Tatis and the relative weakness of Seager.

In this pandemic-shortened season, the Padres have emerged as perhaps the game’s most watchable team, rewarding their long-suffering loyalists and proving suitable for any fan looking for a bandwagon to board. Even so, the disarray of their rotation and the clear edges of the Dodgers — who may just have their best team since Roberts took the reins — makes them the strong favorites in this series.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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jmantell
2 years ago

Just an FYI, but I believe Hedges was shipped out at the deadline and no longer a Padre