NLDS Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Arizona Diamondbacks

Mookie Betts
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

You know how these articles go. There are two teams facing off in the playoffs. I name the players on each team, and maybe offer some lukewarm and heavily caveated opinions as to who is better. If I’m feeling punchy, I might slip in some jokes. Maybe there are some tables, perhaps named “Tale of the Tape” or something similar. It’s a tried and true formula.

For this series, I’m not going to do that, because you know who the Dodgers are and you probably just spent two days seeing the Diamondbacks announce themselves. We get it: the Dodgers have Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, and the Diamondbacks have a bunch of fast guys headlined by Corbin Carroll. No one needs to see 2,000 words worth of that. Instead, let’s try to predict the matchups that will determine this series.

Merrill Kelly Versus the Top of the Dodgers’ Order
The Diamondbacks’ bullpen excelled in their two games in Milwaukee, but I don’t think that Torey Lovullo is counting on huge workloads from them going forward. Brandon Pfaadt only managed 2.2 innings in his Game 1 start, so Lovullo’s hand was forced. Zac Gallen threw six strong innings in Game 2, even when he looked out of sorts to start, and faced 24 batters. Merrill Kelly is starting this series on the mound. If Arizona wants to minimize the innings thrown by relievers they don’t trust, getting to a similar depth in the opener (and a potential Game 5 as well) will be key.

That means that Kelly is going to face Betts, Freeman, and the gang three times. If he can hold them in check, that’s a big tailwind for Arizona. No one is particularly well-equipped to deal with those titans, and Kelly in particular will have a tough matchup. His best attribute is his wide array of pitches; he throws five different pitches at least 10% of the time and added a bullet slider this year for a sixth option. He uses that variety to coax hitters into chasing, as Robert Orr pointed out over at Baseball Prospectus. While our pitching models don’t like the raw stuff of any of his pitches very much, he forced opposing batters into a 36% chase rate, the eighth-best mark among qualified starters. That led to a career-best season.

Good luck with that plan against Betts and Freeman, who make some of the best swing decisions in baseball. The former is inclined to take where the latter is inclined to swing, but they both have exquisite strike zone judgment, which blunts Kelly’s biggest advantage. If you don’t want to walk these two, you have to venture into the strike zone, and he is at his best when he’s living just off the corners.

Los Angeles’ next two hitters are Will Smith and Max Muncy, and they operate similarly to Betts and Freeman. They’re excellent at the hardest part of hitting, determining which pitches to swing at, and they punish pitchers for throwing outside the strike zone by taking and waiting for good counts to hunt fastballs. The top of this lineup pressures you to throw strikes, or at least to throw pitches that look close enough to strikes to draw swings.

This isn’t some insurmountable problem; Betts and Freeman combined for a .150/.227/.200 line in 22 PA against Kelly this year. But in 2022, they hit .286/.423/.667 off of him in 26 PA, in case anyone tries to point you to this year’s numbers as some indication of how well he handles those two stars. Given Kelly’s importance to Arizona’s pitching plans, and how much the Los Angeles offense is built around its stars, this matchup could be huge.

Arizona’s Bullpen Versus Los Angeles’ Platoon Factory
The Diamondbacks’ bullpen humbled the Brewers, but well, those are the Brewers. The Dodgers are a completely different kind of team, and their top hitters are mostly unsolvable riddles. If they have an offensive weakness, it’s the bottom of their order, where they rely on some marginal lefties (Jason Heyward, James Outman, David Peralta) platooned with some marginal righties (Amed Rosario, Chris Taylor, Enrique Hernández).

You can see how this will work in your mind’s eye. The Dodgers’ lefties will all be in because Arizona’s rotation is right-handed. At some point, Lovullo will go to the bullpen and have to decide: those lefties against his best arms (Kevin Ginkel, Ryan Thompson, or Paul Sewald), or his lefties (Joe Mantiply and Andrew Saalfrank) against the Dodgers’ pinch-hitters.

In my mind, the optimal plan varies based on when the bullpen comes into play. If it’s early, I like going to a lefty to force Dave Roberts’ hand. If he makes wholesale changes to his lineup with a ton of righty pinch-hitters, his lefties will be unavailable later on. In the later innings, though, I’d do the opposite. I like Arizona’s best pitchers against the lefties more than I like their lefty specialists against the righties if we’re talking about only one inning’s worth of at-bats.

Because of the way the starters shake out, Lovullo is always going to be making the first decision here, and Roberts will have the opportunity to counter. The counters are fairly telegraphed, though; Lovullo can make a decision with high certainty about what Roberts will do in response. How these matchups go — and which matchups Lovullo chooses in the first place — will have a lot to say about whether Los Angeles’ offense is unstoppable from top to bottom or heavily concentrated in a few hitters.

Los Angeles’ Platoon Pitching Plans
The Diamondbacks don’t have a fearsome offense, and one of their issues is depth. They don’t have a lot of hitters who scare you on the bench; they didn’t use a single pinch-hitter in their first two playoff games. The guys they start with are, for the most part, the guys they end with. That means that Roberts will get to sculpt his bullpen matchups as he chooses without fearing a pinch hitting ambush.

That’s fortunate, because the Dodgers will be using their bullpen a ton. They have plenty of lefty options, so expect Carroll to face one nearly every time. The best way to do it would probably be to send in a lefty against Alek Thomas (batting seventh), then keep him in for Evan Longoria (righty), Geraldo Perdomo (switch), and Carroll. Perdomo, Carroll, and Ketel Marte (switch) is another good stretch for lefties. The heart of the Arizona order is all right-handers, though, and Roberts will likely want one of his righty fireballers for that.

That means that the trouble spot for Los Angeles will be a tiring pitcher facing the bottom of Arizona’s lineup. If you wait until Carroll comes up to go to a southpaw, the three-batter minimum means Tommy Pham will get to face that pitcher. I think this is going to lead to Roberts showing a tight leash toward the bottom of Arizona’s lineup; you know you’ll want the lefty for Carroll anyway, so why not switch slightly earlier?

That sentence probably terrifies Dodgers fans. Roberts has a checkered history with playoff pitching decisions; he’s a sucker for leaving Clayton Kershaw in too long and seems to default to a rigid bullpen hierarchy instead of playing matchups. It also seems strange to make your Carroll-related pitching change a few batters before he comes to the plate, particularly if you’re replacing the left-handed Kershaw to do so. But in a series where Dodgers relievers will have so many batters to face, optimizing handedness matchups as much as possible is worth a ton of expected value. Keep an eye on this if you see a Los Angeles starter laboring in the middle innings.

Arizona’s Aggression Versus Will Smith’s Arm
Quite frankly, I think that Arizona is going to struggle to score enough runs to win a shootout. That’s just not who this team is, the outburst of offense in Wisconsin notwithstanding. If the Diamondbacks want to win this series, making the most out of every last baserunner will go a long way. That’s something they excelled at this year; they were successful on 86.5% of their stolen base attempts and also stole the second-most bases in the majors. It’s a lot easier to score runs when singles and walks turn into doubles. There aren’t a lot of base-clogging runners on the team, either; even first baseman Christian Walker is a threat.

Smith isn’t an elite defensive catcher, but he’s no slouch when it comes to throwing out runners. He’s been roughly league average, both this year and in his career. He’s going to have his work cut out for him, though. The Diamondbacks stole 14 bases against the Dodgers this year and only got caught once. They’re willing to run, and whether it’s Smith’s arm or the collective time to the plate of the pitching staff, the matchup has worked out quite well for them of late.

An interesting subplot: I think the Diamondbacks should steal more in later innings than earlier ones. The rotation is probably Los Angeles’ weak link this year, and plenty of Arizona hitters will have the platoon advantage when they’re facing the opposing starter. The bullpen, on the other hand, is deep and varied, and as we covered above, Roberts can pick his spots against a static Arizona lineup, which means his guys will frequently enter the game in a position well-suited to maximizing their skills. Arizona’s batters will frequently be on the back foot in later innings.

That’s a great time to steal, particularly in low-margin games. I’m more interested in risking an out to advance 90 feet when I’m pessimistic about my runners advancing otherwise. If Perdomo is on first base when Carroll faces Lance Lynn, I’m not taking any chance of making an out. Replace Lynn with Alex Vesia or Caleb Ferguson in a later inning, and the calculus shifts somewhat. The same is true in reverse; I like Pham’s matchup against Kershaw more than against Evan Phillips or Brusdar Graterol, so I’d push the envelope more in the latter situation.

I don’t know whether this will play out in practice, because sometimes Arizona’s runners get such good jumps or reads that they should just be going anyway, regardless of the situation. The later innings are also subject to the whims of game state; there’s not much reason to steal when you’re down a bunch of runs and trying to come back, for example. But if I were managing the Diamondbacks, I’d be thinking about my offensive innings as two different plans: patient and conservative against the starters, aggressive against the relievers. Los Angeles’ bullpen had a 3.42 ERA this year; its starters posted a 4.57 mark. It would be folly not to adjust your tactics to account for that huge quality difference.

Baseball being the sport that it is, these four matchups are far from the only thing that will matter. Longoria could hit five home runs in this series and make things academic. Maybe Heyward will recapture his 2015 form and the bottom of the Dodgers’ lineup will carry some underachieving stars. A random starter on either team could twirl a gem and completely flip the script.

But while any of that could happen, I’m still most interested in these matchups. The Dodgers are heavy favorites to win this series — 62.4% per ZiPS. But that doesn’t mean the games won’t get played on the field, and if Kelly can hold the top of the offense down or if the Diamondbacks’ bullpen can outmaneuver the Dodgers’ pinch-hitters, anything could happen. That’s the joy of playoff baseball: you never know which little edge will be the decisive one.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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4 months ago

I agree with where you said the Diamondbacks should steal when they get good reads more than when you said they should wait for the later innings. If their legs are the unstoppable force, then it’s up to the Dodgers to try to be the immovable object regardless of inning or pitcher. If they want to bunt with bad hitters with a platoon disadvantage fine, but the SB should be a constant.

4 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

One interesting detail on that front that Ben left out is that the Dodgers were by far the worst team in baseball against the stolen base in the first half of the season, and the Diamondbacks were a big reason why.

But they finished looking entirely average at it after making an enormous improvement in the 2nd half, in part due to focus and in part due to jettisoning some of the biggest culprits who made it impossible for their catchers to succeed (like Syndergaard, who was so slow to the plate that there was basically no point in throwing down on steal attempts off him)

In the first series these two teams played this year the Diamondbacks ran rampant – something like 14 steals in 3 games. In their 2nd half meetings, it didn’t look like that anymore.