Postseason Preview: Dodgers and Braves Reprise Last Year’s NLCS Matchup

When the postseason began, a rematch of the 2020 National League Championship Series only had about a 21% chance of happening, according to our Playoff Odds. But after some particularly unlikely occurrences — not just the lower seeds advancing in the Division Series — here we are. Freddie Freeman became the first lefty to hit a homer off Josh Hader in nearly 13 months, and the first to do so on a slider in more than two years, while lifting the Braves past the Brewers in Game 4. The Dodgers won the Wild Card game via a walkoff home run by a slumping Chris Taylor and then eked out a narrow victory over the 107-win Giants in similarly heart-stopping fashion, with the winning hit in Thursday night’s Game 5 delivered by Cody Bellinger on the heels of a nightmare season. That’s baseball, Suzyn.

Unlike last year, this time around the Braves will have home-field advantage despite winning 18 fewer regular season games than the Dodgers, because the current playoff format deals a stiff penalty to teams sneaking into the postseason via the Wild Card door. Atlanta’s advantage could be significant at some point in the series, particularly if it goes past five games, but it’s worth noting the Braves went just 42-38 at home, tying the Marlins for the NL’s 10th-highest win total in that split; meanwhile, their 46-35 road record ranked fourth in the NL. The Dodgers had the best home record (58-23) and third-best road record (48-33), and just won an elimination game (and two of their three Division Series games) in enemy territory. The talent gap between the two teams probably matters more than the venue in which they meet, though in a short series… you know the rest.

[Update: With clarity on the two teams’ rotation plans not coming until Saturday, I have updated this piece to reflect the new information. You can see its effects on the ZiPS Postseason Game-by-Game Odds here.]

Offenses

With the champagne still drying from the Dodgers’ late-night victory, questions about their rotation plans lingered until Saturday afternoon, when manager Dave Roberts announced that he would push Max Scherzer back a day after his 13-pitch Game 5 relief appearance, using Corey Knebel as the opener for a bullpen game that will also feature Tony Gonsolin in a bulk capacity for Game 1.

NL Championship Series Game 1 Lineups
Order Dodgers Bats Pos Braves Bats Pos
1 Mookie Betts R RF Eddie Rosario L LF
2 Trea Turner R 2B Freddie Freeman L 1B
3 Corey Seager L SS Ozzie Albies S 2B
4 Justin Turner R 3B Austin Riley R 3B
5 Will Smith R C Joc Pederson L RF
6 Albert Pujols R 1B Adam Duvall R CF
7 AJ Pollock R LF Travis d’Arnaud R C
8 Chris Taylor R CF Dansby Swanson R SS
9 Corey Knebel R P Max Fried L P

And a big-picture look at how the two offenses fared in 2021:

NL Championship Series Offenses
Category Dodgers NL Rk Braves NL Rk
R/G 5.12 1 4.91 3
AVG .244 5 .244 5
OBP .330 2 .319 6
SLG .429 4 .435 2
HR 237 3 239 2
BB% 9.8% 1 9.1% 7
K% 22.6% 5 24.0% 12
wRC+ 106 2 98 5
SB 65 9 59 11
wRC+ vs R 107 2 100 4
wRC+ vs L 104 3 93 11

Though they were shut out twice in the Division Series by Logan Webb and company, the Dodgers have a powerhouse offense. With six starters — both Turners, Seager, Pollock, Betts, and Smith — posting a wRC+ of 127 or better, and with everybody but Bellinger and part-timers Pujols and Lux posting an on-base percentage of .344 or higher, they don’t give pitchers many places to hide. As a team, they’re above-average against pitchers of both hands.

They beat the Giants despite the two Turners going a combined 4-for-42 with a lot of weak contact, but as the recent heroics of Taylor and Bellinger show, talented but struggling players remain capable of putting together good plate appearances and snapping out of slumps, at least temporarily. The Dodgers’ major concern remains the loss of Max Muncy, who hit for a 140 wRC+ (.249/.368/.527) and led the team with 36 homers and 4.8 WAR. He left the Dodgers’ season finale after dislocating his left elbow via a collision at first base and has yet to return. The Dodgers have played his prognosis close to the vest:

Indeed, they’re still without him, which adds to their multitude of moving parts, beginning with a start for Pujols against the left-handed Fried. The 41-year-old future Hall of Famer’s platoon splits are night and day: .294/.336/.603 (146 wRC+) in 146 PA against lefties, .180/.233/.266 (36 wRC+) in 150 PA against righties. He’ll be limited to pinch-hitting duty when the righties are on the mound, and as Dave Roberts showed during the Wild Card game, he’s not above burning another pinch-hitter to force a pitching change and give Tio Albert a rip. With a righty on the mound, either Bellinger or Matt Beaty, both lefties, will start. Bellinger hit just .165/.240/.302 (48 wRC+) overall while battling multiple injuries — and was just 8-for-86 with two extra-base hits and a 12 wRC+ against lefties — but is 5-for-17 with a double, two walks, and eight strikeouts in the postseason; his tenacious late-inning battles against the Cardinals and Giants helped the Dodgers get here. Beaty (.270/.363/.402, 114 wRC+ overall, 111 against righties) started only the Wild Card game and the Division Series opener, going 0-for-6 before reverting to his role as the top lefty bench bat.

The first base situation has bearing on the left and center field ones. Lefty-swinging Gavin Lux hit .260/.343/.404 (104 wRC+) against righties and has been a quick study in center field; he came up big in the NLDS, going 3-for-9 with a pair of walks, and figures to be in the lineup when the Braves aren’t throwing a southpaw. Taylor, who has shown signs of putting his dreadful August/September performance (.187/.271/.293, 57 wRC+) behind him, will be in the mix for both positions, and Pollock, who had a sneaky strong season but may not be entirely past his September hamstring woes, will probably play left sometimes as well.

As the Division Series amply illustrated, Betts shouldn’t be underestimated even after a comparatively subpar season (.264/.367/.487, 131 wRC+) in which he was slowed by a bone spur in his right hip. At the plate, on the bases, or in the field, he has the potential to be a game-changer on any given night. Smith, who accounted for two of the Dodgers’ three homers against the Giants, has shown a penchant for late-inning heroics; he tied for fifth in the majors this season with seven tying or go-ahead RBI in the seventh inning or later. Though he has shown a sizable reverse platoon split in his three seasons (99 vs lefties, 150 vs. righties), it’s hard to forget last year’s NLCS-turning three-run homer off his namesake in Game 5.

The Braves ranked third in the league in scoring behind only the Dodgers and Giants, but some of that owed to their hitter-friendly ballpark and some to outperforming their BaseRuns projection. They hit a lot of homers, with Riley (33), Freeman (31), Albies (30), and Swanson (27) leading the way, and Ronald Acuña Jr. sadly falling by the wayside due to a torn right ACL suffered just before the All-Star break.

The combination of that loss with the domestic violence suspension of Marcell Ozuna and the early-season struggles of Cristian Pache and Ender Inciarte forced president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos to remake his entire outfield in July with the acquisitions of Duvall, Pederson, Rosario, and Jorge Soler. When he traded for Pederson on July 15, the team was just 44-45, but thanks to the new guys, the unit hit for a 102 wRC+ after the All-Star break, right in line with its 101 before despite all the turnover, and here they are in Joctober.

Alas, Soler, who hit 14 homers with a 132 wRC+ since being acquired from the Royals on July 30, tested positive for COVID-19 before Game 4 of the Division Series. His vaccination status is unknown, but according to protocol, if he is vaccinated and asymptomatic and tests negative, he could be back after Game 2 of this series; if not, he must complete at least a 10-day quarantine, which would push his return to Game 5 at the earliest. In the meantime, Pache will likely take his roster spot, with Duvall — who hit for a 112 wRC+ against righties over the past three seasons, compared to 99 against lefties — starting in center against righties, flanked by Rosario (111 vs. righties, 82 vs. lefties) and Pederson (113 vs. righties, 80 vs. lefties), and Guillermo Heredia (108 vs. lefties, 63 vs. righties) starting in center against southpaws, with Duvall shifting to a corner, joined by either Rosario or Pederson until Soler (123 vs lefties, 116 vs righties) returns.

Particularly without Acuña, the Braves are weak in the on-base department, with Freeman (.393) and Riley (.356) the only players above .311, and both d’Arnaud (.284) and Duvall (.281) well below .300. As a team, they’re not great against lefties either; beyond the aforementioned outfielders, Freeman has managed just a 97 wRC+ against them over the past three seasons, though d’Arnaud (118) and the switch-hitting Albies (150) provide some help.

Defenses

Defensively, the Dodgers led the NL in defensive efficiency (.723), but were just eighth in DRS (36), ninth in Statcast Outs Above Average runs (-4), and 13th in UZR (-12.7). Most of their players are within a few runs of average, though Seager (0 DRS, -3.4 UZR, -6 OAA in just 92 games afield) probably isn’t the best shortstop on the roster. Betts (4 DRS, 1.9 UZR, 6 OAA in 98 games in right field) may not have had his best year with the glove but as his perfect throw to third base to nail Wilmer Flores in Game 2 showed, he’s capable of big plays.

The Braves can hold their own afield. They ranked third in the NL in defensive efficiency (.708), fifth in both DRS (49) and Statcast OAA runs prevented (8), and eighth in UZR (-4.5). Duvall is a real standout in the outfield (19 DRS, 9.9 UZR, 3 OAA across the three positions), and d’Arnaud is a good pitch framer (+4 runs). The rest are within a couple runs of average according to the alphabet soup of metrics, though there’s particularly wide divergence when it comes to Riley (13 DRS, -7.0 UZR, -4 OAA runs).

Rotations

With Scherzer and the other starters getting an extra day of rest, the Dodgers will have to Scotch-tape something together out of Tony Gonsolin and bullpen parts in two games instead of one. While the Braves could have chosen to bring Charlie Morton back for Game 2 on four days of rest, that after he started Game 4 of the Division Series on three, they’re instead opting to bump him to Game 3 with Ian Anderson going in Game 2. The route they’ve chosen leaves Morton, the owner of a 4-0 record and 0.44 ERA in 20 innings across four postseason elimination games, lined up for a potential Game 7. Based on what we know as of Saturday afternoon, here’s how things could shake out:

Potential NL Championship Series Rotations
Game Dodgers DR Braves DR
1 Corey Knebel/Bullpen 1 Max Fried 6
2 Max Scherzer 2 Ian Anderson 5
3 Walker Buehler 6 Charlie Morton 6
4 Julio Urías 5 Huascar Ynoa 7
5* Corey Knebel/Bullpen 5 Max Fried 4
6* Max Scherzer 5 Ian Anderson 5
7* Walker Buehler 4 Charlie Morton 4
DR = days of rest. * = if necessary.

And some relevant statistics:

Potential NLCS Starting/Bulk Pitchers
Pitcher IP K% BB% HR/9 GB% EV Barrel% wOBA vs LH/RH ERA FIP WAR
Max Scherzer 179.1 34.1% 5.2% 1.15 33.5% 87.9 8.0% .264/.233 2.46 2.97 5.4
Walker Buehler 207.2 26.0% 6.4% 0.82 44.7% 88.2 6.8% .261/.249 2.47 3.15 5.5
Julio Urías* 185.2 26.2% 5.1% 0.92 40.2% 86.0 5.3% .274/.263 2.96 3.13 5.0
Tony Gonsolin 55.2 27.2% 14.2% 1.29 36.5% 88.2 7.1% .292/.323 3.23 4.53 0.5
Max Fried* 165.2 23.7% 6.1% 0.81 51.8% 88.1 6.3% .304/.269 3.04 3.31 3.8
Ian Anderson 128.1 23.2% 9.9% 1.12 49.3% 88.3 9.5% .279/.306 3.58 4.12 1.9
Charlie Morton 185.2 28.6% 7.7% 0.78 47.8% 86.5 4.9% .255/.271 3.34 3.17 4.6
Huascar Ynoa 91.0 26.9% 6.7% 1.38 47.3% 90.7 7.8% .279/.315 4.05 3.93 1.4
Drew Smyly* 126.2 21.4% 7.5% 1.92 39.2% 88.8 10.8% .355/.337 4.48 5.11 0.4
* = throws left-handed.

For as strong as the Dodgers’ big three is — and here we can lament the loss of Clayton Kershaw, sidelined for the entire postseason due to forearm inflammation — Roberts has put managing to the moment ahead of orthodoxy and reputations. Only the first Division Series starts of Buehler (Game 1) and Scherzer (Game 3) went five innings or longer, and both in losing causes. Scherzer got the hook in the fifth inning of the Wild Card game despite allowing just one run because his mechanics were out of whack, and likewise for Buehler in Game 4 because he was working on three days of rest. Urías didn’t enter Game 5 until the third inning and lasted just four innings, likewise allowing one run. The chattering classes may not buy what the Dodgers are doing, but the Dodgers themselves do, and that’s the damn ballgame.

Scherzer’s brilliant Game 3 start was the first loss from among the 13 starts he’s made since being acquired from the Nationals. His NLDS line (eight innings, three hits, one walk, 12 strikeouts) suggests that he ironed out those mechanical woes. Even at 37, he can still Bring It; his four-seam fastball, which averaged 94.3 mph, can rev up to 97-98 when the moment calls for it. The pitch, which held batters to a .281 wOBA, ranked as the majors’ 13th most valuable at -18 runs according to Statcast’s Pitch Arsenal stats. His slider, against which batters managed a .202 wOBA, ranked 26th (-15 runs) and is of more value against righties, while his changeup, against which batters managed just a .193 wOBA, gets more use against lefties. His extreme fly ball tendency leaves him vulnerable to homers, though 18 out of the 24 he’s allowed this year (including Evan Longoria’s Game 3 winner) came with the bases empty and another three with only one man on.

The 27-year-old Buehler is coming off a Cy Young-caliber year in which he ranked third in the NL in ERA (one point behind Scherzer), fourth in WAR, and ninth in FIP. He’s long since solidified his place as a big-game pitcher, delivering a 2.50 ERA and 2.97 FIP in 72 postseason innings. His four-seamer, which averaged 95.3 mph, ranked as the majors’ 12th-most valuable pitch (-18 runs) while holding opponents to a .295 wOBA. He’s got weapons galore, with a slider (.199 wOBA) that he uses mainly against righties, curve (.208 wOBA), sinker, cutter, and now a changeup (.123 wOBA) that he throws mainly to lefties.

The 25-year-old Urías, the majors’ only 20-game winner this year, has thrived in a variety of roles in October; he closed out Game 7 of last year’s NLCS and Game 6 of World Series, has strong starts in the NLDS and NLCS under his belt, as well as good performances as the bulk guy behind openers. He’s as flexible as they come, and if the Dodgers feel a need to get unorthodox, he’ll be fine — though note that he has a relatively small platoon split; the guy can flat out pitch. Note also that with the plan to bump Scherzer to Game 2, Urías won’t get a second start in this series, but would potentially be available out of the bullpen on three days of rest, leaving open the possibility of another opportunity to close things out. Urías curve (more of a slurve) was the majors’ ninth-most valuable pitch (-20 runs) and held batters to a .181 wOBA, while his changeup, thrown mainly to righties, kept hitters to a .214 wOBA.

As for how the Dodgers will proceed when one of the aforementioned trio isn’t starting, it appears they’re going with an opener/bulk arrangement. Gonsolin, who was stellar in 2020, was wobbly while missing more than half the season due to shoulder inflammation and never stayed in a groove for very long, but the Dodgers deemed him a better option than David Price, who was rusty after opting out in 2020, battled elbow soreness in September, and was left off the roster. Anybody who says they know what the Dodgers will get out of Gonsolin is pretending; most likely, he’ll simply be part of a longer bullpen parade.

The Braves’ rotation was pretty close to brilliant in the NLDS, allowing just four runs in 20.1 innings while striking out 29 and walking just two. All the walks and all the runs belonged to Morton, who started twice, delivering a six-inning, two-run performance in the opener and returning on three days of rest to get the first 11 outs in Game 4, though he allowed two runs. Fried spun six shutout innings while striking out nine in Game 2, while Anderson threw five shutout innings and struck out six in Game 3.

Morton and Fried ranked eighth and ninth in the NL in FIP, with the latter ninth in ERA as well; both finished among the league’s top 11 in WAR. The 27-year-old Fried spent time on the injured list for a right hamstring strain and a blister on his left index finger during a disappointing first half (4.71 ERA, 4.04 FIP) but went on a roll in the second (1.74 ERA, 2.74 FIP) as he reduced both his walk and home run rates by nearly half. He’s got three effective pitches (fastball, curve, slider), with the curve particularly effective against batters of both hands (.196 wOBA vs RHB, .207 vs LHB).

Morton was the staff workhorse, one of seven pitchers (all NL ones) who made 33 starts. The 37-year-old righty still throws his four-seam fastball upwards of 95 mph and owns one of the game’s best curveballs, worth a major-league-best -21 runs as batters managed just a .184 wOBA and a 17.7% swinging strike rate against it. Lefties didn’t homer off it a single time on 176 batted balls, helping him to a reverse platoon split; in fact, all five of the Braves listed above had reverse splits. One more note on Morton: he reintegrated a changeup that he’d mothballed for over a decade, holding hitters to a .243 wOBA on that pitch as well.

The 23-year-old Anderson wasn’t as effective in his official rookie season as in 2020, in part because shoulder inflammation sidelined him for seven weeks; in 32.1 regular-season innings after coming back, his average four-seam velo was down a click (from 94.8 mph to 93.8, and just 94.0 in his NLDS start), and he served up seven homers and managed just a 5.67 FIP. Righties tattooed his curveball for a .372 wOBA, though the Brewers couldn’t do anything against it in Game 3.

As for a fourth starter, the Braves can choose between the 23-year-old Ynoa and the 32-year-old Smyly, and might do some kind of piggyback. The former, who missed three months of his rookie season after fracturing his right hand punching a dugout bench in frustration, has a four-seamer that averages 96.5 mph but got knocked around for a .361 wOBA. He’s mostly a two-pitch pitcher, with a slider that’s very effective against lefties (.223 wOBA), against whom he also integrates a changeup. Smyly could not live up to the promise he showed in his abbreviated 2020 return with the Giants; his average fastball velo fell from 93.8 mph to 92.1 while the wOBAs on both that and his curve rose substantially.

Bullpens

NL Championship Series Bullpens
Category Dodgers NL Rk Braves NL Rk
ERA 3.16 2 3.97 6
FIP 3.83 3 4.08 6
K% 25.5% 5 23.4% 8
BB% 10.5% 9 9.4% 5
K-BB% 15.0% 6 13.9% 8
HR/9 0.89 3 1.10 5
GB% 47.3% 2 40.2% 14

As the postseason has shown thus far, the Dodgers’ deep bullpen has Roberts’ trust; the unit has delivered a 1.44 ERA and 30-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 innings so far, including Urías’ Game 5 work but not the opening act of Knebel. Righties Phil Bickford, Joe Kelly, Knebel, Blake Treinen, and Kenley Jansen all have ERAs under 3.00 and, with the exception of Bickford, FIPs under 3.25. Also worth noting: they all held lefties to a .259 wOBA or lower, lessening the need to chase platoon-driven matchups.

Kelly and Brusdar Graterol are the unit’s most reliable groundball machines, with 58.9% and 58.0% rates, respectively. Kelly, who has pitched much better than his first two years with the Dodgers while striking out a career high 27.5%, can dial his four-seamer and sinker past 97 mph, but his curve is his most effective pitch, holding hitters to a .220 wOBA while cracking the Statcast leaderboard at -10 runs. Graterol, though less effective than the other righties, is a capable middle innings guy who can top 102 mph with impressive horizontal movement with his two-seamer. Rookies Alex Vesia and Justin Bruihl are the only lefties on the roster. Vesia struck out 33.5% of hitters and held lefties to a .216 wOBA, while righties managed only a .264 mark. Bruihl struck out just 15.1% of hitters but held lefties to a .172 wOBA, though righties whacked him at a .347 clip.

Treinen (1.99 ERA, 2.68 FIP) and Jansen (2.22 ERA, 3.08 FIP) are the Dodgers’ two most effective relievers, the guys upon whom Roberts can lean heavily on late in games if need be, as the former had 13 appearances of four outs or more, and the latter seven. Treinen’s slider, with which he held hitters to a .103 wOBA, is one of the game’s most valuable offerings on a pitch-for-pitch basis; its -14 runs and -3.5 per 100 pitches both equaled the marks of Jacob deGrom. The 34-year-old Jansen, who at his peak threw his cutter upwards of 80% of the time, has rejuvenated his career by integrating a sinker (26.4%) and slider (15.4%), both of which had higher whiff rates and lower wOBAs against than his signature offering. He had his share of early- and midseason hiccups, but from August 4 to the end of the regular season, he delivered an 0.69 ERA and 2.09 FIP while holding the 101 batters he’s faced to a .087/.168/.141 line and converting all 16 save chances. Since then, he’s struck out eight out of 10 hitters while allowing a lone single. He’s back.

With the exception of the two runs Ynoa allowed in the fifth inning of Game 4, the Braves’ bullpen pitched shutout ball during the Division Series while sticking largely to their A-list guys, with righty Luke Jackson and lefty Tyler Matzek working all four games, and Will Smith saving all three wins. The last of those didn’t have a very good year despite notching 37 saves, posting a 3.44 ERA and 4.17 FIP due to high walk and homer rates. Even so, his slider is still a monster of a pitch, holding hitters to a .124 AVG and .225 wOBA with a 25.2% swinging strike rate.

Speaking of monster sliders, Jackson’s was the 15th-most valuable pitch in the majors this year at -17 runs, no small feat for a reliever; batters managed just a .232 wOBA against it. That said his fastball was pummeled for a .379 wOBA and was effective only against lefties. Matzek’s four-seamer, which got a nearly 2-mph bump to 96.0 this year, was nearly as valuable as Jackson’s slider (-14 runs), and his own slider was pretty mean as well, holding batters to a .204 wOBA with a 23.1% swinging strike rate.

Keep an eye on righty Jesse Chavez and lefty A.J. Minter — a pair who had the two lowest FIPs on the staff (2.01 and 2.69 respectively), with the former pitching 33.2 homerless innings and the latter allowing just two in 52.1 innings — as potential opener options. The 37-year-old Chavez had four such starts this year, including three in late September where he was followed by Smyly. The 28-year-old Minter has never opened in the regular season but tossed three scoreless innings in that capacity in Game 5 of the NLCS last year.

Last year’s NLCS was a tight one that could have gone either way; it took the Dodgers digging deep to come back from three games to one in order to advance. The Braves have done well to dig out from below .500 and get this far without Acuña and Ozuna, but their offense simply isn’t as formidable this time around. Even given the absences of Muncy and Kershaw, the Dodgers appear to be the superior team, and unless they experience a letdown after an intense, emotional series against the Giants, I expect they’ll prevail here.





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.

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Francoeurstein
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Francoeurstein

LETS GO BRAVES!!!!

bluerum29
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bluerum29

#chopon lets do this.

howieloader
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howieloader

Let’s got Braves!!!

Francoeurstein
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Francoeurstein

1-0 baby!!!! Throw your algorithms in the trash it’s our time!!!!

*full disclosure I’m drunk you can blame Austin Riley for that*