Postseason Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Washington Nationals

In one of the most thrilling finishes to a Wild Card game, the Washington Nationals defeated the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday night. That victory finally exorcised the nightmare that elimination games have been for the Nats over the last decade. Now their sights are set on the best team in the National League, the Dodgers.

At a Glance:

  • Game 1: Thursday, October 3, 8:37 PM EST in Los Angeles
  • Game 2: Friday, October 4, 9:37 PM EST in Los Angeles
  • Game 3: Sunday, October 6, time TBD in Washington
  • Game 4 (if necessary): Monday, October 7, time TBD in Washington
  • Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday, October 9, time TBD in Los Angeles

Dodgers-Nationals Team Overview
Overview Dodgers Nationals Edge
Batting (wRC+) 111 (1st in NL) 103 (3rd in NL) Dodgers
Fielding (DRS) 136 (1st) -2 (12th) Dodgers
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 81 (1st) 82 (2nd) Dodgers
Bullpen (FIP-) 93 (3rd) 109 (14th) Dodgers

This five-game series sets up a clash between the top two starting rotations in the senior circuit. The Dodgers starters posted a park- and league-adjusted FIP 19% better than league average, and the Nationals were just a point right behind them. But in a short series, the quality of the top of the rotation is paramount, and these two teams are very top-heavy.

Dodgers-Nationals Top 3 Starters
Player IP K% BB% HR/FB% ERA FIP WAR
Clayton Kershaw 178.1 26.8% 5.8% 18.5% 3.03 3.86 3.4
Walker Buehler 182.1 29.2% 5.0% 12.2% 3.26 3.01 5.0
Hyun-Jin Ryu 182.2 22.5% 3.3% 13.0% 2.32 3.10 4.8
 
Max Scherzer 172.1 35.1% 4.8% 11.6% 2.92 2.45 6.5
Stephen Strasburg 209 29.9% 6.7% 16.2% 3.32 3.25 5.7
Patrick Corbin 202 28.5% 8.4% 14.4% 3.25 3.49 4.8

Led by Cy Young hopeful Hyun-Jin Ryu, young ace Walker Buehler, and the venerable Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers have been afforded the luxury of setting their playoff rotation a week ago. Based on their usage over the last week of the regular season, Kershaw is lined up to start Game 1 with Buehler and Ryu following. Should there be a Game 4, Rich Hill would likely get the call in an abbreviated start. He recently returned from a knee injury and is likely only able to go three or four innings at the most, setting up a piggyback start with Ross Stripling, Dustin May, or Julio Urías.

The perception that the postseason pressure is too much for Kershaw has been overstated and played out. He’s posted a 93 FIP- across 152 postseason innings in his career, but he is a bit of an odd choice to lead this playoff rotation. He was fairly inconsistent this year with a decent first half (3.60 FIP) followed by a rough end to the season (4.97 FIP in September). Ryu looked like he was going to run away with the Cy Young award but also struggled to keep his early season momentum going late. He posted a 5.20 FIP in August but got things back on track in September with a 2.66 FIP in four starts. Buehler has actually been the Dodgers’ most consistent starter and would likely be receiving more Cy Young buzz if it weren’t for his Korean rotation-mate.

Because the Nationals spent their top two starters in their Wild Card win, their rotation for this Division Series is a little harder to nail down. Patrick Corbin will almost certainly get the start in Game 1. Stephen Strasburg threw just 34 pitches in the game last night, so it’s possible he’ll be ready to go again on Friday on short rest. That would give Max Scherzer a full four days of rest before being called on for Game 3 on Sunday. The other option would be to insert Aníbal Sánchez on Friday to give Strasburg extra rest, but that means the top two pitchers in their rotation would get just one start apiece in the series. The most likely scenario sees Corbin and Strasburg getting two starts with Scherzer ready to come out of the bullpen in a potential Game 5.

Whatever the order, there’s no question the Nationals envisioned utilizing this rotation in a short playoff series when they signed Corbin to a massive contract this past offseason. He’s followed up his breakout season last year with a campaign almost as superb. For Strasburg, the concern over diminishing fastball velocity wasn’t able to derail his year, his first completely healthy season since 2014. Instead, injuries are the lingering concern over the oldest member of this trio, Scherzer. The three runs he allowed off two home runs last night won’t quiet the doubts that have surfaced since he missed time with shoulder and back injuries earlier this season.

While these two rotations can match each other pound-for-pound, what happens after the starters exit will likely make the difference in this series. The Nationals won’t have the luxury of using the all-hands-on-deck approach they used in the Wild Card game. They’ll need to call on their relievers at some point, and that does not bode well for them. As a group, their bullpen posted the second-worst FIP- in the National League, 9% below league average, but also the second-worst ERA of any bullpen in the majors, besting only the Orioles. On Tuesday night, it was Daniel Hudson closing out the win in the ninth inning rather than Sean Doolittle. The former has been pretty good (3.53 FIP) since coming over in a midseason trade from Toronto while the latter really struggled in August before being sidelined with a knee injury for a few weeks.

The Nationals Wild Card roster featured just five relievers: Hudson, Doolittle, Fernando Rodney, Hunter Strickland, and Tanner Rainey. They’ll add a few more for the Division Series, but it seems like those five are trusted the most by Nationals manager Dave Martinez.

With a shaky bullpen and runs at a premium, the Nationals may have to rely on more late-inning heroics from Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon. Those two combined to post 11.8 WAR this year, almost as good as the 12.6 WAR posted by the Dodgers’ two best position players, Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy. On paper, these two lineups look evenly matched. The Nationals’ projected starting lineup posted a combined 25 WAR while the Dodgers’ starting eight was wort 26.6. But where the Dodgers hold an edge is with their depth. They have a number of players on their bench that they can plug in at various positions without a significant drop in performance.

The Dodgers are the clear favorite to advance to the National League Championship Series, but it won’t be easy. This series will likely boil down to which pitching staff can be better over a five-game stretch. Expect low-scoring games and drama-filled late innings.

We hoped you liked reading Postseason Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Washington Nationals by Jake Mailhot!

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Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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stever20
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stever20

The Nats have a ton of depth as well… Dozier, Zimmerman, Adams, Parra, Taylor, Gomes form the Nats bench. And the bullpen guys who were on the WC roster had a 3.79 ERA. So much of the Nats bullpen problems aren’t close to the WC roster…

Also, the Dodgers have a lot more injuries questions than the Nats. Justin Turner is hobbled. Alex Verdugo is out.

Saw the FG % was only 52.7-47.3 for the Dodgers.

Fernando
Member
Fernando

The Dodgers likely bench (Martin, Freese, Beaty, Taylor, and Hernandez) were worth a combined 6.1 WAR this season, and four of those five put up at least 1 win.

The six Nationals players you listed were worth a combined 2.4 WAR this season, with only one of them (Dozier) being worth at least 1 win.

Anon21
Member
Anon21

Dozier

Bad.

Zimmerman

Used to be good, now bad.

Adams

Bad.

Parra

Bad. Also, cut it out with the Baby Shark and dancing in the dugout crap–you’re embarrassing yourselves.

Taylor

Bad.

Gomes

I guess he’s decent behind the plate. Very bad hitter, though.

There’s a reasonable argument to make for the Nationals pulling an upset, but it does not hinge on pretending their bench or bullpen is secretly good.

JCCfromDC
Member
Member
JCCfromDC

“Also, cut it out with the Baby Shark and dancing in the dugout crap” – thanks for playing fun police. Your opinion is noted, but more with amusement than anything else

Anon21
Member
Anon21

If you want fun, flip a bat, scream about how you’re the best after striking a dude out, or talk some trash. The Nationals act like literal toddlers.

Glewis
Member
Glewis

Yes, because the only way anyone is allowed to have fun is what you think is fun. Oh no, they actually have fun playing with each other what are we gonna do? Honestly, the amount you seem to care about how other people have fun is baffling.

JCCfromDC
Member
Member
JCCfromDC

It’s not just the team; fans in DC have mostly embraced the “baby shark” thing, too. It’s a pretty trippy thing to see 30,000+ fans in the stands clapping the arms together as “baby shark” plays. But yeah, the last thing that we want to do is to encourage fans and teams to develop their own fun and rituals.

nevinbrown
Member
nevinbrown

Having been there when this happens it is cringe-worthy. It’s a bunch of baby boomers doing the baby shark clap. It is literally the least cool thing in the universe. This is not a fun police thing. It is simply someone trying to protect the dignity of a bunch of elderly people that think they are in someway being hip. If you care about the future of baseball and attracting more than just children being dragged to games by their grandparents then things like this must stop.

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

yeah, what did Bryce Harper always say- make baseball fun again? It’s made things fun as anything- and brought the team together. One of the funniest things was Zimmerman hitting a homer and seeing him doing the dance party in the dugout- he did the old folks walker dance. This is the closest team the Nats have ever had.

JLandonDC
Member
Member
JLandonDC

Unlike the obnoxious acts you advocate, the Nationals to their credit adopted a celebration that not only unifies the team but occurs exclusively in the dugout so as not to show-up the opposing team. They may celebrate like children but they behave like adults should.

gettwobrute79
Member
gettwobrute79

For all this talk about them acting like toddlers, it’s kinda funny that you’re the one who obviously needs a nap.

wily mo
Member

turner may be “hobbled” or they may just have been resting him to get him fresh for the playoffs because they could; it’s not entirely clear. but it’s not like he’s been trying to play and performing badly. and verdugo’s cool but he’s been out for months and it hasn’t really seemed to particularly bother the team

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

Turner played in exactly 4 games the last 3 weeks of the season. That’s not a normal resting thing in the least.

losdiego
Member
losdiego

Carlos Correa had 11 plate appearances in September…so every single writer who picked the Astros to win the World Series should be panicking, right?

I mean, the Astros could legitimately be starting Myles Straw or Abraham Toro at 3B, right? Unless they move Alvarez to 1B even though he hasn’t played it once this season, and hasn’t been on defense at all since September 2nd and made 1 error in 11 chances in LF.

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

Astros have a lot stronger team around them than the Dodgers do. Most of why folks are picking them- Verlander, Cole, and Greinke. That’s a whole hell of a lot better than Buehler, Kershaw, and Ryu. Astros 19.2 fWAR. Dodgers 13.2 fWAR.

stever20
Member
Member
stever20

and yeah, I don’t consider Correa to be a normal benching either…

dmgutie
Member
dmgutie

If Correa can’t play, 1B, 3B and SS will be filled by some combination of Gurriel, Bregman and Diaz. With multiple injuries Straw might play SS (not 3B), which he played a fair amount this season.