Postseason Preview: The 2021 NL Wild Card Game

Editor’s Note: You can find the Dodgers and Cardinals Wild Card rosters and announced lineups here and here.

While it’s not the blood rivalry Yankees-Red Sox pairing of the AL Wild Card Game, the NL Wild Card matchup does not lack for story lines. The Dodgers are the reigning World Series winners, and despite tying the franchise record for wins (106), finishing with the majors’ best run differential (+269) and outperforming last year’s 43–17 juggernaut over their final 60 (45–15), they finished second to the upstart Giants by a single game, ending their eight-year run of NL West titles. They’re just the third 100-win team to wind up as a Wild Card, after the 2002 A’s (102 wins), who didn’t have to play a do-or-die game, and the 2018 Yankees (100 wins), who won theirs. That their season comes down to a single game despite their dominance over the long haul is either evidence that the current playoff format needs overhaul or that it’s perfect as is; you’re guaranteed to hear both points of view somewhere in the run-up to the game, and probably during and after as well.

The Cardinals (90-72) are the upstart comeback kids. Beset by injuries to an already-thin rotation, they were just 51–51 at the July 30 trade deadline, and their acquisitions of the well-shellacked Jon Lester and J.A. Happ drew more snickers than raves. They were below .500 as late as August 8 (55–56), at which point their Playoff Odds were a season-low 1.3%. Thanks in significant part to the league’s strongest defense and a suddenly-lively offense, they went 35–16 the rest of the way, better than all but the Giants (36–14) and Dodgers (39–11). While they were still just 69–68 as late as September 7, they embarked upon a 17-game winning streak, the longest in franchise history and in the NL since the 1935 Cubs won 21. The streak turned what looked to be a hectic five-team race for the second Wild Card spot into a laugher; St. Louis won going away, clinching on September 28 and outdoing the next-closest team, the Reds, by seven games. The 2.8% odds the Cardinals had on September 7 now stand as the lowest September mark of any team that has rallied to make the playoffs since 2014.

Beyond all of that and a marquee pitching matchup between Max Scherzer and Adam Wainwright, there’s the inevitable discussion of these two teams crossing paths in the postseason, where the Cardinals have gotten the upper hand four out of five times, leaving Dodgers fans smarting in the 1985 NLCS (Ozzie Smith, Jack Clark, Tom Niedenfuer) and the 2013 NLCS and ’14 NLDS (Clayton Kershaw, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Carpenter, and so on). That Kershaw wouldn’t have been the choice to start this one — he’s on the sidelines for October due to yet another bout of forearm discomfort — might only partially quell the anxiety of Dodgers fans given the continued presence of Wainwright and Yadier Molina. Oh, and Albert Pujols is here, too, albeit on the other side of the equation.

For as rich as those storylines may be, they’re not the same as actual analysis. There’s only so much one can do for a single game, but it’s worth touching on a few points.

September Song

Last week, as the Cardinals’ winning streak reached 16 games, I dusted off my oft-revisited study about the relationship between September records and October success to confirm that there’s nothing predictive about the former, for all of the hot air that’s been blown to the contrary. For every 2007 Rockies winning 13 out of their final 14 and storming to the World Series, there’s an ’06 Cardinals backing into the playoffs but coming alive. Massive late-season winning streaks aren’t any more predictive than September records; Cleveland’s 2017 team (winners of 22 straight) and Oakland’s aforementioned ’02 team (20 straight) will attest. The longest August or September winning streak by any World Series-winning team in the post-1969 division play era is an 11-gamer by the ’70 Orioles, but it’s just one of 29 streaks of 11 wins or longer in that span; what happened to those other teams? Anyway, the Dodgers went 22–7 (.759) after August 31, the Cardinals 23–9 (.719). Move along.

Mind the Gap?

The winner-take-all Wild Card Game has only been around since 2012 and was not played last year due to the structure of the expanded playoffs. Its history is a short one, but we can say this: this year’s NL Wild Card Game offers the widest disparity in wins between the two teams. In fact, the 16-win gap between the Dodgers and Cardinals is more than double the widest margin of any of the previous 16 games:

Largest Win Total Margins for Wild Card Opponents
Year Div Team W-L Win% Margin TM W-L Win%
2012 NL Braves 94-68 .580 6 Cardinals 88-74 .543
2017 AL Yankees 91-71 .562 6 Twins 85-77 .525
2017 NL Diamondbacks 93-69 .574 6 Rockies 87-75 .537
2013 NL Pirates 94-68 .580 4 Reds 90-72 .556
2018 NL Cubs 95-68 .583 4 Rockies 91-72 .558
2019 NL Nationals 93-69 .574 4 Brewers 89-73 .549
2018 AL Yankees 100-62 .617 3 Athletics 97-65 .599
2014 AL Royals 89-73 .549 1 Athletics 88-74 .543
2015 AL Yankees 87-75 .537 1 Astros 86-76 .531
2015 NL Pirates 98-64 .605 1 Cubs 97-65 .599
2019 AL Athletics 97-65 .599 1 Rays 96-66 .593
2012 AL Rangers 93-69 .574 0 Orioles 93-69 .574
2013 AL Cleveland 92-70 .568 0 Rays 92-71 .564
2014 NL Pirates 88-74 .543 0 Giants 88-74 .543
2016 AL Blue Jays 89-73 .549 0 Orioles 89-73 .549
2016 NL Mets 87-75 .537 0 Giants 87-75 .537
Yellow = won Wild Card Game.

When the margin between the teams has been three or more games, the team with the higher win total — which is also playing with home-field advantage — has won five out of seven games. On the other hand, when the margins are close or nonexistent, the road teams have won seven out of eight and nine out of 16 total.

Taken together, I wouldn’t call any of this meaningful given the sample sizes; it suggests that a clearly better team will win more often than not, but in the aggregate, Wild Card Game winners have won just 11 more games during the regular season than Wild Card Game losers. If you’re looking to run differentials and Pythagenpat winning percentages, the team with the better mark is 9–7 in these games, which is still not a big deal. Spoiler alert: it’s actually going to come down to matchups.

The Max Factor

NL Wild Card Offenses
Category Dodgers NL Rk Cardinals NL Rk
R/G 5.12 1 4.36 10
AVG .244 5 .244 5
OBP .330 2 .313 11
SLG .429 4 .412 7
HR 237 3 198 6
BB% 9.8% 1 8.0% 14
K% 22.6% 5 22.3% 4
wRC+ 106 2 97 7
SB 65 9 89 3
wRC+ vs R 107 2 93 8
wRC+ vs L 104 3 115 1

Thanks to a combination of patience and power, the Dodgers led the NL in scoring and were near the top in most of the major offensive categories. With six starters — Trea Turner, Corey Seager, AJ Pollock, Mookie Betts, Will Smith, and Justin Turner — posting a wRC+ of 127 or better, they don’t give pitchers many places to hide. As a team, they’re above-average against pitchers of both hands.

That said, the Dodgers do have two concerns. The major one is the loss of Max Muncy, who hit for a 140 wRC+ (.249/.368/.527) and lead the team with 36 homers and 4.8 WAR. He left the Dodgers’ season finale with a serious left elbow injury, the nature of which isn’t yet clear, but it’s bad enough that he’s out through at least the Division Series. As for his replacement, the narrative may want Pujols, but he hit just .180/.233/.266 (36 wRC+) in 150 PA against righties; with the righty Wainwright on the mound, lefty-swinging Matt Beaty (.270/.363/.402, 114 wRC+ overall, 111 against righties) is the superior offensive option. Cody Bellinger is also an option, but he’s hit just .165/.240/.302 (48 wRC+) this year and battled multiple injuries.

The other concern for the Dodgers is center field. Chris Taylor is an above-average hitter (114 wRC+) who has produced some big moments for the team this year as usual, but he’s hit just .187/.271/.293 (57 wRC+) since August 1, and he’s also shaky in center (-3 DRS, -4.5 UZR in just 421 innings). Lefty-swinging Gavin Lux, whose on-the-job training in the outfield has been full of highs and lows, hit .260/.343/.404 (104 wRC+) against righties; he might make for a better starter who gives way to a defensive replacement in the later innings.

The Cardinals ranked just 10th in the NL in scoring and were middle-of-the-pack by most measures but rarely walked; note the 17-point difference in team OBPs despite the same batting average. They have six regulars with a wRC+ of at least 100, with Yadier Molina (83) and Tommy Edman (91) as the exceptions, but only Tyler O’Neill (145) and Paul Goldschmidt (138), both of whom had red-hot Septembers, finished above 113.

Going up against the right-handed Scherzer neutralizes the Cardinals’ greatest strength: their ability to beat up left-handed pitching. With switch-hitters Edman and Dylan Carlson offering the only southpaw presence (and with both actually stronger against lefties than righties), there isn’t much reason for Dodgers manager Dave Roberts to get cute by calling upon relievers such as Alex Vesia, Justin Bruihl, or David Price to turn them around.

One question mark for the lineup is at shortstop, where manager Mike Shildt hasn’t tipped his hand as to whether he’s going with Edmundo Sosa, who has been dealing with injuries to both wrists, or Paul DeJong, who struggled and then missed time due to a nondisplaced rib fracture. Sosa sprained his left wrist in early September, then was hit by a pitch on the right wrist later in the month. He started just 19 of the Cardinals’ final 32 games and went 0-for-6 in starts on Saturday and Sunday after being out of the lineup for a week. While Sosa outhit DeJong during the season (.271/.346/.389 versus .197/.284/.390), both had strong fielding metrics.

Old Goats

Pitching-wise, this game features a pair of grizzled, October-tested veterans. The 37-year-old Scherzer and 40-year-old Wainwright have combined for 374 wins, 5,024 strikeouts, 11 All-Star selections, three Cy Youngs (all Scherzer’s), 33 postseason starts, and two championship rings. It’s not the oldest postseason starting matchup ever, though. Ancient southpaws Randy Johnson (43) and Kenny Rogers (41) squared off in Game 3 of the 2006 NLDS, and just the year before that, 43-year-old Roger Clemens and 38-year-old John Smoltz met in Game 2 of the 2005 NLDS. This is the oldest pairing since 2015, when 40-year-old R.A. Dickey and 36-year-old Chris Young met in Game 4 of the 2015 ALCS; that pair was a combined 77 years and 139 days, whereas this one will be 77 years and 108 days.

All that, of course, is more storyline, more trivia. Here’s a statistical comparison:

NL Wild Card Starting Pitchers
Category Max Scherzer Adam Wainwright
IP 179.1 206.1
K% 34.1% 21.0%
BB% 5.2% 6.0%
K-BB% 28.9% 15.0%
HR/9 1.15 .92
BABIP .247 .256
ERA 2.46 3.05
FIP 2.97 3.66
WAR 5.4 3.8
GB% 33.5% 47.5%
EV 87.9 88.2
LA 19.3 10.0
Barrel% 8.0% 6.2%
HardHit% 34.3% 35.1%
xERA 2.89 3.84

The two righties offer contrasting styles that are both effective at preventing runs, as they finished second and seventh in the NL in ERA. Scherzer, acquired from the Nationals in a July 30 blockbuster, still averages 94.3 mph with his four-seamer and can reach 97–98 when he wants something extra. Wainwright, meanwhile, is a contact-oriented groundballer who favors his sinker (89.1 mph) over his four-seamer.

Scherzer is pretty good at suppressing hard contact, but he’s a fairly extreme fly-ball pitcher; only two out of 39 qualifying starters had lower ground-ball rates. That leaves him vulnerable to homers, though 17 out of the 23 he served up came with the bases empty, and another three with only one man on. Six of those 23 homers came in his two starts that bookended the season: a COVID-19-delayed Opening Day against the Braves (four) and the finale against the Padres (two); otherwise, he had just four multi-homer outings.

Platoon-wise, Scherzer is effective against batters of both hands, holding righties to a .233 wOBA this year (.177/.211/.330) and lefties to a .264 wOBA (.192/.266/.331). He tends to rely upon his four-seamer, slider, and changeup against righties — and the Cardinals have a righty-heavy lineup — with wOBAs of .198 and .128 via the latter two pitches. Against lefties, the changeup has a bigger footprint and is his best weapon (.217 wOBA), and he mothballs the slider in favor of a cutter and curve, which are less effective (.312 and .309, respectively).

If there’s a concern about Scherzer, who delivered an 0.78 ERA and 1.36 FIP (79 strikeouts, seven walks, two homers) over his first nine starts and 59 innings with the Dodgers, it’s that his final two outings were duds; the Rockies and Padres cuffed him for 11 runs and three homers in 10.1 innings. The thin air of Coors Field may have been a factor in diminishing his velocity and stuff, though he didn’t allow a single barreled ball, but the follow-up start saw the Padres hit a lot of hard ones. He’ll be pitching on six days of rest, with any post-Coors hangover well behind him.

Mad Max outdid Uncle Charlie in most statistical categories, but the latter did a better job of keeping the ball on the ground and avoiding barrels (and homers) in what was by far his best season since 2014, two season-shortening injuries ago (left Achilles in ’15, elbow in ’18). While he rarely gets a swinging strike with his sinker (3.0% this year), he avoids the heart of the plate and relies upon pinpoint location to get ahead of hitters, then puts the ball in the hand of the Cardinals’ defense to make plays. Via Statcast’s Outs Above Average, Wainwright’s defense saved him 25 runs this year, whereas no other pitcher was in double digits.

As for that defense, the Cardinals finished second in defensive efficiency (.714) behind only the Dodgers (.723) but outdid them by substantial margins in UZR (23.5, 2nd in the NL), DRS (83, 1st), and OAA runs (41, 1st); the Dodgers were 13th in UZR at -14.1 runs, eighth in DRS at 35 runs, and ninth in OAA runs at -3. Via DRS, the Cardinals’ regular at every position except for right field (Carlson) was at least six runs above average; Carlson was merely three above average.

While not quite as effective as Scherzer, Wainwright did a very good against batters of both hands, holding righties to a .261 wOBA (.209/.264/.332) and lefties to .284 (.229/.285/.370). Righties can’t do anything with that sinker (.216 wOBA), and managed only a .246 wOBA against his outstanding two-plane curveball, though his cutter was hittable (.306). Lefties see the curveball more often but can’t do much better (.260 wOBA), though they do beat up his cutter (.346), which he throws them more often than his more effective sinker (.245); he’ll also mix in a four-seamer against them.

Big Bullpens

NL Wild Card Bullpens
Category Dodgers NL Rk Cardinals NL Rk
ERA 3.16 2 3.97 7
FIP 3.83 3 4.04 4
K% 25.5% 5 23.0% 9
BB% 10.5% 9 11.8% 15
K-BB% 15.0% 6 11.2% 14
HR/9 0.89 3 0.79 1
GB% 47.3% 2 42.3% 7

With no need to roster a full rotation for a winner-take-all game, both bullpens will be deeper than usual, making the above statistics less relevant. Roberts sounds reluctant to use Walker Buehler out of the bullpen, though Wednesday would be his throw day between starts as he lines up for a potential Division Series opener on Friday. More likely, righty Tony Gonsolin, the likely fourth starter in Kershaw’s absence, will be part of the bullpen mix for Wednesday’s game, available to provide multiple innings if something goes sideways regarding Scherzer.

As noted before, for the Dodgers, lefties aren’t likely to have much of a role in this one. Righties Phil Bickford, Joe Kelly, Corey Knebel, Blake Treinen and Kenley Jansen constitute Roberts’ circle of trust. All have ERAs under 3.00 and, with the exception of Bickford, FIPs under 3.25, with Treinen (1.99 ERA, 2.68 FIP) and Jansen (2.22 ERA, 3.08 FIP) the most effective. Roberts can lean heavily on that pair for this one if need be, as Treinen had 13 appearances of four outs or more, and Jansen seven. The latter had his share of early- and midseason hiccups, but since August 4, he’s delivered an 0.69 ERA and 2.09 FIP and held the 101 batters he’s faced to a .087/.168/.141 line; he’s 16-for-16 in saves during that span.

The Cardinals will include two starters working their way back from injuries. Jack Flaherty, who was limited to just 16.1 innings after May 31 due to an oblique strain and right shoulder tightness, pitched three times in late September, including his first two appearances out of the bullpen since 2017. Dakota Hudson, who returned from Tommy John surgery in less than a full year, made two appearances totaling 8.2 innings, including a start of five shutout innings against the Cubs on October 1. St. Louis won’t carry three lefties; besides Génesis Cabrera, the choice is between T.J. McFarland, Andrew Miller, and Kwang Hyun Kim. Righties Luis Garcia, Alex Reyes, and Giovanny Gallegos will do the heavy lifting. Reyes (3.24 ERA, 4.40 FIP) notched 29 saves before yielding the closer role to Gallegos (3.02 ERA, 2.75 FIP) in September and transitioning to a multi-inning relief role.

Most of the arrows in this one point towards the Dodgers, but in a single game, there’s no result off the table, including the potential felling of a 106-win defending champion. The odds say it’s unlikely to happen, however, and for as much as Wainwright and Molina may live rent-free in the heads of Dodgers fans, these aren’t the Dodgers of 1985, 2013, or ’14. The likelihood is that the superior team wins out here and continues its quest for another World Series win.

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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1 year ago

I can’t wait for this game.