Postseason Preview: Two NL West Titans Clash in the NLDS

The Dodgers managed to survive their do-or-die Wild Card matchup against the Cardinals on Wednesday night thanks to the ninth inning heroics of Chris Taylor, setting the stage for the seemingly inevitable clash between the two best teams in baseball in the NL Division Series.

You may have already read that this is the first postseason matchup between these two storied franchises. Since 1995, the first year the Wild Card was implemented, the Dodgers and Giants have made the playoffs in the same season just twice: 2014 and ’16. The success of each team has ebbed and flowed, with one thriving while the other flounders. A new chapter in this historic rivalry will be written this October, with the winner of this series the favorite to claim the National League pennant in the next round.

Dodgers vs. Giants: Team Overview
Overview Dodgers Giants Edge
Batting (wRC+) 113 (2nd in NL) 114 (1st in NL) Giants
Fielding (OAA) -5 (10th) 28 (2nd) Giants
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 78 (2nd) 85 (3rd) Dodgers
Bullpen (FIP-) 90 (1st) 92 (2nd) Dodgers

During the regular season, these two teams were pretty evenly matched. Both won 50 games in the second half. In their head-to-head matchups, San Francisco held the advantage in wins with 10 to Los Angeles’ nine, while the Dodgers scored just two more runs than the Giants in those games. When you break down their rosters into their individual components, these clubs were ranked right next to each other in offense and pitching, with team defense the lone factor separating factor.

Despite what looks like an even matchup on paper, the ZiPS game-by-game odds give the Dodgers the best odds of any team to advance out of the Divisional round, a 56% favorite:

ZiPS Game-by-Game Odds
Team Win in 3 Win in 4 Win in 5 Total
Giants 9.6% 16.7% 17.8% 44.1%
Dodgers 15.3% 21.0% 19.6% 55.9%
Game Giants Starter Dodgers Starter Giants Win% Dodgers Win%
Game 1 @SFG Logan Webb Walker Buehler 47.5% 52.5%
Game 2 @SFG Kevin Gausman Julio Urías 52.6% 47.4%
Game 3 @LAD TBD (Alex Wood) Max Scherzer 38.6% 61.4%
Game 4 @LAD Anthony DeSclafani Tony Gonsolin 48.0% 52.0%
Game 5 @SFG Logan Webb Walker Buehler 47.5% 52.5%

ZiPS has the Giants as the favorites in just one of the five games in the series, Game 2 in San Francisco. The reason is similar to the one Dan Szymborski pointed to when he explained the ZiPS game-by-game odds for the Rays and Red Sox ALDS. In short, the advantages of a deep roster during a 162-game season are somewhat mitigated during a short postseason series. The Dodgers and Giants both have depth to spare, but the peaks of the Dodgers roster are higher than those of the Giants and they’ll be able to leverage those stars in a short series:

Lineup and Bench Comparison
Player Position Bats wRC+ Player Position Bats wRC+
Tommy La Stella 2B L 94 Mookie Betts RF R 131
Darin Ruf 1B/LF R 144 Corey Seager SS L 147
LaMonte Wade Jr. 1B/RF L 117 Trea Turner 2B R 142
Buster Posey C R 140 Justin Turner 3B R 127
Brandon Crawford SS L 139 Will Smith C R 130
Kris Bryant 3B/LF R 123 AJ Pollock LF R 137
Mike Yastrzemski CF/RF L 106 Matt Beaty 1B L 114
Evan Longoria 3B R 123 Cody Bellinger CF L 48
Bench
Wilmer Flores IF R 113 Albert Pujols 1B R 90
Donovan Solano IF R 105 Gavin Lux IF/OF L 91
Alex Dickerson OF L 97 Steven Souza Jr. OF R 50
Austin Slater OF R 103 Chris Taylor IF/OF R 113
Steven Duggar OF L 107 Billy McKinney 1B/OF L 73
Colored boxes indicate likely platoons.

This year, the Giants built a flexible lineup by utilizing a variety of platoons. That gave them the ability to mix-and-match essentially every outfield position and multiple infield positions based on the handedness of the opposing pitcher (they also appeared to deploy non-handedness platoons to positive effect). But the advantages of an approach like are muted somewhat in the playoffs. Essentially, the only full-time batters are Posey, Crawford, and Bryant. San Francisco will be without the production of Brandon Belt, their most productive hitter during the regular season. He fractured his thumb during the last week of the season and will definitely be sidelined for the first round of the playoffs; the Giants indicated that a return during the Championship series would be the “dream scenario” for Belt.

The man pressed into service at first could very well be Darin Ruf. He impressed in his second season since returning from a short stint in Korea, though he was mostly platooned against left-handed pitching. He did put up a 126 wRC+ against right-handers this year, though his strikeout rate ballooned to 34.3% against same-handed pitching. Wilmer Flores could also see some time at first — he made most of the starts there during the final week of the season — though he’s better suited to a platoon role versus southpaws. If that’s the case, the Giants would do well to stick Ruf in an outfield corner — his bat has simply been too good this year to relegate him to a part-time role in the playoffs.

The Dodgers will also be missing their regular first baseman. Max Muncy injured his elbow on the final day of the regular season and will be sidelined for this series, though Los Angeles hasn’t given up hope that he’d be able to return later in the postseason should the team advance. Also concerning for the Dodgers? The season-long struggles of Cody Bellinger and the more recent slide of Chris Taylor, Wild Card game heroics notwithstanding. The former battled multiple injuries this year and limped to a .165/.240/.302 batting line, good for just a 48 wRC+. His two-hit night against the Cardinals was his first multi-hit game since a 16-inning affair on August 25. Taylor, meanwhile, dealt with a neck injury during the second half, collecting just seven hits during the season’s final month. That late swoon brought his overall line down to .254/.344/.438 (113 wRC+) — he had a 130 wRC+ as late as August 28 — a disappointing end to a phenomenal season. Still, even with Muncy out and Bellinger and Taylor shaky, the Dodgers have a lineup filled with offensive stars. Their deep bench gives them the ability to be aggressive with pinch hitters and defensive replacements, though their starting eight are essentially locked in stone.

On the pitching side, Dodgers will be missing one of their best starters after Clayton Kershaw injured his throwing elbow in his final regular season start. With Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, and Max Scherzer slated to take the mound for the first three games of the NLDS, they won’t have to worry much about their pitching plans until Game 4. Tony Gonsolin will likely make that start, though he’s a significant downgrade from Kershaw and was limited to just 55.2 innings during the regular season due to a shoulder injury.

The Giants have a few concerns on the pitching side of things as well. Alex Wood missed two weeks at the beginning of September due to a positive COVID test and only built back up to 74 pitches before the end of the season. He’ll probably take the ball in Game 3 or 4 depending on when the Giants want to utilize Anthony DeSclafani. The bigger worry is Kevin Gausman’s rough second half. He posted a 4.42 ERA and a 3.65 FIP after the All-Star break, and Giants manager Gabe Kapler has lost enough trust in the right-hander to start Logan Webb in Game 1 and a potential Game 5.

That said, Gausman’s struggles shouldn’t obscure the fact that Webb has been the Giants’ most consistent starter since returning from a shoulder injury at the beginning of July. In 17 starts and nearly 100 innings since that point, he’s posted a 2.42 FIP with an excellent 5.47 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The secret to his success is an improved three-pitch repertoire featuring a sinker, slider, and changeup, all with outstanding movement profiles. From July 1 through the end of the season, just three starters accumulated more WAR than Webb, and one of them will be opposing him in Game 1.

It’s a shame the Dodgers and Giants are poised to meet in the divisional round instead of the Championship Series, giving fans just five games to appreciate these two juggernauts instead of seven. Still, the chance to watch these long-time rivals battle in the postseason is a welcome one.





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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Smiling Politely
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Smiling Politely

Interesting that zips favors SFG in Gausman/Urias but LAD in DeSclafani/Gonsolin (I would have thought it the other way); perhaps I’m feeling recency bias? What do y’all think?

rzbzadra
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rzbzadra

I think if anything Zips is ignoring recency bias. Maybe Zips thinks Gonsolin is the better true talent pitcher based on their entire body of work. Granted Gonsolin’s comes in a much smaller sample with only 142 career innings. Not sure that’s how Zips works though…

Ivan_Grushenko
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Ivan_Grushenko

I’m surprised too. I should have replied instead of commenting separately