It was a stressful end to the regular season for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but they earned the opportunity to advance to the NLDS without having to endure the dreaded wildcard game.
Their NL West tiebreaking win over the Colorado Rockies ensured a sixth consecutive division title, an accomplishment of longevity that shouldn’t be discounted. However, the ultimate goal is always going to be a World Series championship, and the Dodgers are seeking to take that next huge step forward.
The roster is certainly among the most talented in all of baseball, and it’s going to ultimately come down to whether these great players rise to the occasion.
Their opponent this NLDS will be an Atlanta Braves squad that has shocked the baseball world by even making the playoffs. They had been accumulating young talent in their farm system these past few years, but this last offseason most onlookers still felt they were a couple seasons away from contention.
The Braves have found themselves ahead of schedule, though, and were the first team in the NL to clinch a playoff berth after they won the NL East back on September 22. They had lost at least 90 games the previous three seasons but made a gigantic leap this year to instead finish with 90 wins.
There was a time when the Braves were one of the most dominant NL franchises, but this past decade-plus has given their fans relatively little to celebrate. The Braves haven’t won a postseason series since 2001, but this sudden re-emergence on the playoff stage threatens that drought.
They don’t hit a bunch of homers, but they put the ball in play and score runs. During the regular season, they ranked fourth in hits, fifth in BA, stuck out the seventh fewest times, and ranked 10th in runs scored.
Young players like Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, Jr. look poised to lead this franchise into a very bright future. Acuna, Jr. is one of the favorites to win NL Rookie of the Year after a debut season in which he hit 26 home runs and put up a .293 BA. Albies ranked 8th in the Majors this season with 105 runs. He made the All-Star team in his first full year in the Majors.
The Braves only ranked 19th in AB/HR, but eighth in extra-base hits. They ranked fifth in doubles, so they’re capable of big hits that keep the line moving.
Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis, and Albies all had at least 40 doubles in the regular season. Only 19 players this season in the entire Majors had at least 40 doubles, and the Braves had three of those guys. Freeman is the linchpin of this lineup. He ranked 13th in the Majors in WAR, and he deserves to be in the NL MVP discussion. He was second in the Majors (first in the NL) in hits, seventh in BA, tied for seventh in doubles, and eighth in Runs Created.
The combo of Freeman and Markakis has been a consistent presence in the lineup for the Braves this season. Out of their 162 games, Freeman has been the number three hitter in the batting order 160 times, while Markakis has been the cleanup hitter 157 times. Markakis was one of the most intriguing stories in baseball this year. At age 34 he made his first All-Star team, which set the record for the most career games by a player making their All-Star debut.
The Braves have three players who hit at least 20 homers this season. Acuna, Jr. led the team with 26, and Brian Snitker has utilized him out of the leadoff spot for the better part of the last two months of the season.
They were also 10th in stolen bases, so they’re adept at playing small ball to move runners into scoring position. Ender Inciarte led the team with 26 steals, and they have five players who stole at least 10 bases during the regular season. That’s over half of their lineup capable of swiping a bag, so Dodgers pitchers are going to have to be wary any time those guys get on base.
The Braves manage to do a good job of not killing rallies. They hit into the 28th fewest double plays during the regular season, but they also left the seventh most runners on base.
It’s going to be on the Dodgers’ pitchers to maneuver through some tense innings, but the Braves have been prone to leave guys on base and not capitalize on scoring chances.
The Braves rotation this season was among the best in the league, although they have some questions heading into this series.
Mike Foltynewicz has gotten the nod to start Game 1, but the Braves rotation seems a bit unsettled beyond that. Anibal Sanchez and Kevin Gausman are probably the favorites to start Games 2 and 3, but if there’s a Game 4, it remains to be determined whether they’re going to go with Julio Teheran or Sean Newcomb.
During the regular season, the Braves starting pitchers had the second lowest BAA amongst starting rotations around the league, the third lowest SLG, the fourth lowest ERA, the sixth lowest OBP, and the seventh lowest WHIP. They don’t give up many hits, but they can be prone to walks. Their rotation gave up the second most walks among starting staffs last season.
The Dodgers drew more walks than any team in baseball last season, so this can certainly be an area easy for them to exploit.
The Braves staff also tends to not induce many ground balls. They had three pitchers (Tehran, Foltynewicz, and Newcomb) rank in the top 25 amongst qualified starters in lowest ground ball/fly ball ratio. However, Foltynewicz, Teheran, and Newcomb also all ranked in the top 18 in lowest BAA, so it’s not like those fly balls are translating to hits.
Foltynewicz had a remarkable season. Among qualified pitchers, he ranked ninth in the Majors in ERA and 11th in WHIP. He also had the sixth lowest SLG against him and the 10th lowest OBP against him. There are some vulnerabilities with him, though. Despite his minuscule ERA and WHIP, only 39% of his starts were quality starts. Quality starts are defined as at least six innings pitched and three earned runs or less. This indicates that Foltynewicz doesn’t tend to eat up innings as much as would be expected of starters with his level of talent.
Out of 31 starts, Foltynewicz went at least six innings in just 15 of them. This might be due to pitch count more than anything else. Foltynewicz ranked eight in the Majors amongst qualified pitchers in pitches per plate appearance and 12th in pitches per inning. The walks are something he tends to struggle with. He doesn’t give up many hits, but he can get into trouble by giving up free passes. Among qualified pitchers in the Majors, he gave up the seventh fewest hits per nine innings, but the 13th most walks per nine innings.
The issues go beyond Foltynewicz for the Braves, though. Newcomb ranked second in the Majors in walks per nine innings and Teheran ranked third.
The Dodgers batting order has a real opportunity to force these guys into long innings and possibly turn those walks into eventual runs and get to the bullpen early.
Only two batting order positions hit above .210 against Foltynewicz this season. That was the third spot and the fourth spot. It’s going to be crucial for guys like Max Muncy and Manny Machado to make the most of their at-bats against him and try to do some damage. Foltynewicz also had one of his worst games of the season against this Dodgers lineup back on July 27. In that game, Foltynewicz allowed four earned runs, six hits (including two home runs) and three walks in five innings of work.
That should give the Dodgers confidence that Foltynewicz isn’t impossible to conquer, as daunting a task as he can be.
Sanchez started 24 games for the Braves this season and finished with 7-6 with a 2.85 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. A right-hander, Sanchez actually fared better this season against left-handed batters. Lefties only hit .191 against him, while righties were able to hit .233 against him. What’s interesting about Sanchez is that he’s typically able to nullify the heart of the order, but struggles against hitters lower in the lineup. The third-place hitter hit only .211 against him, the fourth place hitter hit only .161, and the fifth-place hitter hit only .130 against Sanchez. However, the spot in the order with a lot of success against him was actually the eighth spot, which hit .292 against him. The second spot also shined against Sanchez, hitting 7 home runs and going .283 in 70 plate appearances.
Look for Justin Turner to ignite some offense against Sanchez, assuming Dave Roberts keeps him in the two-hole. In his combined two starts against the Dodgers this season, Sanchez went 1-1 in 11.2 innings and gave up six earned runs. He’s another pitcher who the Dodgers had success off of this season, so there’s reason for optimism when he takes the hill.
Gausman was acquired by the Braves from the Baltimore Orioles on July 31 and had better numbers with the Braves after making 10 starts with them. He finished the 2018 season at 10-11 with a 3.92 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP. The WHIP is high, but after he joined the Braves he gave up 2.6 fewer hits per nine innings than what he registered with the Orioles. Gausman is a righty but fares better against left-handed hitters. Lefties hit .246 against him while righties hit .281 against him.
Enrique Hernandez hits righties better than Brian Dozier, so he might be getting the starts at second base those first three games. Yasiel Puig has been getting the starts recently against righties, so he’ll figure to be in the lineup those opening three games as well.
The game has been trending towards bullpen reliance in recent years, particularly in the postseason. Numerous teams have seemed to predicate their playoff runs on staunch relief performances. The blueprint seems to be to get the lead by the fifth inning and then rely on an assortment of stoppers out of the pen to maintain that lead.
The Braves bullpen isn’t as daunting as their starters are, though. Among bullpens in the Majors, they had the seventh highest WHIP and the eighth highest OBP.
Like their starters, the Atlanta bullpen can get into trouble issuing walks. Their pen gave up the fourth most walks in the Majors. They allowed the seventh lowest SLG among bullpens in the Majors, though, so they’re not likely to implode with big innings. However, it could get very dicey if their relievers come in during high leverage situations and struggle to stop the bleeding by giving up untimely walks.
The Braves also play great defense. Defense is invaluable in high stakes postseason games when mistakes can end up derailing a season. They ranked second in the Majors in Defensive Efficiency, third in BIS Defensive Runs Saved Above Average, seventh in Fielding Percentage, seventh in Total Zone Total Runs Above Average, and eighth in the fewest errors committed.
Inciarte has become a perennial fixture in the Gold Glove discussion. He has won the last two NL Gold Glove Awards in center field.
This has the makings of a tremendous series. The Dodgers are certainly one of the most talented teams in the league, but the Braves are going to be a tough obstacle for them.
This Dodgers squad has been in this position numerous times, while the Braves have completed their rebuild ahead of schedule and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. They coincidentally lost to the Dodgers in the NLDS back in 2013, which was the year the Dodgers actually began their current streak of NL West titles.
At this point, anything less than a World Series title for the Dodgers seems like an underachievement. The 2018 NLDS is the next step towards that achieving that elusive championship.