Braves: Previewing the NLCS

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The way it was always supposed to end up, the second-seeded Braves will face the top-seeded Dodgers in this year’s NLCS — a rematch of 2018’s Division Series and the first real test for Atlanta during this expanded postseason. For the first time since 2001, the Braves have an opportunity to win the National League pennant. It won’t be easy, and it’s true the Dodgers have had their number for quite a while. However, now entering the third round of the playoffs, I’m not sure there’s another team as hot as the Braves, coming off back-to-back sweeps over both the Reds and Marlins, respectively. 

 

NLCS Schedule (Oct. 12-18)

  • GM 1 / Mon – 8:08 PM (ET)
  • GM 2 / Tues – 6:05 PM (ET)
  • GM 3 / Wed – 6:05 PM (ET)
  • GM 4 / Thurs 
  • GM 5 / Fri
  • GM 6 / Sat 
  • GM 7 / Sun 

 

NLCS Probable Starters

  • GM 1 – Walker Buehler vs. Max Fried
  • GM 2 – Clayton Kershaw vs. Ian Anderson 
  • GM 3 – TBD vs. Kyle Wright 
  • GM 4 – TBD vs. TBD
  • GM 5 –
  • GM 6 – 
  • GM 7 – 

*If necessary

 

Is this the year for the Braves? Has the starting pitching heated up enough to shut down an offense as dangerous as the Dodgers?… and how will the Braves lineup handle the top arms LA will roll out? 

We’ll look at those questions and more in our League Series preview…

 

  • #1 Dodgers (43-17) NL West champs
  • #2 Braves (35-25) NL East champs 

 

Starting Rotations

Dodgers

LA’s rotation isn’t necessarily a scary one in terms of strikeout dominance. However, when it comes to restricting opposing offenses from getting on base and scoring runs, it’s one of the best in the business. The group’s bottom-ten strikeout-rate (8.44 K/9) is joined with the major’s second-lowest ERA (3.29), walk-rate (2.28 BB/9), and HardHit% (33.6%), giving them the 11th-best starting staff in baseball, according to FanGraphs‘ rotation WAR leaderboard.

  • Walker Buehler, RHP – 3.44 ERA, 0.5 WAR
  • Clayton Kershaw, LHP – 2.16 ERA, 1.4 WAR
  • Dustin May, RHP – 2.89 ERA, 0.4 WAR
  • Julio Urias, LHP – 3.49 ERA, 1.1 WAR
  • Tony Gonsolin, RHP – 1.94 ERA, 1.8 WAR

With three viable no. 1 options, the Dodgers went with the 26-year-old Walker Buehler to open both the NLWCS against Milwaukee and NLDS versus San Diego. Buehler will start Game 1 on Monday against the Braves. In the Division Series against the Padres, the righty labored through some long at-bats but ultimately pitched well and allowed just two hits — one of which was an RBI single off the bat of San Diego’s Austin Nola. He left after four, thanks to a bloated pitch-count (95 pitches) and four walks, but the no-decision still felt like a win considering Buehler punched out eight. The game plan is fairly simple with Buehler. He depends on his 97 MPH fastball over half of the time and gets his whiffs with an 82 MPH curveball (50% whiff-rate during the regular season). And it’s understandable, given opposing batters combined to hit just .176 versus both offerings in 2020. 

Through his first two postseason starts thus far, Clayton Kershaw has two wins, highlighted by his 13-strikeout gem versus Milwaukee in Game 2 of the NLWCS. Although in his start against San Diego last Wednesday, he looked much more human. Kershaw approached the two outings in his usual fashion, primarily utilizing his 92 MPH four-seam and 88 MPH slider; however, he did a complete 180-degree swap in terms of which one he leaned on the most. Against the Brewers, it was all slider as Kershaw generated a 63% whiff-rate on his way to eight innings and 13 strikeouts; versus San Diego, it was the fastball he went to the most, and the results varied against a better-hitting Padres lineup. Other than the changeup, the slider has been the Braves worst enemy in 2020, so it will be interesting to see if Atlanta’s hitters can put Kershaw in situations where he must go with the heater.

We may see Dustin May used similarly against the Braves, but LA chose to hold him out of the Wild Card Series, before utilizing him as a middle-reliever in Game 1 against the Padres and as an opener in the elimination game last Thursday. He pitched exceptionally in both outings, combining for 3 innings, no hits, no runs, four strikeouts, and one walk. The Dodgers no. 2 prospect leans heavily on his 98 MPH sinker. However, it is definitely a hittable pitch as opposing batters have posted a .272 AVG against the offering, and that’s even with some bad luck (his expected AVG with the sinker is .327). Still, May makes up for those lucky bounces by wielding a mean curveball that holds batters to a .156 AVG, including a 38.8% whiff-rate. If he gets a start during this series (and he most likely will), May will come out throwing hard (99-100 MPH), and he’ll no doubt use all five of his pitches.

No matter what, both teams will be required to run out at least a fourth starter this week. This is where LA really stands out in that they have a guy like Tony Gonsolin, who actually leads the rotation in FanGraphs WAR, despite making two fewer starts during the 2020 season than Kershaw, May, and Julio Urias. The 26-year-old Gonsolin is nasty and wields a 95 MPH four-seam that batters are hitting just .191 against, followed by a split-finger he features 30% of the time that’s generating whiffs at a 42.2% clip. He’ll also mix in a slider against right-handed batters from time to time. Urias is the Dodgers other lefty, and he has been hell on left-handed hitters, holding them to just a .137 AVG overall in 2020. He pitched beautifully in the Wild Card Series, coming in as a reliever in Game 1 and covering innings 5-7 with no blips (0 ER) and five strikeouts. Urias also came in after May opened up Game 3 against San Diego, pitching five innings of one-hit ball and striking out six to earn the win (his second W of the postseason this year). 

 

Braves

If it ain’t broke, don’t even try to fix it. The Braves will continue with the same arrangement that has allowed them to sweep two consecutive series. Although, a fourth or even fifth starter will be required to get past the Dodgers this week.

  • Max Fried, LHP – 2.25 ERA, 1.5 WAR
  • Ian Anderson, RHP – 1.95 ERA, 1.1 WAR
  • Kyle Wright, RHP – 5.21 ERA, -0.1 WAR
  • Bryse Wilson, RHP – 4.02 ERA, 0.2 WAR
  • Huascar Ynoa, RHP – 5.82 ERA, 0.0 WAR

With the way the first three Braves starters have performed of late, it’s Ian Anderson the Dodgers should perhaps be most scared of. His changeup has been insane during the playoffs, and LA has never faced him. Look for him to have a big start in Game 2.

Max Fried has gone up against the Dodgers three times in his short career, totaling just 11 innings and pitching to a 6.55 ERA. Results from the last two seasons really don’t carry much weight, though, and I shouldn’t have to tell you that Fried isn’t the same guy he was in 2018. Those breaking balls should play nicely against an LA lineup that has struggled versus the slider in 2020.

Kyle Wright holds the same advantage Anderson does in terms of the Dodgers not being familiar with him. A month ago, I would’ve definitely dreaded a Wright start, especially against the Dodgers in the postseason. However, lately, he has been strong, and his sinker/slider combo is keeping opposing batters at bay. Let’s see what happens. 

As far as fourth and fifth starter options, there are a couple options as far as potential starters (Bryse Wilson or Huascar Ynoa), as well as a few relievers that could be used as openers (Tyler Matzek, Shane Greene, or Josh Tomlin). As the postseason continues, and the Braves keep advancing, I’ve become more open to the opener route. 

 

Bullpens

LADATL
2.74 ERA3.50 ERA
8.85 K/99.31 K/9
2.57 BB/93.53 BB/9
0.82 HR/90.99 HR/9
1.68 WPA1.5 WPA
3.5 WAR2.1 WAR

 

Dodgers

Unlike the Reds and Marlins, the LA bullpen is deep and isn’t just headlined by one or two relievers at the top. Only the Rays and Twins accrued more bullpen WAR during the regular season, thanks to elite run-prevention across the board; of the 11 Dodger relievers to tally at least ten innings in 2020, ten posted a sub-3.90 ERA, and five finished with an ERA below 3.00. That’s Atlanta Braves status right there, and it’ll certainly be a tough relief core to crack this week.

 

Braves

Atlanta’s bullpen really hasn’t had to work much thus far in the postseason, having tallied 20.1 innings through the team’s first five games (and six of those innings were from a 13-inning affair in Game 1 of the NLWC versus Cincinnati). Tyler Matzek and the company have been solid in the first two rounds, but how will they hold up if they’re forced to come on in several close games during the NLCS? And how will the group hold up in Games 4 and 5, when there’s the real potential for a shortened outing by the scheduled starter? 

 

Offenses

LADATL
5.81 R/G5.80 R/G
.821 OPS.832 OPS
122 wRC+122 wRC+
9.8 BB%10.2 BB%
20.3 K%24.2 K%
12.6 WAR11.2 WAR

 

Dodgers

As you can see from the table above, the Dodgers line up with the Braves almost identically on offense. LA’s lineup hit 15 more home runs than Atlanta, but other than that, the numbers are practically the same, save for a little bit better strikeout rate. 

And it’s basically the same guys as every year, other than, of course, NL MVP candidate, outfielder Mookie Betts. During the 2020 season, Betts put up 3 WAR (1 WAR more than the next guy on the team), slashing .292/.366/.562 (149 wRC+) with 16 home runs, 39 RBI, and 10 stolen bases (that homer total tied for the most in LA’s lineup). 

Going down the list, outfielder A.J. Pollock provides the pop for the Dodgers (16 HR), followed by catcher Will Smith (163 wRC+) and shortstop Corey Seager (151 wRC+), who are both having big years (Smith also leads the team in wRC+). Third baseman Justin Turner, along with Seager, led the group in AVG (.307) during the regular season, and Chris Taylor and Cody Bellinger also put up wRC+ marks north of 100. 

From top to bottom, there just aren’t many weaknesses in this LA lineup. It’s not the most contact-heavy offense in the world, only featuring four batters hitting at least .280, however, essentially every starter is considered an above-average offensive player (per wRC+), and that’s exactly why the Dodgers are up there with the Braves as one of the top offenses in baseball. 

 

Braves

Just how much better can catcher Travis d’Arnaud play? The Braves 2020 acquisition has recorded a hit in all five playoff games so far and is slashing a ridiculous .421/.500/.842 (1.342 OPS) with two homers, two doubles, and seven RBI. d’Arnaud was huge in Game 1 of the NLDS versus Miami, coming up in the bottom of the seventh and slugging a three-run homer to give the Braves a 7-4 lead, as part of a 3 for 3 night. And though he hasn’t been quite as hot as d’Arnaud, outfielder Marcell Ozuna continues to surprise at the plate, oftentimes opting to move the runner over with a base hit instead of swinging out of his cleats for a monster home run. Both d’Arnaud and Ozuna will be huge for the Braves this week. I’m interested to see if LA can contain them.

On the other side of the spectrum, hopefully the Braves other main contributors can get things going consistently. Freddie Freeman is just 3 for 18 so far in the playoffs, Ronald Acuna was just 2 for 11 in the NLDS, and Ozzie Albies just 2 for his last 12. On the bright side, after going 1 for 9 in two games versus the Reds, Dansby Swanson has heated up, hitting .400 in three games against the Marlins.

 

Defenses

LADATL
Cody Bellinger, CF

(6 OAA)

Ozzie Albies, 2B

(4 OAA)

29 DRS-8 DRS
-6.4 UZR-8.1 UZR
-7.4 Def-12.1 Def

Dodgers 

Like the Braves, LA’s defense varies quite a bit depending on which metric is used. However, according to Statcast, the Dodgers are stacked on D, with Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts combining for 10 Outs Above Average in the outfield, followed by Chris Taylor (2B), Corey Seager (SS), Gavin Lux (2B), and Enrique Hernandez (2B) rating at least average or above in the infield. 

 

Braves

The Braves defense has been mostly fine since we last previewed the team. Austin Riley did make a terrible throw from third base during Game 1 of the NLDS, and Dansby Swanson had a fielding blunder in Game 2. However, Nick Markakis throwing out Corey Dickerson trying to advance to second base made up for it all. The Marlins were a poke a run type of offense, but the Dodgers are more spray and pray. I don’t see the Braves having any issues this week on defense. 

 

Injury Report

Dodgers

Edwin Rios, 1B (groin) – on Sunday, Rios participated in team workouts, though he’s still considered day-to-day. The first baseman played in 32 games this season, posting a .250 AVG with 8 home runs.

 

Braves

No injuries to speak of right now (knock on wood).

 

 

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