Unlike the first two rounds of the postseason, the Braves enter Monday’s NLCS as underdogs, sitting on the wrong side of 73.3% odds for the seven-game series. This isn’t the light-hitting Reds or Marlins, nor does LA lack depth in their pitching department. In fact, in terms of across-the-board talent, there’s perhaps no better team this year than the Dodgers, who finished the 2020 regular season with the major’s best record (43-17).
Any team that manages to win nearly 72% of their games has done some things right. However, 17 times the Dodgers weren’t able to pull away victorious in 2020. As a matter of fact, the Padres and Giants beat ’em four times apiece during the season. So what is it then?… what do the Braves need to do this week to somehow win four of the next seven matchups versus the Dodgers?
One thing to consider: LA hasn’t lost more than two in a row all season long, and only suffered back-to-back defeats four different times throughout the 60-game schedule. Yep, it’s going to be tough. But no team is perfect, so let’s see if we can find that perfect formula for the Braves…
Attack their hitters with tons of sliders and changeups
Believe me, trying to find something specific the Dodgers lineup has struggled with in 2020 is a rather difficult task. This offense hits everything. However, when it comes to sliders and changeups, collectively, LA has actually struggled a bit.
Of the ten Dodger hitters that have seen at least 100 slider/changeups this season (the regulars), only Mookie Betts (.286 AVG / .554 SLG%), Cody Bellinger (.274/.629), and Will Smith (.289/.500) posted at least a .250 AVG and .450 SLG% versus the two offerings combined. After those three, the dropoff is pretty big. Chris Taylor, a utility guy who played in 56 games in 2020, hit just .136 and slugged .258; Justin Turner and Corey Seager — who were LA’s leaders in overall AVG, hitting .307 for the season — slugged just .282 and .391, respectively.
There’s no doubt the Braves are showing these numbers to guys like Max Fried and Ian Anderson, two pitchers that depend on both the slider and changeup to put away opposing hitters. Fried has held opposing batters to just a .348 SLG% with his slide piece and Anderson a .146 with his offspeed. Both starters should adjust their pitch-mix accordingly and attack the Dodgers weakness.
Just put the ball in play (duh)
For as well regarded as the Dodgers starting rotation is (finishing the regular season with the major’s second-best ERA with a 3.29), it’s not the type of staff that’s just going to blow right through an offense like the Braves. LA’s rotation doesn’t punch out many batters as they ended the season with just 8.44 strikeouts per nine, thanks to a 10.9% swinging-strike rate (both ranking below average among major-league rotations). That leaves a good bit of contact to be made for opposing lineups, and a top offense like the Braves shouldn’t have a problem putting the ball in play.
Of course, simply putting the ball in play is a lot easier said than done. Dodgers starter Walker Buehler has allowed just five total hits across two postseason starts so far, and Clayton Kershaw lasted eight innings as part of a 13-strikeout outing versus the Brewers during the Wild Card Series a few weeks ago. LA rosters plenty of arms that, when on, can be as stingy as anyone in baseball. However, at least going by the team’s numbers during the regular season, this starting staff is penetrable. The Braves just need to be aggressive.
Put pressure on the back-end of their bullpen
The LA ‘pen was just fine during the Brewers series, tallying six scoreless innings and striking out eight in the team’s two-game sweep. However, versus San Diego, some holes appeared. Game 1 was an easy 5-1 win for the Dodgers, and the bullpen held firm with five innings of one-hit ball (6 strikeouts), but Game 2 showed us that the LA relief core is susceptible to a big inning. In the final frame of Wednesday’s Game 2, Kenley Jansen started the ninth by striking out Wil Myers with three pitches. However, that punchout was followed with back-to-back hits by Jake Croneworth and Mitch Moreland, resulting in two runs scored. The Dodgers had to go with reliever Joe Kelly to finish off the Padres and barely survive with the win.
Each of LA’s primary high-leverage relievers has a history of falling apart in key situations. Sure, Jansen’s career numbers are tough, shown by his 2.26 ERA over 51.2 innings overall; however, he has had three blowups in the past several postseasons. During the Dodgers World Series back in 2018, Jansen allowed two homers in one of his outings. He surrendered six hits and two more long balls in their World Series in 2017 as well. And in the team’s NLDS in 2016, Jansen was forced to pitch 5.1 innings, but he walked five batters and allowed a homer then too. Kelley also sports a solid career ERA during the postseason (3.44 ERA / 49.2 IP), but he completely fell apart during last year’s NLDS, allowing six runs from five hits to go along with five walks and a homer. And then there’s Blake Treinen, who has only logged eight postseason innings during his career, having pitched to a 5.63 ERA. Kershaw has also been cursed when it comes to providing relief help in the playoffs, and his rough outing came at the absolute worst time in 2019 when he allowed two homers against the Nationals in Game 5 of the NLDS.
These are just three small things that the Dodgers appeared to struggle with during the 2020 regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs. Whether the Braves can exploit these weaknesses, we’ll have to wait and see, but for a team as strong as LA’s, Atlanta must find something they can take advantage of to pick up four wins this week. A lineup who’s top hitters struggle with sliders and changeups, a starting rotation that lacks much strikeout-stuff, and a bullpen that’s been known to have a few blowup outings from time to time isn’t much to go on… but it’s something. Now it’s the Braves job to take care of business. Let’s see if they can pull it off.