The Atlanta Braves are back in the NLCS for a second straight year, and their opponent should look familiar. The team takes on the Los Angeles Dodgers in a rematch from 2020. Let’s make a lineup comparison to see if the Braves can finally beat the Dodgers in the postseason to win their first pennant in 22 years.
Will Smith will get most of the reps behind the plate for the Dodgers. Last year, he hit a key home run to beat the Braves in the NLCS (against a different Will Smith). Among catchers with as many plate appearances as him this season, Smith is tops in OPS with an .860 mark.
Travis d’Arnaud will be catching for the Braves. After serving as the cleanup hitter for the Braves in 2020, d’Arnaud had a lost season. He started terribly and suffered a thumb injury before he could heat up. He’s been underwhelming since returning from the IR (.726 OPS), so Smith has the edge on him.
Usually, analyzing first base would be an afterthought because Freddie Freeman is head and shoulders above every other first baseman in the league. He followed up a 2020 MVP campaign by slashing .300/.393/.503 with 31 home runs.
Braves killer Max Muncy normally sits at first base for the Dodgers. However, an elbow injury will likely keep him off the field for the series. In his place, a combination of Gavin Lux and Albert Pujols will play. Lux has been underwhelming in his rookie campaign, and Pujols is only effective against left-handed pitchers.
A mid-season trade sent Trea Turner (along with another notable player who I’ll get to later) to Los Angeles. If you have ever watched Turner play against the Braves, you’d know that he magically turns into a combination of Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, and Ozzie Smith when he faces them. Now he’s in Los Angeles and moving from short to second to torment the Braves. It isn’t inspiring that he’s had his best season to date. He won his first batting title by hitting .328 and swiped an NL-high 32 stolen bases. What makes him even more terrifying is that he hits for power now too. He had 28 home runs with a .911 OPS.
Ozzie Albies is on par with Turner, though. He hit two more home runs than his counterpart and stole 20 of his own bases. But Albies’ inability to get on base (just a .310 OBP) puts him at a clear disadvantage. The switch-hitter should hit well if he faces enough lefties, but the Dodgers will ensure those opportunities are few and far between.
The player tasked to hold down the hot corner in 2021 and beyond was once an uncertain question for Braves country. Austin Riley has truly come into his own with his 2021 breakout season. Slashing .303/.367/.521 with 33 home runs made Riley possibly the best third baseman this year.
His counterpart is the 36-year-old Justin Turner, who posted another strong campaign. Age may be catching up to him, as his .832 OPS was his worst since 2016. That’s still an excellent mark to go along with average defense. But Riley has been the superior player this year.
I think we all remember Corey Seager winning NLCS MVP last year when he hit five home runs in the 7-game series. He’s back again after a tremendous year hitting .306 with a .915 OPS. He did miss some time with an injury, but he pushed the Dodgers into the NLCS after a huge hit to beat the Giants in the NLDS.
Dansby Swanson will attempt to counter Seager’s onslaught. The shortstop had an inconsistent year, to say the least; he played poorly in the first half with a .755 OPS. But he heated up and destroyed the ball in July and August (.912 OPS) before slumping again in September. While Swanson is a much better defender, Seager’s bat makes him a much more valuable player.
Both teams lack a clearly defined outfield. The Dodgers will bring a combination of Chris Taylor, Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts, and AJ Pollock. Betts sank the Braves’ chance of winning the pennant last year with spectacular defensive plays in right field. It should also be known that he’s a fantastic hitter too (.854 OPS this year) and on a Hall of Fame trajectory.
Bellinger had an atrocious year at the plate after coming back from injury. He hit just .165/.240/.302, but he still plays because of his excellent defense. The last position in the outfield will fall to Taylor or Pollock. Taylor is a utility man who could see playing time at any position on the diamond. Pollock will play according to matchups, but he hit well against both lefties and righties this season. Their at-bats will depend on who the Braves have on the mound.
The Braves counter with a mishmash of Guillermo Heredia, Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, and Eddie Rosario. Jorge Soler would be the Braves leadoff hitter, but he tested positive for COVID-19 and won’t be available until Game 6 at the earliest.
Duvall returned to the Braves in a trade with the Marlins, and he’s been the clutch hitter we know and love. He’s the only hitter of the four who’s guaranteed to play every day. He’ll likely be in center unless Heredia plays.
Heredia’s weak bat will prevent him from playing much, but his strong defense and Soler’s unavailability will result in him getting some playing time. Braves fans still hope to see plenty of his plastic swords.
Pederson and Rosario, two left-handed power hitters acquired this year via trade, will fill the final spot. Rosario has been better since coming to the Braves with a .903 OPS, but Pederson’s postseason track record and Game 3 blast will put him in the lineup. He’ll hope to beat his former team in the Dodgers.
Quite a few players will be in the outfield for both of these teams (even Cristian Pache might make an appearance), but the Dodgers are slightly better offensively and better defensively with the gold-glove winners Betts and Bellinger.
Dodgers likely starting rotation: Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, Max Scherzer, Tony Gonsolin
Braves: Max Fried, Charlie Morton, Ian Anderson, Huascar Ynoa
Both these teams have strong starting rotations. The Dodgers pitching, however, is on another level. Morton and Fried have been fantastic all year, and Fried has been on fire in the second half with a 1.74 ERA. Anderson has been solid, but his command can fail him and lead him to have poor starts. Ynoa started the year as an all-star before a hand injury forced him to the IR. Since, he’s had a 5.05 ERA, leading him to be moved to the bullpen in the NLDS. The Braves will likely need him to make a start if the series goes long enough.
Fortunately for the Braves, the Game 1 starter for the Dodgers is unclear because of their five-game series with the Giants. Unfortunately, the Dodgers were first in MLB this year in starter ERA with a 2.93 mark. The addition of Scherzer to an already potent core of Buehler, Urias, and Gonsolin is tough to beat (2.47, 2.96, 3.23 ERA each, respectively). The Braves won’t have to worry about Kershaw, who is out with a forearm injury.
Possible options for Dodgers bullpen: Kenley Jansen, Phil Bickford, Joe Kelly, Brusdar Graterol, Blake Treinen
Braves: Will Smith, Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek, AJ Minter, Chris Martin, Richard Rodriguez, Jesse Chavez
The Dodgers placed second in MLB in bullpen ERA with 3.16. The Braves placed a little further down the list at tenth (3.97). Jansen and Smith will go head-to-head as the closers of the two squads, and Jansen has been better. He has one more save than Smith and an ERA more than a run lower. The Braves will count on Smith keeping his recent string of success to win the series.
Braves hitters will have to deal with the 100-mph power sinkers of Treinen and Graterol. Bickford has been unhittable since coming to Los Angeles via trade.
But Jackson and Matzek have been consistent options for the Braves. Minter is unhittable if he’s right, but there’s no telling as to when he’ll have a blowup. Maybe he can be an opener like he did in the NLCS in 2020 when he completely shut down the Dodgers’ offense.
Rodriguez and Martin didn’t make the cut for the NLDS roster, but the Braves might need more pitching for a seven-game series. They could be used in lower leverage situations.
Overall, the Dodgers’ depth and dominance are unmatched.
The batting order is pretty much as even as it gets, especially considering that these teams will try to platoon some of their hitters. The Dodgers have the clear advantage on the mound, but the new-look Braves will try to avenge their loss from last year to make it back to the World Series finally.