NLCS Preview: Atlanta Braves vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

Atlanta and LA are knocking on the door to the World Series.

(1) Los Angeles Dodgers vs. (2) Atlanta Braves  

 

In advance of the League Championship Series starting today, we’re going to break down each series for you. In this article, we cover the second-seeded Braves’ series against the one-seed Dodgers, broken down by Tim Jackson and Noah Scott, respectively.

 

Series Schedule

 

Game One: Monday, October 12th, 8:08 ET, on FOX/FS1 — Max Fried vs. Walker Buehler

Game Two: Tuesday, October 13th, time TBD ET, on FOX/FS1 — Ian Anderson vs. Clayton Kershaw

Game Three: Wednesday, October 14th, time TBD ET, on FOX/FS1 — Kyle Wright vs. TBD

Game Four: Thursday, October 15th, time TBD ET, on FOX/FS1 — TBD vs. TBD

Game Five (If necessary): Friday, October 16th, time TBD ET, on FOX/FS1 — TBD vs. TBD

Game Six (If necessary): Saturday, October 17th, time TBD ET, on FOX/FS1 — TBD vs. TBD

Game Seven (If necessary): Sunday, October 18th, time TBD ET, on FOX/FS1 — TBD vs. TBD

 

Los Angeles Dodgers (43-17)

 

Offense

Dodgers Projected NLCS Lineup

(Source: Baseball Savant; Fangraphs)

Entering the NLDS, one of the major questions for the Dodgers was how Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy were going to perform going forward. The two sluggers struggled during the regular season, and their collective 2-for-12 with 6 Ks in the two wild-card games didn’t necessarily inspire overwhelming confidence that they were on the verge of breaking out. Bellinger’s career .561 OPS and 57 wRC+ in the postseason has also been disappointing considering his regular-season production, though it’s still very early in his career to draw concrete conclusions from such a small sample. Regardless, the reigning MVP did wonders to turn around his playoff reputation in the NLDS, culminating in a takeover of Game 2 where he both homered and robbed a home run from the phenom Fernando Tatís Jr. to seal the victory.

 

 

Yeah. You’re going to be seeing that one for a while. Bellinger finished the NLDS having gone 4-for-12 with a triple and a home run. Muncy, on the other hand, was not too shabby himself, with a 3-for-11 line and an RBI double that he’ll look to build upon against Atlanta. As we touched on in our NLDS preview, if Bellinger and Muncy can play up to their potential deep into the playoffs, the Dodgers lineup should be virtually unstoppable.

Looking at the rest of the lineup, the Dodgers hitters pretty much did what they were expected to do in the NLDS: hit the ball hard. Mookie Betts continued to tear the cover off of the ball, bringing his team-leading OPS to a lofty 1.067 in October. Betts is averaging a double per game in his five postseason starts with L.A., and is showing no signs of slowing down entering the next round. His steady bat at the top of the lineup has been a lightning rod for the Dodgers’ offense, and he was seemingly on-base every time you looked at the screen in the NLDS.

Corey Seager has also continued to rake, and his clutch two double performance in Game 2 of the NLDS was a key factor in the Dodgers’ tightrope victory. He’s been scorching hot all season and has carried his momentum into the playoffs, sporting a .947 OPS and creating a vicious 1-2 punch to lead off the game behind Betts.

Curiously enough, the missing element to the Los Angeles lineup thus far has actually been Justin Turner, who is only 2-for-18 to begin the postseason. In the past, Turner has typically been one of the few Dodgers able to carry their strong performances from the regular season into October, but so far his bat has largely gone silent for the 2020 playoff run. Despite the lack of immediate production, Turner has continued to grind out strong at-bats and practice good plate discipline, and all signs point to a change in his fortunes soon.

The Dodgers’ catcher, meanwhile, is making his case to be the most famous Will Smith in Los Angeles, especially after his 5-for-6 performance in the deciding game against the Padres. Smith’s five hits set a record for a Dodger in the postseason, as he teed off for two doubles and 3 RBI in the 12-3 rout. Smith’s elite plate discipline has quickly established him as one of the best hitting catchers in baseball this season, and he’s hit well enough to stick in the lineup as the DH even when Austin Barnes is behind the plate. Barnes, who has become the preferred catcher for Clayton Kershaw starts, has been quietly producing as well, with a 4-for-5 line in his two playoff starts.

The bottom third of the Dodgers order could easily be the top of the lineup on a less talented team. A.J. Pollock has bounced back nicely from his injury-hampered 2019, and is slashing a solid .267/.353/.333 through the first two rounds of the postseason, a far cry from his abysmal 0-13, 11 strikeout slog just a year ago. Joc Pederson has been limited to just six postseason plate appearances in 2020, but was 2-for-3 in his start in Game 3 of the NLDS before being lifted for Enrique Hernández in the sixth inning. Like Turner, Pederson has been a key playoff contributor during his tenure with the Dodgers, and they will lean on him again in key spots against right-handed pitchers. Rounding out the lineup in the 9-spot is the dynamic Chris Taylor, who has had a key role in getting rallies started with Betts batting behind him. While he’s struggled early in these playoffs (3-for-17), he will be seeing plenty of pitches to hit, especially with the top of the L.A.’s lineup looming on deck. He is as likely as anyone to get hot, especially coming off of a season where he had a 131 wRC+.

Perhaps the most pressing concern for the Los Angeles offense will be how it continues to respond to the cavernous Globe Life Park in Arlington, which will host the remainder of their games in the postseason. After a year where they led the league with 118 home runs, they only scored a single run off of the longball in the NLDS, as the park seemingly swallowed up every other fly ball. The power-hitting Padres fared slightly better, and hit a whopping two home runs in the series. Despite the power shortage, the Dodgers were able to adapt to their new confines in the end and still managed to score 23 runs in the three-game sweep, including 12 in Game 3. This can largely be attributed to the team’s sterling .314 batting average with runners in scoring position, which balloons up to .393 with two outs. This is especially notable considering that hitting with RISP has been the Achilles’ heel of the Dodger lineup for much of their eight-year playoff streak.

 

Dodgers Batting With RISP

(Source: MLB Stats)

If the Dodgers can continue to cash in on RISP like this for the remainder of the playoffs, it won’t matter what park they play in. If anything, their added familiarity with Globe Life Park may help them going forward, especially in their efforts to contain the explosive Braves offense, which hit a runner-up 103 home runs.

 

 

Rotation

Dodgers Projected NLCS Rotation

(Source: Baseball Savant; Fangraphs)

After turning to Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw to head Games 1 and 2 of the Wild Card Series and NLDS, Dave Roberts and the Dodgers see no reason to mess with a good thing. The two aces will be back on the mound in Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS, respectively, to try to shut down one of the top offenses in baseball in the Atlanta Braves.

After a solid but brief showing from Walker Buehler in the first round where he struck out eight Brewers and surrendered two earned runs in just four innings of work, the ace took the mound again in Game 1 against the dangerous Padres lineup. His final line against San Diego was strikingly similar, once again striking out eight in four innings, but he also suffered some control issues that almost got him into trouble in the 2nd inning. He had walked three of the first four batters in the top of the frame and loaded the bases with only one out before striking out Jurickson Profar and Trent Grisham to escape the inning. He appeared to lack a good feel for his breaking pitches and had to resort to simply blowing hitters away with his fastball to get out of jams. He handed the game off to the bullpen following the 4th, having surrendered just one run on an RBI single by Austin Nola. The lack of command shown by Buehler early is likely in part due to the blister he has been battling for the last month, one that sent him to the IL for a short stint in September. The Dodgers will continue to monitor Buehler’s blister throughout the playoffs but will be needing more length from their young ace as the series grow longer.

Clayton Kershaw made waves in the first round of the postseason against a meek Brewers offense but was put to the test when he faced off against the boisterous Padres in Game 2 of the NLDS. He had a solid outing and struck out six in six innings while surrendering three earned runs. It wasn’t really the dominant performance sought from an ace, especially with the excellent year Kershaw has been having, but in the context of the playoffs, it was a fine performance. He put the team in a position to win, and the bullpen was able to (stressfully) hold the lead. The damage against Kershaw once again stemmed from back-to-back homers hit by Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer in the top of the 6th, but he was able to limit their impact by keeping runners off base and holding them to solo shots. At 87 pitches, Kershaw probably could have gone another inning, but the Dodgers can’t really be faulted for wanting to tap into their deep bullpen to finish off the game and probably wanted to save their starter for the long series ahead.

Dustin May was the Dodgers’ Game 3 starter, as the team looked to close out the NLDS over the Padres. We didn’t get to see much from May, however, as he had already come on to throw two perfect innings of relief in Game 1 following Buehler’s exit. May acted as the opener on Thursday, and once again pitched a scoreless inning with a walk and a strikeout before being replaced by Adam Kolarek to start the 2nd. It is likely that May is tapped to start at least one game in the NLCS, and could possibly work in a bulk role out of the bullpen as well.

Following Adam Kolarek out of the bullpen was Julio Urías, who pitched five innings while allowing a hit and an unearned run, to go along with six strikeouts. This was Urías’ second appearance of the postseason, after he shut out the Brewers through three innings with five strikeouts in the Wild Card round. Julio Urías, along with the still-fresh Tony Gonsolin (who may be the best of the three young starters), is also likely to start a game in the postseason, though the Dodgers seem to favor him in a bulk role for now.

 

Bullpen

Dodgers Projected NLCS Bullpen

(Source: Baseball Savant; Fangraphs)

The Dodgers bullpen has been somewhat of an adventure this October, having turned in adrenaline-pounding finishes in both the Wild Card Series and in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Padres. Kenley Jansen has been at the heart of their struggles and has looked shaky enough to no longer be considered the de facto choice in the 9th. His cutter has lacked the velocity and bite that made it a terror in previous years and was even roughed up for hits by three of the Padres’ left-handed hitters on Wednesday, whom Jansen was counted on to be effective against. Manager Dave Roberts hasn’t yet committed to officially removing Jansen from the closer role, but all signs point to the Dodgers moving forward with a more matchup-based approach to the late innings.

Adopting a matchup-based approach would be a way to properly utilize the strength and depth of the Dodgers bullpen, which had the second-lowest ERA in all of baseball in 2020, at 2.74. Outside of Jansen and Adam Kolarek, who surrendered two runs in Game 3 of the NLDS, the bullpen was able to clamp down in the late innings and shut out both the Brewers and the Padres in the first two rounds. They will be tested once more, however, when they face the powerful Atlanta lineup, perhaps the only offense that can rival that of the Dodgers. In high-leverage situations, L.A. is likely to turn to veterans Blake Treinen and Jake McGee (who has yet to make a playoff appearance), as well as the deliberate Pedro Báez for quality innings. Flamethrower and glove toss pioneer Brusdar Graterol also lurks in relief for Dave Roberts and is a favorite to get the call in the 9th inning as he did in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series.  Rookie Victor González can also come on for multiple frames, and with a 23:2 strikeout to walk ratio in the regular season, he may just be the Dodgers’ secret weapon in out of the bullpen. And then, of course, there is the wild card Joe Kelly, who has the potential to be devastating to either team on any given night. With Dylan Floro and the southpaw Kolarek rounding out the group, the result is one of the stronger Dodger bullpens in recent memory. Dave Roberts should have everything he needs to gameplan his way to a title, but whether or not he can utilize his relievers effectively will be up to him.

 

Atlanta Braves (35-25)

 

For a team with an offense as mean as Atlanta’s, their pitching is what has really set them apart this postseason. Max Fried, Ian Anderson, and Kyle Wright have been a beefy trio. The latter two have combined for 17.2 shutout innings with 24 strikeouts and just five walks across three starts. Max Fried was touched for four runs in four innings in the NLDS and it didn’t even matter. Collectively, they’ve taken out the Reds and Marlins—two teams who put together wild, impressive runs this season—like they were yesterday’s trash. The starters didn’t do it alone, though. The Atlanta bullpen has been nasty.

Braves bats have been another story. The second-best regular season offense has managed to slash only .230/.303/.404 through their five games. We can talk about sample size all we want, but we’re never going to have a big enough sample in the postseason to draw comfortable conclusions from. When a team struggles like this, it’s hard not to consider it troublesome. They’ve faced high caliber, electric arms in each of their two series so far and the parade will keep coming with the Dodgers. Freddie Freeman has remained sluggish, going just 3-for-18 this October. Half the lineup is hitting .230 or worse with an OPS of .636 or worse. The other half have been good but they’ve been forced to carry a lot of water.

 

Offense

Atlanta Hitters, regular season

We’d be crazy to talk about this offense and not start with Travis d’Arnaud right now. The veteran catcher/first baseman signed a two-year, $16 million contract in the winter and may already have gotten more value than that. His approach is pretty much the exact same as it’s been his whole career but d’Arnaud has been raking, anyway, thanks in large part to a BABIP over .400. Who cares, though? He’s gone 8-for-19 with four extra-base hits this postseason. He’s got seven RBI and three walks—more than anyone on the team outside of Freddie Freeman (five). His OPS is 1.342. Only two other guys on the rosterRonald Acuña Jr. and Dansby Swanson—have an OPS above .800. No matter how you cut it, d’Arnaud is one of the top reasons Atlanta has made it this far.

We suggested before the last series that Ozzie Albies could show some rust from the left side, given that he’d be facing all right-handed starters and had struggled against them in limited appearances due to injury this year. So far that’s proven to be true, as the young star second baseman has gone just 4-for-20 and has an OBP (.273) higher than his slugging percentage (.250). The righties are going to keep coming from the Dodgers. Projected starters Walker Buehler and Dustin May are right-handed, and so is another starting or long relief option in Tony Gonsolin. The team has had pitchers step up in big moments, but they’ll need more from some of their bats than they’ve gotten so far. Sitting in the middle of the lineup, Albies could be in a critical position to influence games in the NLCS. If he gets on more, hot-hitting Dansby Swanson (.263/.286/.684) could be in a position to drive in more runs.

On the bench are some curiosities: a been-there, done-that veteran in Pablo Sandoval, struggling utility guys in Charlie Culberson and Johan Camargo, a veteran backup catcher in Tyler Flowers, and two other rookies who haven’t had a chance to do much in Cristian Pache and William Contreras. Only Pache has seen the field, playing in all five games but not registering an at-bat. Atlanta likely prefers to keep this group on the bench but if they can’t, one of them will need to step up.

 

Rotation

Atlanta Starters, regular season

If it was hard to believe how good Max Fried and Ian Anderson were against the Reds two rounds ago, it might be even harder to believe how good Kyle Wright was against the Marlins. Wright’s six shutout innings in the NLDS is the out-of-nowhere performance that every postseason team needs to reach the promised land. Through the beginning of the season, he wasn’t able to step up to be an arm the team so badly needed. Through his first five starts, Wright saddled himself with four losses by giving up 18 walks and 17 earned runs. In the only game in which he didn’t register a decision, he managed to only go 3.1 innings and still walk four. On August 20th, the team finally sent him down to the alternate training site. He came back on September 8th. Since September 13th, he’s gone at least six innings in each of his four starts and has only given up five earned runs and eight walks.

You’ll notice he’s setting up differently on the rubber. Like, really differently.

At the very least, the move to the extreme, first base side of the rubber seems to have helped with Wright with his command. Brooks Baseball shows that his fastball has also had less horizontal movement since returning from the alternate training site. Wright’s heat hasn’t played the way many thought it would in the majors, which seems to be because our understanding of fastballs has improved. It had less backspin than we’d expect at his mid-90s velocity, keeping it hittable. That could also explain why he’s leaning into his two-seamer more than his four-seamer since his recall. How he uses the fastball will be something to watch in what will likely be a critical Game 3.

Aside from Wright, it’ll be worth keeping an eye on how many times Fried and Anderson will be allowed to go through the Dodgers lineup. Game 4 might need to be a bullpen game that’s piggybacked by pitchers who contrast each other nicely and could each go a handful of innings. Think Bryse Wilson and Josh Tomlin, even though each one played themselves out of a rotation spot earlier this year. Atlanta will be balancing a lot of variables when putting together their staff for the middle of this series.

 

Bullpen

Atlanta Relief Pitchers

As stated above, this group has been excellent. The first series against the Reds suggested some preference for a core of Will Smith, Chris Martin, and Mark Melancon after its starters. Now they’ve gone to almost everyone in the ‘pen to get an out, using eight different guys to get through the NLDS. Of those eight, only one of them (Martin) threw double-digit pitches in his appearance. Martin’s 26 pitches in Game 1 spent him for the series, but even then he only gave up one run. No reliever pitched more than two innings in the series, either. It was a total team effort that appears to have set up everyone to be fresh for the league championship series.

They really do offer an option for every situation, with fastballs that range from 86 mph (Darren O’Day) to 96 (AJ Minter). Their depth could be tested if the series turns into a long one because, despite how good the Atlanta starting pitchers have been, there aren’t that many of them. This could prove to be especially important against a Dodgers lineup that seems to have a hitter for every occasion. LA oozes depth and you shouldn’t be surprised to see both teams play what they’ve calculated as the best matchup at any given moment.

 

Recent History

 

These two teams didn’t play each other in 2020 because of the compacted, whacky, division-centric schedule. When they faced off in 2019, the Dodgers took four of six matchups. In 2018, LA took five of seven regular-season games against Atlanta, and then beat the Braves in the NLDS in four games. In that playoff series, the Dodgers shutout the Braves twice, and Atlanta scored just eight runs.

You could argue that both teams are stronger. Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña have more experience. Freddie Freeman has been playing like an MVP. Clayton Kershaw has gained velocity. Mookie Betts is a Dodger now. Each team has an unpleasant narrative staring them down, too. Can Atlanta handle the big stage after not advancing to a league championship series in nearly 20 years? Can the Dodgers finally win the ultimate prize or will they just remain a regular-season juggernaut?

 

Predictions

 

Atlanta will need to jump out to an early lead to give themselves breathing room because the Dodgers are just a machine. With no off days, I think depth across the board wins out here. Now is a good time to realize my predictions for the last two rounds have been wrong, but Dodgers in 6.

Tim Jackson

 

While the Braves have been able to shut down opposing hitters through the first two rounds of October, the Dodgers offense is a little more potent than that of the Marlins or the Reds. And while Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright have been lights out, let’s face it: they (probably) can’t pitch every game. Max Fried will need to be great for Atlanta to have a chance, as will whoever the Braves’ fourth starter turns out to be. And while their hitting can hang with the Dodgers, their pitching just doesn’t have the depth to shut down L.A. over the course of a seven-game series, not that it will take that long. Dodgers in 5.

Noah Scott

 

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@FreshMeatComm on Twitter)

Noah Scott

Noah Scott is a long-suffering baseball writer and knuckleball connoisseur. If you want to talk old timey baseball names, traffic on the 405, or lukewarm hip-hop opinions you can find him on Twitter @noahascott6

One response to “NLCS Preview: Atlanta Braves vs. Los Angeles Dodgers”

  1. Noah Scott Noah Scott says:

    Roster Update: The Dodgers have added Edwin Ríos and Alex Wood to their playoff roster, in place of Gavin Lux and Terrance Gore.

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