NL Championship Series Preview: Atlanta Braves vs. Los Angeles Dodgerson October 12, 2020 at 1:00 pm

NL Championship Series Preview: Atlanta Braves vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

The Atlanta Braves have cruised through the 2020 postseason, sweeping the Reds and the Marlins in the Wild Card and Division Series, respectively. Their pitching staff has pitched four shutouts and allowed a total of just five runs to score in five playoff games. But their two early round opponents were beneficiaries of the expanded playoff format and might not have reflected the normal strength of the playoff teams from years past. In the National League Championship Series, they’ll finally meet their match against a powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers team built to win a World Series.

Despite plenty of recent success, this will be Atlanta’s first appearance in the NLCS since 2001 when they lost to the eventual World Series champion Diamondbacks; they’ve made the playoffs 10 times since. For the Dodgers, this will be their fourth appearance in the NLCS in the last five seasons and their seventh since 2001. Agonizingly, they don’t have a championship to show for all their success in reaching the semi-finals; their last World Series win was in 1988.

Like the Braves, the Dodgers blew through the first two rounds of the playoffs, sweeping both the Brewers and Padres. San Diego was a much stronger opponent for Los Angeles than Miami was for Atlanta. Still, we shouldn’t hold the quality of the past opponents against either team. This series pits the number one seed in the NL against the number two seed. Both of these teams earned their chance to claim the league championship with excellent play all season long.

Both clubs possess a dynamic offense. The Dodgers 122 wRC+ was tied for the best in baseball this year, while the Braves’ 121 was third. They were neck-and-neck as far as runs scored, too, with Los Angeles leading baseball with 349 runs and Atlanta a single run behind them. They were the top two teams in baseball in home runs, slugging, Barrel%, and Hard Hit%. But while both teams can score runs at will, their lineups are built a little differently. Both squads have a handful of stars anchoring their offense, but the Dodgers’ lineup is longer and deeper. There will be no respite for Braves pitchers when facing the seven, eight, and nine hitters.

Headlined by big offseason acquisition Mookie Betts, the Dodgers have six players in their regular lineup who posted an offensive line 30% better than league average. Two of the three regulars who didn’t reach that mark in 2020 — Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger — were well above it in 2019, and the third — Joc Pederson — was just below it last season. Muncy and Pederson haven’t elevated their performance in the playoffs yet but it looks like Bellinger’s bat might be coming around. He collected six hits in 21 plate appearances through the first two rounds including a home run and a triple.

Betts, Corey Seager, and Justin Turner are a potent trio atop the Dodgers lineup but they’re bested by the top of the Braves lineup. Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman, and Marcell Ozuna each posted career-best offensive lines in 2020, providing a huge slice of the team’s overall production. The other standout in Atlanta’s lineup is catcher Travis d’Arnaud. He also posted a career-best 145 wRC+ in 2020, the third best mark for a catcher (the Dodgers’ Will Smith had the top mark). A number of solid performers follow those four but they don’t come near to replicating the length of the Dodgers lineup. Los Angeles can use the flexibility of Matt Beaty and Enrique Hernandez to create favorable matchups late in games and also have Gavin Lux on the bench to deploy as needed; the team should also get Edwin Rios back after he suffered a groin injury following the Wild Card round.

With the altered postseason schedule, which features seven games played in seven days, both teams will have to monitor the fatigue of their starting catchers. Both d’Arnaud and Smith are key cogs in their respective team’s lineup, so giving them a day off isn’t likely. The Dodgers already gave their starting catcher a couple of starts at DH — both on days when Clayton Kershaw started. Austin Barnes is a capable backup and pushing Pederson to the bench for a couple games during the series shouldn’t hurt the Dodgers too much. Things aren’t as clear cut for the Braves. Tyler Flowers is Atlanta’s backup but he’s known more for his excellent framing abilities than his bat. If the Braves do choose to give their starting catcher a respite, that could mean pushing Ozuna into the outfield and giving either Nick Markakis or Adam Duvall a day off.

The condensed schedule will also test each team’s pitching depth. The Braves have leaned on their top three starters to get them through the first two rounds. Max Fried, their best starter during the regular season and their only starter to allow runs in the playoffs. He’ll get the nod in Game 1 and will be followed by Ian Anderson in Game 2 and Kyle Wright in Game 3. Anderson has been particularly impressive as a rookie. He made his major league debut at the end of August and made six strong starts down the stretch. He’s been even better in the playoffs. In 11.2 innings across two starts, he’s struck out nearly 40% of the batters he’s faced and hasn’t let the pressure of the playoffs affect him. Wright has continued to struggle to put his talent to use in the majors but he was impressive in the Division Series Game 3 clincher.

After Fried, Anderson, and Wright, the Braves will have some difficult decisions to make about how to approach the rest of their rotation. Injuries have depleted their potential options — Mike Soroka, Cole Hamels, and Philip Pfeifer were all lost for the year and Touki Toussaint, Sean Newcomb, and Mike Foltynewicz were all ineffective in 2020. That leaves Bryse Wilson and Huascar Ynoa as options to pitch Game 4 and possibly Game 5. Like Wright, both Wilson and Ynoa have struggled to translate their talent to the game’s highest levels. They’ve really wrestled with the command of their secondary pitches, leading to far too many baserunners without a high strikeout rate to help offset the traffic and be truly effective. Neither is an ideal option to make a start in a highly competitive seven-game series. If the Braves make it past Game 4, I’d expect the top of their rotation to pitch on short rest to finish out the series.

Like their offense, the Dodgers pitching depth should be a key separator in this series. Walker Buehler has been tabbed as the Game 1 starter with Clayton Kershaw following in Game 2. Buehler has been nasty when he’s on the mound but exited after four innings in each of his postseason starts due to a lingering blister issue. If that blister lingers into the NLCS, the Dodgers could have a difficult decision to make later on in the series. Luckily, Kershaw has looked determined to finally put to rest the overblown narrative of playoff struggles that has stuck with him year after year. This year, he’s been totally dominant in one of his playoff starts, and perfectly serviceable in the other.

After those two, the Dodgers could deploy some combination of Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin, and Julio Urias to make it through the next three games. They also have Alex Wood on the taxi squad, who could be added to the NLCS roster to make a spot start. The Braves crushed right-handed pitching in 2020 (.363 wOBA vs RHP) but struggled to replicate that success against southpaws (.324 wOBA vs LHP). Wood would give the Dodgers another left-handed option to use in their rotation alongside Kershaw and Urias. No matter how the Dodgers setup the back of their rotation, their collection should be stronger than the Braves backend starters.

Once the starters have been knocked out of the games, both teams have deep and talented bullpens to turn to. The Braves relief corps has been particularly strong this postseason. Their relievers have allowed just a single run across 20.1 innings and have struck out a third of the batters they’ve faced. Will Smith, Shane Greene, and Chris Martin form a formidable bridge to their closer Mark Melancon and the resurgent Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter give them strong options in the middle innings should any of their starters falter.

The Dodgers had the best bullpen in the NL during the regular season, but as has become the norm in recent seasons, they’ve fallen apart a bit once the calendar turns to October. The most concerning question has been Kenley Jansen‘s deteriorating velocity.

Jay Jaffe recently dug into Jansen’s struggles, which have been a year-long issue that has come to a head in the playoffs. Here’s how he thinks the Dodgers will approach the back end of their bullpen in the NLCS:

Their bullpen might be as deep as it’s been during Dave Roberts’ run as manager. Blake Treinen and Jake McGee, both of whom rebounded from sub-replacement seasons elsewhere, have a fair bit of experience closing games, while Brusdar Graterol, Pedro Baez, Joe Kelly, and Adam Kolarek have only a smattering of saves. All of them have built-in reasons for not being elevated into the full-time role, whether it’s because they don’t miss enough bats, have significant platoon splits, or sometimes can’t find the plate.

More likely than anointing anyone as Jansen’s replacement, if that’s necessary, is Roberts taking a matchup-based approach, which isn’t to say those choices will sit easily with Dodgers fans as they ride the postseason rollercoaster. Jansen — who reportedly remains upbeat — could certainly figure into that mix, but as has been the case over the past four weeks, he may not be the automatic choice that he once was.

Bullpen issues are never a comfortable to face, especially in the playoffs when the leverage of each plate appearance is ratcheted through the roof. The Dodgers have a deep — there’s that word again — relief corps to weather Jansen’s ineffectiveness but a single meltdown could spell doom for Los Angeles if Roberts trusts Jansen in the wrong situation.

These two teams have flown through the playoffs on their way to an exciting matchup to determine who will represent the National League in the World Series. This will be a hard fought series with dynamic offenses facing off against strong pitching staffs, so flawless execution will be paramount. This should be a lot of fun.

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