The Dodgers (91-71) and Nationals (95-67) begin their five-game National League Division Series later today. On paper, the teams look equally matched.
Let’s take a look at this series a little more in depth.
By The Numbers
While the Nationals prevail in almost every category, the Dodgers have them in one of the most important — wRC+. Yes, it’s by a single point, but despite some of the differences, the offense are somewhat similar overall. Additionally, what’s listed is the team statistics for the season, which doesn’t factor in the recent injuries or things of that nature, which we’ll look at later.
The Nationals did lead all of baseball in exit velocity, while (as you’ll see below), the Dodgers were the best team at limiting exit velo in baseball.
*Best in MLB history.
The Dodgers set an MLB record in strikeout percentage this season. That’s impressive on the surface, but it must be mentioned that the Nats and Cubs (24.3 percent) pitching staffs are second and third, respectively, in MLB history. The Dodgers and Nationals also finished No. 2 and 3 in batting average against in the league, respectively.
The Dodgers won the season series against the Nats 5-1. In the six games, They scored 26 runs and allowed 21. While that would seem to bode well, matchups during the regular season don’t tend to mean too much.
The Dodgers and Nationals first met in 2016 from June 20-22. On the 20th, Clayton Kershaw prevailed over Yusmeiro Petit, who obviously won’t be starting in this series. On the 21st, Scott Kazmir (also not starting) put the Dodgers behind early and Tanner Roark shut the Dodgers down for seven innings until Yasmani Grandal hit a 3-run homer in the eighth inning to stun the Nats and get the win.
On the 22nd, Julio Urias and Joe Ross matched up, which is a game that might actually happen in this series. Both of them gave up only two runs and their duel ended in a stalemate. The game was won by the Dodgers on Yasiel Puig‘s two-run single and error play, which involved Michael Taylor who might not even make the Nationals NLDS roster.
After the sweep back in June, the two teams met again from July 19-21. On the 19th, the Dodgers jumped on Reynaldo Lopez (who won’t start) early and eventually scored eight runs to get Kazmir the win. On the 20th, Bud Norris (who isn’t on the team anymore) lost to Gio Gonzalez, who limited the Dodgers to a single run in six inning because … lefty. On the 21st, the Dodgers got six runs off Stephen Strasburg (who is injured) early, and Urias and the pen made it hold up.
While the regular season wins were definitely nice, it’s not hard to see why they aren’t necessarily indicative of, well, anything.
Starting Pitchers (4): Rich Hill, Clayton Kershaw, Kenta Maeda, Julio Urias
Relief Pitchers (7): Luis Avilan, Pedro Baez, Joe Blanton, Grant Dayton, Josh Fields, Kenley Jansen, Ross Stripling
Catchers (3): Austin Barnes, Yasmani Grandal, Carlos Ruiz
Infielders (5): Charlie Culberson, Adrian Gonzalez, Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Chase Utley
Outfielders (6): Andre Ethier, Howie Kendrick, Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig, Josh Reddick, Andrew Toles
We all know about these guys by now. We know what they can do at the plate and on the mound. What typically goes overlooked is the Dodgers ended up with a defense that’s in the Top 10 of all of baseball according to both of the main metrics: 31.4 UZR/150 (6th), 29 DRS (6th). They’re also third in something called park adjusted defensive efficiency at 1.67.
Starting Pitchers (4): Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, Joe Ross, Max Scherzer
Relief Pitchers (8): Matt Belisle, Shawn Kelley, Reynaldo Lopez, Mark Melancon, Oliver Perez, Marc Rzepczynski, Sammy Solis, Blake Treinen
Catchers (2): Jose Lobaton, Pedro Severino
Infielders (6): Wilmer Difo, Stephen Drew, Danny Espinosa, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman
Outfielders (5): Bryce Harper, Chris Heisey, Clint Robinson, Trea Turner, Jayson Werth
Offensively, Murphy has been struggling with a strained buttocks during the last couple weeks of the season, while Harper has been dealing with a thumb injury. Neither injury figures to keep them out of the starting lineup, but any lingering effect could benefit the Dodgers. After all, Murphy was one of the best hitters in the NL this season, while Harper was also … for the first month of the season (.286/.406/.714), and then he was dogged with rumors of a shoulder injury. Turner has been fantastic as a rookie (more on him below), and Rendon is probably the second-most talented hitter on offense. The Dodgers will dodge a bullet with Wilson Ramos not available due to a torn ACL.
Defensively, the Nats have capable players at almost every position. Zimmerman (-0.4 UZR/150, -2 DRS) is slightly below-average at first base, Espinosa (2.8 UZR/150, 8 DRS) has been surprisingly above-average at shortstop and Rendon (11.9 UZR/150, 8 DRS) is a Top-10 defensive third baseman. Murphy (-9.4 UZR/150, -9 DRS) brings things down a bit at second base, as he’s well below-average at the position. In the outfield, Werth (-7.4 UZR/150, -8 DRS) has lost a step or two in left field but still has a strong arm, Turner (-23.5 UZR/150, -2 DRS) hasn’t fared particularly well in limited center field action (387 2/3 innings) but can throw and is better than the numbers would suggest and Harper (9.6 UZR/150, -3 DRS) is solid in right field — and his arm is close to that of Puig’s.
The bullpen is loaded with three left-handers who figure to see a lot of action. Solis in particular is scary because he’s a lefty out of the pen that can go multiple innings. The back-end with Melancon and Kelley is daunting, but the wild card in it all might be Lopez. The Dodgers roughed him up a bit when he started against them earlier this season, but he has a legitimate high-90s fastball with movement that could end up giving the Dodgers some trouble.
Dodgers vs. RHP
Dodgers vs. LHP
Nationals vs. RHP
Nationals vs. LHP
There’s going to be that one player for both teams who ends up making a significant impact on the series, and it’s always interesting to speculate who it might be. Last year, it was Murphy for the Mets and, oh, let’s just go with Utley for the Dodgers. This year, it won’t be either of these guys.
It’d be kind of hard for a part-time player — which is what Puig is now with Toles set to start Game 1 in left field — to be an X-Factor, but Puig can definitely be that guy. He has been that guy in the past, but not in the postseason. Still, with the Dodgers’ historic struggles against left-handed pitchers, Puig is one of the best at neutralizing southpaws on the Dodger roster and he could come into play in a start against Gonzalez or in appearances against Washington’s three left-handed relievers.
Defensively, his arm is unmatched, he has been really good in right field and so far, so good in left field. Additionally, he has the speed to be a factor on the bases, which is something not a lot of Dodgers can say.
If Turner had been promoted earlier in the season, he might have legitimately challenged Seager for NL Rookie Of The Year. He posted a 147 wRC+ in 324 plate appearances, and while he didn’t walk much (4.3 percent), he hit for plenty of power (.225 ISO) and stole almost more bases (33) than the entire Dodger team.
Turner is the quintessential X-Factor, because if he’s on his game he could have an impact with any of the five tools.
The Dodgers and Nationals are surprisingly well matched, which bodes well for baseball fans, but bodes poorly for the nerves of fans of either team. While the Dodgers carry a slight edge in the rotation, bullpen and bench, the Nationals have a slight edge in the lineup (due to the handedness struggles), and none of them are significant enough to make this an easy series. I don’t see either team sweeping in this series. In fact, I expect this series to go the full five games.
The importance of this first game is unquestioned. As an organization, the Dodgers have not won a postseason series after losing the first game since the 1988 National League Championship Series against the Mets. And they haven’t wont a postseason series after losing the first game on the road since the 1981 World Series against the Yankees.
First pitch is in 6 1/2 hours. Try not to freak out too much.