For the fourth time in five years, the Dodgers have made it to the National League Championship Series. This time, they’re taking on the Braves, who are making their first NLCS appearance since 2001, if you can believe it.
While the Dodgers and Padres had the two best records in the NL during the 60-game series, the Braves (35-25 during the season) have looked quite good in these playoffs, as they have won five games in a row — just like the Dodgers.
By the numbers
These offenses are remarkably similar. The Dodgers scored one more run than the Braves, while Atlanta was the only other team in the league to hit more than 100 home runs (103). Somewhat surprising (to me, at least) is the fact the Dodgers not only had more stolen bases, but the Braves had so few. But when you hit the ball over the fence, it doesn’t really matter that much. Atlanta’s offense is led by likely NL MVP Freddie Freeman, who absolutely tore the cover off the ball to the tune of .341/.462/.640 with a Mike Trout-like 187 wRC+. Freeman may be the Braves’ best hitter, but Ronald Acuna is their best player. He was limited to 46 games during the season, but he’s as explosive a player as there is in the game. He hit .250/.406/.581 with a 159 wRC+. Marcell Ozuna — a somewhat shrewd signing in the offseason — had the best season (rate stats-wise) of his career, as he hit .331/.431/.636 with a 179 wRC+. Two surprising offensive performers for the Braves this season were Dansby Swanson and old friend Travis d’Arnaud. Swanson, a former No. 1 overall pick, finally showed some of that 1-1 potential by hitting .274/.345/.464 with a 116 wRC+. d’Arnaud was a revelation, as the oft-injured catcher wasn’t in 2020 and hit .321/.386/.533 with a 145 wRC+. This is a really long-winded way of saying the Braves’ lineup is absolutely stacked, and I didn’t even mention Adam Duvall, who will be mentioned later.
The Dodgers’ offense got on track a bit in the NLDS after a slow start. They managed to score 23 runs in the 3-game sweep of the Padres, thanks in part to the usual suspects (Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts, Will Smith). They’ll all need to show up in the NLCS if the Dodgers want to advance to the World Series.
The easy thing to see here is the Braves’ starting pitchers struggled mightily during the regular season. Max Fried is their ace, and he pitched quite well. But they lost Mike Soroka to a torn Achilles and Cole Hamels to a bum shoulder. But rookie Ian Anderson filled in admirably and is now their No. 2 starter. He had a 1.95 ERA, 2.54 FIP and a 19.6 K-BB% during the season. In the postseason, he has been even better (0.00 ERA, 1.05 FIP, 32.6 K-BB%). It’s only been two starts, but the 22-year-old is definitely a rising star. Kyle Wright, another former high draftee, didn’t put up great regular-season numbers, but he threw six scoreless innings against the Marlins in the clinching Game 3 and finished the regular season with three solid starts (2.37 ERA). Seeing as this is a 7-game series with no off days, the rest of the Braves’ rotation will be tested. If they don’t opt for a bullpen game at some point, they’re going to have to throw someone like Josh Tomlin or Bryse Wilson at some point. This is where depth will play a key role in the series.
The Dodgers are sticking with Walker Buehler in Game 1 and Clayton Kershaw in Game 2. Buehler is coming off a laborious start against San Diego. He only allowed two runs, but also made it through just four innings and threw 95 pitches. He’ll need to be better against a stout Braves’ offense. Kershaw was not as good as his start against the Brewers, but he still turned in a quality start. He has good career numbers against Atlanta in the postseason (0.43 ERA, 22.4 K-BB%), including eight shutout innings against them in 2018’s NLDS. As we saw in the NLDS, it’s anyone’s guess what the Dodgers will do in Games 3-5. Julio Urias has been really good in the playoffs, but he hasn’t started a game yet. Dustin May was good against San Diego in two relief outings, while Tony Gonsolin has seemingly been forgotten. At least the cat man will have to appear at some point in this series. Either way, the Dodgers have a lot of good options outside of Buehler and Kershaw, it just remains to be seen how they’ll be deployed.
On paper, the Braves should have the numbers the Dodgers’ bullpen does. They have really good stable of relievers — Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Tyler Matzek, Mark Melancon, A.J. Minter, Darren O’Day — but they also had some relievers struggle at points. They’re heavily right-handed, so guys like Matzek and old friend Grant Dayton are going to be important in neutralizing the Dodgers’ left-handed hitters in this series.
We know about the struggles of Kenley Jansen in Game 2 of the NLDS, which puts the Dodgers’ closer role in question. But they have plenty of capable relievers of their own. Blake Treinen was good in the NLDS. Brusdar Graterol (with some help from Mr. Bellinger) was unscathed and Pedro Baez and Dylan Floro worked scoreless innings. With a lot of good right-handed hitters, the Dodgers’ righties will be on-call in this series. Victor Gonzalez and (especially) Adam Kolarek should prepare themselves for later-inning appearances against Mr. Freeman. Oh, and if anyone knows the whereabouts of Jake McGee, can you let Dave Roberts know ASAP? He was really good this season and it’s weird he hasn’t pitched in a game since Sept. 25 — 17 days ago.
The Braves and Dodgers didn’t face each other in the regular season. Their last postseason meeting was in the 2018 NLDS, which the Dodgers won 3-1.
Duvall’s overall line isn’t terribly impressive — .237/.301/.532, 116 wRC+ — but he’s one of the better power hitters in the NL. He posted a .295 ISO on the strength of 16 home runs. He hits for power against both lefties and righties, but he’s a better overall hitter against lefties this season (.277/.320/.574) and in his career (.243/.318/.482). With two lefties set to pitch bulk innings in Kershaw and Urias, and three lefties in the bullpen, Duvall’s bat could be a nice option for the Braves in those starts and in the late innings off the bench.
The Braves tied the Dodgers for the best wRC+ (126) against right-handed pitching in the league this season. Seeing the way the Dodgers have used May in the postseason and at times in the past, he could be a key piece in this series. He might start, he might come out of the bullpen, but in a 7-game series, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the flamethrower make 3-4 appearances in different roles. He was devastating against right-handed hitters in 2020 (.198/.220/.302, 19.1 K-BB%). So, something’s gotta give.
The Braves have been impressive dispatching the Reds and Marlins in relatively easy fashion this postseason. The Dodgers took out the Brewers and stopped the upstart Padres. With so much talent on both rosters and on both sides of the ball, this could be a classic series for a chance to play the Astros or Rays for the Commissioner’s Trophy — aka, “a piece of metal.”