Braves @ Dodgers August 31, 2021: Dodgers look to cap off strong August with series win

After scoring five runs in the first three innings last night, the team was in a commanding position early, even if they tried to give the game away late. So far, the Dodgers are 20-6 (.769) in August, one of only three teams with at least 20 wins this month. The others are the New York Yankees at 21-7 (.750), and the Tampa Bay Rays (20-6). The only team close to the Dodgers this month in the National League, is the first place San Francisco Giants at 19-8 (.704). Last night, the team was finally able to capitalize on a Giants loss with a win of their own, cutting the deficit in the NL West to just 1.5 games. These two teams meet for the final time this season this coming weekend with three games in San Francisco. The pitching matchup tonight features two of the best starters in the National League in Walker Buehler and Charlie Morton

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7:10 P.M. Los Angeles
2B Albies (S) 2B T. Turner
RF Soler 1B Muncy (L)
1B Freeman (L) RF Betts
3B Riley 3B J. Turner
C d’Arnaud SS Seager (L)
SS Swanson C Smith
LF Duvall LF Pollock
CF Pederson (L) CF Bellinger (L)
P Morton (R) P Buehler (R)

The lone change for the Braves tonight is Joc Pederson starting over Eddie Rosario in the outfield. In 40 games with the Braves, Pederson has a .749 OPS, compared to a .718 OPS with Chicago in his first 73 games there before being traded at the deadline. Somehow, he’s actually had 108 plate appearances against left-handed pitching and has managed to slash .266/.352/.383, good for a 103 wRC+, compared to .227/.300/.426 and a 94 wRC+ against RHP. Crazy. Austin Riley has a 180 wRC+ and 1.073 OPS since the ASB, while Freddie Freeman (.954 OPS) and Dansby Swanson (.903) are both heating up.

Chris Taylor has the night off as Cody Bellinger slides into the eighth spot against the right-handed Morton. Will Smith is making his way up the lineup, hitting sixth tonight after hitting eighth in two of his last three games. Last night, Smith added two more hits including his 22nd homer of the season, Justin Turner and Max Muncy each had two hits, while Corey Seager also reached base twice.

Smith has been one of if not the biggest contributor for the Dodger offense since the All-Star Break. Yes, he has reverse splits with a .980 OPS and 164 wRC+ against RHP compared to a .700 OPS and 85 wRC+ against LHP. However he also has a .954 OPS with runners in scoring position, and a .979 OPS in “high leverage” plate appearances this season. This lines up with his 1.042 OPS with RISP last season, and 1.307 OPS with RISP in his rookie season. These plate appearances are limited and “clutch” is one of the hardest things to identify in an offensive profile, but I can’t see justification for batting him lower than fifth. Since the All-Star Break, Smith has the fourth highest wRC+ in all of baseball at 189, and the fourth highest OPS at 1.098.

As Buster Posey has faded a little bit offensively down the stretch, it’s reasonable to say Smith is currently the best offensive catcher in baseball. Yes I know Salvador Perez has 38 home runs, so I wouldn’t fault you if you said Perez, but Smith (.897 OPS) is now second to only Posey (.914 OPS). Either way, Smith is one of the best three catchers in the world right now and has almost no reason to be batting anywhere near the bottom of the lineup.

Completely unrelated, I think it’s also important to note that Juan Soto has a .518 OBP since the beginning of June and .540 since 8/5. He’s probably the best hitter in baseball, even giving a healthy Mike Trout a run for his money. Just some pretty absurd numbers from him as the Nationals get less coverage after trading away half their team.

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Here’s how Buehler and Morton matchup.

I have Buehler as the Cy Young favorite as of right now, but with a handful of starts left it’ll be easier to look at in a few weeks when everyone has made a few more starts. It’s still very close between Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Zack Wheeler, Max Scherzer, and then somehow Adam Wainwright and Wade Miley? in 2021? Crazy stuff.

Buehler is fifth in fWAR at 4.5 (Burnes leads at 6.3), fifth in WARP at 4.2 (Wheeler leads at 5.2), and is second in bWAR at 5.6 (Miley leads at 6.3). With a 0.92 WHIP, Buehler is second to only Scherzer (0.88), his batting average allowed is at .186, also trailing only Scherzer (.180), he has the lowest ERA at 2.02 with Burnes the next closest at 2.27. He’s third in innings pitched at 169.0, and leads all of baseball with 23 quality starts in 26 total starts, with the next closest in the National League Sandy Alcantara at 19. (Robbie Ray in the AL has 20.) He’s also gone 6 innings or more in 25 of his 26 starts.

He has a 1.19 ERA, 2.19 FIP, 0.91 WHIP, and 30.1% strikeout rate over his last nine starts and 60.1 innings pitched. He also has a 1.46 ERA, 2.50 FIP, 0.89 WHIP, and a .168 batting average allowed over his last 15 starts and 98.2 innings pitched. He also has the second lowest ERA since the foreign substance checks were put into place starting 6/21, at 1.61, second only to Logan Webb (1.60) of the Giants.

Last time out, Buehler allowed an unearned run on three hits and a walk while striking out eight over 6.2 innings Wednesday against the Padres. That game proceeded to last another ten innings.

For Morton, in his last outing he allowed four runs on six hits with nine strikeouts through five innings, his worst start in over a month. The Yankees offense is red hot right now, so that’s an understandable team to have a rough outing against. He had a stellar 2019 season with the Rays, piecing together a 6.1 fWAR season, with a 3.05 ERA and 2.81 FIP including 240 strikeouts in 194.2 innings. He finished third in Cy Young voting. In 2020, he faltered a bit with a 4.74 ERA in just nine regular season starts, although he was dealing with injuries and missed a month which was almost half the season.

In the 2020 postseason, he went 3-1 in his four starts, with a 2.70 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and allowed just six earned runs with 23 strikeouts in 20 innings. His one loss came in game three of the World Series, in which he allowed five earned runs on seven hits over 4.1 innings. In his first three starts he had a 0.57 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and just a .474 OPS allowed.

Anyways he’s bounced back this year in his first season with the Braves, with a 3.60 ERA, 3.29 FIP, 1.10 WHIP, and 173 strikeouts in 145.0 innings. He’s also fifth in DRA at 3.17 and sixth in WARP at 3.9. FanGraphs has him at 15th in fWAR at 3.3, with the ninth highest strikeout rate (28.9%) and tenth lowest FIP at 3.29. He’s going to get some Cy Young votes. Even including his rough outing last time out, he has a 2.85 ERA, 2.90 FIP, 0.92 WHIP, and a 31.4% strikeout rate over his last 13 starts and 79.0 innings.

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Clayton Kershaw seems to be progressing well still, as Danny Duffy is still a couple weeks away from throwing off a mound.

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The Dodgers add two right-handed relievers that I know very little about in Ryan Meisinger and Jake Jewell. I know Jewell broke his fibula in a freak injury while playing for the Angels a couple years back. It wasn’t pretty and I don’t recommend watching it.

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First pitch is at 7:10 PM PDT on SNLA.

About Allan Yamashige

Just a guy living in Southern California, having a good time writing about baseball. Hated baseball practice as a kid, but writing about it rules. Thanks for reading!