2021 NL Wild Card Game – Cardinals @ Dodgers: Adam Wainwright vs. Max Scherzer

Dodger Stadium
Photo by: Cody Bashore

Well everyone, the NL Wild Card game is finally here. Despite going 41-11 (.788) in their last 52 games, it wasn’t enough to catch the San Francisco Giants, who ended their regular season with an absolutely absurd 107-55 record. Good for them. They’re waiting for the winner of this game. The Dodgers ended their season on a seven game winning streak and won their last seven series in a row, although that streak started after splitting a four game series with St. Louis back in the beginning of September. They’re 4-3 against St. Louis this season, although in each of the three losses, the Dodgers lost by only one run, and outscored them 42-20 over the seven total games. Since the end of that series, these two teams have been the best in baseball, with the Cardinals going 19-4 while the Dodgers went 18-3. That included a 17 game winning streak for St. Louis, finishing their season at 90-72, easily nabbing the second Wild Card spot. Jay Jaffe points out in his FanGraphs piece, that strong performances and winning streaks towards the end of the regular season don’t necessarily correlate with postseason success. That will be true for both teams. This is a new game.

Teams that score first are 77-46 all-time in winner-take-all postseason games. My recommendation to the team is to score first. Naturally, there is a huge discrepancy in the regular season performance between these two teams, as the Dodgers finished with the best run differential in baseball at +269, compared to the 12th ranked Cardinals at +34, finishing 16 games behind the Dodgers. They’ll have their ace on the mound in the 40 year-old veteran Adam Wainwright. Besides maybe Jacob deGrom, there isn’t anyone else in baseball I’d prefer to have on the mound in an elimination game than Max Scherzer. I’ve thought that for the last few years, but until now he hasn’t been on the Dodgers. Now he is.

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5:10 PM Los Angeles
2B Edman (S) RF Betts
1B Goldschmidt SS Seager (L)
LF O’Neill 2B T. Turner
3B Arenado 3B J. Turner
RF Carlson (S) C Smith
C Molina LF Pollock
SS Sosa 1B Beaty (L)
CF Bader CF Bellinger (L)
P Wainwright (R) P Scherzer (R)

Before looking at anything else, here’s how the full roster looks for tonight’s game. It makes sense to load the roster with bats and possible pinch runners, as the team already knows what relievers they’re likely to use, having more pitchers available isn’t needed.

Now, here’s how the two offenses stack up against each other.

The best batters in the lineup are amongst the best in the entire sport, and here’s how they look amongst 188 players with at least 400 plate appearances. Corey Seager features a 147 wRC+, the ninth highest mark in baseball, Trea Turner is at 142 (14th), AJ Pollock 137 (22), Mookie Betts 131 (35), Will Smith 130 (38), Justin Turner 127 (48), and Chris Taylor 113 (74). That’s six of the best 50 hitters in all of baseball, even without Max Muncy, who owns the 18th highest wRC+ at 140. Even without him, the Dodgers own one of the most dangerous offenses in baseball. It’s easy to root for them, but facing them seems terrifying on paper. Dustin also recently wrote about potential ways to replace the loss of Muncy, and who would need to step up in his absence. Matt Beaty will be starting at first base against the right-handed Wainwright, which I believe is the correct decision. With Taylor struggling as of late and Bellinger’s experience in the postseason, elite defense, and with a favorable matchup against Wainwright, I think starting Bellinger is also the correct decision.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals have just a few guys above those marks that the Dodgers had. Tyler O’Neill has had a huge season, slashing .286/.352/.560, good for a 144 wRC+. He does have high strikeout tendencies, featuring the eighth highest strikeout rate in baseball among those 188 batters with at least 400 PA, at 31.3%. He’s been incredibly hot since the beginning of August, with a 1.043 OPS and 177 wRC+ since then. That also includes an 1.162 OPS over his last 20 games, dating back to the middle of September. After him, the Cardinals also have Paul Goldschmidt, with an .879 OPS and 138 wRC+. He’s always a tough out and a nightmare to face. After that they have Nolan Arenado, who tends to be scarier in name than in actuality. He owns an .807 OPS and 113 wRC+ this season with just a .312 OBP, but the slugging is still there. Dylan Carlson (113 wRC+), and Harrison Bader (110 wRC+) are also above average regulars for them.

The Dodgers feature the third best wRC+ against right-handed pitching at 114, with St. Louis 16th at 98. For the Dodgers, all the aforementioned players are strong against right-handed pitching, with Lux, Beaty, and Cody Bellinger all having significant advantages against right handers. Muncy had a .961 OPS against left-handed pitching, where losing him really hurts as Lux and Bellinger have struggles against same-handed pitching, and Smith (.732 OPS, 93 wRC+) also struggles against left-handed pitching. For Lux, even with his struggles for a significant portion of the season, he is slashing .260/.343/.404 against right-handed pitching, for a 104 wRC+. He also owns a 168 wRC+ in his last 16 games and 57 plate appearances. He’ll likely only see favorable matchups as he isn’t incredibly experienced in the outfield yet and in a win or go home game, experience and defense matters.

The offense seems to be clicking, as they’ve scored eight or more runs in all of their last five games. They’ve been led by Seager, who is hitting .335 with a 1.009 OPS and 169 wRC+ since his return from the Injured List on 7/30. He’s been even hotter than that over the last month, hitting .385 with a 1.183 OPS since 8/29, with 18 walks to 16 strikeouts. Then he’s been even hotter since 9/12 and over his last 19 games, hitting .400 with a 1.251 OPS. THEN after that, he’s hitting .451 with a 1.478 OPS and 283 wRC+ over his last 13 games. You get the idea. Seager rakes and he looks as good as ever heading into this game.

Trea Turner led baseball in batting average and hits this season, hitting .328 with 195 hits. After a great offensive first half with the Nationals, Turner got even better since joining the Dodgers, slashing .338/.385/.565, a .950 OPS and 153 wRC+. He’s looked more comfortable at second base recently, and is the most dangerous baserunner in baseball. He has two grand slams in his last three games, and is the first Dodgers batter with two grand slams in a three game span since Mike Piazza in 1998. Turner became the first Dodger to win the NL batting crown since Tommy Davis in 1963, and he’s the first Dodger to lead the league in batting average and steals since Jackie Robinson in 1949. He’s hitting .420 with a 1.264 OPS and 233 wRC+ in his last 17 games, and naturally he won NL Player of the Week. Additionally, Pollock has had a great year, and has a 161 wRC+ and 1.002 OPS since 8/17. After injuring his hamstring in the beginning of September, he picked up right where he left off, with a 1.256 OPS and 214 wRC+ over his final ten games. Between those three, the Dodgers feature three of the top twenty players in batting average this season, with Turner at .328, Seager at .306, and Pollock at .297.

Unfortunately in September, Taylor has just a .402 OPS hitting .121, Mookie Betts has a .716 OPS and 100 wRC+, Smith has a .728 OPS and 96 wRC+, and Justin Turner has a .785 OPS and 110 wRC+. For “struggling”, with two batters in Betts and Smith at league average, and Turner slightly above average, that’s a tradeoff anyone will take. Taylor struggling so much complicates things, as he has a .761 OPS and 110 wRC+ in 51 postseason games with the Dodgers, and combine that with his experience and his defense in left field or center field, that’s a guy you’d love to start everyday, but his offense just hasn’t been there.

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Here’s how the two staring pitchers look against each other.

Wainwright made his final start of the regular season Tuesday, and he’ll have had additional rest ahead of this start tonight. The right-hander posted a 5.06 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in 16 innings across his last three starts, and he’ll be looking to improve upon that performance tonight as both teams have their seasons on the line. The resurgent 40 year-old is going to land himself amongst the top ten in NL Cy Young voting this season, and features a career 2.89 ERA and 2.75 FIP in 109 postseason innings. Even if he isn’t the same pitcher he was, he’s extremely experienced in the postseason and never an easy matchup especially with how he’s looked this season. One of those losses the Dodgers had against the Cardinals this season came in St. Louis with Adam Wainwright on the mound, his first appearance against Los Angeles since 2018, with the righty going 8.1 innings while allowing four runs on seven hits. Two of the runs came in the ninth, as Wainwright tried to close out a complete game and was running on fumes. While four runs is great, they need to avoid letting Wainwright get that deep into the game.

Wainwright struck out just four Dodgers in that game, with one being starting pitcher Mitch White, leaning heavily on his curve (38%) and sinker (32%). He generated ten whiffs on 48 swings, and he managed to avoid hard contact very well. He’ll look to utilize his infamous curve, as the Dodgers struggle mightily against curveballs, with the 25th ranked wOBA at .243, ahead of just the Pirates, Marlins, Orioles, Royals, and Cleveland. Not a group you want to be a part of.

In his last time out, Scherzer allowed five earned runs on eleven hits while striking out four over 5.1 innings Wednesday against the Padres. It was his first time all season allowing double-digit hits, as well as his first time recording less than five strikeouts in a full start this year. The 37 year-old veteran has now allowed five earned runs in both of his last two starts, although one of those was at Coors Field, where nearly every single pitcher struggles. He has a .247 BABIP against him on the season, and .289 in his career, while he had a .429 BABIP against him in his previous start against the Padres, and .357 in his start in Colorado. Hopefully any balls in play find more gloves and less gaps than his previous two starts. In his previous start against the Cardinals with the Dodgers, he was completely dominant, striking out 13 and allowing just one unearned run on six hits and no walks over eight innings. Scherzer finished with 25 whiffs on 62 swings in that game, finishing with a 65 whiff% on his slider, collecting five of the strikeouts on the pitch. He also faced them earlier in the year with Washington, and struck out nine over six scoreless innings.

Overall, Scherzer has been incredible with the Dodgers. Even with two spotty starts recently, he has a 1.98 ERA, 1.95 FIP, and a 0.82 WHIP, with 88 strikeouts to 8 walks in 68.1 innings pitched. Overall, the three-time Cy Young winner posted career lows in ERA (2.46), and WHIP (0.86). The team went 11-0 in his starts, and although his recent performances have dropped his chances at winning his fourth Cy Young this year, he still has that impressive 2.46 ERA, with a 2.97 FIP and 236 strikeouts in 179.1 innings. In his 112 postseason innings pitched, he has a 3.38 ERA, 3.49 FIP, and 1.13 WHIP, with 137 strikeouts in those 112 innings.

Currently Scherzer is a better pitcher than Wainwright, but both teams will be very confident with who they have on the mound tonight. After Scherzer, there are two long relief options in Julio Urias and Tony Gonsolin, in addition to seven traditional bullpen arms. Loading up the roster with bench flexibility and pinch-runners is good. It’s the right move in a one-game playoff where you know which relievers you’re going to use. Here’s how the two bullpens stack up against each other.

The one knock on the Dodgers’ bullpen this season has been that 10.5% walk rate, although among the seven relievers on the roster tonight, the only guys above that 10.5% mark are Kenley Jansen (12.9%), and Alex Vesia (13.7%). Those two and Corey Knebel also feature the highest strikeout rates on the team, so they can get out of situations with runners on better than others. This can be seen with both Vesia (0.98) and Knebel (0.97) having WHIP’s under 1.00 even with relatively high walk rates. This is due to batters hitting only .124 against Vesia and .143 against Knebel, while they each strike out a third of the batters they face. Vesia also has just a 9.2% walk rate over his last 31.1 innings, while Knebel has just three walks allowed in his last 12.2 innings.

The lowest leverage guy in the pen available tonight has to be Brusdar Graterol, who most recently didn’t record an out against San Diego last Wednesday, allowing three runs on two hits and two walks. He now has a 5.12 ERA, 5.13 FIP, and a 1.55 WHIP, walking 9.9% of the batters he’s faced in last 19.1 innings. Additionally, it makes sense that David Price is not on the roster sense as he hasn’t looked good in a decent while, with a 4.85 ERA, 4.89 FIP, with 23 strikeouts to 16 walks in his last 39.0 innings pitched. Not good. Justin Bruihl is also left off the roster against a right-handed heavy Cardinals lineup, as he has a 2.93 FIP and 0.63 WHIP against left-handed batters, allowing just a .150 batting average, but a 6.17 FIP, 2.00 WHIP, and a .292 batting average vs. right-handed batters. Tony Gonsolin is likely the long man if this game were to go into extras, so if the game goes as planned, he would not be appearing tonight. Dave Roberts has made it known the Julio Urias would be able to pitch out of the bullpen, but I think it’d be ideal to avoid that unless absolutely necessary. The bullpen has enough proven talent prior to using him.

Finally, saving the best for last as always, Jansen. Since 8/6, Jansen has a 0.65 ERA, 2.09 FIP, and a 0.58 WHIP, with just a 7.9% walk rate. Still more walks than you would like to see, but compared to his 15.8% walk rate prior to 8/6, you’d gladly take that. When you think of elite relievers, you think of the two relievers on the Brewers, Josh Hader (10.7%), Devin Williams (12.4%), who both feature above average walk rates, similar to Mark Melancon (9.4%), and Craig Kimbrel (9.8%). Jansen has been really good, and Brim covered that in depth recently. I recommend reading his recent piece on how Jansen has righted the ship.

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This is great, but like I said, every game is a new game.

Bat good players higher in the lineup.

Defense matters in the postseason. Mistakes are punished more frequently by better teams.

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Buckle up. Elimination games are hard to watch.

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First pitch is at 5:10 PM PDT on TBS.

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!