With over 5,000 baseball games played since late Match, the great month of October is finally here and it’s time for the fate of the teams that have made it to the dance to be decided in just a handful of games. With the NL Wild Card Game behind us, we can move on to breaking down the National League Division Series. If you’re looking for background, statistical analysis and some players and storylines to watch over the next week, we have you covered.
Los Angeles Dodgers (106-56) vs. Washington Nationals (93-69)
The Nationals and Dodgers have met in the postseason just once, when the Dodgers narrowly eliminated them 3-2 in the 2016 NLDS. They did meet once when the Nationals were still the Expos, in the NLCS in 1981 when the Dodgers sent Montreal home 3-2. But, while these teams don’t have a rich postseason history against each other, they have two of the more interesting narratives going in the postseason.
For the Dodgers, they’ve won seven straight division titles and have been to back-to-back World Series. But, while they’ve been a viable contender for the crown for ages, they haven’t won a World Series since 1988. The Nationals, on the other hand, have an even more tortured postseason history. That 1981 postseason marked the only time in franchise history that they won a series. Since moving to Washington, they’ve won the NL East four times and been eliminated in the Division Series every single time.
The Dodgers won the season series this year, 4-3, outscoring the Nats 30-27 over seven games. In their first four-game series in May, three of the four games were shutouts, two for Los Angeles and one for Washington, which might be something we see more of given the strength of the rotations for both teams.
The Dodgers had the second-best run differential (+273) in all of baseball, trailing only the Astros (+280). Los Angeles’ expected records paint an even rosier picture. Their Pythagorean record (which simply looks at runs scored and allowed) paints them adds two wins to make them a 108-win team. BaseRuns (which goes even further and removes context to look at how many runs a team should have scored and allowed) gave them an expected record of 109 wins. They were a very, very good team this year.
The Nationals had a +149 run differential and both flavors of expected record add a couple wins to their total, suggesting that the Nationals were really more of a 95-win team and actually a better team than the Braves. But they had a rough start to the season and were 19-31 by May 23. It took a late-season surge to even get to the Wild Card Game where they had to pull off a late-game surge to defeat the Brewers.
We can’t talk about the Nationals’ lineup without talking about someone who isn’t even there anymore. The loss of Bryce Harper was supposed to mark the end of an era in Washington, but Juan Soto (.282/.401/.548, 142 wRC+, 4.8 fWAR) actually had a better season than his former teammate (.260/.372/.510, 125 wRC+, 4.6 fWAR). And while Harper was never able to carry his former on his back and stave off first-round elimination, Soto came up bigin the eight inning in the Wild Card Game to save Washington’s season.
Anthony Rendon (.319/.412/.598, 154 wRC+, 7.0 fWAR) would probably have won the NL MVP were it not for someone we’ll be discussing shortly. Trea Turner (.298/.353/.497, 117 wRC+, 3.5 fWAR) has continued to improve by showing more patience at the plate. Howie Hendrick (.344/.395/.572, 146 wRC+, 2.9 fWAR) has done the same and the 36- year old has rejuvenated himself and become something of a secret weapon.
The lineup as a whole hit .265/.342/.454 for a 103 wRC+. Solid defense and above-average baserunning contributed to a total of 26.0 fWAR, good for third in the National League. The problem is the numbers for the team that they’ll be facing. Los Angeles hitters combined for a .257/.338/.472 slashline and an NL-leading 111 wRC+. They ran the bases better and graded out better defensively and ended up with an NL-leading 34.8 fWAR.
Leading the charge was my pick for NL MVP, Cody Bellinger (305/.406/.629, 162 wRC+, 7.8 fWAR). With a more disciplined approach at the plate than last year, +3.5 for a 14.4 BB% and -7.5 for a 16.4 K%, he’s turned into one of the most fearsome hitters in baseball and notched 47 home runs. Needless to say, he probably won’t have to sit against left-handed pitching this postseason. And while Bellinger is clearly the biggest bat in the Dodgers’ lineup this season, the whole roster is pretty stacked.
Of the 14 hitters who received more than 150 ABs this season, the only three with a wRC+ below 100 are Enrique Hernandez and the catching duo of Russell Martin and Austin Barnes. And all three of those players were still valuable because of their defense. Hitters like Max Muncy, Justin Turner, Corey Seager and Joc Pederson, combined with Dave Roberts’ ability to use the analytics provided by the front office and play matchups and platoons, have made the Dodgers’ offense into the best in the National League.
This is where things get really interesting because the Nationals are the only National League that might have a better rotation than the Dodgers. While the Dodgers lead the league in a number of statistics WHIP (1.07), K-BB% (20.3%), ERA (3.11) and FIP (3.52), the Nationals come in second in all of those (1.19, 18.3%, 3.53 and 3.72 respectively). But that fails to take into account the fact that the extra days of rest allow for Washington to lean heavily on it’s top-three, and there isn’t a better top-three in the National League.
When I broke down the NL Cy Young Award, three of the four candidates that merited serious consideration were all Nationals. Max Scherzer (2.92 ERA, 2.45 FIP, 6.5 fWAR), Stephen Strasburg (3.32 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 5.7 fWAR) and Patrick Corbin (3.25 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 4.8 fWAR) have all had outstanding seasons. It’s not all rosy as of late, though.
First, Scherzer has struggled down the stretch, posting a 5.16 ERA in September and started allowing home runs at a much higher clip. He did so in the first inning of the Wild Card Game to give the Brewers the early lead and was pulled after the fifth. Strasburg came in for three innings, which means Corbin will likely start Game 1, and then there will some decisions to be made. The most likely setup would be Strasburg on short rest for Game 2, since he only threw 34 pitches. They could also elect to roll Aníbal Sánchez (3.85 ERA, 4.44 FIP), but they’re probably going to lean as heavily on their top-three as possible.
The Dodgers have a pretty impressive top-three in their own right. Walker Buehler (3.26 ERA, 3.01, 5.0 fWAR) will certainly earn himself some Cy Young votes. Hyun-Jin Ryu (2.32 ERA, 3.10 FIP, 4.8 fWAR) looked like a favorite for the award, with 1.45 ERA over 142 innings through August 16, then he really struggled mightily for a month (with a 9.95 ERA over four starts) although he did finish much stronger in his last few, albeit against the Mets, Giants and Rockies. Last but not least, they have Clayton Kershaw (3.03 ERA, 3.86 FIP, 3.4 fWAR). One thing to keep an eye on is the fact that both Ryu and Kershaw are lefties and the Nationals as a team have hit much better against southpaws (111 wRC+) than righties (100 wRC+).
In the other NLDS preview, we referenced that the Braves likely have the second-worst bullpen in the postseason. Now we can introduce the winners of the ignominious award: Washington relievers. They posted a 5.79 ERA that was only better than the tanking Baltimore Orioles. Whether you sort by FIP (4.98), BB/9 (3.94), K/9 (9.01), HR/9 (1.55) or WHIP (1.48), they’re near the bottom of the barrel, with a bunch of teams that aren’t playing October baseball.
Manager Dave Martinez turned to Daniel Hudson (1.44 ERA, 3.53 FIP) in the 9th inning of the Wild Card Game after Strasburg, rather than turning it over to closer Sean Doolittle (4.05 ERA, 4.25 FIP), which was probably a wise decision. Doolittle was warming up and the Nats will need more relievers than Hudson and their starters pitching out of the pen, even in a short series.
One advantage that the Dodgers have is the fact that they have pitchers like Ross Stripling (3.47 ERA, 3.47 FIP), Kenta Maeda (4.04 ERA, 3.95 FIP) and Julio Urias (2.49, 3.43 FIP) to lean on out of the pen in a short series like this. That’s before you even get to the fact that the Dodgers’ bullpen was better by far over the year, posting a 3.85 ERA/4.06 FIP on the season. While Kenley Jansen (3.71 ERA, 3.48 FIP) isn’t the reliable closer he once was, the sheer rotation depth the Dodgers have in addition to a better bullpen to begin with certainly gives them an edge.
If there’s any team best suited to keeping the Dodgers from pulling off a three-peat of World Series appearances, it’s the Nationals. They have a diverse offense and arguably the best starting pitching. But they can only ride their starters so hard and they’re going to have to give some innings to the bullpen, which should give the Dodgers ridiculous offense a chance to ensure they move on. While I imagine it’ll be a tight series, my gut tells me that the better regular season team is moving on to a fourth-straight NLCS appearance.
Pick: Dodgers in 5