The Cardinals won six in a row to end the regular season, snatching the National League’s top seed away from the Braves, who scuffled to a 13-14 record in September. That put Atlanta on a collision course with Los Angeles, which won 62 of its last 90 games and only eased up on the gas pedal when the West division title was well in hand.
Projected Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)
RF-R Yasiel Puig (.319/.391/.534/.334)
LF-L Carl Crawford (.283/.329/.407/.274)
SS-R Hanley Ramirez (.345/.402/.638/.364)
1B-L Adrian Gonzalez (.293/.342/.461/.294)
3B-R Juan Uribe (.278/.331/.438/.282)
C-R A.J. Ellis (.238/.318/.364/.266)
CF-L Skip Schumaker (.263/.332/.332/.242)
2B-R Mark Ellis (.270/.323/.351/.261)
CF-L Jason Heyward (.254/.349/.427/.275)
RF-R Justin Upton (.263/.354/.464/.287)
1B-L Freddie Freeman (.319/.396/.501/.315)
LF-R Evan Gattis (.243/.291/.480/.265)
C-L Brian McCann (.256/.336/.461/.284)
3B-R Chris Johnson (.321/.358/.457/.278)
SS-R Andrelton Simmons (.248/.296/.396/.252)
2B-S Elliot Johnson (.209/.255/.283/.206)
Two of the top three National League offenses go toe-to-toe in this series, as the Dodgers—tops in the circuit with 347.9 VORP—square off with the Braves, who were third at 306.9 VORP despite racking up 1,384 strikeouts, the highest total among playoff qualifiers. It’s worth noting, however, that 2013 was a tale of two seasons for several key members of Fredi Gonzalez’s lineup.
Before All-Star break
After All-Star break
Gattis and McCann continued to bat in the heart of the order for the Braves down the stretch and will be asked to serve in similar spots this October. Uggla’s performance during the second half, on the other hand, was so abysmal that the Braves reportedly will exclude him from their Division Series roster altogether. That officially hands the keystone over to journeyman Elliot Johnson, who logged a .242 TAv in 102 plate appearances with the Braves but has been a sub-replacement-level player over the course of his 806-game career.
Mitigating the effects of those downturns is the surge of leadoff man and surprise center fielder Jason Heyward, who inherited the keys to that position from the scuffling B.J. Upton. Heyward slumped for the first two months of the season, but rebounded to bat .310/.382/.519 between June 3 and August 17. He subsequently spent a month on the disabled list with a broken jaw, but rediscovered his swing shortly after returning to the field and finished with a .267/.371/.467 triple-slash line over the final 10 days.
The Dodgers, despite an imposing front four, likewise have their warts. Matt Kemp is out for the playoffs with an ankle injury, leaving Skip Schumaker to split time with a right-handed-hitting partner in his stead. The most optimistic outlook has Andre Ethier, who is also nursing a bum lower leg, ready to usurp that spot when the series heads to Chavez Ravine for Game Three. But the Dodgers must be prepared for some combination of Schumaker, Jerry Hairston Jr., Scott Van Slyke, and Dee Gordon to handle center-field duties for the duration of the best-of-five set.
Small-sample caveats most certainly apply, but few major leaguers had a grander time feasting on Braves pitching than the Dodgers’ rookie leadoff man. Puig went 8-for-16 in his regular season meetings with Atlanta’s arms, slugging a double and two homers while striking out only twice.
Projected Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)
C-R Tim Federowicz (.231/.275/.356/.215)
OF-L Andre Ethier (.272/.360/.423/.285)
INF-L Dee Gordon (.234/.314/.298/.238)
INF-S Nick Punto (.255/.328/.327/.237)
1B/OF-R Scott Van Slyke (.240/.342/.465/.288)
INF-R Michael Young (.279/.335/.395/.250)
Don Mattingly’s bench remains fluid as Game One approaches, with at least one roster spot hinging on Ethier’s health. Assuming the outfielder is well enough to be an asset as a pinch-hitter, the Dodgers may be inclined to go with a six-man crew of reserves in which Gordon’s primary role would be as a caddy for Ethier or a late-inning runner. Van Slyke earns a spot here because, with Ethier’s status cloudy, the bench would otherwise be devoid of pop. Late-season pickup Young joins forces with Punto to give Mattingly a couple of veteran substitutes on the dirt; the latter missed the end of the regular season with a foot injury but is expected to be healthy enough to contribute.
OF-L Jose Constanza
INF-R Paul Janish (.171/.222/.220/.157)
OF-R Reed Johnson (.244/.311/.341/.228)
C-R Gerald Laird (.281/.367/.371/.271)
OF-L Jordan Schafer (.247/.331/.346/.245)
OF-R B.J. Upton (.184/.268/.289/.209)
Power is in short supply on Gonzalez’s bench, too, and what little of it he has (Upton, 9) was dogged by strikeouts (151 in 446 plate appearances) all year. Schafer was a nice story during the first half, but he fell off a cliff down the stretch, going just 18-for-106 (.170) in August and September. Uggla’s exclusion gives Janish, who is more versatile defensively, a spot by default. And Johnson, a righty hitter with a .311 career batting average versus left-handers, could prove useful versus the Dodgers’ pitching staff, which features two southpaw starters and a dynamite lefty setup man.
Projected Starting Pitchers (IP/ERA/FIP)
LHP Clayton Kershaw (236.0/1.83/2.36)
RHP Zack Greinke (177.2/2.63/3.20)
LHP Hyun-jin Ryu (192.0/3.00/3.21)
RHP Ricky Nolasco (199.1/3.70/3.32)
Speaking of Mattingly’s starters, Kershaw’s incredible season, in which he became the first Dodger to log a sub-2.00 ERA since Sandy Koufax did it in 1966, is well documented. But Kershaw’s dominance makes it easy to overlook Greinke’s remarkable summertime performance. The right-hander compiled a 1.58 ERA in 12 starts beginning on July 30, second only to Kershaw over that span. Add Ryu, who enjoyed a fine first year in the States, and the only question mark is Nolasco, who also was solid before hitting a rough patch at the tail end of the regular season. The ex-Marlin’s Game Four assignment isn’t set in stone, but he’s the favorite to get the ball until we hear otherwise.
RHP Kris Medlen (197.0/3.11/3.45)
LHP Mike Minor (204.2/3.21/3.34)
RHP Julio Teheran (185.2/3.20/3.67)
RHP Freddy Garcia (80.1/4.37/5.50)
Medlen, who last Friday outlasted Cliff Lee in one of the season’s finest duels, may need to replicate his eight-inning, no-run effort to keep pace with Kershaw in tomorrow’s opener. Minor wasn’t as effective in the second half as he was in the first, but he held left-handed hitters to just four homers in 192 plate appearances and can grind an opponent’s running game to a halt. Still just 22 years old, Teheran rounded into form quickly and improved over the course of the season, fanning 76 in 72 2/3 innings after the All-Star break. Garcia, who turns 37 on October 6, gets the Game Four nod over Paul Maholm after amassing a 1.65 ERA in 27 1/3 innings with the Braves.
Starting pitching may be the Dodgers’ greatest edge in this matchup, with an on-paper advantage from one through four. The absence of Tim Hudson, who suffered a gruesome, season-ending ankle injury in late July, further widens the gap.
Projected Bullpens (IP/ERA/FIP)
RHP Kenley Jansen (76.2/1.88/1.96)
LHP Paco Rodriguez (54.1/2.32/3.06)
RHP Brian Wilson (13.2/0.66/2.00)
RHP Ronald Belisario (68.0/3.97/3.61)
RHP Chris Withrow (34.2/2.60/3.54)
LHP J.P. Howell (62.0/2.03/2.86)
LHP Chris Capuano (105.2/4.26/3.52)
If Wilson is as sharp as he looked in his 18 appearances following his second Tommy John surgery, this relief corps stacks up with that of any other contender. Jansen has earned a spot in the club of elite closers with numbers that rival those of his ninth-inning counterpart. Rodriguez and Withrow, impressive first-years overshadowed by Puig and Ryu, adjusted quickly to the big leagues; the former is a setup weapon, the latter a converted starter who could offer multiple innings if necessary. Howell and Belisario generate ground balls by the boatload. And Capuano is here to offer insurance in the event of an extra-inning marathon or a starter hitting the showers early.
In this iteration, veteran right-handers Brandon League and Carlos Marmol sit out the Division Series.
RHP Craig Kimbrel
LHP Luis Avilan
RHP Jordan Walden
RHP David Carpenter
RHP Luis Ayala
LHP Alex Wood
RHP David Hale
Losing left-handers Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty to Tommy John surgeries dealt this group an early blow, but it jelled over the course of the season and offers a lot to like. Kimbrel is right there with Jansen as the creamiest of the cream of the closer crop. Avilan clamps down on lefties and is, like Howell, a ground-ball fiend. Jordan Walden was sent to the instructional league to shore up his mechanics and gain confidence after a September rut, but his electric stuff is difficult to overlook. Carpenter, who struck out 74 in 65 2/3 innings, did not permit a run in any of his last 10 appearances, lowering his ERA to 1.78. Wood, who proved surprisingly adept in a starter role despite unorthodox mechanics, could give Gonzalez length or serve as a second lefty weapon versus Crawford, Gonzalez, and Ethier.
Hale, a rookie who joined the Braves in September, earned the final spot in the bullpen. Scott Downs and Anthony Varvaro were left off, the former possibly due to a finger injury.
Both of these teams rank in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency, but neither fits with the elite. The Braves placed seventh and the Dodgers ninth in the raw numbers, while the Dodgers were 10th and the Braves 12th when park adjustments are factored in. The wild card here is what Mattingly chooses to do in center field, where some of the hopefuls have little or no experience.
Of the four Division Series, this one seems ripest for a sweep. The Dodgers were the only National League club to win 45 games on the road this season, so playing the first two at Turner Field won’t bother them. The three-headed monster of Kershaw, Greinke, and Ryu delivers the brooms.
Advance Scouting Reports
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So ATL "scuffled" to a 13-14 September record, and the Dodgers "eased off the gas pedal" going 12-15 in September despite being arguably just as "in" the Home Field Advantage race as St. Louis and ATL?
Nonetheless, it's fair to say that the Dodgers weren't the juggernaut in September that they were in July and August.
Just seemed, as you said, a disparate presentation for two Septembers that seem quite comparable. I was curious if you meant it to be presented as such.
Hard to forget the "K" for such a strikeout machine like him...
I'm more optimistic about the Braves' bats than you are. Justin Upton is hitting the daylights out of the ball, Heyward was a different player in the second half and continued to be after his return, and Evan Gattis, after struggling for much of the middle of the year, seems to have gotten back to it.
I do wonder how the Braves will fair defensively in the OF. Gattis isn't exactly nimble, and one of Fredi Gonzalez's most important decisions game to game will be when to pull Gattis for Schafer or Upton. Similarly, Janish was used often as a defensive caddy for Chris Johnson. If the Braves can get leads early, they'll be able to put out probably the best defense in the playoffs. Prior to that, they have to cross their fingers that everything goes to Andrelton Simmons.
Also, the selective use of stats. For example, in September, Gattis (in 25 starts) had a .780 OPS - not much different from Puig's .786. Yet for Puig, all that seemingly matters is how he did against Atlanta when there was no book on him. But for Gattis, what matters is what he did post-ASB (which was also post-returning from an oblique injury). So, again, depending on what you want the story to be, it dictates which samples you use. But not very objective analysis.
Lastly, the team obviously missed Heyward - not only offensively but defensively. His return makes this team closer to the one seen in the first 5 months vs. September, just as losing Ethier makes the Dodgers a different team than the one seen in July/August. But it doesn't fit the narrative, I guess.
That said, this piece seemingly fits all the others "analyzing" this series. The Braves have, as a whole, been overlooked all year due to their division and the Nats being less than expected (nevermind that the Braves had a winning record against every other .500 or higher team in the NL). The Dodgers are the "it" team right now. So be it. Regardless, none of this will matter when the games start. If LA wins, so be it. But if Atlanta wins, it shouldn't be considered some upset. This team won 96 games with two projected regulars being negative value players - and these two regulars won't be playing much in the NLDS.
On: RHP David Hale, OF Jose Constanza
Off: LHP Scott Downs, RHP Anthony Varvaro
So, 11 pitchers and six outfielders.
Braves only have 1 backup infielder, but have 4 backup OF, 3 of which are pinch-runner/defense types (BJ, Schafer, Constanza).
Questions is- how can you use THAT many pinch runners when you have only 1 backup infielder?
Not to mention if anyone is injured after .171 hitting Janish is used, BJ Upton may have to return to play 2B.
Pitching wise, less craziness but still some weirdness.
Hale over Varvaro? Hale has 0 career innings as a reliever, and only 2 games pitched overall. Downs is also questionable...
But in the bullpen, Downs has been horrible the last few weeks and Hale has 44 GP as a RP in the minors, so the concept isn't foreign to him. Plus, if a game is tied and goes extra innings, he's capable of going extended innings as the last man standing.