The 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers’ season breaks up nicely into three segments. In segment one, injuries to Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp and Zack Greinke conspired with disappointing performance from their back-end starting pitching to threaten the job of manager Don Mattingly. The team was 30-42 at one point.
At that point, though, Ramirez slowly began to get healthy. He would miss more time, but his intermittent presence; Greinke’s return; an historically good stretch from Clayton Kershaw; a trade for rotation reinforcement in the person of Ricky Nolasco; and the arrival of rookie outfielder Yasiel Puig turned the team into a juggernaut. They won 42 of their next 50 games, the best streak put together by any team since World War II.
That mind-boggling hot stretch put the rest of the NL West in the rearview mirror, and it’s a good thing, too, because as Kershaw and Puig leveled off; the league got a third look at rookie starter Hyun-Jin Ryu; and injuries to Kemp and Andre Ethier eroded the offense, the Dodgers came back down to Earth. It wasn’t a collapse—far from it. Still, the Dodgers, who had peaked at 72-50, went just 20-22 over their last 42 contests. That hot streak is the only reason the Dodgers are playing in October, and there’s an argument that that stretch drastically overstated their true talent, even within the streak.
The Braves were not more consistent; they just broke up their streaks a bit more. After starting 12-1, they went 10-17, then 15-4, then 22-23, than 14-0 (!), then 25-21. The endpoints chosen are selective and arbitrary, but the point is, this team ran a bit hot and cold. Like the Dodgers, they rode waves of player performance, with guys seemingly hitting highs and lows in lockstep.
Now these two temperamental teams will face off in a best-of-five series. If a best-of-five didn’t already make me want to throw up my hands and surrender to variance (it does), this particular matchup would tip me over the edge. I’m still going to give a prediction on this series, after thorough examination, but kindly take it with a large grain of salt, and read this for the insight about how the teams’ strengths and weaknesses match up; what kind of baseball each plays; and who will make the games fun to watch. Don’t read for an edge in Vegas.
When the Dodgers are at bat…
They say the playoffs are about short offensive sequences. Get a guy on base and hit a homer. Great pitchers don’t let you string together four or five positive outcomes at once.
I believe that to be true, generally. In this case, though, we have to ask whether the Braves’ starting staff—which isn’t half bad, by the way, but lacks the top-end talent of most playoff teams—is capable of the caliber of pitching that can thwart a good offense like the Dodgers’, one that runs mostly on medium-length sequences. The Dodgers hit lots of doubles, but not a terribly large number of homers, and their OBP far outstripped their slugging skills, relative to the rest of the league.
Andre Ethier will be very limited in this series, which might be a blessing in disguise for the Dodgers. Ethier is a guy who feasts on bad pitching, but struggles to hit good pitching, and he’s not of much use at all against good southpaw arms. That’s what the Braves have in Mike Minor, and in Alex Wood out of the bullpen. Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are everyday guys for the Dodgers, despite Crawford’s relatively large platoon split, so Minor is a decent matchup against that batting order, from the Braves’ perspective.
On the other hand, the two Dodgers for whom you have to plan most carefully are clearly Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig. They both bat right-handed, and kill lefties, and if Minor makes a mistake, they’re the two who can most easily punish it by hitting it into another county. For me, Puig and Ramirez will drive the success or failure of the LA offense throughout this series, regardless of with which hand the opposing pitcher throws.
The bottom of the order simply isn’t going to do much with the Braves. A lot of LA’s second-tier offense comes from contact, ground balls and strings of singles. The Braves not only have Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, but left Dan Uggla off the NLDS roster so that Fredi Gonzalez could not be tempted to take Elliot Johnson off second base. We may even see some Paul Janish there, or as a defensive substitute at third base, during this series. Ground-ball hits aren’t going to be there.
The Atlanta bullpen will be interesting. They have Craig Kimbrel, of course, and Alex Wood, who’s been used as a starter this season but moved to short relief in September and so shouldn’t feel uncomfortable in the role now. They have Jordan Walden, and then the usual Braves string of waiver-wire fodder-turned-middle-relief gold. Their depth is an asset, especially since the October schedule affords some solid rest. This is one area where I have trouble trusting Fredi Gonzalez, though. He could get into trouble if he trusts his starters too much or gets too enamored of his ace-level relievers. He needs to work the matchups aggressively from the sixth inning onward.
When the Braves are at bat…
Leaving Uggla off the roster guarantees at least one sinkhole in the Atlanta lineup throughout the series. That’s unfortunate, but not crippling to their offense. Much more will depend on whether or not B.J. Upton gets a chance to make good in a bad season, and then, on whether or not he does.
Clayton Kershaw is going to beat the Braves as many times as he sees them. I believe that firmly. Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann aren’t exactly helpless against lefties, but Kershaw is too good not to cut through an offense whose most important batters give him the platoon advantage. Hyun-Jin Ryu isn’t all that tough on lefties. In fact, in a single-season sample anyway, he’s had a reverse platoon split. That matchup works better for Atlanta.
Justin Upton is perhaps the Braves’ best player, but in this series, one of his most important roles will be breaking up (probably) Heyward and Freeman in the lineup. Upton used to be a relatively small-split guy, who took different approaches based on the handedness of the opposing pitcher but wasn’t easily exploited by anyone. He’s changed a bit this season, or maybe more precisely, he’s become a caricature of that. He hit .268 against lefties this season, and .262 against righties, but the differences in his OBP and slugging (.427/.567, .328/.434) are hilariously large.
That means he’s now a guy against whom almost any left-handed pitcher is in trouble. Therefore, he needs to be on his game, in order to force Don Mattingly to go to his bullpen for a righty, not let Kershaw, Ryu or one of the Dodgers’ two great lefty set-up men (Jay Howell and Paco Rodriguez) cut through him and take out the lefties on either side.
That the Dodgers have two lefty starters and two lefty relievers, though, makes that effort to stretch them an uphill climb. The Braves are going to have every bit of the trouble the Dodgers will have in bunching up hits.
Luckily, then, they don’t rely on that, at all. Atlanta is the Earl Weaver ideal of offense. They drew walks at the second-highest rate in the National League this season, and led the league in home runs. They also finished second in isolated power, and first in the percentage of runs scored via the long ball. (That last stat, which will sometimes be captioned as reliance on homers, should not be taken that way. Yes, the Braves score on homers, but they score because the homers are so rarely solo shots. The walks feed the power. It’s not just a swing-for-the-fences offense.)
Now, the Dodgers have some ways to neutralize the threat posed by the Braves’ power. They’re the third-most grounder-heavy pitching staff in baseball, and posted the NL’s highest strikeout rate. The second part is an obvious problem for Atlanta, because the Braves struck out 22.6 percent of the time this season, the highest figure in the National League. The first part, though, is not necessarily an advantage for either side. It’s simply the battleground on which Atlanta will fight to score their runs, and the Dodgers will fight to prevent it.
Obviously, ground balls are very rarely extra-base hits, and hardly ever home runs, so the Dodgers are good at inducing the very type of hit the Braves least like to use to score. Counterbalancing that, though, is the fact that opposing batted-ball tendencies—i.e., a gound-ball hitter facing a fly-ball pitcher—tends to favor the batter. Now, the Braves don’t come by their homers by hitting everything in the air, and aren’t extreme in their team batted-ball breakdown, but the point is this: Whoever executes better, in those situations, nearly always wins. A fly ball given up by a ground-ball pitcher is more likely to be a mistake than the same hit surrendered by a guy for whom fly balls are a part of the game plan.
This series will come down to how many times the Braves hit balls out of the park, and then, on whether someone is on base when that happens. I think, for all the constant chatter about homer-dependent offenses being less consistent than others, that the Braves are both less likely to hit a cold spell and more difficult to defend than a team, like the Dodgers or Cardinals, who hit and hit and hit but lack elite power or patience at bat.
As I said, I’ll take Kershaw over the Braves both times they see him. I also, however, think Atlanta can beat both Zack Greinke and Ryu when they see them. This series could come down to a scheduled Game Four, the probable starters for which are currently Ricky Nolasco (yikes! Not a good matchup, from the Dodgers’ perspective) and Freddy Garcia (yes, he’s still alive). In a series like that, between two teams who have been so hot-and-cold all season, forecast is folly. Still, I’ll take the Braves in five, thanks to what I’m counting as slightly superior positional talent. If the Dodgers win, it’ll be thanks to a dozen hits by Hanley Ramirez, or something.Next post: ALDS Preview: Detroit Tigers v. Oakland Athletics – Mickey, Miggy, Justin and Josh
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