Now that the dust has settled and we have our respective MLB Wild Card Game winners, it is officially time for the Division Series. The National League is up first, with the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves doing battle on Thursday afternoon. I broke down that series in depth here.
Both teams have MVP candidates (Cody Bellinger and Anthony Rendon) and aces galore (Patrick Corbin, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Clayton Kershaw, to name a few), and the two sides played each other extremely closely during the regular season.
Let’s break it down:
How did they get here?
The Nationals advanced to the NLDS after a stunning come-from-behind victory over the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Wild Card Game. Milwaukee jumped on Scherzer for three runs in the first two innings, but the Nats scored three runs off of Brewers closer Josh Hader in the bottom of the eighth before Daniel Hudson sealed the deal.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers have not really played a meaningful game since last October.
Los Angeles cruised to their seventh consecutive NL West title, winning 106 games and earning the top seed in the National League playoffs. The Dodgers led the NL in runs, homers, OBP and OPS, while the pitching staff posted the best ERA in the NL (3.37).
The Dodgers have represented the National League in the World Series in each of the last two seasons while also making three straight NLCS appearances. They may have coasted into the playoffs, but expect manager Dave Roberts to have his team ready to go as they chase that elusive World Series ring.
The Nationals used two of their aces in the Wild Card Game. Scherzer threw five innings before giving way to Strasburg, who held the Brewers in check. Given that both guys will be unavailable on Thursday night, left-hander Patrick Corbin will get the ball in Game 1.
On paper, Corbin might be the perfect guy to start the series on the bump. He has dominated left-handed hitters all season, as opposing lefties posted a .508 OPS against Corbin this season.
The Nationals will be looking for Corbin to go deep into the game and neutralize prolific Dodger lefties in Bellinger, Corey Seager and Max Muncy. Corbin’s presence on the mound also forces L.A.’s best hitter in September–outfielder Joc Pederson–out of the lineup.
Washington is likely to follow Corbin with Strasburg (who pitched three innings on Tuesday) and Scherzer, who have had drastically different levels of success in the second half.
Strasburg was dominant after the All-Star break, ranking 11th among all starters in fWAR and ninth in ERA. Strasburg went 8-2 in 15 second-half starts, and he also ranked sixth in xFIP during that period.
Scherzer had been the frontrunner to win the NL Cy Young Award heading into the Midsummer Classic, but he was hampered by a number of injuries that limited him to just eight starts in the second half. Those outings were not very pretty, either.
The Nats ace posted a 4.81 ERA and was touched up for nine homers after allowing nine homers through his first 19 starts of the year. Milwaukee hit a pair of homers off of Scherzer in the NL Wild Card Game, and he also walked three in an uncharacteristically wild performance.
Veteran right-hander Anibal Sanchez rounds out the Nationals postseason rotation, and he has had a pretty underrated season behind the three-headed monster of Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin.
Sanchez posted a 3.85 ERA in 30 starts, and he should provide a quality fourth option for the Nats if they can get to–at least–a fourth game in the series.
The Dodgers have a three-headed monster of their own in Buehler, Ryu and Kershaw, each of whom ranked in the top 15 in the league in ERA.
Buehler will get the ball for L.A. in Game 1, and he is coming off a brilliant sophomore season. The 23-year-old posted a 3.26 ERA and 10.6 K/9 in 30 starts for the Dodgers, and he was even better after the All-Star break. Buehler had a 2.99 ERA and ranked ninth in SIERA (3.41) during that span.
He has also improved his command. Buehler had just a five percent walk rate in 2019, and he is dominant when he can locate the fastball and set up his slider.
Ryu was the ERA champion this season (2.32), but his success has come in a far different fashion from Buehler. Whereas the youngster relies more on his power stuff, Ryu gets the job done by mixing all of his pitches and throwing each pitch to every quadrant of the strike zone.
The left-hander creates a lot of deception with an excellent changeup, and he is another guy that rarely gives out free passes. In fact, Ryu had the lowest walk rate in baseball.
Ryu can toss a 3-1 curveball into the zone just to keep hitters of balance, and he boasts a ground ball rate over 50 percent.
It is hard to think that Kershaw’s season has flown under the radar considering that he is arguably the best pitcher of this decade, but Buehler’s development and Ryu’s stunning first half almost seemed to make Kershaw “just another guy” in the Dodgers rotation.
Indeed, 2019 marked the first time since his rookie year (2008) that Kershaw did not post a sub-3.00 ERA. However, the 31-year-old still has plenty of gas left in the tank. Kershaw ranked 15th in xFIP after the All-Star break, and his curveball is still one of the best pitches in the game.
Kershaw’s postseason woes have been well-documented, but this may be his best opportunity to finally get a ring, and he might thrive flying under the radar.
The Dodgers do not have a designated fourth starter, but they could go with the likes of Kenta Maeda, Ross Stripling or Rich Hill, and they may elect to use an “opener” should the series extend beyond three games.
Washington may have looked like an inept offensive group prior to the three-run outburst on Tuesday night, but these guys can still rake.
Rendon is one of the best hitters in baseball, and he is coming off a dominant second half in which he slashed .336/.438/.585 with 14 homers and 64 RBI. Rendon also ranked 10th in wRC+ during that span.
Juan Soto is just 20 years old, but you would never know it from his unbelievable poise and diligence when he is in the box. Soto ranked seventh in baseball in terms of OBP and ninth in wOBA, but he also has some pop. The left-hander clubbed 34 homers this season.
Those two are the boppers in the middle of the lineup, but shortstop Trea Turner is the catalyst. Turner homered off of Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff in the Wild Card Game, and despite being hampered by a broken index finger suffered in April he put together a .298/.353/.497 slash line for the season.
Turner also stole 35 bases, and the Nationals are a team that love to run. Washington ranked first in the NL with 116 steals during the regular season, and guys like Victor Robles and Adam Eaton can be menaces on the base paths.
Washington also has a number of “professional hitters.” Guys like Howie Kendrick, Asdruabl Cabrera and Ryan Zimmerman–who had a clutch two-out single in that eighth inning on Tuesday–can string together quality at-bats and hurt opposing pitchers in a variety of ways.
Cabrera in particular has been excellent since joining the Nationals, slashing .323/.404/.565 with a 143 OPS+ in 38 games with Washington this season.
The Nationals will look to do early damage to give their elite starting staff some run support. They ranked first in the NL in OBP, so expect them to try to work counts and battle against L.A.’s premium arms.
The Dodgers are another team that can simply wear you down. Los Angeles ranked second in OBP, and they make opposing pitchers pay for mistakes in the strike zone.
Bellinger leads this dynamic offense after an MVP-caliber season in which he slashed .305/.406/.629 with 47 homers and 115 RBI.
Perhaps the most dangerous element about Bellinger’s at-bats is that he is equally tough on left- and right-handed pitching, and he has tremendous plate coverage. The 24-year-old absolutely pummels fastballs, and opposing pitchers have to own the zone when he is in the box.
Utility man Max Muncy has made a successful return from injury, and he is another left-handed crusher in the middle of the order. Like Bellinger, the Midland, TX native hammers fastballs and is an incredibly tough out because of his ability to work counts.
Seager is a potential X-factor. He struggled immensely in July and August as he recovered from injury, then ripped through September with a .291/.322/.616 slash. Seager also hit seven homers, and he was one of the team’s best clutch hitters down the stretch.
Centerfielder A.J. Pollock has been arguably the most unheralded member of the lineup. After inking a contract as L.A.’s marquee free agent, Pollock struggled out of the gates and played in just 28 games in the first half due to injury.
After the All-Star break, however, Pollock has showcased why he can be an MVP candidate when healthy. In 58 games, Pollock slashed .288/.348/.537 with 13 homers and five steals. The Dodgers will look for him to be the table-setter at the top of the lineup.
Aside from the main contributors, the Dodgers are loaded with platoon depth. David Freese and Chris Taylor will start in Game 1 against Corbin, and both have plenty of postseason experience. Rookies Will Smith, Alex Verdugo and Gavin Lux have been key contributors, and they could be unsung heroes at series end.
Speaking of professional hitters, Justin Turner is as measured and clutch as they come in October. Turner has had another typically excellent season, though he missed a lot of time in September. If he gets rolling, he can really put this Dodger lineup over the top.
Washington’s success–or lack thereof–in the middle and late innings is likely to define the outcome of this series. The Nationals ranked bullpen ranked 29th out of 30 teams in terms of ERA, and they have had a hard time finding reliable arms in high-leverage situations.
The most dependable of those arms might be Daniel Hudson, who closed out Tuesday night’s game and has been a massive contributor since coming over from the Toronto Blue Jays at the trade deadline. Hudson has a 1.44 ERA in 24 appearances with the Nats, and he has had no trouble slotting into the closer role when left-hander Sean Doolittle has struggled.
Speaking of Doolittle, this is a crucial matchup for him in terms of establishing whether he will close games or act as a platoon specialist. Doolittle is especially tough on lefties, but he has also given up 11 homers this season. Those are hard factors to juggle given that the Dodgers are a homer-happy team.
The Nationals will need quality in the middle innings. Right-handers Tanner Rainey and Austin Voth might be the best options in that regard, with Fernando Rodney, Hunter Strickland and Wander Suero also available.
Rainey and Strickland have been tough against right-handed hitters, but they get dominated from the other side of the box. Suero is the best reverse platoon option and has excellent stuff, but he will need to sort out command issues that have plagued him at times.
Make no mistake, this will be a juggling act for manager Dave Martinez.
The Dodgers had far greater success in the bullpen. They ranked fifth in bullpen ERA and ninth in bullpen fWAR, and guys like Joe Kelly and Julio Urias have been excellent in the second half. Pedro Baez had another great season in the setup role.
Los Angeles also has the benefit of moving Maeda, Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May into the pen, and they have specialists–like Adam Kolarek–that can be deployed at any time.
There are still plenty of questions, however. Although he rebounded with a solid September, closer Kenley Jansen has made Dodger fans uneasy with questions about his health and confidence this season. Jansen blew eight saves during the regular season, and he has not had as much success commanding the cutter.
Roberts has also faced scrutiny in terms of his bullpen management, especially in each of the past two Fall Classics. Much like Martinez, he will be under the microscope when the game reaches the late innings.
This could be a tougher test for the Dodgers than some might think. The Dodgers narrowly eked out a 4-3 series advantage over Washington during the regular season, and they were just +3 in terms of run differential.
If Corbin can be efficient and pitch into the late innings while offsetting the dangerous lefty bats of L.A., the Nationals could steal a pivotal Game 1, and they would feel great about their chances with Strasburg on the bump in Game 2.
However, the Dodgers are simply too deep. They have quality options up and down the lineup, and they work opposing starters to death before feasting on bad bullpens. Unless the Nationals get near-perfect outings from Corbin, Strasburg and Scherzer, it seems unlikely that they can win the series, especially because the Dodgers can match them with quality starting pitching.
The Nationals have never made it to the NLCS, but that streak will continue in 2019.
Prediction: Dodgers in 4