MLB 2019: National League Playoff Preview

The Washington Nationals defeated the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Wild Card game. Now the two National League Division Series (NLDS) matchups are confirmed, let’s take a look at the two series.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS (NL Wild Card)
vs.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS (NL West Champion)

OVERVIEW

The Brewers - had they held on to a 3-1 eighth-inning lead against the Nationals in the Wild Card game - would have sent out a parade of relievers in Game 1, in a patchwork attempt to eat innings and get 27 outs, much as they did last year.

The Nationals’ comeback win lends a very different quality to this series. The LA Dodgers won’t face one reliever after another, with hitters getting only one look at one pitcher in each game. Los Angeles will instead face Washington’s starting pitching, especially a pair of aces in the deck: Stephen Strasburg (likely in Game 2) and Max Scherzer (likely in Game 3).

The Brewers would have wanted to give the Dodgers as many different pitchers as possible. The Nationals will want their starters to go as deep into games as possible. The Washington bullpen – like most National League bullpens this year – was their team weakness.

The pressure of playoff baseball magnifies the value of every single out. Managers worry about how to find a path to 27 outs. The Dodgers would be much happier to get into a bullpen series, in which the starters are gone after six innings, and two teams try to get nine outs on even terms. 

Washington needs to lead after six innings more than Los Angeles does.

HITTING

The Nats and Dodgers both have a National League Most Valuable Player candidate: 3rd baseman, Anthony Rendon for Washington, and likely MVP winner, 1st baseman Cody Bellinger for Los Angeles. 

Rendon’s huge season (34 HR, 126 RBI, .319 BA) enabled the Nationals to absorb the loss of outfielder, Bryce Harper, to their rival Philadelphia Phillies

Bellinger’s monster year (47 HR, 115 RBI, .305 BA) carried the Dodgers while other prominent players struggled on the field (Chris Taylor) or merely declined from previous seasons (Justin Turner).

Washington needed Rendon’s MVP-calibre year. It also needed Juan Soto to do what very few 20-year-olds have ever done. He pushed the 40-home-run mark and became just the second player in history to hit at least 56 career home runs before his 21st birthday. 

The only player with more homers before turning 21: Hall of Famer Mel Ott with the New York Giants, before World War II.

Soto and Rendon are special players. They - and leadoff man, Trea Turner - are the key cogs in the Washington offense. Howie Kendrick is a tough, veteran hitter whom the Dodgers won’t want to face with runners in scoring position and two outs. Kendrick is the hitter who will work a pitch-count and go the other way to get a clutch RBI single in a big moment.

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The Dodgers have a bunch of mashers, with Bellinger leading the way but Max Muncy - hero of last year’s World Series Game 3 against the Boston Red Sox, the longest World Series game of all time - also contributing and Justin Turner providing ample pop as well.

The Dodgers’ big strength – they have more of it than any other National League team – is their depth. They can plug and play so many players into so many different positions and not lose too much firepower. They acquired Jedd Gyorko from the Cardinals before the 2019 trade deadline. Gyorko has not hit well since joining the team, but he has home-run power and gives the Dodgers a thumper they can insert in the lineup for bench offense in the latter innings of a close game.

The Dodgers have more tough outs in their batting order than other teams in the National League. They will depend on this hitting depth to work counts against Strasburg and Scherzer, which will drive up their total pitch counts and force the Nationals to go to their bullpen sooner than they would like.

PITCHING

These two teams both feature their starting pitching. 

The Nationals have Scherzer and Strasburg, while the Dodgers have Hyun-Jin Ryu and Clayton Kershaw. The other starters on both sides aren’t bad, but the best pitchers on these teams are MLB elite. You can’t say that about the starters in the Braves-Cardinals series, at least not to the same extent.

As briefly alluded to above, the Nationals need Strasburg (Game 2) and Scherzer (Game 3) to go deep into games if Washington is to have a realistic chance of winning this series. The Dodgers would love to get the pitch counts into the 90's by the fifth inning and get the Nats’ prime arms out of the game by the sixth if possible. If Scherzer and Strasburg go seven or more innings in their starts, that will certainly indicate the Nationals are getting what they want from their starting rotation.

The Nationals are going with Patrick Corbin in Game 1 of this series. 

Corbin is very familiar with the Dodgers, having pitched for their NL West rivals, the Arizona Diamondbacks, not too long ago. Anibal Sanchez will either start Game 4 of the series or pitch out of the bullpen, but he would be a long-relief option if he is used in that way. He won’t come in to pitch only one inning, so bet on him to start in Game 4.

The Dodgers have not yet announced their rotation, but it will be Ryu, Kershaw and Walker Buehler in some combination, with a bullpen-by-committee approach in Game 4. Buehler does a lot better in the home confines of Dodger Stadium than on the road, so it would seem to make sense to have him pitch Game 1 or 2, and not Game 3 in Washington.

The Dodger bullpen had the lowest bullpen ERA in the National League, but closer Kenley Jansen blew several saves this season and was not nearly as strong as he has been in previous years. The ninth inning in particular, and the last six outs in general, could be thorny for the Dodgers. Joe Kelly was injured midway through a terrible season, but the fastball pitcher is supposed to be healthy for this series. Kelly makes Dodger fans nervous. 

Back-of-the-rotation starter Kenta Maeda will probably be used in late relief, as he was in the 2018 postseason. The Dodgers don’t have as big a bullpen advantage as the numbers might suggest.

That said, the Dodgers DO have a bullpen edge, if only because Washington’s 'pen really struggled in 2019. This is why Los Angeles needs to get Strasburg and Scherzer out of games early. Sean Doolittle got tagged early as the Nats’ closer… and, as a result, is no longer the closer. Daniel Hudson pitched the ninth to finish the Wild Card win over Milwaukee.

THE SERIES

With the Nationals throwing Corbin in Game 1, the Dodgers MUST win that game. If they do, they are in good shape. If they don’t, they are in serious trouble with Strasburg and Scherzer to come in Games 2 and 3. The Nationals have the starting pitching to win this series, and they have multiple hitters who are playing at the top of their games. They have a great chance to pull off the upset.

Yet, the Dodgers have more options, more depth, more ways to win a ballgame than the Nats do.

Stats Insider World Series Probabilities:
LA Dodgers: 22.5%
Washington Nationals: 6.1%


ST. LOUIS CARDINALS (NL Central Champion)
vs.
ATLANTA BRAVES (NL EAST Champion)

OVERVIEW

Both the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves lost a bunch of ballgames in the final week of the season. The Cardinals lost those games when fighting to secure the division title. The Braves, however, clinched their division weeks earlier. 

Both the Cardinals and Braves regressed in certain ways in September. This brings up the age-old question: “Does momentum truly carry into the playoffs?”

The honest answer: Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. 

You’re lying if you say you know how it will work out each October in the postseason, especially in a short series.

These two teams have a lot of players who have not yet proven themselves in the postseason. That’s what makes this series feel like such a coin flip.

HITTING

The Cardinals have Paul Goldschmidt, whom they acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the previous offseason. 'Goldy' has been gold for the Redbirds, delivering a power show in the second half of the season to ignite the Cardinals, who won 33 of 49 games at one point to shrug off a sluggish first half.

In every playoff batting order, there is one guy the opposition can’t allow to beat them if at all possible, meaning that if there is a base open in a big spot, an intentional walk should be an automatic move. Goldschmidt is that guy for the Cardinals. Ronald Acuna is that guy for the Braves with Freedie Freeman less than 100 percent healthy.

The Cardinals’ batting order also includes Matt Carpenter, one of the few proven postseason players on either roster, plus Dexter Fowler (also a legitimate playoff force dating back to his days with the 2016 World Series champion, Chicago Cubs) and Marcell Ozuna. The Braves will want to pitch around those four hitters if they have to and take their chances elsewhere in the St. Louis lineup.

Now, to the Braves.

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The Atlanta batting order has the most conspicuous strengths and weaknesses of any batting order in the entire playoffs, including the American League. The Braves have a murderous top half of the batting order with Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Freeman (even though he has been limited by injury), and Josh Donaldson, the Braves’ best playoff-tested hitter due to his star turn with the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2014 and 2015 postseasons.

Atlanta’s bottom half is noticeably weak, however. If opponents didn’t get shredded at the top of the Braves’ order, they often mowed down the 6 through 8 hitters in the lineup (plus the pitcher’s spot at nine in the batting order). 

A central key to this series is for Atlanta to get at least some key hits from the 6-8 spots in the lineup. The Braves need to force St. Louis pitchers to pitch to Acuna and Albies with multiple men on base in this series.

PITCHING

St. Louis has Adam Wainwright, the curveball-throwing hero of the 2006 World Series win against the Detroit Tigers, who is still a capable pitcher in his late 30s. Atlanta has Dallas Keuchel, who dominated the league for the Houston Astros in the 2017 season and was an essential part of the Astros’ first World Series title that year.

Other than those two pitchers, there isn’t a lot of proven postseason experience on the two staffs, which is why this series feels so fragile and uncertain.

The Cardinals’ best pitcher right now is Jack Flaherty, who posted an incredible 0.91 ERA after the All-Star break. Only ONE pitcher posted a lower ERA after the All-Star break in a full second half of a season (as opposed to the strike-shortened 1994 season): Jake Arrieta of the Cubs in 2015, at 0.75.

Flaherty recorded 231 strikeouts this year, second in a season only to Cardinal legend Bob Gibson, who recorded 274 in 1970. Flaherty, who will start in Game 2, has been a revelation, and yet he has no postseason track record. He and Miles Mikolas (Game 1) and Dakota Hudson (Game 4) are total playoff question marks, with Wainwright likely to start in Game 3.

The Braves have a 21-year-old dynamo, Mike Soroka, who blazed his way to a 2.68 ERA, in a sensational season which played a central role in catapulting Atlanta to 97 wins despite a bad bullpen for the first four and a half months of the season.

Soroka has a 1.55 ERA in road games, which is miles better than any other Braves pitcher. This is why he will start in Game 3 on the road in St. Louis. Nevertheless, no one knows how a young pitcher will react to a playoff start.

The Braves will turn to Keuchel in Game 1, but after that, it’s up to Soroka (Game 3) and Mike Foltynewicz (Game 2) to hold down the fort. Foltynewicz was injured at the start of this season, but after some rehabilitation in the minor leagues, he cleaned up his technique and posted a 2.65 ERA in his next 10 starts. He is the most in-form pitcher on the Braves’ staff, and while he doesn’t have Keuchel’s World Series experience, he does have more familiarity with pressure-packed situations.

The bullpen battle is interesting: The Cardinals have been solid, with the second-lowest bullpen ERA in the National League (the Dodgers were No. 1), but the Braves’ bullpen – which was atrocious through mid-August – got a lot better with summer acquisitions Shane Green (eighth-inning setup man) and Mark Melancon (the closer in the ninth inning). 

This isn’t a lopsided comparison anymore. It was in late July.

SERIES

Mikolas is an unusually weak Game 1 pitcher, but he has been a lot better in his last six starts, with a solid 3.03 ERA. Nevertheless, with Keuchel on the mound for Atlanta, the Braves badly need to take Game 1. They need it a lot more than the Cardinals, who can go with Flaherty – their ace – in Game 2. The Braves did really well for a team whose bullpen was so bad, but Charlie Culberson, a key role player, got injured late in the season. Freddie Freeman is a home-run hitter who hasn’t homered since Sept. 1 due to a bone spur in his elbow. He normally drives the ball the other way to left-center field but hasn’t done that very often since the injury.

The Cardinals have been a playoff nemesis against the Braves, but Keuchel pitching Games 1 and 5 in Atlanta is hard to bet against. 

Put it this way: The Cardinals need to win this series in four in St. Louis. If it gets back to Atlanta for Game 5, advantage Braves, because their rotation is deeper and their bullpen is no longer a big weakness.

Stats Insider World Series Probabilities:
St. Louis Cardinals: 5.3%
Atlanta Braves: 11.3%

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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