The team the Braves want in the NLCS is ...

October 14th, 2021

The Braves are waiting, but who should they want to be waiting for?

Atlanta advanced to the National League Championship Series by defeating Milwaukee in Tuesday's Game 4 of the NL Division Series. The Braves will face one of the two best teams in baseball next -- either the Giants or Dodgers, each of whom has 109 wins entering Thursday's winner-take-all NLDS Game 5 between the NL West rivals.

So, which is the better matchup for Atlanta? Would it rather face San Francisco or Los Angeles?

Here are five reasons the answer is ... the Dodgers.

1) The Braves love hitting four-seam fastballs
The Braves are one of the best four-seamer-hitting teams in baseball. The Dodgers' starting rotation throws four-seamers at one of the highest rates in baseball. And their top three starters -- Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler and Julio Urías -- are all four-seam power pitchers.

Braves vs. four-seamers in 2021: .366 expected wOBA (fourth best in MLB), 107 homers (second most)
Dodgers starting pitchers in 2021: 42 percent four-seam usage (third highest in MLB)
Giants starting pitchers in 2021: 28 percent four-seam usage (fourth lowest in MLB)

The Giants, on the other hand, feature a more sinker-heavy rotation -- especially two of their key postseason starters, Logan Webb and Alex Wood. The Braves have hit sinkers worse than they've hit four-seamers this season (.346 xwOBA).

Atlanta is one of the most aggressive teams in baseball, in both overall swing rate and swing rate vs. pitches in the strike zone, and both San Francisco and Los Angeles attack the zone -- its starters were tied for the highest in-zone rate in baseball this season. But the Dodgers do it more often with the type of fastball the Braves like best.

The Dodgers have some explosive four-seamers. But note that two of the Braves' star sluggers -- Freddie Freeman and Jorge Soler -- hit velocity very well. They were both top-10 hitters in baseball by xwOBA, Statcast's overall offensive metric, when facing velocity of 95 mph or higher.

As far as secondary pitch types, Atlanta was one of the best hitting teams against both breaking (the specialty of Dodgers pitchers like Buehler) and offspeed pitches (the specialty of Giants pitchers like Kevin Gausman), so call that a wash.

2) The Braves hit the Dodgers' top pitchers better than the Giants' best hurlers
The Dodgers would run out Scherzer, Buehler and Urías. The Giants would run out Webb, Gausman and Wood. Los Angeles has the bigger names, but Atlanta hit those pitchers a bit better this year, whether you look at a traditional stat like slugging or underlying quality of contact.

Braves vs. Scherzer/Buehler/Urías: .421 slugging percentage, .302 xwOBA
Braves vs. Webb/Gausman/Wood: .247 slugging percentage, .296 xwOBA

The Braves hit eight homers off Scherzer, Buehler and Urías this season. Only the Padres hit more.

3) And the Giants hit the Braves' top pitchers better than the Dodgers did
The Braves have a formidable starting-pitching trio of their own: Charlie Morton, Max Fried and Ian Anderson, who helped carry them through to the NLCS. Atlanta's top starters saw both San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2021, and they shut down the Dodgers better than they did the Giants.

Morton/Fried/Anderson vs. Dodgers: 109 plate appearances, .296 xwOBA, .365 xSLG, 29.4 percent strikeout rate
Morton/Fried/Anderson vs. Giants: 116 plate appearances, .312 xwOBA, .406 xSLG, 17.2 percent strikeout rate

4) Lefty relievers do better against the Dodgers
Braves closer Will Smith and setup man Tyler Matzek are both lefties, and so is reliever A.J. Minter. That's a lefty-heavy bullpen. And between the Dodgers and Giants, Los Angeles is the team that lefty relievers have performed better against this year.

LH relievers vs. Dodgers: 4.50 ERA, 4.87 FIP, .408 SLG, .309 wOBA, 4.1 percent HRs per AB
LH relievers vs. Giants: 4.42 ERA, 5.51 FIP, .433 SLG, .335 wOBA, 4.9 percent HRs per AB

Looking at Fielding Independent Pitching, which tries to isolate the skills the pitcher and batter control the most (strikeouts, walks and home runs), no team was tougher against lefty relievers than the Giants.

The Dodgers also probably have the biggest lefty bats of the two teams in Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger, compared to the Giants' Brandon Crawford and Mike Yastrzemski (Brandon Belt being injured makes a big difference) -- and Bellinger in particular has struggled badly against lefties this season, batting .116 with one home run in 96 plate appearances.

Both teams have star right-handed hitters (Buster Posey, Kris Bryant and Evan Longoria for the Giants; Mookie Betts, Trea Turner and Justin Turner for the Dodgers), so that's tough either way.

5) It's time to take down the Dodgers
OK, so this last one isn't about the numbers. It's about the Braves having something to prove against the Dodgers in what would be their third postseason meeting in the past four years.

Los Angeles beat Atlanta in four games in the 2018 NLDS, including shutting it out twice. The Braves had the Dodgers on the brink in last year's NLCS -- they were up, 3-1 -- before Los Angeles rallied to win in seven games. Game 7 was a thriller, too: a tight, back-and-forth contest that the Dodgers won on Bellinger's tiebreaking homer in the seventh inning.

Going through the Dodgers might well be the last hill the Braves need to climb to reach the World Series for the first time since 1999. And they should want them.