Just like last year, the NLCS will feature the Braves against the Dodgers, except it’s really not like last year at all. You won’t see Ronald Acuña Jr. or Marcell Ozuna or Clayton Kershaw or Kiké Hernández, like you did last year. Joc Pederson will be there again, but this time he’s on the Braves' side. Oh, and there’s this, too: The games will take place in Atlanta and Los Angeles, in front of fans, rather than in the deafening silence of cardboard in Arlington.
Maybe it’s the same matchup, but it’s really not the same matchup at all. If we’re lucky, though, maybe we’ll get the same kind of drama. Last year’s NLCS went seven games, though that hardly tells the story; Atlanta blew series leads of 2-0 and 3-1 before the Dodgers came back to find their way to an eventual World Series title, marking one of the more improbable playoff comebacks in history.
It’s a repeat matchup. For Atlanta, they’re clearly hoping for a different outcome. Here’s how they break down, head to head.
It’s easy to be misled by Travis d’Arnaud’s underwhelming 74 OPS+, because he missed considerable time this year with a thumb injury and he was somewhat better after he returned than before he went out. Even so, he can’t compare with Will Smith, who posted a 130 OPS+ this year and a 136 OPS+ over his three-year career and who has quickly established himself as one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball -- in addition to mashing two big homers in the NLDS.
With Max Muncy (elbow) still sidelined, the Dodgers don’t really have a regular first baseman; Matt Beaty, Cody Bellinger and Albert Pujols have all started here in October. After a rough regular season, Bellinger has shown some signs of life in the postseason (.368 OBP and the biggest hit of NLDS Game 5) but really, none of this matters, because Freeman (133 OPS+) continues to be at or near the top of the class at the position, just as he has for the last decade. Even that great OPS+ maybe undersells him; after a decent, by his standards, first half (.871 OPS), he was outstanding (.927) in the second half.
It’s true that Trea Turner wasn’t very good in the NLDS (.462 OPS), but it’s also true that Ozzie Albies wasn’t either (.588 OPS), all of which is a very good reminder that players ought to be judged on a whole lot more than what they did over half a week of baseball. Both players are stars, obviously, and it would be difficult to top Albies’ power/speed combination of 30 homers and 20 steals ... except that Turner had 28 homers and 32 steals. But Turner has huge edges in getting on base (.375 OBP to .310), slugging (.536 to .488) and, of course, OPS+ (146 to 105), making this a surprisingly easy call.
Corey Seager missed nearly half the season due to a broken hand, which somewhat limits his counting stats, but as usual he hit whenever he was on the field, posting a 145 OPS+ that was similar to last year’s 150 mark. On the other hand, Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson is clearly the superior fielder, which is important, but that’s not making up the gap between his league-average bat (97 OPS+) and Seager’s All-Star level offense.
We’re now eight years into Justin Turner’s emergence as a star for the Dodgers, and in 2021, he did what he always does, which is to say he hit well (27 homers and a 123 OPS+) and provided average-ish defense at third base. That’s enough to make him one of the best third basemen in baseball. Thing is, Austin Riley had himself a breakout season (33 homers and a 132 OPS+) that might garner him some down-ballot MVP support, and while he had some serious defensive issues earlier in the season, by the end of the year, he -- and Atlanta’s defensive positioning -- had turned it around.
It gets complicated in the outfield, where each club uses a rotating cast outside of the superstar manning right field for Los Angeles, and Jorge Soler likely being unavailable for some portion of the NLCS throws an extra wrench into things. The Braves will likely go with a combination of Eddie Rosario (lefty) and Adam Duvall (righty) here, and that’s an effective enough duo, especially since Duvall is a solid corner outfielder. The Dodgers have a similar issue, where the nominal starter is A.J. Pollock, a better player than either Brave, yet who may or may not have lost his spot thanks to an inconceivable .176/.233/.221 slash line in three postseasons for Los Angeles. Maybe this changes if Chris Taylor gets more time here, but we’ll give Atlanta the tiniest of edges due to the uncertainty.
Duvall, however, will also see time in center, where he’s more stretched defensively. When it’s not him, it’s the high-energy Guillermo Heredia or young Cristian Pache, both skilled fielders who are well below average at the plate. The Dodgers, conversely, can choose between Taylor, Bellinger or the suddenly interesting Gavin Lux, who reached five times in the final two games of the NLDS. Both sides have options; Dave Roberts has better options.
With no disrespect at all intended to Joc Pederson, who has come up with some huge moments in the postseason, or Duvall or whatever option Atlanta chooses here in Soler’s absence, there is only one Mookie Betts, who has posted an absurd .458/.462/.583 line this October, and, most importantly, is Mookie Betts.
It’s important, we think, to take timing into consideration. Given a straight head-to-head of “Walker Buehler, Max Scherzer and Julio Urías vs. Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson,” you might well prefer the Los Angeles trio. After all, the three Dodgers had a 2.62 ERA, 29% strikeout rate and 6% walk rate, all superior to the 3.30, 25% and 8% marks of Atlanta’s top three starters. But the Braves get an advantage here in that their extra time off allows them to arrange their rotation however they like, while the Dodgers had to use Urías and Scherzer in NLDS Game 5, after starting Buehler on short rest in Game 4.
While the Dodgers have yet to announce their rotation plans, it seems likely that Game 1 will feature some kind of David Price/Tony Gonsolin combo. Price has tons of postseason experience, and Gonsolin has a career 2.85 ERA, but there sure is a ton of value in having your rotation rested and aligned.
Some credit must be given here to the Braves' bullpen, which came into October with more than a few questions around it and performed admirably against Milwaukee. Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson and Will Smith combined to throw 10 2/3 shutout innings, and even if you want to point out how punchless the Brewers' lineup is, that’s still 10 2/3 shutout playoff innings. The question is how much Brian Snitker trusts anyone else, especially if Huascar Ynoa is needed to start a Game 4.
The Dodgers, however, have two of the top relievers in the sport in Blake Treinen and the revitalized Kenley Jansen, who each looked fantastic against the Giants, combining for 10 strikeouts and one hit allowed in 5 1/3 innings. Note, too, that Corey Knebel and Brusdar Graterol threw 5 2/3 shutout innings. Even Phil Bickford got into the act with 2 1/3 solid frames. The Dodgers' bullpen has more top-end talent than Atlanta’s, and it’s also got more arms that Roberts can trust.