This is it. This, so long as you aren’t a Cardinals fan, is the National League Division Series matchup we all hoped we’d get. The Giants won 107 games, more than in any other season in the long history of their franchise. The Dodgers won 106 games, tied for the most of any season in the long history of their franchise. They are, by any measure, the two best teams in baseball, and they’re legendary rivals dating back more than a century.
They’ve also, over all that time, never once met in the playoffs. (The 1951 and ‘62 tiebreakers were considered part of the regular season. You can talk about the 1889 World Series if you want, but a best-of-11 that predates the birth of the modern World Series by a dozen years hardly seems to count.)
It’s difficult to think of a more compelling matchup than “possibly the best Giants team ever” facing “possibly the best Dodgers team ever,” given the history between these two sides. It's even more difficult to find an edge for either one. In 19 head-to-head meetings, the Giants edged out a 10-9 record, yet they were outscored by the Dodgers by all of two runs, 80-78. Both teams had to weather late-season injuries to their slugging first basemen. Both teams won 50 games in the second half.
Both teams, really, are dominant. You’ll see why as we give you a position-by-position rundown of what ought to be an extremely compelling NLDS.
If you want to simply look at catcher wins above replacement -- which you should never solely do, but is at least a good starting point -- you’ll see Buster Posey No. 1 and Will Smith No. 2, and that tells you about the quality we’re talking about here. We’re not too worried about Posey’s obvious track record edge, because he was poor in 2019 and didn’t play in '20. But he did slightly out-hit Smith this year (140 OPS+ to Smith’s 130 OPS+), and he’s a better framer too.
Small advantage: Giants
Three weeks ago, you’d have expected this to be a massive comparison between Max Muncy (36 homers, 138 OPS+) and Brandon Belt (18 homers, 140 OPS+), but Muncy injured his left elbow, Belt broke his left thumb, and neither will be available. That leaves each side to mix and match and platoon as needed, with the Dodgers likely to use Albert Pujols (R) and Matt Beaty (L), while the Giants will counter with combinations of Wilmer Flores (R), Darin Ruf (R), and LaMonte Wade Jr. (L). Pujols still has plenty of life in his bat against lefties, but Beaty vs. righties is the weakest platoon matchup of these five, and Gabe Kapler simply has more good options here.
Small advantage: Giants
Kapler has another platoon here, going with lefty Tommy La Stella against righties and righty Donovan Solano against lefties, and there’s something to like about each one. That said, neither one is coming anywhere near MVP votes, as Trade Deadline acquisition Trea Turner will for the Dodgers. Turner put up a 142 OPS+ for the Nationals, then upped his game to a 152 OPS+ for Los Angeles after coming over with Max Scherzer, as well as giving Dave Roberts a new dimension on the bases, because Turner was 2021’s fastest qualified player.
Big advantage: Dodgers
It’s wild that this is even a conversation, because two years ago Brandon Crawford looked absolutely finished (74 OPS+) while Corey Seager, then 25, was mashing 64 extra-base hits. But Crawford got healthy, worked hard to revamp his swing and took a 2020 rebound (115 OPS+) into a '21 explosion (141 OPS+) that will get him some down-ballot MVP support. Seager’s still a better hitter, both in '21 as well as in recent years, but the edge there is small, while Crawford’s defense is clearly superior. We wish we could tell the '19 version of us that we’d be taking him over Seager right now.
Small advantage: Giants
Speaking of veteran Giants who found new life this season, Evan Longoria followed four unimpressive years (.730 OPS over 2017-’20) with a very good '21 (.833 OPS, 124 OPS+), although in only 81 games, since he missed months with a shoulder injury and two late-season weeks with a bruised hand -- and he didn’t hit at all upon returning, with a .283 OBP in September. Meanwhile, Justin Turner, nearly two years Longoria’s senior, just keeps on ticking, posting a 123 OPS+ after 133 and 130 marks the previous two years, as well as a huge homer in the Wild Card Game. Nearly eight years after arriving in Los Angeles, he is one of the greatest hitters in franchise history.
This might be Kris Bryant, but it might also be Wade or Ruf, depending on how the first base situation works out and where else the multipositional Bryant might play. Kapler, as always, has options, and Wade and Ruf are strong platoon players when Bryant is not there. The Dodgers will go with AJ Pollock, who had another strong season (137 OPS+), though we assume most fans have not forgotten that his .158/.213/.193 October line is the lowest in franchise history among players with at least 60 playoff plate appearances. That doesn’t usually mean much going forward, though surely it’ll be in the back of everyone’s mind. Though we like Pollock as much as or better than Bryant, we like that the Giants can mix and match so well here.
Tiny, barely existent advantage: Giants
The problem here, really, is knowing who will play when. Cody Bellinger was the 2019 NL MVP, but he has had a miserable (45 OPS+), injury-plagued season. Steven Duggar has an 84 OPS+ over parts of four years in the bigs, but he has hit well this year (107 OPS+). Each is a strong defender. What do you do with that? What do you do with the expectation that Gavin Lux and Chris Taylor may be spotted here for Los Angeles, or that Mike Yastrzemski and Austin Slater may for San Francisco? Ultimately, the concern here is that Bellinger will get too much playing time -- he started here in the Wild Card Game -- and it has been nearly two full months (since Aug. 11) since he had more than one hit in a game that didn’t go into extra innings.
Small advantage: Giants
This is probably where Yastrzemski will see the most time, though again, Wade or Bryant may show up here. And after a fantastic first two years (136 OPS+ in 2019-20) in San Francisco, Yastrzemski took a bit of a step back this year, posting a 106 OPS+ but rebounding in September after a deep summer slump. It doesn’t matter, though, because the Dodgers still have Mookie Betts, and even in a year when Betts was vocally displeased with his performance, he still hit 23 homers with a 128 OPS+.
The Dodgers won’t have Clayton Kershaw, but they’ll still get to roll out Walker Buehler, Julio Urías and Max Scherzer (as well as, potentially, Tony Gonsolin, who had a 3.23 ERA this year), and that’s a pretty imposing trio. Now, it’s important to remember just how good Game 1 starter Logan Webb has been for the Giants, putting up a 3.03 ERA (and a 2.40 in his final 20 starts) in his first full season. And Game 2 starter Kevin Gausman struck out 51 against only four walks in September, though he allowed seven homers. You could argue that the Games 1 and 2 starters are evenly matched, but Scherzer gives Los Angeles an edge over Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood or whomever Kapler chooses past the first two.
Depending on how you look at such things, the Dodgers may have two of the six or so best relievers in the postseason in veterans Blake Treinen (1.99 ERA, 85 strikeouts in 72 1/3 innings) and Kenley Jansen (2.22 ERA, 86 strikeouts in 69 innings). Do Dodger fans trust Jansen? They absolutely do not right now, though they should; after pedestrian (by his standards) performances in 2019 and '20, he has looked like his old self of late, allowing one run in his last 21 games, and looked incredible in his inning in the Wild Card Game. There’s Alex Vesia, Joe Kelly, Corey Knebel and Brusdar Graterol, too. This is a better bullpen than you think; in September, no bullpen had a lower OBP against.
San Francisco’s 'pen has fewer big names, but that hardly makes it weak; in September, no bullpen had a lower ERA. Just because you don’t know Tyler Rogers or José Álvarez, for example, doesn’t make them unimportant, and you might be about to know rookies Camilo Doval and Kervin Castro, who showed up late in the season and looked incredibly impressive.
There’s not a large advantage here, really, but we give the Dodgers an edge due to having a higher strikeout rate both in September and over a full season. A blooper, even a weakly hit one, can land in the wrong spot at the wrong time in a playoff game. Hard to have that happen when the ball misses the bat entirely.
Small advantage: Dodgers
This matchup could not be closer. The Giants and Dodgers won almost the same number of games. They split their 19 head-to-head games about as closely as you can split them. We feel absolutely no confidence in saying “Dodgers in 5,” other than the fact that the Dodgers get to have Scherzer in reserve after the first two games -- something Roberts has to feel good about.