The Dodgers have seemed almost bored at times this season. Since May 25 they’ve led the National League West by no fewer than six games and as many as 20. But the Dodgers have wobbled a bit at the same time the Braves have surged.
The Dodgers are 9-8 since coming to town and losing two of three games to the Braves. The Braves are 14-2 during that time. Over 16 games the Braves (86-54) have reduced their loss-column deficit to the Dodgers (91-50) from 10 games to four. See where I’m going with this?
The Braves aren’t likely to finish ahead of the Dodgers, who have an easy closing schedule. FanGraphs projects the Dodgers will end up six games ahead. But the possibility of the Braves earning the NL’s top seed isn’t as remote as it was two weeks ago. The question is whether the Braves really want it.
The reward would be home-field edge in the NLCS and facing the wild-card winner in the NL Division Series instead of another division champ. Home field would be good for the Braves, of course, but it’s not yet clear whether it’s desirable to be the No. 1 seed. That’s because the Nationals and Cubs are leading the race for the NL’s two wild cards.
I’ve explained why I think the Braves are better off facing the Cardinals instead of the Cubs in the NLDS. The Nationals lurk as an equally dangerous matchup. The Braves start a four-game series against Washington on Thursday at SunTrust Park. The Braves are headed to another NL East title, but a great outcome for this weekend would be knocking the Nats back in the wild-card race, just in case.
One important number, run differential, says Washington is better than any NL team except the Dodgers. The Nationals were plus-120 in run differential before Wednesday’s games. The Dodgers were an absurd plus-226.
Washington’s record (78-59 entering Wednesday) is about what its run differential suggests it “should” be. The Braves are seven games better than they “should” be. I don’t believe the Nationals are evenly matched with the full-strength Braves, but they have a stronger case than before.
The Nationals always have been a threat because they have three top-flight starters: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. Before Wednesday’s games they ranked Nos. 1, 3 and 5 among NL pitchers in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. Even the Dodgers can’t match that.
Washington’s offense, sluggish for much of the season, has been very good since the All-Star break. Among NL teams, the Nationals rank tied for first with the Dodgers in Weighted Runs Created Plus since the break. The Braves rank fifth, a mark that likely would be better if not for all the injuries, but no longer can you say the Nats can’t hit.
Washington’s bullpen still isn’t great. It’s deeper since adding closer Daniel Hudson at the trade deadline. Another trade acquisition, Hunter Strickland, also has been effective. Those two plus Wander Suero and Sean Doolittle (just off the injured list) give manager Dave Martinez some solid bullpen pieces in a postseason series. There may not be many innings to cover with Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin ranked among the NL’s top eight for innings per game started.
The Nationals are not to be trifled with. It’s too late for them to catch the Braves in the East. But if Nationals and Cubs end up playing in the wild-card game, then I like the Braves’ chances better as the NL’s No. 2 seed against Central champion St. Louis.
Let the Dodgers deal with the Nationals or Cubs.
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