It may be presumptuous to think about the Braves in the National League Championship Series. It’s not egregious. The Braves began the weekend up by 5-1/2 games over the Nationals in the NL East with 45 to go. The Nationals won’t catch them, and the Cubs are the only NL Central contender that I see as a real threat to the Braves.
The Braves have a good chance to make it to the NLCS. That has me pondering the question that’s loomed over them even as they took control of the East and shored up one of two major weaknesses at the trade deadline.
Are the Braves good enough to beat the Dodgers in the postseason?
That query was sure to dog the Braves this season no matter how good they got. It was the residual from the Dodgers winning a 2018 NLDS series in four games by an aggregate score of 20-7. The question followed the Braves when they left Chavez Ravine in April with three losses to the Dodgers by a total margin of 23-7.
The Braves are better now, but the Dodgers are the NL’s juggernaut. The AL has the Yankees, Astros and (maybe) the Twins. In the NL it long has been the Dodgers and everyone else, so it would be a shock if L.A. isn’t in the NLCS.
The Braves can make a good case as the NL’s second-best team, but does that mean they are anywhere close to the Dodgers? The Braves can provide some clues when the Dodgers visit SunTrust Park next weekend for a three-game series. The Dodgers are so bored with their insurmountable lead in the NL West that they are openly acknowledging that they are sizing up the Braves and other playoff contenders.
The Braves might take next weekend’s series over the Dodgers because they can hit with the best of them. But it’s hard to see how they could take the Dodgers in an October best-of-seven. The Braves are still trying to figure out their pitching, while the Dodgers have few weaknesses to exploit.
I tried to find some. The only things I came up with are a so-so bullpen and a lack of stolen bases. But those things don’t matter so much for the Dodgers because they have three starters who consistently pitch deep into games and an offense so good that they need not risk swiping many bases.
Close observers of the Braves know that they are a threat to win the pennant because they can crank out runs. The Dodgers are a better offensive ballclub in nearly every way.
As of Friday, Dodgers hitters walked more frequently than any NL team and struck out less than all except the Pirates. The Braves ranked fourth and tied for fifth, respectively. Dodgers batters swung at the lowest percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone and had the second-lowest swinging strike percentage overall. The Braves are relatively free swingers: sixth in swinging at balls and tied for ninth in swings and misses.
Excellent plate discipline makes the Dodgers hard to pitch. When the Dodgers do swing at pitches, they connect at a high rate and hit the ball hard. Entering the weekend they ranked first in the NL in hard-hit percentage, the best at avoiding soft contact and led the league in isolated power (extra base hits per at bat).
When the Braves have all their hitters available, they come close to matching the Dodgers’ lineup depth. But the Dodgers have Cody Bellinger, a leading MVP candidate. Braves All-Star Freddie Freeman has been a great hitter for a long time, but he’s never come close to the kind of season Bellinger is producing now.
After Bellinger, Braves hitters match well with Dodgers hitters. The trio of Ronald Acuna, Josh Donaldson and Ozzie Albies is on the same level as Max Muncy, Justin Turner and Joc Pederson. Both teams have seen their depth chipped away by injuries but filled in with good hitters who keep the offense rolling.
Starting pitching is where the Dodgers have a big advantage over the Braves. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Clayton Kershaw have ideal profiles: good strikeout-to-walk ratios, weak contact, high groundball rates and low home-run rates. Walker Buehler gives up some hard contact, but he’s a hard thrower who piles up strikeouts.
Braves starter Dallas Keuchel has checked only one of those boxes in 10 starts this season. He’s induced a lot of ground balls, as usual, but his elevated home run rate is worrisome. If Kuechel can’t work things out, then Mike Soroka likely would be the best Braves pitcher in the postseason. The Dodgers have three starters with a Wins Above Replacement better than Soroka’s.
After the Braves didn’t add a starter at the trade deadline, general manager Alex Anthopoulos said the club is banking on the “upside” of the current staff. That still could pay off. Keuchel has been better than this, and Soroka and Max Fried still are learning.
Get them all going by October, and the Braves would be a good-hitting team with at least three good starters. That could make them competitive in a series against Los Angeles. If it doesn’t happen, the Braves aren’t likely to be a serious postseason threat to the Dodgers.