The Dodgers are legit favorites. That doesn’t mean they’ll win

The Dodgers and Braves have been the National League’s two best teams over the past three seasons. They’ve each won their division three years running. This isn’t to say they’ve been peers. The Dodgers are 241-144 since 2017; the Braves are 222-162. That’s a difference of 18-1/2 games, which would seem the difference between great and very good.

They met in the 2018 National League Division Series. The Dodgers won 3-1. The Braves were shut out in games 1 and 2. Of the series' 36 innings, the Braves scored in three. The Braves are much better now. The Dodgers are, too.

The Dodgers were 43-17 over this irregular season. Had they played at that rate over 162 games, they’d have gone 116-46. No team in the long history of baseball has won more than 116 games. The Braves are a strong team that has grown stronger in postseason. The Dodgers have been mighty from the get-go. They needed the minimum five games to negotiate rounds 1 and 2; so did the Dodgers, who in the NLDS faced San Diego, which had the NL’s second-best record in 2020.

This isn’t in any way to minimize what the Braves just did, but facts – those darned things – are facts. The Reds finished 27th among 30 MLB clubs in runs; the Marlins finished 21st and were without Starling Marte, maybe their best hitter, for the NLDS. The Dodgers led the majors in scoring, though only by a run over the Braves. The matchup of Braves hitters against Reds/Marlins hitters wasn’t a match. What’s coming next will be.

The past two series saw the Braves override their season-long weakness – starting pitching – by only needing three starters over five games. Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright were all superb, the latter two yielding no runs. The collective playoff ERA of the three is 1.26. This, we note, was the team that through 60 games saw its starters post an ERA of 5.51, third-worst in the majors. To say the dynamics have changed is the understatement of the millennium. Anderson and Wright weren’t on the 28-man roster as of late August; Wright hadn’t been anywhere near this effective in previous big-league stints.

It could well be that Anderson and Wright – Fried has been excellent for a while now – have Figured Things Out and will proceed directly from this postseason to Cooperstown 15 years hence. The dynamics, however, are about to change again. Anderson and Wright won’t be facing the Reds or Marlins this week. They’ll be seeing a lineup with Mookie Betts (2018 American League MVP), Cody Bellinger (2019 NL MVP), Justin Turner (2017 NLCS co-MVP), Max Muncy (2019 All-Star) and Corey Seager (2016 and 2017 Silver Slugger winner).

The Padres finished third in runs over 60 games. The Dodgers just outscored them 23-9. They trailed after three of the NLDS' 27 innings.

The Dodgers had MLB’s second-lowest ERA (3.29) among starters this season. They also had the second-lowest bullpen ERA (2.74). The Braves' relievers were fourth-best at 3.50. If the Braves' starters pitch in the NL Championship Series as they did against the Reds/Marlins, this series is a toss-up. If they regress even a bit, you can stick that coin back in your pocket.

Major disclaimer here: This is baseball in October. Anything can happen. A rather pedestrian band of Dodgers trumped the A’s and their Bash Brothers in the 1988 World Series. But – and it’s a huge “but” – this marks the 14th time the Los Angeles franchise has qualified for the postseason since then, and it hasn’t yet won another World Series.

The 106-win Dodgers were beaten last year in the NLDS by the wild-card Nationals. They were beaten 4-1 in the 2018 World Series by the Red Sox. They were beaten in the 2017 Fall Classic by the trash-can-thumping Astros. They were beaten by the team-of-destiny Cubs in the 2016 NLCS. They were beaten in the 2015 NLDS by the Mets, who had great young pitchers (deGrom, Harvey, Syndergaard) and a catcher named Travis d’Arnaud, who drove home the tying run of the decisive Game 5.

On paper, the Dodgers are better than the Braves. Paper, however, cannot measure the weight on these Dodgers to claim, finally, what has seemed their manifest destiny for nearly a decade. A very smart organization – Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos was the Dodgers' assistant GM in 2016 and 2017 – has labored long to build this team, and there’s nothing more the front office can do. The team either wins the World Series or gets labeled one of the sport’s all-time chokers, maybe THE all-time chokers. (Remember, the Braves of the ’90s won it all in their fourth October try.)

Logistical note: This is where the jammed-together playoff schedule figures to show. With no days off, it would be hard to bring back Fried or Anderson before games 5 and 6, and even then they’d be on short rest. The Braves might have to “bullpen” game 4 or 5, and – as stout as the back end of this bullpen has been – that could get dicey. The Dodgers are old hands at mixing and matching: Of the 11 men who started games this season, eight also worked in relief.

Dustin May started Game 3 against San Diego and exited after a scoreless inning; the third pitcher used – Julio Urias – went five innings. In Round 1 against Milwaukee, Walker Buehler was pulled after four not-awful innings to make way for three innings of Urias, who started 10 times over the 60-game season. In Game 2 of the NLCS, Dave Roberts had to pull closer Kenley Jansen with two out in the ninth; Joe Kelly, known mostly for breaking a window at his home with one of his less-precise pitches, finished it.

I yield to no one in my admiration for how the Braves are playing. Could they beat the Dodgers four times in a week? Sure they could. If we’re assessing those facets of baseball that can be quantified, the team that’s favored deserves to be favored. As we’ve seen many times, though, October is the part of this sport that defies calculation. The pragmatist in me says Dodgers in six, so don’t be surprised if it’s Braves in seven.