Baseball has a clear “Big Three” this season, and as the only NL team in that group, the Dodgers have to be favored throughout the playoffs. They’re as complete a ball club as can be. With a ridiculous +273 run differential, their 106-56 record actually under-performed their Pythagorean W-L by a game!
The Dodgers lineup is deep, versatile, and powerful. They led the NL in position player fWAR (34.8), as well as wRC+ (118), home runs (279), and defensive runs saved (136). They can field an entire lineup in which every player has 15+ home runs, even including rookie catcher Will Smith who didn’t come up for good until the end of July.
Cody Bellinger may or may not be the NL MVP— that’s a topic for another day— but he’s definitely the best player in the postseason. He’s joined by four other 3.0+ fWAR players in the regular lineup: Max Muncy, Justin Turner, Corey Seager, and Joc Pederson. Their stable of position players is deep enough that, no matter who starts, every plate appearance features a dangerous hitter.
On the pitching side, they’re the absolute best in the league, having led the NL in ERA (3.39), FIP (3.73), and DRA- (74). In some order, they’ll feature Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, and Hyun-Jin Ryu, all of whom need no introduction.
Essentially, the team has no weaknesses. If anything, you could quibble with their 103 wRC+ vs. left-handed pitching, but there’s really no way to game plan against a roster this complete. You just have to hope a few great players have bad days.
The Nationals may be the Wild Card team, but they might match up against the Dodgers better than anyone else in the NL... at least on paper. Their front three of the rotation— Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin— stacks up well against any other team. However, both Scherzer and Strasburg pitched in the Wild Card game, which was the right decision, but will likely have usage implications in the NLDS.
Like the Dodgers, Washington can also field a complete lineup of 15+ home run hitters (with one to spare), complete with matching star power in Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, and Trea Turner. The overall quality drops off after those three, though, and the team defense is merely average.
Beyond the big three starting pitchers, the Nationals bullpen has been shaky. Their relief DRA of 4.93 is just 11th in the NL. In all likelihood, the aces will have to pitch extremely well and go deep into games for the team to have a chance. They’re all certainly capable of doing just that, but by any rational measure, the Dodgers have to be prohibitive favorites in the series.
Even though the Braves finished six games better than the Cardinals, St. Louis has a slightly better Pythagorean W-L. In short, this should be a fun, evenly matched series.
Seeing the Braves in the playoffs always conjures images of great pitching, but that’s not exactly how this team is built. Their position players were second in the NL in fWAR (26.9) and third in wOBA (.344). They feature a quartet of 4.0 fWAR players who drive the lineup: Ronald Acuña, Jr., Josh Donaldson, Ozzie Albies, and Freddie Freeman.
The pitching was... okay. That’s about it. They finished eighth in the NL with a 90 DRA-. Rookie Mike Soroka was dominant all season with 4.8 WARP and a 3.24 DRA. Max Fried (4.2 WARP, 3.42 DRA) was just about as good. Beyond those two, there’s a considerable drop-off. The bullpen is anchored by Luke Jackson and Mark Melancon, but there aren’t as many power arms as you’d like.
The Cardinals actually look more like a classic pitching-and-defense Atlanta team than the Braves. Their 662 runs allowed were the second best in the NL, only trailing the Dodgers, and they led the league with 32.8 UZR.
The best player in uniform for this series is ace Jack Flaherty, who was arguably the top pitcher in baseball since the All-Star Break. He’s allowed just 11 runs in 99 1⁄3 innings in the second half. His ridiculous 7.1 WARP and 50 DRA- are both third best in the NL. He’ll be scheduled for games two and five in this series, with some combination of Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright, and Dakota Hudson starting games one, three, and four.
The bullpen really shines as well. Giovanny Gallegos has emerged as one of the best relievers in baseball. John Brebbia, John Gant, Andrew Miller, and others represent a deep well from which to draw. That’s a huge advantage in a playoff series.
As for the position players, they look better on paper than they’ve actually done in real life. Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna, and Matt Carpenter all under-performed this season. The team finished just eighth in the NL in position player wRC+ (100) and tied for ninth in wOBA (.323). They did lead the league with 115 stolen bases though, which really adds more flash than substance.
These teams play two different styles of baseball that yield similar results. It’s hard to pick a winner, but the Cardinals’ overall pitching and bullpen advantages might be the best bet. Besides, the Braves will have to win three of the first four to avoid facing Flaherty in the final game.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.