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Starting Nine: Two years later vs. Dodgers, Braves were built for this moment

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Clash of high-powered offenses on the marquee in NLCS, and those L.A. bats will be a major step up in competition for Atlanta’s young starters

Division Series - Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins - Game Three
Ronald Acuña Jr., hit a historic grand slam when the Braves met the Dodgers in the 2018 NLDS. He has slashed .273/.360/.500 with a home run, two doubles and two stolen bases this postseason. 
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

First, a cliché.

Something has to give as the Braves and the Dodgers head into the National League Championship Series as the only two undefeated teams in the postseason aided by the best pitching in these playoffs, with Atlanta first with a 0.92 ERA and the Dodgers second at 2.00. Oh, and these offenses — the two most home-run bashing, run-scoring lineups in the regular season — can do plenty of damage

These Braves are no upstart, winning the NL East for the third straight time, and Atlanta has been waiting 19 years for this moment, but the pressure is unquestionably on Los Angeles, which has won eight straight NL West titles and made two World Series, with no championships to show for it.

Will the Braves claim the first pennant since 1999 and continue that Dodgers heartbreak? Let’s dive in as the Starting Nine breaks down the series.

1. Two years later, Braves were built for this moment

Two Octobers ago, a surprise return to the postseason for the Braves was met with a humbling Division Series defeat at the hands of the Dodgers. To borrow from a staccato-driven cut from a contemporary take on American history (that would be Hamilton, ya’ll), they were “Outgunned. Outmanned. Outnumbered. Outplanned.” They were outscored as well, 20-8 in the four games, a young Atlanta roster showing it just wasn’t yet at same level as the juggernaut from the West.

“When we faced them the last time, I said afterwards we we weren’t as strong as they were,” manager Brian Snitker said Saturday.

The difference was in experience. Offensively, there was a visible lack of depth and an inability to match Los Angeles’ daunting stable of home run-bashing bats. But the seeds, they were unquestionably there.

Here’s how those Braves stacked up against Los Angeles’ offensively in the 2018 regular season:

2018 RANKINGS

Home Runs
Dodgers: 235 (2nd)
Braves: 175 (19th)

Runs
Dodgers: 111 (5th)
Braves: 10th (97)

wRC+
Dodgers: 111 (2nd)
Braves: 97 (15th)

wOBA
Dodgers: .333 (3rd)
Braves: .319 (12th)

fWAR
Dodgers: 34.8 (1st)
Braves: 26.0 (7th)

That Atlanta lineup had just three players that had 116 wRC+ or higher (with a minimum of 100 plate appearances) in Ronald Acuña Jr. (143), Freeman (137) and Johan Camargo (116), while the Dodgers boasted 10 such players.

The lack of depth played itself out in the NLDS as Los Angeles hit eight combined home runs to Atlanta’s two and had an .803 OPS to the Braves’ .429 behind 10 Dodgers who had an OPS of .750 or higher. Outside of Freeman (.732 OPS) and Acuña (.673) — both of whom homered, with the latter doing some in historic fashion as he became the youngest player to hit a grand slam in the postseason — the rest of Atlanta’s lineup failed to produce an extra-base hit, and not a one had an OPS over .500.

This time around, in Will Smith (163 wRC+), Corey Seager (151), Mookie Betts (149), Justin Turner (140), A.J. Pollock (132), Chris Taylor (131) and Cody Bellinger (114), the Dodgers have seven players who hit better than league. These Braves counter with seven of their own in Freeman (187), Marcell Ozuna (179), Acuña (159), Travis d’Arnaud (145), Adam Duvall (116), Dansby Swanson (116) and Ozzie Albies (103).

“We’re a whole different team,” Freddie Freeman said Sunday. “We’re really, really strong. (In) 2018, I said this before, we were just excited to make it. ... We were just thrilled, and this is a completely different story. ... We like our chances.”

And Freeman should given where these teams stacked up offensively this season.

2020 RANKINGS

Home Runs
Dodgers: 118 (1st)
Braves: 103 (2nd)

Runs
Dodgers: 349 (1st)
Braves: 348 (2nd)

wRC+
Dodgers: 122 (1st)
Braves: 121 (3rd)

wOBA
Dodgers: .350 (2nd)
Braves: .355 (1st)

fWAR
Dodgers: 12.6 (3rd)
Braves: 11.2 (4th)

The Dodgers are heavy favorites, opening as SportsBetting.com opening at -200 to the Braves’ +160, but consider how these offenses looked in claiming their Division Series. Atlanta combined for an .818 OPS, five home runs — in Minute Maid Park, producer of the fewest home runs in the regular season — and 18 runs in three wins; Los Angeles scored 23 runs in its three victories with an .815 OPS with just one home run at Petco Park, which saw the seventh-most homers this year.

There are plenty of questions as to whether a run nobody saw coming from the Braves’ starters can be replicated against Los Angeles’ offense, but don’t question what Brian Snitker has at the plate. Atlanta was built for this, and two years after being knocked out by the Dodgers, they can take the slugfest right to them.

2. Competition levels up for young starters

The Braves’ starting pitching has been the defining aspect of this postseason run, stealing the spotlight from that potent offense and setting the tone for an elite bullpen. Atlanta boasts a 1.26 ERA from its starters, the best of any team to advance past the first round and more than a run better than the second-place Dodgers (2.35). Ian Anderson is on an all-time kind of run as the second Brave — joining Steve Avery in 1991 — with back-to-back scoreless starts to start his postseason career (only Wade Miley and Christy Mathewson have done it in three straight games); Max Fried allowed more runs (four) against the Marlins than he has in any start this season, but was sensational in keeping the Reds off the scoreboard over seven runs in the Wild Card Series, and Kyle Wright tossed seven scoreless in his playoff debut in the clincher vs. Miami. But they won’t be facing the Reds, who ranked dead-last in batting average in the regular season or the Marlins, whose batters were 26th in fWAR. This will prove a major step up in competition, especially for Anderson, who in his eight career starts has faced two top-10 offenses, but one included a Yankees team sans Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu and Giancarlo Stanton and Wright, whose run of four straight quality starts has come vs. three lineups ranked 14th or lower in fWAR. It’s unlikely we see anywhere close to those runs of scoreless innings against an offense that has scored no fewer than four runs in the Dodgers’ run. One key stat to watch is Los Angeles’ penchant for hard hit balls and this trio’s ability to limit them. Los Angeles has the game’s highest percentage at hits of 95 mph or higher (43.9 percent) and Atlanta starters have limited those hits to the tune of 31.9 percent.

3. No running from rotational depth issue this time

Sweeping the Marlins kept Snitker from having to go to a bullpen game or needing to bring back Fried on short rest. The Braves won’t have that luxury this time around needing to win four games over seven straight days. The additions of Bryse Wilson (1.13 ERA in his two regular season starts and 4.02 overall) and Huascar Ynoa (8.53 ERA in five starts, but 3.86 in the last two outings) to the NLDS roster after being left off in the first round could provide a roadmap here. Josh Tomlin could also be an option, and Snitker can go with either of those three while using the others for bulk innings before turning things over to the bullpen. That stands as the biggest difference between these two teams, because even while L.A.’s Game 1 starter Walker Buehler has been limited to four innings in two starts so far due to the blister on his right index finger, the Dodgers can still turn to Dustin May (2.57 ERA), Julio Urias (third on team with a 1.2 fWAR) or Tony Gonsolin, the team’s best pitcher in the regular season with a 1.8 fWAR. Not to mention starting a future Hall of Famer in Game 2 in Clayton Kershaw, who has a 1.93 ERA and .180 batting average against this postseason. Whatever direction Snitker goes to start Game 4, and what kind of performance the Braves get, could be a crucial in how this series plays out.

4. Let The Big Bear eat

In his career, Tyler Flowers has been the Braves’ best hitter against the Dodgers with 117 wRC+ in 61 plate appearances, with Nick Markakis right behind him at 115 wRC+ in 116 PAs. But we don’t really expect either to be a major factor, do we? Flowers doesn’t have an at-bat this postseason and Markakis just hit .167/.167/.250 vs. the Marlins in 12 ABs. The bat that’s poised to do major damage in this series is Ozuna, who had two two-hit games vs. the Marlins and has feasted on the Dodgers of late. Since 2017, Ozuna has hit .333/.403/.594 with five home runs, three doubles and 166 wRC+ in 69 at-bats vs. Los Angeles and in that time frame, only Christian Yelich (184 wRC+) and Javier Baez (180) have been better against them.

5. Bullpen has been fantastic, but this is a point worth paying attention to

No bullpen has been better than the Braves’ in October, boasting a 0.44 ERA with all of one earned run in 20 1/3 innings. The depth of this group was a focal point dating back to the 2019 trade deadline when Anthopoulos acquired Shane Greene, Chris Martin and Mark Melancon, was only increased in bringing in Will Smith in the offseason and has been bolstered by the reclamations of Tyler Matzek — his 0.8 fWAR is best among Atlanta relievers and A.J. Minter, tops the Braves with a 0.83 ERA. That focus has translated on the postseason stage thus far, but one thing this dominating run hasn’t provided much of is high-leverage, stressful innings for the Melancon, the Braves’ closer. He’s appeared in four games, striking out five of the 12 batters he’s faced and has yet to give up a hit while picking up a save in Game 2 vs. Miami, but he’s thrown one of his four innings in late-and-close situations. He’s likely to see more vs. Los Angeles, and he’s also likely to be tested against what’s been a problem for him in 2020: lefties. Melancon allowed seven runs in his 22 2/3 regular-season inning and four came vs. left-handers in nine innings and collectively, southpaws had a 3.17 wOBA against him. That figure is the highest of any closer with 10 or more saves against lefties and the Dodgers roll out a long list of them with Cody Bellinger, Gavin Lux, Max Muncy, Joc Pederson and Corey Seager and L.A.’s left-handers boast an .805 OPS in the postseason with six extra-base hits.

6. Dodgers have a weakness Braves can exploit

There’s not much wrong with the Dodgers in any phase of the game. They’re second in offensive fWAR (12.6), second in Defensive Runs Saved (29), second in starter ERA (3.29) and second in bullpen ERA (2.74). That being said, Kenley Jansen’s struggles might be the one. The All-Star closer gave up seven earned runs in consecutive outings last month and his velocity was lacking in Game 2 of the NLDS vs. the Padres before he was roughed up and removed when a three-run lead had shrunk to one. Jansen threw just three of his 11 pitches above 92 mph in that game after sitting at 93 in August and since September 1, he has a 6.52 ERA with opponents posting a .366 wOBA. Dave Roberts may look elsewhere with Joe Kelly closing the door after Jansen exited vs. the Padres and has a 1.80 ERA or he could go to the flame-throwing Brusdar Graterol, but with the Braves second in MLB with 131 wRC+ from the ninth inning-on, Jansen’s effectiveness is a major storyline.

7. Travis d’Arnaud on a historic run

Travis d’Arnaud hasn’t exactly raked against the Dodgers in his career with a paltry 67 wRC+, two home runs and a .619 OPS in 44 at-bats, but it’s a fool’s errand betting against the Braves catcher the way he’s hitting this postseason. His 1.342 is ninth this postseason, fifth among players who made it past the first round and first in the NL among that pool. In Braves history, only Andruw Jones in 2004 (1.519) has a higher OPS with 19 or more at-bats in the playoffs and through a team’s first five games, it’s the eighth best OPS in history, sandwiched between Jorge Posada (1.348) and Hall of Famer Gary Carter (1.323).

8. An incredibly Fresh matchup

Will Smith is no stranger to Will Smith. No, not in some Gemini kind of way. The Braves reliever has already faced the Dodgers catcher once, with the former striking out the latter on Sept. 6, 2019 when the left-hander was amid his All-Star season for the Giants. But this matchup happening on a national stage is going to be the springboard for a TON of Fresh Prince/Bad Boys memes and we’re here for all that. It doesn’t have the same ring to it as a name shared by an Oscar nominee/Grammy Award winner, but the Will Smith matchup will have a long way to go to get to the level of Chris Taylor vs. Chris Taylor. They met 19 times from 2007-10 when the Diamondback and Padres both rostered players with that name. For those wondering, the hitter was 0-for-16 vs. his namesake, so the Braves-Dodgers Will Smith collision is off to a similar start.

9. Prediction Time

Unlike the Dodgers and their MLB-best 2.98 runs off the homer, the Braves aren’t all that reliant on the long ball. Atlanta scored more runs in the regular season without it (3.00 to the Dodgers’ 2.83), which could bode well at Globe Life Field, which was 22nd in HRs. It also bodes well that the Braves’ Game 1 (Fried) and 2 (Anderson) starters have been extremely tough to homer off of, with Anderson yielding one in his 44 career innings, while Fried’s 0.32 HR/9 was fourth overall and second in the NL. But can Wright replicate his NLDS performance vs. a vastly superior offense? And what’s the expectation level with the Braves’ Game 4 starter? This has all the makings of a great matchup, and the Braves have made major strides since these teams met in the 2018 NLDS, but with no days off and key rotation questions that a spectacular offense may not be able to compensate for, the Dodgers will prove too much. L.A. in six games.