After “the infield fly” ended the Braves playoff hopes last season, the team regrouped and ran away with the division from day one. The Braves lost their claim to the league’s best record in the waning days of the season, which is a shame for them since it means they will face a stacked Dodgers roster in the first round. Nevertheless, the post-Chipper Jones-era Braves have all the components necessary to take their run deep into the postseason.
The Braves have benefited from exceptional pitching this season. That includes a bullpen that led the league in ERA and FIP despite losing Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty early in the season. Craig Kimbrel once again was arguably the best reliever in the National League. At one point, he went 28 straight appearances without allowing a run.
While the lineup as a whole was only average (more on that later), the core of Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Brian McCann and Chris Johnson was superb. It’s worth noting that Johnson’s season largely can be attributed to a .394 BABIP—the highest BABIP among qualified hitters.
The Braves were the best team in baseball at home with a 56-25 record. They will have home-field advantage in the NLDS (and maybe in the NLCS, if they get there). The typical advantage for home field is around eight percent, but it’s possible the Braves may enjoy a slightly larger advantage.
The lineup has suffered through a poor season from Dan Uggla and a terrible one from B.J. Upton. While Uggla’s .179 batting average is an eyesore, his overall offensive contributions were comparable to Brandon Phillips and Jose Altuve (as measured by wOBA and wRC+) who are much more highly regarded.
B.J. Upton has been broken all season, with roughly half of his plate appearances ending in a strikeout or infield fly. Those automatic outs explain his .184 batting average and why he’s been replaced by Evan Gattis and Jordan Schafer.
Leadoff hitters also have been a problem for the Braves. The club has received a tepid .243/.303/.375 line from the top hitter. Fortunately, they have been using Heyward out of that spot since he returned from the disabled list, and it would behoove the Braves to continue that trend in the postseason.
Injuries are a more pressing issue. McCann currently is resting with a strained adductor. The rotation has been reduced to Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen, with Paul Maholm, David Hale or Freddy Garcia playing the role of fourth starter. Jordan Walden scarcely has pitched since recovering from a groin injury and may not be included on the playoff roster.
Working on short rest could be a problem for the rotation, as none of the top three has been battle tested under those conditions. Teheran has had a particularly long season, having pitched winter league ball in order to enter spring training in top form. Adding short rest to that workload could lead to runs or injury.
The Braves will have a successful postseason if they can strike first and get the ball to the bullpen with a lead. The rotation will perform best if they can win early in the series. The goal is to limit the importance of games pitched by whoever is used as the fourth starter. The bottom of the lineup is a bit weak, which may limit their ability to sustain rallies, but this is a team that has lived and died by the long ball this season. Expect that to continue in the postseason.
- Brad Johnson
Los Angeles Dodgers
At one point, the Dodgers were cellar dwellers, and the word on everyone’s lips was “disappointment.” Don Mattingly’s club turned things around by dominating the competition from late June through the end of the season. The only worrying trend is that they have cooled slightly in recent weeks, but the previous torrid pace was unsustainable.
The Dodgers have no lack of potential heroes on their roster. Clayton Kershaw is the odds-on favorite to win the NL Cy Young award with his 1.83 ERA. Yasiel Puig is opposed only by Jose Fernandez in his quest for the NL Rookie of the Year award. His .398 wOBA over 432 plate appearances puts him behind only Ryan Braun, Mike Trout and Brett Lawrie in recent history.
If the Rolaids Relief award still existed, Kenley Jansen would be in a two-person battle with Craig Kimbrel. Hanley Ramirez had a superb, injury-shortened season that coincided with the Dodger’s explosive charge up the standings. A full season of that output would have him looking at an MVP award.
The top of the batting order is a murderer’s row. Puig and Ramirez have been absurdly good, but Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier all can chip in with power and on-base abilities, though a healthy Matt Kemp, would have made the Dodgers offense even more potent. The back-end of the lineup, with the likes of Mark Ellis, Michael Young, A.J. Ellis and Juan Uribe also can do some damage.
The rotation is well-suited for the postseason. Headlined by Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Ricky Nolasco and Hyun-Jin Ryu, the Dodgers have the four-deep unit necessary to survive the postseason grind. Nolasco may be the worst of that group, and he still has a 3.70 ERA and 3.34 FIP on the season with better numbers since his trade from Miami.
Finding weaknesses with this team requires some nitpicking. The club was one of the worst in the league at hitting right-handed pitching, but much of that stat harkens back to its early-season struggles.
The Dodgers’ best hitters benefited from high BABIPs, so slightly lesser results should be expected going forward. For example, Puig managed a .322 batting average despite whiffing substantially more frequently than Adam Dunn at his worst. A .383 BABIP was a large part of that success.
Perhaps their biggest issue is the bullpen. Aside from Jansen, the only reliable relievers have been J.P. Howell and Paco Rodriguez. The remainder of the pen comes with warts and red flags. Pitchers like Brian Wilson and Ronald Belisario are hardly the kind of guys you want to rely upon in high-leverage playoff situations.
This is a well-crafted roster that will be hard to bet against in a short series. The rotation is ideal for the playoffs, while the lineup is jammed with dynamic, five-tool superstars. The bullpen is top-heavy, but with their rotation, the Dodgers may get away with using their fourth and fifth relievers sparingly.
- Brad Johnson
Hey, Pittsburgh Pirates, welcome back. It has been 21 years since your last playoff appearance. That is a long time. But you earned it. You grabbed a Wild Card in one of the strongest divisions in baseball. Coming off a sweep of the Reds to close the season and earn the right to host the Wild Card game, you have to feel good about your chances. Oh, and you have the best player in the National League.
It’s a good year to be a Pirates fan, and that hasn’t been the case for a long time.
McCutchen, Andrew. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think he’d repeat his performance from last year. I was wrong. Clearly, he has reached another level. McCutchen is the centerpiece of the team, and all pitchers should fear him.
The rest of the Pirates lineup also is very solid. They’ve dealt with some injuries, but right now, they can field a lineup in which every player has an OPS+ over 100, with only catcher Russell Martin below 110. McCutchen clearly is the big hitter, but no one in the lineup can be though of as an automatic out.
The playoff rotation of Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton also looks pretty darn good. I’ve been skeptical all year, but these guys have gotten it done, so I can’t really hold back on praise now. I certainly could see someone in this group pulling up lame, but that’s the worst I can say about them.
The starting pitchers all have excellent conventional numbers and great peripherals. The relievers, not so much. Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon have had legitimately great season, but after that, it thins out in a hurry. Yes, there are some pretty ERAs, but those aren’t numbers you should believe. If the Pirates find themselves having to go to the pen early, this is something other teams could take advantage of.
I’m not a big fan of the inexperience narrative, but it has been a long, long time for the Pirates organization, and there already has been a little bit of a “we’re just happy to be here” vibe with them. It’s probably meaningless, but if any team is going to get that hung around its neck, it’s this one.
By the numbers, the Pirates are the weakest NL playoff team. They have the worst run differential and haven’t seen the kind of late-season change the Dodgers have. That said, I really like the looks of this team. They seem to be ready to go, with everyone more or less healthy at the right time.
Pittsburgh has been basically a .500 team since the start of August, but I don’t know that I’d really want to play the Pirates. They’ll face stiff competition, but it’s fairly easy to imagine them going deep into October.
- Jason Linden
St. Louis Cardinals
After a season-long battle with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, St. Louis first secured a playoff birth with a week to go in the regular season. A few days later, the Cardinals clinched the National League Central division crown, assuring themselves of multiple postseason games—something the Pirates and Reds will be battling for in the one-game NL Wild Card game.
This Redbird team reached October unlike any of the previous World Series contenders of the past decade. They didn’t storm through the league, winning 100-plus games like the 2004 and ’05 editions did. They didn’t nearly choke away a playoff spot like the 2006 squad. And they didn’t surge in the final month like the 2011 Cardinals did, snatching a postseason position on the season’s final day.
No, this workaday St. Louis team performed solidly all year long, leading the NL in run differential. Their longest winning streak was six games, and their most extended dry spell was seven contests. Yep, steady as she goes.
But were they really that steady? And is consistency even a good thing in the playoffs? What are the good and bad aspects of the Cardinals as they head into the season’s final month?
The Cardinals led the league in runs score—by a bunch. They plated 783 runners, with only Coors Field-aided Colorado also topping 700. They won over two-thirds of games categorized by Baseball-Reference.com as blowouts (5-plus run differential). They had 50 percent more innings in which they scored 5-plus runs than any other team in the senior circuit. All this while playing in a park that favors pitchers slightly.
Additionally, St. Louis set a record for highest batting average with runners in scoring position over a single season. Five of the top six hitters with RISP wore the birds-on-a-bat jersey. In short, they were the definition of clutch. This is a team that can and will bash the ball on a frequent basis despite ranking third-to-last in home runs.
The Redbirds’ starting pitchers—with the top three most likely consisting of Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn, though Joe Kelly and even Michael Wacha could enter the mix—keep the team in ballgames, with Wainwright, Miller and Lynn all bringing 8.2-8.8 K/9 rates, and Waino demonstrating phenomenal command.
With the fifth-fewest runs allowed in the league, St. Louis doesn’t have a dominant staff, but it’s a solid one that gives the bats the opportunity to come through.
Despite the offensive fireworks overall, the Cardinals are subject to dry spells from time to time, and a poor stretch in October means playing golf instead of baseball. And that record-setting RISP performance can only go on so long. Will it continue deep into October? It will have to for the Redbirds to overcome a shortage of longball producers.
As is often the case, teams that hit well often aren’t so strong defensively, and that’s true in St. Louis. The Redbirds are near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency, the rate of turning balls in play into outs. They have several versatile players—Matt Carpenter, Daniel Descalso, Allen Craig (if they’re still playing when he’s healthy)—but versatility doesn’t automatically equal good defense.
The other common trait of teams that hit well is a lack of speed, and the Cardinals hold true to that theme, trailing well behind the rest of the NL with only 45 stolen bases on the year.
With Edward Mujica losing his closer job with but a week remaining in the regular season, Mike Matheny will be juggling bullpen assignments in the playoffs—though Rosenthal seems to be the preferred closer at the moment—and that instability sometimes can wreak havoc with the minds of players who are used to being slotted into set roles.
The Cardinals look like a dangerous team heading into October. They have a multitude of good hitters, a solid rotation, and a good bullpen. Their strengths are many, and their weaknesses aren’t devastating.
The thing is, this is the kind of setup that seems to work against St. Louis. When the team is good in the regular season, the postseason seems to go poorly. When the Redbirds struggle to make the playoffs, they tend to play deep into October.
It doesn’t make any sense, it’s probably just a matter of small sample sizes, and it’s far from predictive. The takeaway is that anything from an NLDS loss via sweep to a 4-0 World Series win would be reasonable for the Cardinals.
- Greg Simons