In every series, there are x-factors that arise for a team. Those players or storylines that might go under the radar, or unnoticed, yet end up playing a crucial role in the outcome of that series.
There’s never telling who these players are going to be with any certainty, and many times they end up being someone who you’d least expect. Below, I’ve listed five players who may end up being those x-factors for the Dodgers in this year’s NLDS.
- Austin Barnes
One of the biggest surprises this year, Barnes comes into the NLDS with his role not completely defined. It remains to be seen how Dave Roberts will utilize Barnes, but most believe he’ll be in some sort of platoon with Yasmani Grandal, likely getting starts against any left-handed pitching. However, if I’m Roberts, I’d try to find other ways to get Barnes’ bat in the lineup.
A versatile player, Barnes can also play second base. While Logon Forsythe appears certain to get starts against left-handed pitching, it’ll be interesting to see how the Dodgers construct their lineup versus righties.
Forsythe’s splits are about as pronounced as you can get. He’s hit lefties very well, but struggled against right-handed pitching, slashing .190/.315/.262 on the year. Some think Chase Utley might get the starts against righties, but if you look at the numbers, a case could certainly be made for Barnes, who has reverse splits this season.
Here are both Utley’s and Barnes’ 2017 numbers against RHP:
Utley: .242/.327/.407 in 325 PA
Barnes: .321/.444/.459 in 133 PA
Obviously, there’s a smaller sample size with Barnes, but there’s no doubt that he’s hit righties well this year. If Roberts decides to go with him at second base, Barnes could provide the Dodgers with an offensive boost.
Regardless how he’s used in the NLDS, Barnes will be a key piece. He’ll get plenty of at-bats, and he could be that x-factor that tilts the series in the Dodgers favor.
- Curtis Granderson / Kike Hernandez
This is the likely platoon that will be handling the left field duties for the Dodgers in the playoffs. How Granderson and Hernandez preform could be a big factor in the Dodgers’ success or failure in the post season.
In all honesty, if there were one area that I’d say I’m the most concerned about in the Dodgers’ lineup, this would be it. Both players can be streaky hitters, and if they each go on an extended cold streak, it could spell trouble for the Dodgers.
On the flip side, both players can get hot too. Granderson could go on a tear at any time, and he has postseason experience on his side as well. Also Granderson went 6-16 in his last seven games played of the year, which is a good sign that his bat could be coming around. Hernanadez has hit lefties very well this season, with a slash line of .270/.367/.579, and should see practically all of his playoff at-bats against them. If he can continue to hit them in the postseason like he did in the regular season, it would give the Dodgers offense a significant boost.
The bats of both Granderson and Hernandez could be key to the Dodgers success. But they could also be at the forefront of any struggles. Only time will tell.
- Middle Relievers
Every team’s bullpen is a vital aspect of their roster, but you could say it’s even more so for the Dodgers. Bridging the gap between their starting pitching and Kenley Jansen will be imperative, and the Dodgers’ middle relievers could decide multiple games in the post season.
Overall this year, the Dodgers bullpen has been good. Actually, they’ve been the best. They led the N.L in ERA (3.38), WHIP (1.15), FIP (3.55), Opp Avg (.222), Opp OPS (.660), and K/BB (3.48.) That’s a lot of stats to lead the league in.
However, those numbers don’t put every Dodgers fan at ease. During last month’s slump, where the Dodgers lost 16 of 17, their bullpen struggled. In September, their 1.53 WHIP was 3rd worst in the N.L, and their 4.21 FIP was 5th worst. While the team is hoping that was simply a rough patch for a group who’s been solid throughout most of the year, it definitely raised some concerns.
The Dodgers don’t have a true “set-up guy” who’s guaranteed to take the ball in the 8th inning. Brandon Morrow could take that responsibility at times, but he’s not necessarily assured of that role every game. Roberts will likely manage his bullpen game by game, with particular match-ups dictating how he’ll use his relievers.
Guys like Morrow, Josh Fields, and Tony Cingrani, among others, will all play a big role in the NLDS, and whether the Dodgers advance or not could hinge on how they perform.
- Game 4 Starter
Assuming there is a Game 4, all eyes will be on the Dodgers’ starter for that game. Dave Roberts has said Clayton Kershaw won’t be starting on short rest this year, something he’s done in the last four post season Divisional Series. Of course, we’ve all heard that Kershaw won’t be available at times before, and yet somehow it winds up happening (see Game 5 of last year’s NLDS.)
This year, however, I do believe the Dodgers will stick to their word, and not throw Kershaw back out for Game 4, even if they’re down 2-1 in the series. Starting Rich Hill in Game 2 pretty much confirms that for me, as it lines him up for a potential Game 5, and not Yu Darvish. If there were any possibility going with Kershaw in Game 4, it seems like having Darvish for Game 5 would make the most sense.
As it stands now, the Dodgers appear content with allowing either Alex Wood or Hyun-Jin Ryu to start Game 4.
Because of this debate about whether or not Kershaw should start a Game 4, whoever ends up taking the ball will be under an enormous amount of scrutiny. Whether up 2-1 or down 2-1, Game 4 will be a crucial turning point in the series. The Dodgers would either be looking to close out their opponent and head to the NLCS, or they’d be fighting off elimination.
A legitimate case could be made for both Wood and Ryu. Wood had an incredible first half of the year, and was named an All-Star for the first time. He’s come back to earth a bit in the second half though, and many point to a drop in velocity as a sign he could be tiring as the season winds down. Still, he’s been one of the top starters for the Dodgers all year, and they should have plenty of confidence if they decide to give him the ball.
On the flip side, Ryu has surprised many with how well he’s come back this year after a lengthy absence. He started 24 games for the Dodgers this year, posting a respectable 3.77 ERA. Giving him the start in a Game 4 would also free up Wood to come out of the bullpen, a role that he’s done in the past, and excelled at.
Whoever starts Game 4 will certainly be an x-factor, and could decide which way the series goes.
- Dave Roberts
All the aforementioned x-factors will really be dependent on moves by Dave Roberts. The front office will surely have a lot of say in the overall plan for the Dodgers in the NLDS, but it’s Roberts who will have his hand on the controls as everything plays out.
Will he start Barnes at second base? Which middle reliever will he go to in a key situation? Will he be willing to sit Granderson if he struggles? These kind of decisions will likely play a big part in how the Dodgers fare in the post season. And they’re just some of many important in-game decisions that Roberts will make.
The Dodgers were built around the concept of depth this year, and it’s worked very well so far. However, with such depth, comes difficult choices. Many of those will be made before they play a game, when the Dodgers construct their 25-man playoff roster. Most of the rest will be on Roberts’ shoulders. Making the right calls and pushing the right buttons will go a long way in the Dodgers playoff success or failure.
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