After winning their sixth straight N.L West title, the Dodgers will open up the divisional series on Thursday against the N.L East champion, Atlanta Braves.
The Dodgers went 5-2 against the Braves this year, winning 2 of 3 at Dodgers Stadium back in June, and 3 of 4 in Atlanta in July. Surprisingly, both teams had a better record on the road than at home this year.
Today, we break down each positional battle and give a prediction on who has the edge at each spot. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the starting pitching and bullpens of both teams.
Catcher: Kurt Suzuki / Tyler Flowers vs Yasmani Grandal
The definition of “hot and cold,” Grandal has had his ups and downs this year. When he’s hot, he may be the best hitting catcher in the league, as shown in April and July, when he had an OPS of .953 and 1.215, respectively. But when he’s cold, Grandal can go through some serious slumps, like in the months of May, June, and August, when he hit a combined .168.
Defensively, Grandal has positives and negative as well. An elite pitch framer, he still has issues with passed balls at times.
Kurt Suzuki has put up back-to-back good years for the Braves. In the last two seasons, he’s had the best offensive numbers of his career, posting a .887 OPS in 2017 and a .776 OPS this year. He shares time with Tyler Flowers, and both players make up a solid catching duo.
Grandal presents a bigger threat offensively for sure, and if he gets locked into one of his zones, he could provide a huge boost for the Dodgers.
First Base: Freddie Freeman vs Max Muncy / David Fresse
With Atlanta going with at least three right-handed starting pitchers in the series, and maybe four, Max Muncy figures to get the majority of the starts at first. Freese could come in to replace him if the Braves go to a lefty out of the bullpen, or he could be a late-inning defensive replacement as well. Freese has been great since the Dodgers acquired him, particularly against lefties.
There’s no question that Max Muncy has been one of the surprise players in all of baseball this year. He came out of nowhere to hit 35 homeruns and his .973 OPS is 5th in MLB, behind only Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, J.D Martinez, and Christian Yelich. That’s pretty good company.
Freeman has been one of the best first basemen in the league over the past six years. Since 2013, he ranks 3rd for all N.L first basemen in wRC, OPS, OBP, and HR. This year, Freeman has been his typical productive self, slashing .309/.388/.505 with a .892 OPS.
Although Muncy and Fresse have been terrific this year, it’s hard to go against one of the top first basemen if the game, especially when Freeman has been so consistent over the years. He’s also a plus on the defensive side, something Muncy is not.
Slight Advantage: Braves
Second Base: Ozzie Albies vs Kike Hernandez / Brian Dozier
In the first half of the year, Albies put up great numbers, earning himself an All-Star selection. However, he’s struggled a bit since, hitting.226/.282/.342, with only four of his 24 homeruns in the second half.
Dozier hasn’t been very good since coming over to Los Angeles, or for the entire year for that matter. He’s hitting only .215/.305/.391 this season with a .696 OPS. Because of his slump, the Dodgers haven’t been playing him as much recently. Meanwhile, Hernandez has been red-hot over the last few weeks, and his 117 OPS+ would be his highest mark for a full season (at least 400 AB.)
At only 21 years old, Albies has a very bright future, and he still may the better all-around player. But it’s hard to ignore his recent slump, along with what Hernandez has done of late. And if Dozier can contribute anywhere close to the level that he’s capable of, it gives the Dodgers even more firepower.
Slight Advantage: Dodgers
Third Base: Johan Camargo vs Justin Turner
Turner has once again been the key to the Dodgers offense this year. He continues to produce at a high level, and if it wasn’t for so much missed time with injuries this season, we’d likely be talking about him as a potential MVP candidate. His .924 OPS would be good for 3rd in the N.L if he had enough ABs to qualify.
The switch-hitting Camargo has been great for the Braves this year. He didn’t assume the starting third base role until May, but since then, he hasn’t looked back, hitting .272/.349/.457 on the year with a .806 OPS.
Camargo is a key piece in Atlanta’s lineup, but he’s not quite on the same level of Turner just yet.
Shortstop: Dansby Swanson / Charlie Culberson vs Manny Machado
A big question for the Braves will be the availability of Dansby Swanson. He tore a ligament in his left hand recently and may be out for the series. If he can’t go, Charlie Culberson figures to get the majority of the time as a shortstop.
Culberson has been a solid contributor for Atlanta this year, mostly in a part-time role. He’s put up the best numbers of his career, hitting .270/.326/.466 with 12 homeruns in only 296 ABs.
This year, Machado has been one of the best players in the game, ranking 1st in wRC+ and 2nd in WAR for all shortstops. He hasn’t quite put up the same numbers since coming over to the Dodgers that he did in the first half with Baltimore, but he’s still elite.
Even if Swanson plays, this one isn’t very close.
Left Field: Ronald Acuna vs Matt Kemp / Joc Pederson
One of the top choices to win this year’s Rookie of the Year award, Acuna has lived up to his hype. Putting up a .917 OPS in your rookie season is impressive to say the least, and at only 20 years old, Acuna looks like the real deal.
Although strictly used against RHP, Pederson has been pretty solid this year, putting up a .843 OPS, which is the 4th highest on the team, behind only Muncy, Turner, and Machado. He’s also lowered his K% to 19.2%, which is the lowest of his career. His OBP isn’t as high as it’s been in years past (.321) but he continues to bat leadoff for the Dodgers when he’s in the lineup.
Kemp had an unbelievable first half of the season but has come back down to earth a bit in the second half. Still, he’s put on pretty good numbers on the year (.290/.338/.481) and has come up big in clutch spots. If he’s relegated to a bench role in the division series due to the right-handed heavy rotation of Atlanta, he could be a big bat off the bench.
Kemp and Pederson are a solid platoon, but Acuna is one of the best young talents in the game right now.
Center Field: Ender Inciarte vs Cody Bellinger / Chris Taylor
After taking the league by storm in his rookie year last season, Bellinger took a small step back this year. He was still productive, no doubt, but not nearly the same as he was in 2017. His .814 OPS this year was more than 100 points lower than his .933 mark from last season. Also, his struggles against lefties this year really stood out, and caused Dave Roberts to use him more as a part-time platoon player. After hitting LHP great last year (.271/.335/.568, w/ .903 OPS) he had trouble with them this year (.226/.305/.376, w/ .681 OPS.)
Both Chris Taylor and Kike Hernandez could play center as well, but again, with the projected righties pitching for the Braves, Bellinger will probably get the starts.
Inciarte has been very solid since coming over to Atlanta in 2016. His Avg (.265) and OBP (.325) dipped a little this year, but his career numbers still show he’s a professional major-league hitter. He’s a threat on the bases any time he gets on, and Inciarte is one of the best defensive center fielders in the game.
This was a tough choice. If we were talking about the Cody Bellinger from last year, it would be a clear advantage for the Dodgers. But he’s shown some inconsistency this year. On the other hand, Inciarte has also produced slightly less this year offensively, but still brings other intangibles to the table (speed, defense.)
Right Field: Nick Markakis vs Yasiel Puig
At 34 years old, Nick Markakis had one of his best years in a while, earning his first All-Star selection. He batted .297/.366/.440 with a .806 OPS on the year and played a league-leading 162 games. He’s a key cog in Atlanta’s lineup, and in his 13th year in the Majors, Markakis brings a lot of experience to the team.
Overall, Puig had a pretty solid year this season, putting up a .820 OPS, which is just slightly lower than his .833 mark last year. But of late, he’s really been crushing the ball, hitting eight homeruns in the month of September.
His recent hot streak has many Dodgers fans pushing for more playing time, but Dave Roberts has still sat him when the team faces a lefty due to Puig’s reverse splits. However, with Atlanta’s RH starters, Puig should be in there every game anyhow.
This was another difficult one to call. Both players are solid contributors and will be important to their team’s success. Although Markakis is probably the more consistent of the two when Puig is on a hot streak he can be one of the best players on the team. It all depends which Puig shows up.
Slight Advantage: Dodgers
While the official post-season rosters haven’t been released yet, we can get a sense of what each team’s bench will look like. The Dodgers are known for being one of the deepest teams in the league, and they utilize their depth well. It’s part of the reason why they have so many platoon positions. With so many capable players, Dave Roberts like to mix and match with his lineups.
Assuming the Dodgers go with their typical lineup against RHP, that could leave players like Matt Kemp, David Freese, Brian Dozier, and Chris Taylor on the bench. Perhaps #1 prospect Alex Verdugo too. That’s a lot of good options to choose from.
For Atlanta, Charlie Culberson’s move to shortstop for the inured Dansby Swanson could have a chain effect on their bench. It will shorten it more than usual, and although they still have guys like Lucas Duda, Adam Duvall, and Lane Adams, that group doesn’t pose the same threat as the Dodgers bench does.
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