MLB Coverage: LA Dodgers-Atlanta Division Series Preview

The Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers have both been able to spend the better part of the season’s second half drinking champagne and celebrating how the blew open the NL East and NL West races. Now it’s time to get back down to competitive baseball, and TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage previews their Division Series matchup that begins Thursday night.

We’ll break down each team and compare them the game’s four key component parts–the ability to get runners on base, power hitting, starting pitching and relief pitching. Then we’ll conclude with some historical context and make a pick.

GETTING RUNNERS ON BASE: If we use a .350 on-base percentage as sort of a baseline for determining who is a serious asset at getting on, Atlanta has only three players in the everyday lineup who clear that threshold. The trio is Fredi Freeman, Chris Johnson and Justin Upton. This is a problem, but might be manageable, given that .350 is an arbitrary baseline.

But if the devil is in the details, than the details for the Braves are positively Satanic. They have two players–Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton who are absolutely horrific. Andrelton Simmons is barely tolerable. And even if the Freeman/Johnson/JUpton troika gets on base more through high batting averages rather than drawing walks.

I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with getting hits, but given their hitting skill, the OBPs should be even higher. It suggests a lack of plate discipline. Why bother throwing them anything in the strike zone? There’s a good chance they’ll chase, and if they don’t, no one else in the lineup can make you pay.

The Dodgers are different. While they also have only three players over .350 (Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier and Hanley Ramirez), there are several players who are in striking distance and no one who is a total liability.

Would anyone be shocked if Adrian Gonzalez or Carl Crawford kept getting on base in this series? Juan Uribe and Mark Ellis are veterans who can’t be overlooked, and while A.J. Ellis did not have a good year, the young catcher was better in 2012, suggesting he could make an impact starting over in October.

The only downside for Los Angeles is that Matt Kemp is done for the year and Ethier is day-to-day with an ankle injury, so we’ll see how that affects him in the immediate future.

HITTING FOR POWER: Freeman, Johnson and Justin Upton can all drive the ball in the alleys and out of the park. Upton hit 27 home runs, Freeman slugged .501 and Johnson slugged .457. There’s much better support here throughout the lineup as well.

Brian McCann slugged .461, and while the catcher is day-to-day with a thigh injury, backup Evan Gattis popped 21 home runs. And for as bad as Uggla has been, he’s a player that, if he gets hot, can hit home runs in bursts. If one of those bursts comes in the next week, it’s a series-changer. (Late Editor’s Note: Uggla was left off the roster for this series, a move I agree with. The hope for a home run burst against good pitching is too much of a longshot with a player so manifestly unproductive for so long).

Los Angeles operates in vast Dodger Stadium, so that takes its toll on power numbers. It didn’t stop Puig from slugging .534, and Ramirez was an obscene .638. The shortstop’s season was curtailed with injuries, but in the time he was on the field, he was the National League’s best player. Gonzalez can also go deep. On balance though, the Dodgers are not quite as deep as Atlanta is in power threats.

STARTING PITCHING: This is the most important phase of the game, and I don’t mean to give it short shrift. But Los Angeles will run out Clayton Kershaw, whom I believe should be the National League MVP and will certainly win the Cy Young Award, for Games 1 & 5. They’ll pitch Zack Greinke in Game 2 and Hyun-Jin Ru in Game 3.

Meanwhile, Atlanta will open with Kris Medlen, and then can choose from Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood. As Jon Gruden might say on Monday Night Football, C’mon man. Does any serious person think the Braves’ starters matchup with the Dodgers?

It’s not that Atlanta’s starting pitching is bad–all of these guys mentioned are between 3.10 and 3.20 in ERA. But they’re matched by Ru and Ricky Nolasco, who has pitched well since being traded to Los Angeles at the trade deadline. And the Dodgers might not even need these two. If Kershaw wins his two starts, and Greinke wins his…well, that’s enough to take a best-of-five. That means Atlanta needs to beat a Cy Young winner once and sweep two games where the matchup is even.

BULLPEN: Relief pitching has been Atlanta’s hallmark over the past few years, and 2013 was no different. Craig Kimbrel was the best close in baseball, nailing 50/54 save chances with a buck-21 ERA. Manager Fredi Gonzalez can trot out David Carpenter, Luis Avilan and Anthony Varvaro, all whom have been excellent. Scott Downs is a veteran with playoff experience and Jordan Walden is solid. The Dodgers can’t afford to fall behind, at least by the fifth or sixth inning.

Los Angeles is not great in this area, but manager Don Mattingly has found some pieces that are starting to work well together. Kenley Jansen has gotten locked in as the closer, a job in flux for a while, and has a 1.82 ERA. Paco Rodriguez was a revelation and has been lights-out in setup, as has J.P. Howell.

And for X-factors, how about the signing of former San Francisco closer Brian Wilson? The man who led the way to the Giants’ 2010 title had his career derailed with elbow surgery, but he got a shot in LA, and in 13 innings of work has an 0.66 ERA.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT: We’ll wake up the echoes of three great races in the old NL West, where the Braves were stuck prior to the realignment of 1994. Atlanta and Los Angeles went to the wire with each other in 1982 and 1983, back in the day when the Braves had centerfielder Dale Murphy winning back-to-back MVPs and the Dodgers had Tommy Lasorda in the dugout. They split the two races.

Then in 1991, Atlanta shocked the nation by ending several years of ineptitude with then-unknown pitchers named Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. The Braves edged the Dodgers on the season’s penultimate day and went on to win the National League pennant.

THE PICK: I have no doubt about taking the Dodgers, and doing so in three straight. And even if Atlanta scrapes out a couple wins, I’ve got Kershaw in my back pocket for a Game 5, even if it’s on the road. The Braves’ path to a win is clear–they’ve got to hit some home runs, get early leads and then lock down 12 outs or so with their bullpen. It’s not unthinkable, but building an offense around home runs in the playoffs is always a risky bet, and I’d never predict it.