The Dodgers are better almost across the board than their 2018 forebears, who merely won the franchise’s second consecutive NL pennant then lost to the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
But that doesn’t make the Dodgers unbeatable, or the Nationals incapable of beating them three times in the NL Division Series that begins Thursday night at Dodger Stadium. It only means it will be an exceedingly difficult task.
The Dodgers both scored the most runs and allowed the fewest in the NL this season, producing a run differential — plus-273 — that is the third best of any team this century, behind only the 2001 Seattle Mariners (plus-300) and the 2019 Houston Astros (plus-280).
Their pitchers posted the lowest ERA (3.37) and WHIP (1.102) in the NL, and their hitters the highest OPS (.810) and most home runs (an NL-record 279). Advanced stats love them no less: Per FanGraphs, both their pitchers and their hitters amassed the most WAR (wins above replacement) in the league.
What about defense? By defensive runs saved, as calculated by Baseball Info Solutions, the Dodgers’ figure (135) was the best in the game. (The Nationals, by comparison, were 18th, at minus-2.) They were also tied for first in Baseball Prospectus’s defensive efficiency — the rate at which balls in play are converted into outs — at .729. (The Nationals were 15th, at .704.)
The Dodgers’ defensive numbers were undoubtedly helped by the fact they were the most prolific shifters in the game, employing a shift on 52.5 percent of all pitches, per Statcast. (The Nationals, by contrast, shifted on just 14.6 percent of pitches, ranking 28th in the majors.) Unlike most teams, which shift infrequently against right-handed hitters — the league average this year was 14.3 percent of overall pitches — the Dodgers did so at nearly three times that rate (42.3 percent).
In outfielder Cody Bellinger — who could also see time at first base, given the Dodgers’ propensity for platoons and multipositional defenders — they have the potential NL most valuable player and a hitter who, unlike in years past, can no longer be neutralized (or banished to the bench) by lefties, against whom he hit .280/.386/.596 this season.
One remarkable aspect of the Dodgers’ lineup is its seeming invincibility against high velocities. As a team, Dodgers hitters slugged a major league-leading .542 against pitches of 95 mph and up in 2019, higher than their overall slugging percentage (.472) and 123 points above the league norm (.419). (The Nationals, meanwhile, ranked sixth in the majors at .462.) What does that mean? Don’t expect right-hander Tanner Rainey, the Nationals’ hardest-throwing reliever, to come in and shut down the Dodgers for large stretches at will.
Even the Dodgers’ perceived weakness — their bullpen — wasn’t as bad as advertised: Their relievers’ collective ERA of 3.85 ranked second in the NL, and their WAR of 4.3 ranked third. And that bullpen will be the October beneficiary of the Dodgers’ supreme rotation depth, with Kenta Maeda, Julio Urias, Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin and Rich Hill among the options to shift to the bullpen. Urias and May, in particular, could be high-leverage, high-velocity, late-game options from the left and right side, respectively.
Where the Dodgers appear to be most vulnerable is in the front end and the very back end of games. The rotation looks like a strength on paper, with lefties Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu and right-hander Walker Buehler combining to go 44-14 with a 2.87 ERA — better than or equal to, at least on paper, the Nationals’ top trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin (43-20, 3.18). The Dodgers announced Wednesday that Buehler will start Game 1, and Kershaw and Ryu appear likely to pitch Games 2 and 3.
But all three come with question marks, from Kershaw’s diminished fastball velocity (career-low 90.4 mph this season) and checkered postseason track record (9-10, 4.32 ERA), to Buehler’s inconsistency (six starts this season in which he gave up five or more earned runs, and nine in which he gave up zero), to Ryu’s late-summer swoon (a four-start stretch from mid-August to early September in which he went 1-3 with a 9.95 ERA).
In the case of Ryu, some extra rest down the stretch appears to have set him straight — he posted a 1.29 ERA in his final three starts, with 21 strikeouts and no walks, but those three starts came on nine, seven and five days’ rest, respectively, calling into question how frequently the Dodgers can use him in October.
Kershaw, meanwhile, made a surprise one-inning relief appearance in Sunday’s season finale — his first in the regular season in more than a decade — which may have been a dry run for more such deployments in October.
And then there is closer Kenley Jansen, at one time arguably the top closer in baseball but now coming off the worst season of his career and testing the faith of Manager Dave Roberts. The Dodgers have enough arms to compensate for Jansen’s diminished effectiveness, but would they actually yank him out of his ninth-inning role? If Jansen was once a terrifying at-bat with the game on the line, nowadays he will almost certainly be an easier one than the pitcher who preceded him.
The Nationals will start left-hander Corbin in Game 1 (and potentially Game 5). Corbin has absolutely owned the Dodgers over the past two seasons, going a combined 2-0 with a 0.59 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 30⅓ innings, spanning five starts.
The Dodgers, in fact, are a much less potent lineup against lefties in general — despite Bellinger’s dramatic improvement this year — with a team OPS that is almost 50 points lower than it is against right-handers. That could mean a large role for lefty reliever Sean Doolittle, who has held the Dodgers to a .238/.273/.286 slash line in five appearances against them over the past three seasons. He also did not pitch in the wild-card game. But the Nationals may also wish they had additional lefty options to throw at the Dodgers in the late innings.
The Nationals’ fearsome front three of Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin was one reason many considered them a scary first-round opponent for anybody, because that trio could start four of the five games on regular or extra rest. So the Nationals’ plan for them coming out of the wild-card game will be interesting to watch.
If you are one who believes in clutch performance and pressure and intangibles, that might be the Nationals’ best hope to pull off the upset. If there is any team under more pressure to win than the Nationals, who have yet to capture a postseason series since moving to Washington in 2005, it is the Dodgers — whose championship drought runs to 1988 and who suffered those painful World Series losses in 2017 and 2018.
As a source of comfort ahead of what should be a difficult series, it isn’t much. But it’s something.