After days or weeks of trying to figure out who the Dodgers would face in the playoffs, it’s now official — they’re headed to Atlanta to face a Braves team that we haven’t seen since June. They may not have Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier, but, well, let’s not talk about that any more.
The Dodgers were swept by the Braves in Atlanta in May, one of the true low points of the season — Paco Rodriguez and Kenley Jansen (two) took all three losses, though one was in large part on Brandon League — and setting off all sorts of “will Don Mattingly even make it back to Los Angeles?” stories. A few weeks later in Los Angeles, the Dodgers split four games in a series that featured a Yasiel Puig grand slam, but also a game where both Luis Cruz & Ramon Hernandez were in the starting lineup. It really has been a long time.
So it’s been a while, and obviously things have changed. The Dodgers have gone from the basement to an easy division win; the Braves, and in particular catcher Brian McCann, have mostly spent their time coming down hard on guys like Jose Fernandez & Carlos Gomez who dare to watch homers for more than 0.002 of a second. (Gomez’ trot was the Gold Club of pimping, to be sure, but still.) Let’s just say, I’m really hoping for Puig to hit a long homer in Atlanta, then do the worm around the entirety of the base paths. I mean, I always hope for that, but especially so now.
They also had a dust-up in the dugout between third baseman Chris Johnson and coach Terry Pendleton, and… well, look. I really don’t like this team. I don’t like McCann’s sense of Victorian etiquette, I don’t like how hard they came down on the #BARVES thing, I really don’t like the horrid Tomahawk Chop, and — fully anecdotal here — their fans seem to whine more than anyone else’s about media figures being “biased” against them.
I can’t stand this team. Now let’s look at who they are.
C — Free-agent-to-be McCann was once one of the premier catchers in the game, but he started his season late after major shoulder surgery and has just a .296 OBP in the second half. Still, he’s got a solid .347 wOBA and has been worth nearly three wins, so he’s a worthwhile player. He also tried to murder Javy Guerra last year, in a game where I was sitting so close I could hear the ball smack off Guerra’s face, in addition to the aforementioned crybaby stuff. He’s backed by Evan Gattis, who has unbelievable raw power, a killer back-story, and not a whole lot else. I imagine glove-first Gerald Laird may make the team as well, since Gattis may play outfield.
1B — Braves fans want Freddie Freeman to get MVP votes. Braves fans are insane. Freeman isn’t even one of the two most valuable players in the league at his own position, not with Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto around. Still, Freeman has been very, very good for Atlanta this year, putting up just about five wins with an OBP only slightly under .400. He’s probably the team’s best offensive threat.
2B — Remember when Dan Uggla used to be the guy you’d put up with despite his awful defense because he crushed baseballs? Now he’s the guy with awful defense who hits .179 and has 33 homers over the last two seasons after hitting more than 30 in each of the previous four. Uggla’s actually hitting worse than ever — .135/.289/.234 — since the All-Star break, and he’s been splitting time recently with Elliot Johnson, who is on his third organization of the year and has a .271 career OBP. The position is a mess; the Braves strike out more than anyone in the National League, and Uggla is a big reason why.
SS — Andrelton Simmons is hitting .248/.296/.396. That’s lousy, and it does not matter. He’s not only the best defensive shortstop in baseball, he’s arguably one of the best you’ve ever seen, and even though he can’t really hit, he’s somehow managed to put 17 homers out of the park this year, meaning he’s not a complete zero at the plate. FanGraphs has him at 4.7 wins despite that line, which should tell you a lot about his defense. He’s not going to get any MVP love, but he probably should.
3B — Chris Johnson came over from Arizona with Justin Upton and has been one of the more confounding players in baseball, riding a high BABIP that never quite seemed to come down despite the fact that he’s not a speed player at all. He’s one of those guys where you are absolutely certain that he isn’t any good, but you can’t really refute .321/.358/.457. I don’t understand baseball sometimes. This is one of those times.
LF — This was supposed to have been Justin Upton, but B.J. Upton has been such an incredible bust this year — .184/.268/.289 — that Justin has gone to right field so that Jason Heyward can replace B.J. in center. That means that it’s actually been Gattis playing in left more often than not, as he manned the position 20 times in the final 24 games. The problem with that is that Gattis has stopped hitting (.209/.250/.395 since August 1) and is among the most hilariously awful defensive outfielders I’ve ever seen in my entire life. If the Dodgers did nothing but hit it to left while Gattis was out there, it’d be an easy series win.
CF — After months of letting Upton try to work out his issues, the Braves have had regular right fielder Jason Heyward playing in center, starting there just about every day since his return from a broken jaw when Jon Niese hit him in the face. You’ll remember that Heyward came up with Mike Trout / Bryce Harper hype around him, and while he hasn’t quite lived up to that, he’s still been very good, adding plus defense to a dangerous bat to collect 3.5 wins despite missing about 50 games, and he’s still only in his age-23 season. He’s the guy that scares me.
RF — Justin Upton has had a really weird season. He hit 12 homers in a white-hot April, then 8 more in a very good August. But he had just seven in the other four months combined. What does that mean? I have no idea. He’s also got some massive L/R splits, hitting over 200 points better in OPS against lefties — and the Dodgers do throw two lefties at him in the first three games.
Rotation — Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, and Julio Teheran will start the first three games for Atlanta, with Paul Maholm likely to be the fourth starter. (Brandon Beachy hurt his elbow again, while Tim Hudson was lost for the year after that gruesome broken ankle. Rookie sensation Alex Wood will be moved to the bullpen.)
Medlen, who will start against Clayton Kershaw on Thursday, didn’t quite live up to his absurd “10-1, 1.57 after returning from elbow surgery” run that he put together last year, but still had a quality 3.11 ERA / 3.48 FIP season. The lefty Minor was the team’s most effective starter (3.37 FIP), though that would still only make him the fifth best Dodger starter, and that’s this team’s main problem — lots of good starting pitching, but arguably no ace, at least no one like Kershaw or Zack Greinke. Teheran (3.20 / 3.69) had a wonderful rookie season, enough to get him the Rookie of the Year award most years, but most years don’t have Puig and Jose Fernandez and Shelby Miller and on and on and on…
Bullpen — Craig Kimbrel is arguably the most dominating closer in baseball, but this isn’t the same Atlanta bullpen of the last few years who had Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters forming an unstoppable trio along with their closer. That pair is both injured, so instead the Braves rely on little-known righties Anthony Varvaro (3.47 FIP in 62 games) and David Carpenter (2.89 FIP in 55 games), along with lefty lefty Luis Avilan (3.28 FIP in 74 games). Former Angels Jordan Walden (2.81 FIP in 50 games) and July trade acquisition Scott Downs (2.62 FIP in 25 games with Atlanta) figure in as well, but the secret weapon here is probably Wood, who has a funky delivery and returns to the bullpen after 11 solid starts. Overall, the Atlanta bullpen’s 3.14 FIP ranks as the best in baseball. By ERA, it’s the lowest since the 2003 Dodgers, so… these guys are good.
My prediction? I’m really terrified at what the outfield is going to look like, and Paco Rodriguez and Ronald Belisario both struggling at the same time is a concern in the bullpen. Still, Kershaw, Greinke, Puig, Hanley Ramirez, and Adrian Gonzalez can right a lot of wrongs. Dodgers in five.