Just a handful of games remaining, and five division winners are confirmed, and the sixth nearly so. The NL wildcard teams are also essentially confirmed, but a different story in the AL with three teams chasing two spots, and none of them close to being safe and dry. This post looks at the NL contenders, with its AL companion to appear shortly. More after the jump.
The Braves and Dodgers are returning as division champs, the latter for the 7th consecutive season. Only the Braves have had a longer run of division titles than LA, with 11 straight for Atlanta from 1995 to 2005 (or 14 straight from 1991, excluding the aborted 1994 season). Like LA in this decade, those Braves teams found it hard to convert division titles into World Series wins, doing so only once.
For the Cardinals, it’s their first division title and first post-season appearance since 2015. That year, the Redbirds made the post-season for the twelfth time in sixteen years, a run that included four pennants and two World Series titles.
The Nationals and Brewers will go one round for the chance to join the division leaders in the division series round. It will be the first wild-card game for both franchises. The Brewers last season extended the Dodgers to the limit in the NLCS, while the Nats have four previous NLDS appearances (the last two seasons ago), but have failed to win any of them.
The Dodgers and Nationals look to have the edge in starting pitching over the others, with the Braves and Cardinals next, and the Brewers bringing up the rear. Washington and LA both have three qualified starters with .500 or better records and 120 ERA+ (and the Nats may have a fourth by season’s end), the Braves and Cards have two, while the Brewers will likely have no qualified starters, period. While it may be fashionable these days to suppose that starting pitching isn’t that important in the post-season, having three reliable starters who give you a good chance to win still works really well in the post-season, not least because a more rested relief corps is nearly always more effective.
Among relievers, the Cards look solid, and the Dodgers, Brewers and Braves appear sound. That leaves the Nats, with just about the worst relief corps in baseball; luckily for Washington, they use their relievers less than any other team, almost 200 innings less than the Brewers who have the busiest relievers of the NL post-season qualifiers. The Cardinals relief corps will need to be good to help out young starters in their first post-season. Getting length from their starters will be key for the Dodgers and Braves, to help mitigate vulnerabilities in capable but not stellar relief corps. Should the Brewers make the division round, their spotty starting pitching will likely result in an overtaxed and less effective bullpen, as occurred in last season’s playoffs.
Dodger pitchers have been equally effective against left-handed and right-handed batters, posting identical 3.44 ERAs in these splits, in each case the best in baseball this season. The other four teams fare better against right-handed batters, especially the Brewers. The Cardinals are notably lacking in left-handed pitching, both in their rotation and in the bullpen, a vulnerability likely to be exposed come October.
On offense, the Dodgers, Braves and Nats rank 1-2-3 in the NL in runs scored, but the edge has to go to LA with better balance from both sides of the plate, more patient hitters (Dodgers rank third in most walks and third in fewest strikeouts), and a wealth of post-season experience. Starting games, all the teams are tightly bunched near the top in OPS for innings 1-3, except the Cardinals who are near the bottom. In innings 4-6, the Dodgers maintain their placement near the top while the others are around the middle third of teams. At the end of games, the Dodgers and Braves have the two highest team OPS scores in innings 7-9, with the Nationals not too far behind, and the Brewers and Cards further back.
To beat the Braves and Brewers, their opponents need to take an early lead; when ahead after 5 innings, both teams have a .920+ winning percentage, notably higher than the other three, including 100 points higher than the Dodgers. An early lead may not be safe against LA which has a .358 winning percentage when trailing after 5 innings, with the Cards and Braves cards at .267 and .233 respectively, and the others are under .200. The Nats and Brewers really can’t afford to fall behind at all; both have an average winning percentage under .175 when trailing after each of the 1st through 8th innings.
Head-to-head matchups, and other splits, look like this:
Records during September are a good barometer for making the playoffs, with 58% of playoff teams having a .600 or better September record, and only 10% having a losing record for the month. The numbers are similar though less pronounced for pennant winners; in the divisional era since 1969, 53% of pennant winners played .600 ball in September, and only 13% had a losing record. If the Brewers make it into the division round, the risk is their September juggernaut starts to slow (it’s really tough to maintain anything like an .800 winning percentage for more than a month), as was the case with the Indians in 2017.
So, who’s going to win in the senior circuit? My money would be on the Dodgers and Braves meeting in the NLCS, with LA taking the title on the strength of depth and experience. So, who do you like?