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Los Angeles Dodgers v Atlanta Braves Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images

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Four thoughts heading into a Dodgers-Braves NLCS

Best-of-seven series starts Monday night at Globe Life Field.

The top two seeds in the National League, and the only remaining undefeated teams this postseason, will meet in the NLCS beginning Monday night (5:08 p.m. PT, Fox). Here are some thoughts about the Dodgers vs. Braves, a rematch of sorts from 2018, when these two teams met in the NLDS.

Many valuable players

Mookie Betts won the American League MVP in 2018 and is a top contender for the NL award in 2020. The possible favorite is Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, who hit .341/.462/.640. Betts and Freeman finished first and second in WAR, with Betts leading the Baseball-Reference version and Freeman holding the FanGraphs top spot.

Both were sublime with runners in scoring position, with Freeman hitting .423/.584/.885, a 264 wRC+, and Betts checking in at .439/.489/.805, a 237 wRC+. They finished first and second in wRC+ with RISP, and second and third in batting average.

Dodgers & Braves, ranked by wRC+

Dodgers wRC+ Braves wRC+
Dodgers wRC+ Braves wRC+
Smith 163 Freeman 187
Seager 151 Ozuna 179
Betts 149 Acuña Jr. 159
Turner 140 d'Arnaud 145
Pollock 132 Swanson 116
Taylor 131 Duvall 116
Bellinger 114 Albies 103
Muncy 100 Markakis 89
Barnes 94 Riley 89
minimum 100 PA Source: FanGraphs

You could argue that between the Dodgers and Braves, the top two offenses in baseball, there will be four, maybe five players who finish in the top 10 in NL MVP voting this year. Marcell Ozuna led the NL in home runs (18) and RBI (56), and came within shouting distance of a triple crown by hitting .338/.431/.636. Corey Seager had a resurgent season, hitting the ball harder than at any point in his career (93.2 mph average exit velocity), on his way to 15 home runs while hitting .307/.358/.585.

Ronald Acuña Jr. missed 10 games with a hamstring injury, but was still dynamic at the top of Atlanta’s lineup, hitting .250/.406/.581.

There’s also 2019 NL MVP a Cody Bellinger, who battled slumps at a few points during the season, but has rebounded to his .362/.492/.702 over his last 13 games, including at least one hit in all five postseason games. He homered in Game 2 against the Padres, then tripled and drove in three runs in the Game 3 clincher.

“I think his at-bat quality from at-bat to at-bat is considerably better than it has been all year. I think his defensive engagement is as good as it’s been all year,” manager Dave Roberts said of Bellinger. “So I expect Cody to continue to impact this next series.”

Both teams had four players with a 140 wRC+ or better in at least 100 plate appearances. The Dodgers were the only team with six players with a 130 wRC+.

These lineups are deep, is what I’m getting at.

Batting backstops

Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud had the third-best wRC+ and most RBI among major league catchers this season, and bats fourth for Atlanta. Will Smith had the best wRC+, bats fifth for the Dodgers, and is the designated hitter on days he doesn’t catch.

D’Arnaud was a Dodger for five days in 2019, and in the NLDS drove in seven runs in three games, thanks to two home runs and two doubles. Smith snapped a hard-hitting 0-for-11 skid with the first five-hit game in Dodgers postseason history on Thursday.

But that’s not all for the Dodgers, with Austin Barnes collecting two hits in each of his starts in October. This postseason, Smith and Barnes are 9-for-22 (.409). In the 2018-19 postseasons combined, Dodgers catchers were 9-for-75 (.120), part of a four-year run (2016-19) in which LA catchers hit only .148/.268/.272. It’s better now.

More than dingers

These two teams lapped the field in home runs, with the Dodgers hitting 118 and the Braves 103. No other team in the majors hit more than 96. Los Angeles scored 51.3 percent of its runs off home runs, with the Braves at 48.3 percent, well above the NL average of 43.6 percent.

But they are more than just home run hitters. The Braves had the highest on-base percentage in baseball (.349), were second in batting average (.268), and still averaged 3.0 runs per game without their homers, the third-highest number in the NL.

NLCS matchup

Stat Dodgers Braves
Stat Dodgers Braves
Record 43-17 (1st) 36-24 (t-7th)
Run differential +136 (1st) +60 (t-3rd)
Runs scored 5.82/gm (1st) 5.80/gm (2nd)
HR 118 (1st) 103 (2nd)
SB 29 (12th) 23 (t-18th)
BA .256 (11th) .268 (2nd)
OBP .338 (5th) .349 (1st)
SLG .4829 (1st) .4826 (2nd)
OPS .821 (2nd) .832 (1st)
OPS+ 121 (2nd) 116 (5th)
wRC+ 122 (t-1st) 121 (3rd)
Runs allowed 3.55 (2nd) 4.80 (15th)
ERA 3.02 (1st) 4.46 (15th)
FIP 3.79 (2nd) 4.42 (13th)
ERA+ 141 (1st) 108 (t-12th)
FIP- 87 (5th) 100 (15th)
K-BB% 17.1 (7th) 12.6% (22nd)
(MLB rank)

The Dodgers averaged 2.83 runs per game on non-homers, but so far this season have still managed to average six runs per game despite only hitting two home runs in five games. That includes 23 runs in three games in the cavernous Globe Life Field, with only one home run.

“We’re not a one-track offense,” third baseman Justin Turner said. “We can score runs in a ton of different ways.”

Where the Dodgers’ advantage might lie on offense is in avoiding the whiff. Los Angeles hitters had the third-lowest strikeout rate in the majors (20.3 percent), while the Braves ranked 21st at 24.5 percent. That matches up with the pitching as well, with the Dodgers above average in K rate (23.8 percent) and the Braves below average (22.2 percent).

Shift happens

Perhaps the biggest difference between the Dodgers and Braves is their defensive philosophy. The Dodgers shift their fielders on 55.8 percent of all plate appearances, most in MLB per Baseball Savant, while the Braves shift only 7.6 percent of the time. The team that shifts the second-least is San Diego, at 18.8 percent.

“Mike Voltmer is the guy that kind of leads the charge on our defensive positioning with baseball ops,” Roberts said. “He’s got such a good rapport with Dino [Ebel, third base coach and infield coach] and George [Lombard, first base coach and outfield coach], and also with the pitching guys. It’s good because we do convert a lot of balls in play into outs.”

Defensive measures run the gamut, with Ultimate Zone Rating pegging both the Dodgers and Braves as below average teams, while the Fielding Bible has the Dodgers’ Defensive Runs Saved from the four infield positions at +11, and the Braves at +1. Outs Above Average, at Baseball Savant, has the Braves at night seven runs prevented and the Dodgers at five runs prevented, in total.

Defensive efficiency, the rate that batted balls in play are turned into outs, is a collaborative effort between the fielders and pitchers. The Dodgers turn 74.7 percent of batted balls in play into outs, second-best in the majors, compared to 70.5 percent for the Braves, essentially at league average.

“Those block base hits the other way are always at the front of mind for pitchers and infield coaches,” Roberts said. “But the balls in the six hole, the four hole, the line shots up the middle that we have a defender there, a lot of times those get lost, but those still count. I think we do a really good job.”

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