Are the Atlanta Braves the biggest threat to the Los Angeles Dodgers, or is it the other way around? A case could be made for either declaration.
There isn’t a lot we can say definitively about this baseball season, with its short run and wonky, siloed schedule format. The Dodgers have been the consensus pick to win the World Series for months, arguably since Feb. 10 — the day L.A. acquired Mookie Betts from Boston. The regular season only solidified that rough consensus, as the Dodgers posted the fifth-best winning percentage in history, supported by a run differential (plus-136) at least 62% better than every other club in the majors.
Yet, there is a problem with such a consensus, beyond the small sample size of a 60-game mini-season. The Dodgers played only nine of the other 29 clubs during the regular season, same as the Braves and everyone else. There were no common opponents among any of the teams who will ultimately meet in the League Championship Series round. Thus declaring the Dodgers as the No. 1 team is an article of speculation, much like a wire service college football poll.
So what’s the Braves’ case?
After Ian Anderson and the deep, veteran Atlanta bullpen throttled the Miami Marlins 2-0 on Wednesday, the Braves are one game away from their second straight sweep to begin the postseason. Three of their four wins have been shutouts. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, only two other teams have ever put up three shutouts in four games to start a postseason. Both of those teams — the 1905 John McGraw New York Giants and the 1966 pre-Earl Weaver Baltimore Orioles — won the World Series.
That’s good trivia but also a side point. The collective 1.13 ERA of the Atlanta pitching staff — including 1.59 for the starting pitchers — suggests that in an era when postseason pitching is so good that teams almost have to hit the ball out of the park to score, the Braves are positioned to go toe-to-toe with anyone. Even the Dodgers.
Anderson has emerged as a phenom since making his big league debut earlier this season. With his 5⅔ shutout innings against Miami on Wednesday, his career line including two postseason starts is 5-2 with a 1.43 ERA, 58 strikeouts in 44 innings and only one home run allowed. The success of Anderson’s changeup is becoming the stuff of legend. According to TruMedia, Anderson has thrown 234 changeups, against which opponents are hitting .079 with a .111 slugging percentage. Good luck with that, hitters.
“It doesn’t seem like the moment ever matters to him,” Braves manager Brian Snitker marveled after Wednesday’s game. “He just keeps pitching and trusting his stuff. (He’s always the) same guy. What a good sign, right?”
Indeed. While the injuries piled up among the projected members of the Atlanta rotation — 2019 Cy Young contender Mike Soroka and veteran lefty Cole Hamels, while future Hall of Famer Felix Hernandez opted out — the starting staff emerged as the Braves’ Achilles’ heel. The bullpen was outstanding. The offense was almost as potent as that of the Dodgers’ at the bottom line, and was arguably more diverse.
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It was a shame, too, because while teams can maneuver around a thin rotation during most postseason runs, with four rounds to traverse and a lack of off days during the division series and LCS rounds, this was no time to be short on starting pitchers. But Max Fried emerged as a Cy Young contender, at least giving the Braves one solid outing each turn through the rotation. There was criticism after the trade deadline came and went without Atlanta adding to the mix, but as it has turned out, GM Alex Anthopoulos made the right call by betting on what has always marked the best Braves teams: starting pitching developed within the organization.
Fried and Anderson have taken all four turns so far for the Braves, but another young starter, Kyle Wright, gets his first playoff shot in Thursday’s Game 3, with a chance to close out the Marlins. Wright, who loomed large in prospect rankings in recent years, had been in part a source of the general anxiety surrounding the Braves’ rotation.
Through Wright’s start on Sept. 13 — a win over the Nationals in which he pitched into and out of a lot of trouble — Wright was 1-7 with a 7.46 ERA over 10 career starts. But his two starts since then have been his best, with only two runs allowed over 13 innings. Of course, it’s way too soon to declare that Wright has turned the corner. Then again, he will be handed the ball in an elimination game Thursday in the second round of the playoffs, which speaks to the faith that his manager has in him.
“I’m super excited to watch him go out there and do his thing,” Anderson said. “He’s a super smart pitcher out there and knows what to do.”
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Catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who has homered in two straight games while earning an endless stream of plaudits from his pitchers and manager, simply said, “(Wright) has started to believe in his stuff.”
That means there is a lot on the line for Atlanta on Thursday, when you consider what — and who — is waiting for them in a few days, if indeed they can close out the plucky Marlins. Because if the Braves suddenly have a three-pronged rotation of young studs to go with their bullpen and that lineup … can we really say the Dodgers are the clear favorite?
Well, we probably will, because the Dodgers have proved themselves time and again over a multiyear period of dominance, and it looks as if they might have their best club yet this season. But if there is one team built to beat the Dodgers, it isn’t a Padres team missing its two best pitchers, it’s the often overlooked denizens of Cobb County, Georgia.
We ask again: Are the Braves the biggest threat to the Dodgers or is it the other way around? Both clubs have some work to do to set up a showdown, but it’s looking increasingly as if the Braves will get a chance to state their case in a few days.