The Washington Nationals made the MLB playoffs just once as the Montreal Expos thanks to the 1994 strike. They’ll take the field in the postseason for the third time in five years on Friday for Game 1 at Nationals Park. The Los Angeles Dodgers are in the playoffs for the fourth straight year, but a loss in this series would be nothing more than more postseason disappointment.
There’s obviously a lot on the line in the National League Division Series, but the stakes seem to be a lot higher for these two teams. The Nationals have never won a playoff series in franchise history. They lost in the NLCS in 1981, but that was before the wild card era, so there was no division series. The Dodgers, with the biggest payroll in baseball over the last few seasons, haven’t made it past the NLCS since they won the 1988 World Series.
Here are the pre-series odds for the NL pennant and the series price for this cross-country matchup courtesy of BetDSI Sportsbook:
Los Angeles Dodgers: +285/-161
Washington Nationals: +375/+146
Here is the schedule for this series:
Game 1 @ WAS: Friday Oct. 7, 5:38 p.m. (Kershaw vs. Scherzer)
Game 2 @ WAS: Saturday Oct. 8, 4:08 p.m. (Hill vs. Roark)
Game 3 @ LAD: Monday Oct. 10, TBD (Maeda vs. Gonzalez)
Game 4 @ LAD: Tuesday Oct. 11, TBD* (TBD vs. TBD)
Game 5 @ WAS: Thursday Oct. 13, TBD* (TBD vs. TBD)
* - if necessary; starters subject to change
Like I did last season, I’ll break the series down into four categories: Offense, starting pitching, bullpen, and intangibles (defense, manager, HFA, etc.).
The Los Angeles Dodgers have to have the edge here. They’ve been a terrible offense against left-handed pitching all season, but they’re only going to see one left-handed starter in this series and their performance against southpaws has dragged down their overall numbers. The Dodgers were sixth in wOBA against righties and second in wRC+ because of their park factor at Dodger Stadium. This was an excellent lineup in that split.
The biggest reason that the Dodgers have such a huge edge is because the Nationals are dealing with a ton of injuries. Wilson Ramos suffered a torn ACL late in the season. Bryce Harper has been hampered by injuries throughout the second half and has not been productive at all. Daniel Murphy has had leg injuries that have kept him out of the lineup a lot recently.
It isn’t a great representation of anything and I don’t think it’s all that predictive, but the Nationals posted a .313 wOBA and a 91 wRC+ over the last 30 days. Trea Turner has been magnificent in all facets of the game, which has been a saving grace for the Nationals because Harper has tailed off throughout the season. He hit 19 HR in the first half and then hit five in the second half. He posted a .709 OPS in the second half after an .891 OPS in the first half.
Corey Seager drives the offensive bus for the Dodgers with his .308/.365/.512 slash. The Dodgers rookie hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. Justin Turner has some big reverse platoon splits, which help against righties. Joc Pederson and Yasmani Grandal walk and hit for power.
If the Nationals were healthy, this would be pretty even, but the edge has to go to the Dodgers here in this particular spot. With Yasiel Puig back and hitting, that’s another weapon for the Dodgers that cane have a big series.
There is no better example of playoff variance than the fact that Clayton Kershaw, the absolute best pitcher on the planet, has a 4.59 ERA in 10 starts and three relief appearances. He has 77 strikeouts in 64.2 innings of work. He’s been victimized by sequencing bad luck and there’s nothing more to it than that. People like to discredit Kershaw’s full body of work because of his playoff struggles and that’s laughable. The guy is elite. Small sample sizes don’t mean a whole lot and this is another case. He’ll get the ball in Game 1 and the Dodgers are a clear road favorite at -140.
Rich Hill gets the nod in Game 2. When he’s healthy, he’s unhittable. His endless blister problem has been a hardship for the Dodgers, but he’s a high-strikeout, low-walk guy that is incredibly hard to barrel. The stuff is excellent. In six starts for the Dodgers, Hill struck out 39 batters in 34.1 innings. On the whole this season, he has 129 K in 110.1 innings of work. He’s given up just 77 hits and only four home runs. He should be road chalk in Game 2.
Kenta Maeda is likely to go in Game 3 for the Dodgers. The Japanese rookie has been quite solid this season with a 3.48 ERA, a 3.58 FIP, and a 3.70 xFIP. Making the start at home should be helpful for him since he has the most HR issues of the Dodgers starters that will go in this series. The conditions at Chavez Ravine should be perfect for him here. The Dodgers will be a clear favorite here as well.
Max Scherzer has had some home run issues this season, but we all know how dominant the stuff can be. The guy had a 20-strikeout game earlier this season. Even with the HR problems, Scherzer finished with a 2.96 ERA, a 3.24 FIP, and a 3.37 xFIP. This is definitely a battle of titans in Game 1. Scherzer will have to be good for the Nationals to have any chance in this series. He has that upside and I’d expect to see people fading the perception of Clayton Kershaw in the playoffs for Game 1.
Tanner Roark will start Game 2 because Stephen Strasburg is on the shelf. Nobody benefitted more from the hiring of Mike Maddux than Tanner Roark. Roark found a changeup to go with his sinker and it led to a 2.83 ERA with a 3.79 FIP and a 4.17 xFIP. No worries on the xFIP, since it assumes a league average HR/FB%, which Roark wasn’t going to have. Roark is more dependent on batted ball luck than any other starter in this series, though, so I do have some concerns. The stuff is good and he induces a lot of weak contact, but it’s contact nonetheless. He’s the biggest wild card. We’ve seen guys like him have great starts in the postseason, but we’ve also seen them struggle.
Gio Gonzalez is a tough guy to peg. The Dodgers cannot hit lefties, but Gio’s really struggled in a lot of ways this season. His K/BB rates are just fine, but his command has not been great. After allowing just eight homers in 175.2 innings last season, Gio has allowed 19 HR in 177.1 innings this season. That’s why his ERA ballooned up to 4.57, the higher it has been in a full season in his career. He could be a sneaky value play as a big dog because the Dodgers just don’t hit lefties and this is a park that can help out his issues.
We’ll see if Julio Urias or Joe Ross works in for either team. The Dodgers have had a ton of pitching injuries, so we’ll have to see if there’s some reluctance from manager Dave Roberts to use Kershaw and/or Hill on short rest.
The Dodgers and Nationals both have solid bullpens. There’s a pretty big difference between the two pens, however. For the Dodgers, a massive chunk of the value comes from Kenley Jansen, who is an elite closer, but there have to be some worries in middle relief for the Dodgers. Their best middle reliever has been converted starter Joe Blanton. For the Nationals, it’s more of a committee approach.
The Dodgers took a hit with the news that Adam Liberatore needs shoulder surgery. He was a good left-handed option for the Dodgers and now they won’t have his services. That really weakens the middle relief in a big way. Luis Avilan, Grant Dayton, Pedro Baez, and others are capable of missing bats, but there are some guys here with spotty control and command. It’ll be up to Roberts, a rookie manager in terms of the playoffs, to leverage the pen properly to bridge the gaps to Jansen. It does seem like an idea where the Dodgers are vulnerable.
The Nationals axed Jonathan Papelbon from the closer’s role and picked up Mark Melancon to close out games. Melancon has been outstanding for the Nationals and Shawn Kelley has been one of the game’s most valuable middle relievers. There’s a decent amount of experience in the Nationals pen, particularly with the lefties like Marc Rzepczynski and Oliver Perez.
I’d give the Nationals an edge in the bullpen department. So much of Los Angeles’s bullpen value is tied to a shutdown closer like Jansen and he’ll finish the game if the Dodgers have a lead in the ninth, but we’ll have to see how many opportunities he gets at four or five-out saves.
Both teams are lacking in this area I think. The Dodgers have a rookie manager in Dave Roberts. The Nationals have a bad manager in Dusty Baker. Baker is a good manager with players and he’s a good guy with the media, but he’s not much of a tactician and that could prove to be a big problem in this series. Lineup construction, situational baseball, and reliever usage are three huge keys to the postseason and I’m not sure that Dusty Baker is the guy that you want in any of those three areas. It’s entirely possible that the Dodgers have a slight edge here, even with the less experienced guy.
The travel is a problem in this series. I have a hard time seeing the Nationals going to LA up 2-0 with Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill on the mound. I think going west to east is easier than going east to west, so that’s a problem for the Nationals. That’s especially true because of the format of the series. The Dodgers can get to Washington, settle in, and adjust. The Nationals have to adjust right away on the fly during that built-in off day for travel. The Nationals are hurt more, in my humble opinion, by having home field than they are helped in this situation.
As far as defense goes, the Dodgers have a pretty clear edge in defensive runs saved and the range metrics. That’s a big deal because the Kershaw/Hill/Maeda rotation should allow fewer balls in play than the Scherzer/Roark/Gonzalez rotation. In a small sample size, it’s hard to put too much value on something like this, but it is worth mentioning.
Series Prediction: Los Angeles in 4
There’s a chance that the Dodgers outright sweep this series. I’m not high on the Nationals in a postseason format with Dusty Baker and with the problems that they are having offensively. The Dodgers are going to have that home field advantage in this series because of what I just mentioned with the travel issues for the Nationals. The Nationals absolutely need that first game with Scherzer or this could be very, very quick.