Breaking Down Los Angeles Dodgers' Pitching Matchups vs. Atlanta Braves
Game 1 of the NLDS is Thursday afternoon, and the highly anticipated matchup between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves kicks off at 8:37 p.m. ET on TBS (games can be viewed online here with proper authentication). The two teams’ rotations are a contrast in styles: The Dodgers feature a highly paid, highly celebrated trio, while the Braves pitchers are homegrown.
Rosters were announced Wednesday, and pitching matchups have now been finalized.
Game 1: Clayton Kershaw vs. Kris Medlen
Kershaw is the Dodgers' ace, presumptive NL Cy Young favorite and major league baseball’s ERA leader for each of the past three years, but this season has been his finest. He posted a 51 ERA- and 66 FIP-, each of which is the best mark of his career. His success has been driven by a career-low walk rate, which has enabled him to keep batters off base at a career-low rate as well.
A key to his success will be his ability to neutralize Atlanta’s deep lineup, which features excellent hitters from both the right (Justin Upton) and left side (Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward). But Kershaw has, in fact, been able to get both lefties and righties out: He has allowed an OPS of .477 to lefties and .532 to righties.
Opposing him in the first game will be Kris Medlen, who is coming into the postseason throwing his best baseball of the year.
His full-season numbers of a 3.11 ERA and a 3.48 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, same scale as ERA) indicate an above-average pitcher, but not an ace. However, in his last six starts (dating back to August 29), he has allowed just four runs while striking out 39 and walking only eight.
The key to his success throughout his career—but especially last year during his unbelievable season—has been an ability to avoid walks, and this year continued that trend (just 5.7 percent).
Game 2: Zack Greinke vs. Mike Minor
The Dodgers’ big-money acquisition this past offseason, Greinke has pitched like it despite an April stint on the disabled list. He still managed to make 28 starts and he racked up 148 strikeouts and just 46 walks. All of that adds up to a 2.63 ERA, which ranks fifth in baseball and is good for a 135 ERA+, or the best mark of his career since his 2009 Cy Young season.
Minor is another member of the Braves’ stable of young pitching. The lefty enjoyed a breakout year, with a 3.21 ERA that is almost an entire run below his 4.12 ERA from last year (his first full season).
Like Medlen, he excels at avoiding the free pass: His 5.6 percent walk rate is well below this season’s major league average of 7.9. His success comes from combining that mark with a strikeout rate that is also above league average (22.1 percent, compared to 19.9).
Unlike Medlen, though, Minor hasn’t been lights out recently. In each of his last six starts, he’s allowed at least two runs, and had a 4.15 ERA. The key to his struggles was the home run ball; a 34/9 strikeout-to-walk rate is in line with his season ratio of 3.93, but he allowed nearly one-third of his home runs (seven of 22) during this recent stretch.
He could be vulnerable to the power that the Dodgers pack in the middle of their lineup with Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez.
Game 3: Hyun-Jin Ryu vs. Julio Teheran
Ryu is a soft-tossing lefty—his fastball is regularly around 91 miles per hour—who has found his success this year by limiting walks. His strikeout percentage (19.7 percent) is basically league average, but his 6.3 percent walk rate is significantly below the average mark of 7.9.
In his 192 innings, he demonstrated a reverse platoon split: His OPS allowed to lefties was .738, as compared to .633 against righties. While there is a significant sample size issue at play here (he faced nearly three times as many righties as lefties), a possible explanation is his changeup.
It’s the pitch he throws second-most often, and changeups are generally more effective against opposite-handed hitters—and Ryu is no exception. He uses it far more often against righties than lefties, it his most effective pitch at inducing swings and misses, and thus he is better against right-handed hitters.
Sharing the mound with Ryu will be Julio Teheran, a former top prospect who has made the leap to legitimate big league starter this year, as he posted a 3.20 ERA in 185.2 innings. His big development this year was an improved strikeout rate: 22 percent, compared to just 16.8 percent in AAA last year.
In addition, he has become a ground-ball pitcher, with a 37.8 ground-ball rate this year, representing a 15 percent increase over last season.
Game 4 (if Necessary): Ricky Nolasco vs. Freddy Garcia
These two veterans are the weak links of their respective rotations, but they are coming into the series on different trajectories.
Nolasco has struggled mightily in his last three starts—he gave up 19 runs in just 12 innings—even though he had been quite good up until that point (12 starts, 74 innings, 2.07 ERA). Which Nolasco will show up for the Dodgers is a legitimate question, and it is obviously an important one.
Through his career with Miami, his peripherals were better than his performance: His FIP (which measures a pitcher’s performance based on just strikeouts, walks and home runs) was significantly better than his ERA every year from 2009-2012.
This year, though, he looked to have fixed that problem. If he can get back on track and be the pitcher he was during his hot streak, he will be a valuable asset; if he can’t, manager Don Mattingly will have a quick hook.
Garcia made 13 starts in the major leagues this year, 10 with Baltimore and three with Atlanta. His 4.37 ERA is uninspiring, but he made the playoff roster over Paul Maholm—presumably because he brings 10 career postseason starts with him. What type of performance the Braves will get from him is a mystery, but his recent string will leave them optimistic.
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