On Winning the Right to Not Play the Dodgers

With one weekend left in the regular season, there are some important things still at stake. In the American League wild-card race, for example, the Rangers are still alive, one back of the Indians and two back of the Rays. The Pirates and the Reds will go head-to-head, basically to decide who gets home field in next week’s likely one-game playoff. And the Braves and Cardinals will figure out who finishes with the National League’s best record. They’re not about to play one another, but they’re each about to play three games, and the team with the best record will face the not-Dodgers in the NLDS.

And that would be nice, since the Dodgers have gone 61-26 since they started 30-42. Right now, the Braves and the Cardinals have the same record. The Braves, also, hold the tiebreaker, having won the season series against St. Louis, so at this point we’re looking at Braves vs. wild card and Cardinals vs. Dodgers. But it’s not set in stone, so, clearly, the teams have something left to play for as they prepare for October. No team would ever admit it’s afraid of another team, but the Dodgers don’t look like a favorable draw.

I’m not going to tell you how long I spent futzing around with math. I didn’t really get anywhere. Baseball is complicated, and the playoffs don’t work like the regular season. In my head, the idea of this post contained a lot more numbers, but the actual post is going to be mostly words. One thing I think we can accept is that the Dodgers look better than the Pirates and the Reds. Those are the three potential NLDS opponents for the Braves and Cardinals, and the Dodgers lead the NL in second-half WAR, by a good margin. Also, they have that record. We can’t justifiably ignore the previous record, from when they were struggling, but important parts of the team have changed since, so we more heavily weight what’s recent. There’s an argument that the Dodgers are the NL’s best team.

But there is another thing I think we can accept: the Pirates and the Reds are good. The Pirates are just behind the Dodgers in the NL in second-half WAR. The Reds are in the upper third, and they recently got Johnny Cueto back. It’s very easy to focus on one thing come playoff time, so it’s easy to focus on how the Dodgers tore up baseball there for a stretch. Hard stretch to forget. But what matters to the Braves and Cardinals isn’t that the Dodgers are really good — what matters is the difference between the Dodgers and another opponent. The Reds and Pirates are solid ballclubs. Even if the Dodgers were a juggernaut, which they’re not, they’d be stoppable, so worry about the Dodgers is more of a talking point than an actual point.

There is one thing in particular about the Dodgers that makes them terrifying, though. And that’s the idea that they could throw Clayton Kershaw two times in a five-game series. Kershaw is baseball’s best starting pitcher, and if you give him those two wins, which doesn’t take much of a leap, then in the other three games the Dodgers would need to go just 1-2 to advance. Nobody wants to face Kershaw once. Certainly no one wants to face Kershaw twice, in a week. But this, too, can be analyzed, beyond just pointing out that Kershaw’s going to run away with the Cy Young.

Face the Pirates and you could see A.J. Burnett twice. Burnett is sitting on a 75 FIP-. Face the Reds and you could see Homer Bailey twice. Bailey is sitting on an 83 FIP-. There’s also the matter of who the Braves and Cardinals might throw. The Cardinals might oppose Kershaw twice with Adam Wainwright twice. The Braves haven’t figured out their rotation, but it’s not like they’re missing quality arms.

In Kershaw starts this year, the Dodgers allowed 2.64 runs per nine innings. Overall, the Dodgers averaged 4.05 runs scored per nine innings, which would give them a hypothetical Kershaw-specific 0.677 Pythagorean winning percentage. In Wainwright starts this year, the Cardinals allowed 3.04 runs per nine innings. Overall, the Cardinals averaged 4.85 runs scored per nine innings, which would give them a hypothetical Wainwright-specific 0.700 Pythagorean winning percentage. This is just being used as an example, but it’s easy to focus on the identity of the opposing pitcher. There’s more to the game than that, including your own starting pitcher. It doesn’t begin and end with Clayton Kershaw, and one is reminded of last year’s World Series, in which Justin Verlander lost to Barry Zito.

Here’s maybe the simplest way to say Kershaw’s far from unbeatable: this year, in his starts, the Dodgers went 18-14. The numbers should be better than that, and they were last year and the year before, but while Kershaw would give the Dodgers the pitching advantage over anyone in a game, it’s all a matter of percentages. The starting pitcher moves the needle less than it feels like he should.

Kershaw is outstanding because he’s so much better than an ordinary pitcher. In the playoffs, there are fewer ordinary players, such that playoff-ordinary is better than season-ordinary. Everybody has to go through good teams and good players, and Kershaw is just another step up. He’s better than Burnett, and he’s better than Bailey, but he’s better by a somewhat small margin, so losses are by no means guaranteed.

Here’s an incomplete selection of potentially relevant numbers. Team records in postseason starts by ace-level pitchers:

I could’ve looked up more, but I don’t think it would change much. Those are some of the best starters in recent baseball history, all with plenty of October experience. In their combined playoff starts, their teams have gone 135-107, good for a .558 winning percentage that equates to a 90-72 record over a regular season. The pitchers have won more than they’ve lost, but they haven’t won like they have in the regular season, because everybody’s better in the playoffs. It’s an advantage to have the best pitcher, but it’s not an enormous one.

Which is to say, Clayton Kershaw can be defeated. The most likely outcome is that, if Kershaw were to start two games in the NLDS, the Dodgers would win one and lose one. Of course, the Braves and Cardinals would prefer to skip this entirely. Probably, it would be easier to beat the Pirates. Probably, it would be easier to beat the Reds. It just wouldn’t be that much easier, so it’s not like there’s room for many strong opinions.

The Cardinals might have a stronger preference. They’ve been one of the worst teams at hitting left-handed pitchers, and the Dodgers could have three lefty starts in a five-game series, with Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu. The Pirates would be scheduled for one lefty start, presuming Francisco Liriano starts the one-game playoff. The Reds would be scheduled for zero. So the Cardinals could have more to gain by finishing clear of the Braves. But a very similar Cardinals team abused lefties in 2012. Single-season platoon splits don’t always reflect true talents, so, again, this probably wouldn’t be the deciding factor. There would be no single deciding factor.

Where we’ve gotten with all this: the Dodgers are probably a tougher playoff opponent than the Pirates and the Reds. The difference is real, but presumably not massive. Nobody wants to face Clayton Kershaw twice in a best-of-five series. The recent history of aces in the playoffs, however, shows that they lose, pretty often, because everybody in the playoffs is good. The Cardinals might have a particular interest in skipping a lefty-heavy series, but then, they might not. This weekend, it will be determined whether the Dodgers will face the Braves or the Cardinals. Plenty will subsequently be written about how the Dodgers look terrific behind their Cy Young #1. That’s going to be true. The other teams are going to look terrific, too.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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DavidYoungTBLA
Member
DavidYoungTBLA
2 years 9 months ago

If teams actually fear the Dodgers, then they will assume that if they draw the WC team in the first-round, the Dodgers will win their first-round series, and that they will have to face LA in the NLCS anyway. Is it easy to beat that team in a best-of-five or a best-of-seven series?

You have to beat two of the three other teams in the playoffs; you only get to avoid one of them. Enough reason for me not to get worked about who I might face in the first round.

DavidYoungTBLA
Member
DavidYoungTBLA
2 years 9 months ago

*easier

snack man
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. But I wonder if the chances that a dud (here, just relatively) advances exceed the increased noise in the coin flips of a 5 game series versus a 7 game series.

B N
Guest
B N
2 years 9 months ago

I think the Braves are playing to get homefield advantage, where they’ve been quite strong this year. Not sure if the Cards have the same kind of home-mojo this year, but that would still probably be worth more than swapping opponents. Especially since it would also apply to the NLCS.

Brendan
Guest
Brendan
2 years 9 months ago

The Braves seem to have valued extra rest as more important than homefield. (Or just hoping for both).

They’ve given extra rest to starters while giving regular starts to Freddy Garcia and David Hale, moved Alex Wood to the bullpen early, and giving all position players 2-3 days off in the last 10ish games.

No idea whether or not it was the right decision but by the teams they’ve been fielding it didn’t seem like they placed a massive value on the first seed.

libradawg
Member
libradawg
2 years 9 months ago

Therein lies the problem: The value is there. Herein lies a separate problem: Justin hurt himself twice this year fouling balls off himself. Hudson done for good because he covered 1B. Heyward misses a massive amount of games because he stood in the batters box. Beachy hurt himself for standing on a pitchers mound. This isn’t exactly crashing into walls or catchers, they’ve suffered season-altering injuries performing the most minimal of baseball actions.

September has spoken and it says they’ve played a huge part in this being an issue in the first place. I’m not using injuries as an excuse as to why we have it worse than other teams, simply to justify the probably over-eagerness to rest players.

But no more. Minor and Teheran will close out the season and last night featured a lineup of Heyward, Justin, Freddie, CJ and Simmons. I guess Gonzalez realized it would be far more insulting to have the start we’ve had, the two smaller win streaks leading to the gigantic 14-game win streak, just so we DON’T finish with the best record? Today’s lineup will be a direct reflection of Atlanta entitlement to that distinction, trust me.

Anon21
Member
Anon21
2 years 9 months ago

Just a mild expansion along the same lines: if you’re the #1, you ensure you don’t have to get through the #2 and the #3 to make the World Series. (E.g., the #1 Cards know that one of the Braves or Dodgers will be eliminated before the NLCS.) if you’re 2, you’ll probably need to run the gauntlet of the Dodgers plus the team that won out over you—longer odds.

wily mo
Guest
wily mo
2 years 9 months ago

pedro should be 7-7

TheGrandslamwich
Member
TheGrandslamwich
2 years 9 months ago

The numbers may be underwhelming, but I certainly would feel more confident going into a 5 game series knowing I was going up against whatever the Pirates or Reds will throw at you as opposed to a Kershaw/Greinke combo.

As Moneyball says, anything can happen in a short playoff series, but I’d still like the odds for not facing the best pitcher in the game.

Aaron
Guest
Aaron
2 years 9 months ago

As bad as the Cardinals have been against lefties this year, they’ve also beaten Kershaw twice. Baseball is weird.

a5ehren
Guest
a5ehren
2 years 8 months ago

And the Braves have managed to duck Kershaw both of the last two seasons. They haven’t faced him since September 4, 2011.

Baseball is weird!

snack man
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

“61-26 since they started 30-42” wasn’t there something about sabermetricians not liking arbitrary end points?

B N
Guest
B N
2 years 8 months ago

Statistical mumbo jumbo that works for all purposes if you want to make something out of nothing:

“They’ve been playing great ever since that stretch where they played bad.”

Then, you just adjust the size of the “played great” to the appropriate length as needed.

TM
Guest
TM
2 years 8 months ago

The Dodgers team that did poorly is not the same as the team that did well. Injuries killed them early, so the divide in the season is not just statistical noise it’s an actual improvement in team quality.

1AZfan
Member
1AZfan
2 years 8 months ago

For more arbitrary end point fun: during that 61-26 stretch, they went 53-13, then finished the season 9-15.

1AZfan
Member
1AZfan
2 years 8 months ago

Oops, I added in the last three games of the season where they went 1-2. So actually it was a 62-28 stretch.

Mookie
Guest
Mookie
2 years 9 months ago

Sure, the likely outcome is 1-1 for Kershaw – the relevant question is how much more likely 2-0 is than 0-2.

Zen Madman
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

Technically, a juggernaut is unstoppable.

Henry
Guest
Henry
2 years 9 months ago

i was just going to say that

confused
Guest
confused
2 years 9 months ago

If an astronaut is someone who travels in space, is a juggernaut someone who travels in jugger? Or maybe a P-47 pilot?

Jon L.
Guest
Jon L.
2 years 9 months ago

18-14! The best pitcher on the world, and his team has a better record in games he doesn’t start than in games he does?

Baseball!

Gyre
Guest
Gyre
2 years 9 months ago

“One thing I think we can accept is that the Dodgers look better than the Pirates and the Reds. ”

You must be living in the recent past. This day’s Dodgers have faded

MrKnowNothing
Guest
MrKnowNothing
2 years 9 months ago

Votto will walk through whomever the Reds face.

Walk through.

Walk.

Roger
Guest
Roger
2 years 9 months ago

Going against Kershaw twice and Greinke once is quite intimidating, more so than Kershaw alone, but Wainwright, Miller, and Wacha is no cakewalk either. The Braves’ rotation, despite their depth, is being held together with duct tape now.

The fact that the wild card play-in burns one of the winner’s better pitchers for the start of the DS is a significant advantage, maybe a few percentage points just as home field advantage is a few percentage points, but stack it up with home field and facing arguably one of the weaker playoff teams, and the odds become quite favorable.

You’d still have to face the 2 or 3 seed in the NLCS, but there’s the chance the Dodgers are knocked out. If your NLCS opponent used its ace twice in the DS, then he’s going to miss the first few games of the CS. You’ll see him twice at most, and the longer series improves your chances. In the old days a team came straight into a 7 game series and could throw a Cy candidate in games 1, 4, and 7 if it really wanted to. The extra round and the more cautious use of pitchers have changed that.

1AZfan
Member
1AZfan
2 years 8 months ago

Remember the old days when Randy Johnson threw over 100 pitches in game 6 then threw the last 1.1 innings in game 7 the very next day? Yeah, I really miss those old days.

libradawg
Member
libradawg
2 years 9 months ago

That’s a little myopic than what I would expect. So much so that you even flat-out admitted having THE ace doesn’t seem to matter in the long run. The Braves have a one-game series using Maddux incarnate while Detroit throws Verlander at the anemic Giants, and what’s that worth? 0. No, if you want to know why the Braves don’t want the Dodgers it’s actually fairly easy: Atlanta MUST have home field! Playing the Dodgers means we failed in getting that. Also, LAD can throw three lefties at us total if they wanted. We don’t do well there either. Gattis, BJU and Uggla would have to discover some seriously absent hitting ability in order for a Cardinals best record clinch to not mean a virtual certain first round exit.

1AZfan
Member
1AZfan
2 years 8 months ago

It must not be THAT important for the Braves to have homefield advantage if they’re a “certain first round exit” with homefield advantage…

Yes, I understand the Braves don’t hit lefties great, but if they really NEED homefield, they’ve got it both times they face Kershaw and one time against Greinke.

MSE
Guest
MSE
2 years 8 months ago

The Cardinals may not fear Kershaw all that much–over the last four years his ERA is well over 4 against them (see ESPN.com for the 2010-2012 and 2013 splits), and this year he was 0-2 with an ERA over 4 (2 starts, 13 innings). I’m not saying they have *contempt* for him–just that they clearly aren’t particularly intimidated at the thought of facing him. On the other hand, is 6-1 with an ERA of well under 3 for the last four years against them, including a 2 ER in 6.1 innings win in his only start against them this year.

MSE
Guest
MSE
2 years 8 months ago

Ooops, that should be “Greinke is” for the last part.

Nivra
Guest
Nivra
2 years 8 months ago

“The starting pitcher moves the needle less than it feels like he should.”

I think the reason for this is… that 9 times out of 10, the SP moves the needle less than he can.

A starting pitcher _can_ control the game to such a degree that you can’t lose as long as he’s still pitching. If he gives you 9 innings of shutout ball, you can’t lose. But 9 times out of 10, or maybe 99 times out of 100, he won’t give you that level of performance.

Nivra
Guest
Nivra
2 years 8 months ago

Concluding sentence:

So there’s a confusion between the fullest possible potential that he can control the game(an enormous degree) and what he typically does (2 runs allowed over 9 good enough?)

Antonio Bananas
Guest
Antonio Bananas
2 years 8 months ago

The braves match up better vs LA. STL struggles against lefties enough as it is. Atlanta at home is tough to beat. The cards are hot,I think they’ll end up with home field.

Dr. Doom
Guest
Dr. Doom
2 years 8 months ago

I’m unclear as to why you cited FIP- in the article, rather than ERA-. I agree that FIP- is probably a better way to compare pitchers to one another in a vacuum… but this is not a (metaphorical, nor literal, for that matter) vacuum. When facing these pitchers, they WILL have their own defenses behind them. So why not just use ERA- instead? Nitpicky? Maybe. But more accurate, I think.

blwfish
Guest
blwfish
2 years 8 months ago

Interesting that nobody cares that they’re playing Atlanta. Clearly they’ve struggled down the stretch, and have no compelling first-rank players. For a team that failed to meet later-season expectations of winning the most games in the NL, they almost seem to have backed in.

Also interesting that most of the pre-season projections showed them second or third in the NL east, with a league average offense, a (slightly) below average pitching staff and average defense.

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