ESPN MLB insider
Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
ARLINGTON, Texas — Get used to this. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves, who will play a winner-take-all Game 7 on Sunday for the privilege of moving on to the World Series, are bound to be here again. It may not be next year, or the year after, or even the year after that, which illustrates simultaneously the variance of baseball and the excellence inherent in both teams, who are stacked enough to glance three years down the road and still peacock about their chances of success.
This much has been apparent in the National League Championship Series, which hasn’t necessarily been a series for the history books. The Dodgers’ 3-1 victory over the Braves on Saturday at Globe Life Field to even the series was the closest thing this NLCS has offered to a tight game. In each one, though, were glimpses of what makes these teams so good and why return engagements, however difficult they may be, should be expected.
Whether that translates into a Game 7 to remember is impossible to predict. Game 7s are rare gifts to savor, and the fact that baseball is offering its minions two of them in a two-day span should make even the most opener-fearing, strikeout-loathing, analytics-hating buzzkill giddy.
This one will determine the World Series opponent of the Tampa Bay Rays, who evaded a historic collapse in the American League Championship Series and vanquished the Houston Astros in their Game 7 on Saturday night. Whichever team represents the NL, this will be a matchup of master organization-building, of premium player development — a showdown between teams operating in ways that draw envy from around the game.
The Dodgers are here, and will remain in this stratum, for myriad reasons. They draft and develop players better than any organization. They spend more money than anyone. They balance the primal desire to chase championships with the necessary discipline to build sustainability. The Dodgers are everybody’s worst nightmare: smart, talented, rich, patient, hungry.
Even still, the playoffs — and these playoffs in particular, with no days off — demand more than the Dodgers have to walk into Game 7 self-assured. Their starting pitcher is … well, manager Dave Roberts said he’s not sure, which is probably not true, because the moment Game 6 ended the Dodgers knew exactly what they had at their disposal. They could go with Tony Gonsolin, the rookie who got knocked around in Game 2, or with Julio Urias, their Game 3 starter who also could be a fireman in the late innings, or with Brusdar Graterol, their 100 mph-sinkerballing right-hander who would be just as valuable in late innings. Clayton Kershaw, their erstwhile ace, who would be working on two days’ rest? Probably not, but he’ll be in the bullpen, like he was during Game 6, ready to go.
“We are not done,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “We still got a lot to accomplish. We got a big one [Sunday]. We are going to get prepared and come in and fight for every pitch and find a way to win a ballgame.”
The Braves are not as fat-pocketed as the Dodgers, and their development pipeline isn’t bursting with quite as much talent, and yet what’s on their big league roster is intimidating. It’s Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies, signed for cheap, decadelong contracts. It’s Cristian Pache roaming center field with the speed, precision and agility of a drone. It’s Mike Soroka, when he returns from his torn Achilles, and it’s Max Fried, and it’s Ian Anderson, who came into these playoffs with six career starts, still hasn’t given up a run in them and will take the ball for Game 7.
“I have 100% confidence in Ian Anderson,” Fried said. “He is as prepared and as smart as they come. You wouldn’t know it was his rookie year by the way he handles himself, his poise and how he conducts his business.”
Anderson’s last win-or-go-home game, he said, was in high school, which for the 22-year-old wasn’t particularly long ago. He exudes calmness and poise, and his Game 2 outing was uncharacteristically short and wild, which is what made him throwing four shutout innings so impressive.
Quick hooks are de rigueur in Game 7s, as Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash and Houston’s Dusty Baker demonstrated in the ALCS, so Anderson and TBD stamping their names in the history books as the hero of the NLCS may not be in the cards. If modern baseball dogma takes over, and it probably will, the game will be determined by an interconnected group of three: the offenses, the bullpens and the managers.
Roberts and his counterpart, Brian Snitker, are not regarded as the same sort of chess player in the dugout that Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash is. It’s hard not to see Game 7 on Sunday through that lens, comparing everything each team does with Tampa Bay — the decisions it makes, how it matches up, what a showdown might look like.
The Rays are the Aldi to the Dodgers’ Whole Foods. Take away Los Angeles’ ability to pay large sums of money and the organizations are very similar, which is no surprise, seeing as the person who runs the Dodgers’ baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, previously was in charge in Tampa Bay. The Rays share ideals with the Braves, too, who are seen as an old-school franchise but have made it to Game 7 of the NLCS leaning heavily on just two starting pitchers, which for a time was as Rays as it gets.
Tampa Bay can give itself 24 hours to party before it tries to figure out how its home run-dependent offense will counteract Globe Life playing like a never-ending warehouse. The Rays have scored an unthinkable 72% of their runs this postseason on home runs, and if those do wind up being fewer and farther between, the Rays will need otherworldly pitching against one of arguably the two most dangerous lineups in baseball or to figure out an entirely new offensive strategy on the fly.
Then again, great teams adjust. It’s what the Braves did early in this series when next to nobody gave them a chance against Los Angeles. It’s what the Dodgers did when Atlanta went up 3-1. And it’s what the World Series winner, whether it’s the Rays or Dodgers or Braves, will do next week.
For now, they are just glad they’re here. Because when some jabroni says “Get used to this,” a skeptic can say: Cubs. And it’s true: Starting in 2016, the Cubs were supposed to be at the beginning of a half-decade-long window of supremacy. It never materialized. And in the NL, the San Diego Padres certainly will have something to say about an annual Dodgers-Braves showdown. As will the Steve Cohen-owned New York Mets, who may Xerox the Dodgers’ modus operandi and give it some East Coast flavor.
Until then, we have this Game 7. Whatever the sport, whenever the moment, Game 7 means something more, even if Snitker said he’s going to treat it like any other game. He won’t because it’s not. It is, Roberts said correctly, “What you live for.” And for the many great matchups to come, the many years these teams are primed to be relevant, right now all they’re living for is to make sure they have a tomorrow.
ESPN MLB insider
Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
ARLINGTON, Texas — Atlanta Braves left-hander A.J. Minter made history with his first career start Friday. Then he made it again with his performance.
After becoming the first Major League Baseball pitcher to make his starting debut in a postseason game, Minter struck out seven Los Angeles Dodgers over three innings, the most ever in a playoff outing of three or fewer innings, starter or reliever.
Minter, who was not announced as the Braves’ starter for Game 5 of the National League Championship Series until Friday morning, was a lockdown reliever for the Braves this season but had not lasted more than 1⅔ innings or 36 pitches in an outing. He left Game 5 having allowed one hit, no walks and no runs over 42 pitches.
The Braves can clinch their first trip to the World Series since 1999 with a Game 5 win.
Manager Brian Snitker had designated Minter as his opener — a high-leverage relief pitcher who typically throws the first inning to face the top of the order. Minter made it all the way back around to leadoff hitter Mookie Betts, whom he struck out looking to cap an inning in which he struck out the side — all looking — and a five-batter stretch in which he punched out Cody Bellinger, A.J. Pollock, Joc Pederson, Chris Taylor and Betts.
Minter, 27, last started at Texas A&M, where he attended college, in 2015. In his final start for the Aggies, he injured his elbow and required Tommy John surgery.
In the regular season, Minter struck out 24 in 21⅔ innings. His three-pitch mix — a 95 to 97 mph fastball, a hard slider and a changeup — vexed the Dodgers. Their starter, Dustin May, who actually is a starter, was taken out after two innings as Los Angeles trailed 2-0.
ESPN MLB insider
Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
ARLINGTON, Texas — One night after a record-setting run-scoring performance, the Los Angeles Dodgers couldn’t muster more than one hit against a rookie with seven career starts and are now on the verge of getting bounced from the National League Championship Series.
The Atlanta Braves’ Bryse Wilson, who hadn’t pitched in nearly three weeks, threw six one-hit innings and held the advantage his offense provided off a shaky Clayton Kershaw in a 10-2 victory Thursday at Globe Life Field. Atlanta leads the series 3-1 and will have three chances at securing its first World Series berth since 1999.
A stout 22-year-old right-hander with a linebacker’s build — and mentality — Wilson last pitched Sept. 27, the Braves’ final regular-season game, and wasn’t even named Atlanta’s Game 4 starter until Wednesday. He challenged the Dodgers all night with a variety of fastballs and was aided at times by the winds that gusted throughout the stadium, which had its retractable roof open. Aside from Edwin Rios’ second-inning home run, the Dodgers — who had scored 11 in the first inning of Game 3 to set a postseason record for runs in one frame — suffered from the same magically vanishing offense against Wilson that plagued them in Games 1 and 2.
Wilson struck out five and walked one over an efficient six innings that took just 74 pitches, most of them four-seam fastballs as well as cutters and sinkers that moved in opposing directions. Manager Brian Snitker pulled him before the seventh, owing to his lack of activity and his bullpen’s excellence. The Dodgers managed only three hits in the game, and the Game 4 loss allows the Braves to keep their top two starters, Max Fried and Ian Anderson, on full rest for potential Games 6 and 7.
“Wow. That’s about all I can say,” said Snitker, who came into the game hopeful that Wilson would last at least four innings. “That kid stepped up. … The kid hadn’t pitched in three weeks. That was just an unbelievable job.”
Kershaw, who missed his scheduled Game 2 start because of back spasms, was outdueling Wilson before Marcell Ozuna homered off him in the fourth. Two innings later, Kershaw’s night fell apart in a hurry. Ronald Acuna Jr. legged out an infield single, Freddie Freeman smashed an RBI double and Ozuna chased Kershaw with another run-scoring double. He wound up coming around, along with two others, to ugly up Kershaw’s line and the scoreboard. The Braves led 6-1, and Kershaw exited with another poor playoff performance: five innings, seven hits, four runs, one walk, four strikeouts.
“To be able to do it as someone as well-established as Clayton Kershaw is — it’s a great honor to be able to pitch against him,” Wilson said.
Drafted in the fourth round in 2016, Wilson rocketed to the major leagues within two years, though with Atlanta’s variety of young power pitching, he had yet to secure a place in the Braves’ rotation. With Cole Hamels’ shoulder sidelining him at the end of the season, Wilson’s Sept. 22 start of five shutout innings against the Miami Marlins clinched the NL East and helped secure the Braves the No. 2 seed in the NL playoffs. In that game, he said, “I was able to establish a huge level of confidence that I felt like I didn’t have before. That’s why I was able to do what I did tonight.”
Atlanta’s World Series drought of more than two decades comes after a stretch in which it played in five of eight World Series, winning just one against Cleveland in 1995. The Braves’ resurgence, fueled by a core of homegrown talent, is peaking during this postseason, during which they’re 8-1. Acuna, Freeman and Ozzie Albies, all signed and developed by the Braves, each had two hits in Game 4, and the Braves compiled 14.
The Dodgers’ only rally came in the seventh inning, when they trailed 7-2 and loaded the bases. Pinch hitter Will Smith hit a shot up the middle, but Albies was shifted into a perfect spot and didn’t need to move to snag the line drive. Tyler Matzek and Shane Greene held the Dodgers scoreless over the final two innings to put them on the verge of elimination.
They’ll return with hard-throwing Dustin May in Game 5 against what’s likely a bullpen game from Atlanta that could feature Kyle Wright, whom the Dodgers chased during the first inning of their outburst Wednesday. Game 6 would feature Fried against Walker Buehler and Game 7 Anderson versus Tony Gonsolin, though both teams presumably would take an all-hands-on-deck approach — one that could feature Wilson returning on short rest.
ARLINGTON, Texas — Atlanta Braves left fielder Adam Duvall exited Monday’s National League Championship Series opener with an injury near his left hip, prompting rookie Cristian Pache to replace him in the middle of his second-inning at-bat.
Duvall grabbed at his left side immediately after fouling off a 1-1 fastball from Los Angeles Dodgers starter Walker Buehler. The 32-year-old right-handed hitter, who re-emerged as an everyday player and posted an .833 OPS in 2020, noticeably winced and eventually disappeared down the tunnel alongside members of the Braves’ training staff.
Pache, 21, took just four plate appearances for the Braves during the regular season. If Duvall misses time, the Braves can also play Charlie Culberson in left field if they decide to keep Marcell Ozuna at designated hitter. Pache stayed in the game at center field after drawing a walk, prompting Ronald Acuna Jr. to move to right and Nick Markakis to move to left.
ESPN MLB insider
Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
ARLINGTON, Texas — Every day last week, about 20 Texas Rangers employees fanned out to different parts of their glistening new ballpark, Globe Life Field, armed with what they hope will be vital in preempting the potential spread of the coronavirus at Major League Baseball’s first game with fans in 2020: zip ties.
For months, as it became clear that Globe Life would host neutral-site postseason games in this oddest of seasons, the Rangers had been planning for this moment, which will take place Monday at 8 p.m. ET, when the Los Angeles Dodgers play the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series and as many as 11,500 fans patronize the stadium. The Rangers teamed with MLB on a protocol that would rely on three tenets: mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing. As a precaution against those who might be tempted to run afoul of an assigned-seat rule, Rangers employees folded up more than 30,000 seat bottoms and used 5-foot-long zip ties to adhere them to their seat backs.
Fans over the age of 2 — except for those with a medical condition or disability that precludes their use — will be required to wear masks over their noses and mouths. Around 200 employees will roam the stadium to enforce compliance, said Rob Matwick, the Rangers’ executive vice president of ballpark operations. While fans can remove the masks to eat or drink, those seen not wearing them will be given two warnings before being ejected from the game if caught maskless a third time.
Though the decision to allow fans into games is no longer unique — the NFL, college football, MLS and NASCAR are among those who have opened their gates — it’s as much about 2021 as it is 2020. Behind the scenes, sources said, MLB owners have balked at the idea of playing to empty stadiums next season, and holding the NLCS and World Series with fans will provide the league with proof of concept to see whether it can work as a short-term fix.
“When we decided on neutral sites, Texas does have a regulation that permits fans in stadiums,” said Bryan Seeley, a senior vice president with MLB who has helped write the league’s coronavirus protocols. “We started to give some thought about whether it was a good opportunity to do it as a prelude to next year. We didn’t want to do it in [the division series]. We wanted to make sure there was a secure zone and not try to introduce too much. The NLCS was a good opportunity. We talked to health experts, saw what other leagues are doing and decided to move forward with it.”
Following those conversations, MLB decided against requiring temperature checks for those entering the stadium, Seeley said, believing that the benefit to them would be mitigated by the close contact necessary between employees scanning foreheads and fans. The Rangers, Matwick said, have not been testing game-day employees for the coronavirus.
Tarrant County, where Arlington is located, currently has slightly more than 3,000 active coronavirus cases, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard. In the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, which includes Arlington, 962 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19. Of the more than 50,000 cases Tarrant County has seen, 763 people have died.
The American League Championship Series started Sunday with only cardboard cutouts and a small number of family members in the stands at Petco Park in San Diego. The vibe at the NLCS will be entirely different — aside from the piped-in noise and broadcast enhancements, which MLB said would remain. All of the games for the NLCS and World Series are sold out, according to MLB, with around 10,500 tickets distributed in pods of four that are distanced 6 feet apart. The other 1,000 or so fans will sit in suites, which will hold between 25% and 33% capacity, according to the league.
“I’m overwhelmed with joy to have fans back in the stands,” Braves star Ronald Acuna Jr. said. “The season never felt the same without them, and it goes without saying we miss them dearly.”
Hundreds of signs have been hung throughout the stadium, including on the door of every suite, to remind fans that mask-wearing is compulsory, even inside of suites. The retractable roof at Globe Life is expected to be open for every game of the series, barring a change in weather, as forecasts project near-perfect conditions for each of the potential seven games.
Concession stands with contact-free payments, pre-packaged food and no shared condiment dispensers will be open throughout the stadium, with floor markings to encourage proper distancing. Throughout the concourses, the Rangers set up sinks that are usually used for food preparation to serve as hand-washing stations.
“I’m realistic about this,” said Matwick, the Rangers’ conduit to MLB. “I think we’ll get better as we go. It’s going to be an education process. In order to do these things, we need to follow the rules.”
Although the only games played at the park to date were last week’s fan-free division series between the Dodgers and Padres, the Rangers do have some experience with crowds at Globe Life. Between May and July, Matwick said, the stadium held 61 high school graduations. The organization provided tickets with assigned seats, opened different entrances for the graduates and families, and created specific routes for the students to walk from the stands to the field to receive their diplomas. More than 100,000 people attended the graduations, Matwick said, and another 20,000 have come to Globe Life to tour the $1.2 billion facility.
Gates to the stadium will open two hours ahead of the first pitch thrown by Los Angeles’ Walker Buehler — the same time as the parking lots that abut the ballpark. MLB considered a timed entry with each ticket, but it hopes that the size of the crowd and each pod being given a specific entrance point will prevent long lines from forming. When fans do arrive, they’ll be required to do so with no bags other than diaper bags for babies. All they can bring in is a sealed bottle of water no greater than one liter.
Some small details of the plan could change — if people are seen nursing tubs of popcorn so they can keep their masks down, for example, popcorn could be taken off the menu — but what happens at the NLCS and World Series might well be a blueprint for what baseball looks like next spring. A number of teams asked MLB during the season to allow fans into stadiums and even had local government approval, but commissioner Rob Manfred denied those wishes.
Not anymore. Starting Monday, fans are back in stadiums, and barring an outbreak, they’re not likely to go away, either.
“We’ve missed our fans this whole year,” Dodgers catcher Will Smith said. “I mean, I expect Dodger fans to be out here cheering hard and really giving us that home-field advantage.”
Member, Professional Basketball Writers Association
It began with Freddie Freeman. Literally.
Spin the clock back to 2013. Freeman had completed his third season as the Atlanta Braves’ everyday first baseman, taking over at age 21 after a cup of coffee in the majors near the end of 2010. During those first three years, the Braves won 89, 94 and 96 games, respectively, but added only a single postseason victory to that total during that span. They started strong in 2014 as well, but collapsed, largely because of a lack of organizational depth.
Worse, they had strayed from the Braves’ old formula of building their roster on homegrown talent and depth, particularly on the pitching side. To keep their upper-middle-class level of success going, they would have to spend on free agents at a time when their budget already was pretty well strained. The once-vaunted minor league system ranked 26th in Baseball America’s 2014 preseason rankings. It was crossroads time.
Taking stock of all this, Hall of Fame executive John Schuerholz prodded the organization to chart a new course. Well, actually, it was the old course, the one he followed in the early ’90s while building an Atlanta dynasty that lasted for nearly a decade-and-a-half. Alas, to follow that course would mean going all the way back to the beginning.
“We had to go back down to bare steel and strip all of it away,” Schuerholz told ESPN in 2018. “Go through the heartburn and heartache of trading away some very, very talented major league players who were making well over what they should be making. That was the determination and it was supported from the very top on down. We knew we had to do it.”
Good players from the 2013 club that was, again, a 96-game winner, eventually found new homes, either through trades or free agency. Jason Heyward ended up with the Cardinals. Andrelton Simmons joined Mike Trout with the Angels. Craig Kimbrel made his way to the Padres. It happened gradually, but by the end of a 79-83 season in 2014, the die was cast. A few years before rampant rebuilding caused so much hand-wringing in baseball circles, the Braves launched into a full reset.
While all of this was unfolding, the Braves made one move that ran counter to this direction. Just before spring training in 2014, Atlanta signed Freeman to an eight-year, $135 million extension that runs through the 2021 campaign. As nearly every part of the Braves’ edifice was dismantled, Freeman remained as the preordained franchise cornerstone. It’s a decision that no one who works for, plays with or is fan of the Braves has regretted for a minute.
“It meant the world,” Freeman told ESPN in 2018, the year the Braves returned to elite status. “We made a commitment to each other after the 2013 season. To pick me, to believe in me to help this team get back to the playoffs meant a lot.”
Back-to-back postseason appearances entering 2020 already signaled that the Atlanta rebuild was a success. The process accelerated after Alex Anthopoulos took over the front office in 2018, sprinkling in a bit more 21st-century thinking into the Braves’ traditional playbook. Freeman flourished year in and year out as the cast around him turned over and slowly coalesced into a winner. Friendly Freddie, as he ought to be known, is a player so amiable that even in the heat of competition, he can’t resist chatting up opponents if they reach first base.
“It’s hard to get a hit in the postseason,” Freeman said before the division series round, defending his demeanor. “If you get a hit, I’m going to tell you ‘good job.’ Especially with the pitching staff we’ve got. I’m not changing. I am who I am.”
Freeman has become an Atlanta baseball icon through his longevity and his remarkable consistency. Over eight seasons, beginning with 2013 when he first reached All-Star status, Freeman has batted between .276 and .341 each season, posted on-base percentages between .370 and .462, and slugging percentages between .461 and .640. Based on OPS+ at Baseball-Reference, he has been at least 32% better than the league-average hitter in each of the past eight seasons, all while running the bases better than the typical first baseman, stealing a few bags per season and playing sterling defense, for which he was awarded a Gold Glove in 2018. His metronomic career vacillates each year between very good and great.
During the short season of 2020, Freeman’s numbers spiked at age 30, with a .341/.462/.640 slash line and league-leading totals in doubles and runs scored. His Baseball-Reference WAR (2.9) ranked second among position players in the NL, while his FanGraphs WAR (3.4) topped all NL players. Meanwhile, he ranked second in the NL in win probability added. In other words, Freeman, who has finished in the top 10 of NL MVP balloting five times but never higher than fourth, is making his first serious bid to take home the award.
Yet, all of that seems inadequate to describe just what Freeman means to the Braves, to their rise back to prominence, and the lineup he anchors.
“I don’t know if you can [quantify Freeman’s presence], how big it is, his presence, who he is and what it means to our organization, on the field, in the clubhouse, off the field, the man that he is,” Braves manager Brian Snitker gushed before the LDS round began. “The guy is some kind of special for all of us, for me more than most. I lean on him. We talk [because] I’ve been with him for so long, the ability to just bounce things off of him, it’s really good to have a leader like that, that you can talk to. I’m comfortable talking to him about anything.”
The Braves’ 5-0 postseason run into their NL Championship Series showdown with the Los Angeles Dodgers has been dominated by pitching-related headlines. It’s not a mistake in media focus. After all, Atlanta’s staff has a 0.92 ERA during the playoffs and has been fueled by young starters Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright, whose collective brilliance rekindles memories of the clubs that Schuerholz once built.
Still, let’s not overlook what got Atlanta to the playoffs: Freeman and an Atlanta offensive attack that might just be baseball’s best. Yes, it might even be better than the Dodgers’. It’s close enough that the “might” equivocation must be included, but check back in a week.
“I’m just glad the narrative is changing from the series win, to getting past the division series, so there’s not really much to talk about now,” Freeman said. “We’ll start our own narrative. That’s the great thing about this.”
Intentional or not, the 2020 Atlanta offense has flourished by embodying the traits that have always marked Freeman’s excellence: well-roundedness, consistency and constancy.
1. Well-roundedness. Home runs and offense have merged precariously close to synonym status in baseball, circa 2020, but that doesn’t mean full-service scoring doesn’t retain some cachet.
The Braves ranked first or second in baseball during the regular season in runs, homers, average, on-base percentage and slugging, while ranking third in walks. Only two teams struck out more, but Atlanta maintained its lofty batting average by ranking second in line-drive rate, first in average on balls in play and right in the middle in pull percentage.
It kind of sounds like the team version of Freeman as a hitter, albeit with a lower strikeout rate. Freeman ranked second in the NL in all the traditional percentage categories to the Nationals’ Juan Soto, but played in more games. Freeman tied for the big-league lead in runs created (65) with teammate Marcell Ozuna.
Freeman compiled those numbers while leading the majors in both line-drive rate (41%) and total line drives hit (72), according to TruMedia. He ranked in the 41st percentile in pull rate and in the 82nd in terms of opposite-field hitting. Despite this, teams still shifted Freeman more than two-thirds of the time. According to baseballsavant.mlb.com, Freeman posted a .424 wOBA against shifts and a .509 mark against normal alignments. You can’t win, really — the league-average wOBA was .315.
These traits extend to the team level. Only six teams were shifted against more than the Braves, but their .369 wOBA against such alignments easily led the majors.
2. Consistency. We’ve mentioned the narrow range of excellence that Freeman lands in year after year. Since he became an everyday player — a full decade now — only Mike Trout and Joey Votto have created more runs. Since 2013, when Freeman rose to star status, he ranks third in runs created behind Trout and Paul Goldschmidt. Over the past five years, he’s third behind Trout and Mookie Betts. Over the last two seasons, he’s second behind Trout. You get the idea.
The Braves ranked in the top four by the Baseball-Reference version of runs created at four of the nine hitting positions, in the top 10 at seven of nine and in the top half of the majors at every spot except third base. They ranked seventh in wOBA against starters and first against relievers. They were first in wOBA against righties and 14th against lefties. They were second at home and third on the road. No matter how you split up the Braves’ numbers, they rate from above average to elite.
“I know that playing against them, calling a game against them, I was not going to bed until about 5 a.m. because I was worried about them the next day,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “Now I get to sleep a little better at night, knowing that I’m on that team.”
While it’ll be written about in less pedantic terms over the next week, Freeman’s omnipresence in the Braves’ lineup has never been less taken for granted. While the Braves avoided a large scale COVID-19 breakout such as those that struck the Marlins and Cardinals early in the season, Atlantans were left on tenterhooks when Freeman was infected before the season. His bout with the virus was terrifying enough to convince teammate and close friend Nick Markakis to temporarily opt out of the season.
Three months later, Freeman is better than ever, with the only difference being the mask he wears during Zoom interview sessions, even though he’s not required to wear one in that space.
“I was just hoping to make it to Opening Day, and here we are now,” Freeman said before the NLDS. “It’s been a special year. Everything has kind of come full circle this year.”
Freeman has had his share of injuries over the years and was ailing during last year’s postseason, when he struggled with right elbow problems that resulted in offseason surgery to clean up the joint. He suffered a fractured wrist in 2017 after being hit by a pitch and missed 10 weeks. Still, when he’s able to play, he’s an everyday fixture. He has twice played 162 games in a season, played 157 or more three other times and, this season, played all 60 regular-season games.
That stability was mirrored by the team around him in 2020. No team had more plate appearances from its nine most frequently used hitters than Atlanta (1,866), though that number results from a combination of a steady group of players and the fact that the high-scoring Braves turned the lineup over a lot. But in terms of percentage of plate appearances going to its top seven hitters, only the Padres had a more frequently used core. The Braves became even more of a set-lineup unit when second baseman Ozzie Albies returned from injury in September.
While efforts at building depth at the minor league level have been a bit more prolific on the pitching side during the Atlanta renaissance, with Freeman in place the Braves have grown this lineup via all available channels for playing acquisition:
• Ronald Acuna Jr., one of baseball’s brightest young stars, was an international signing, as was his close friend, Albies. They were signed a year apart, in 2013 and 2014, just as the Atlanta rebuild was kicking off.
• Austin Riley was Atlanta’s first-round pick in 2015.
• Dansby Swanson was acquired during an offseason trade from Arizona in 2015, along with reserve outfielder Ender Inciarte.
• Markakis was a low-cost free agent back in 2014, and given the Braves’ timeline, he figured to be a stopgap regular. He’s become a franchise fixture and clubhouse leader, while continuing to produce at the plate and in the field.
• D’Arnaud, who was released by the Mets in May of last season, has become such an effective hitter that Snitker has frequently used him as Atlanta’s DH when he’s not behind the plate. For the past few weeks, Snitker has written him in as the Braves’ cleanup hitter nearly every day. During the postseason, d’Arnaud has a 1.342 OPS.
• Adam Duvall was a low-level trade deadline pickup in 2018 from Cincinnati. After struggling at first with the Braves, his career has found second life over the past two seasons, as he has hit 26 homers over 98 games with a .545 slugging percentage.
• Marcell Ozuna was Atlanta’s free-agent splurge during the most recent offseason, signing a one-year deal at what amounts to an MLB version of a pillow contract. He led the NL in homers (18) and RBIs (56), successfully replacing the offense lost when Atlanta’s 2019 third baseman, Josh Donaldson, departed via free agency.
This is the group that has coalesced to become one of baseball’s best and most diverse offensive attacks, coming together step by step. But it all began with Freeman. When the Braves beat the Reds during the wild-card round, it was the club’s first postseason series win since 2001 and, thus, the first of Freeman’s career. After the Braves swept the Marlins in the Division Series, his career series win count doubled to two.
As a player who ranks 17th on the career bWAR list of one of baseball’s two oldest franchises, with each excellent-to-great season Freeman puts up, he’s building an underpublicized Hall of Fame case. That quest would only be helped by a big October, now that the Braves are back playing for a pennant for the first time since the days of Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz.
“Where we’ve come from in 2015, it’s pretty drastic,” Freeman said. “A complete 180 from where we were. I even [said] coming through it, it’s been tough but I was on board. They kept me in the loop the first couple of years. You could see it coming. You hear about these guys when you’re losing 90-plus games and you’re just hoping they’ll get here sooner. I was on board, I really was. They gave me that contract. They believed in me, so I owed them everything to give it back. They drafted me when I was 17 years old, this organization.”
Of course, the Dodgers are a daunting obstacle lying in the Braves’ — and Freeman’s — path, but with a strong showing by the team and their star over the next few days, this could be the time that Friendly Freddie finally finds his footing on the national stage. If he and his teammates can prove to be a better offense than L.A.’s, and do it against the mighty Dodgers’ run-prevention machine, it’s going to create a stir.
All of it is right there for the Braves, and for Freeman … the MVP award, the World Series, all of it. It’s why the Braves anointed him all those years ago, and it’s why he has stuck around, without complaint, waiting for it to all come together.
“I definitely know who I would vote for [as MVP],” Swanson said. “It’s pretty easy for me. What he means for this team, what he means for the organization, the fan base, it’s just consistency. The first game we played to the 60th into the postseason, he’s been tremendous. He just does so much more than people realize. That’s saying a lot, because people know he does a lot.”
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If you like offense, this is the series for you. The Los Angeles Dodgers boast a deep and powerful lineup that led baseball in runs scored, while the Atlanta Braves scored just one fewer time than L.A. this season.
There are few teams in baseball that match the Dodgers group highlighted by Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger in terms of offensive star power, but Atlanta’s combination of Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr. sure can.
This National League Championship Series isn’t just about the players capable of providing offensive fireworks, though. Mound matchups between L.A.’s Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler and Atlanta’s young duo of Max Fried and rookie Ian Anderson should provide plenty of intrigue.
Here’s how both teams got here, odds to advance, the case for both teams to win the series and more.
The odds say …
The Dodgers have a 73.3% chance of winning the series.
How they got here
Braves: Led by their high-scoring offense, the Braves cruised to the NL East crown with a 35-25 record that netted them the No. 2 seed in the National League. With Freeman and Acuna leading the way, Atlanta finished second in the majors in runs scored with just one fewer than the MLB-best Dodgers.
Wild-card series: Defeated Cincinnati 2-0
NL Division Series: Defeated Miami 3-0
Dodgers: Once L.A. acquired Betts from the Boston Red Sox in February, the Dodgers became the odds-on World Series favorite. They did not disappoint, racing to a 43-17 record and posting a plus-136 run differential, both by far the best in baseball.
Wild-card series: Defeated Milwaukee 2-0
NL Division Series: Defeated San Diego 3-0
at Arlington, Texas
Game 1: Monday, Oct. 12, Fox or FS1
Game 2: Tuesday, Oct. 13, Fox or FS1
Game 3: Wednesday, Oct. 14, Fox or FS1
Game 4: Thursday, Oct. 15, Fox or FS1
Game 5: Friday, Oct. 16, Fox or FS1 (if necessary)
Game 6: Saturday, Oct. 17, Fox or FS1 (if necessary)
Game 7: Sunday, Oct. 18, Fox or FS1 (if necessary)
Three reasons the Braves will win the series
1. Diversity of offensive attack
Pick a metric. Any metric. Well, a bottom-line metric, anyway. Let’s use wRC+ from FanGraphs to measure contextualized team offense. The Dodgers — no surprise — are tied for first with the Mets at 122. Right behind them, at 121, are the Braves. Los Angeles scored exactly one more run (349-348) than Atlanta did during the regular season. From an overall standpoint, these were two high-powered offenses of virtually equal quality.
Now let’s consider how the teams did their scoring. Both teams are premier power clubs, but the Dodgers are at a different level. The teams ranked 1-2 in runs per game off homers, with L.A. coming in at 2.98 and Atlanta at 2.80, and the Dodgers’ team home run percentage (5.1% of plate appearances) was an MLB record. But the Braves scored more runs per game by non-homer means (3.00 to 2.83).
To sum up: These are the best two power-based offenses in the majors. L.A.’s homerific ways are more prolific, but not by much. On top of that, Atlanta has the more versatile attack when it comes to scoring without the long ball. With the games all taking place at (apparently) homer-resistant Globe Life Field, this could inch things in the Braves’ direction.
2. Front of the rotation
How could a team with two frontline starters who entered the season with exactly 19 career wins between them have any kind of an edge against a team that can roll out Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw at the beginning of a series? Maybe you wouldn’t declare an edge for Max Fried and Ian Anderson in however those matchups shake out, but based on recent performance, it’s a good debate.
Anderson’s track record is short but it’s also overwhelming, and his changeup has quickly emerged as one of baseball’s most devastating pitches. Since he debuted on Aug. 26, he’s 5-2 with a 1.43 ERA, including his two scoreless postseason outings. During that same time frame, Kershaw is 5-1, 2.05; Buehler is 0-0, 2.29 in just 19⅔ innings; and Fried is 3-0 with a 3.55. It’s very close.
But here’s another thing about this top two of Atlanta: They are extremely difficult to homer off of. Anderson has thrown 764 pitches as a big leaguer. Only one has left the yard. Among pitchers who threw at least 30 regular-season innings (there were 158 of them), Anderson’s 0.7% homer rate led the majors. Fried (0.9%) ranked sixth. That doesn’t ensure anything against a lineup as good and as deep as that of the Dodgers. But it sure doesn’t hurt.
3. Back of the bullpen
Both teams have effective, deep, versatile and experienced bullpens. But for the first time in a very long time, the Dodgers don’t necessarily know who their ninth-inning guy should be. If there has been one negative aspect of the Dodgers’ early postseason run, it’s been the inability of Kenley Jansen to halt the peppering of closer-related questions in Dave Roberts’ Zoom-based interviews.
The Braves, despite having a plethora of former saves guys such as Mark Melancon, Chris Martin, Shane Greene, A.J. Minter and Will Smith, have a tightly knit bullpen in which everyone slots into their own appropriately leveraged role. Melancon might not be peak-level Mariano Rivera, but he has held down the ninth-inning job and allowed Atlanta manager Brian Snitker to establish an effective bullpen hierarchy. You know, like the one the Dodgers have had for so long that you kind of take it for granted.
Three reasons the Dodgers will win the series
1. Depth and positional versatility
For all their star power, depth and versatility are every bit as much a part of the Dodgers’ prolonged run of success in recent years. As baseball has continued to evolve in the direction of hyper-specialization, the Dodgers have been the indestructible amoeba that can change shape and form and thrive in any environment. Ordinarily, the postseason format undercuts these organizational strengths. But in a possible seven-games-in-seven days NLCS, this is the time for the entire Dodgers roster to shine.
The Braves have a well-balanced pitching staff, both from a platoon standpoint and in terms of complementary styles. However, the Dodgers not only have more weapons than they can actually fit onto a playoff roster — they can customize their mix to whatever roster strategy you might counter with. In terms of position players, they do this with a remarkably versatile group that allows them to maximize offense without sacrificing defense.
They have a star right fielder in Mookie Betts who could plausibly start at second base. They have a star center fielder in Cody Bellinger who has spent much of his young career as a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman. And that’s just the headliners. Depth is often an overexaggerated factor when it comes to previewing playoff matchups. This time, it’s huge. The Dodgers have more depth than every team, but particularly more than the Braves, who basically use a set everyday lineup.
2. Team defense
To be clear, Globe Life Field doesn’t play like the Astrodome, circa 1979. The Dodgers and Padres did plenty of damage with the long ball during their LDS showdown in Arlington. Still, by 2020 standards, the GLF looks like a tough home run ballpark. And it’s not just the venue that might suppress the long ball, at least to some degree. It’s a strength of both pitching staffs to keep the ball in the yard. The Dodgers led the majors by allowing just 1.55 runs per game via the home run ball; the Braves were fifth at 1.77.
However, there was a big disparity when it came to allowing runs by other means. The Dodgers allowed 2.00 runs per game by non-home run means, ranking fourth in the majors. On the other hand, the Braves ranked just 22nd in this esoteric category, allowing 3.03 non-homer runs per contest.
Not all of this can be chalked up to fielding, but the metrics suggest a huge disparity between these teams in that area. According to defensive runs saved, the Dodgers ranked second at plus-29, while the Braves were 21st at minus-8. The teams were close in runs saved via shifting, so the difference was all about the players. L.A. had the edge at six of the nine positions, including 19-run advantages at both second base and right field.
If the ballpark and the pitching staffs conspire together to heighten the importance of defense, the Dodgers own a big advantage.
3. The Dodgers aren’t the Marlins or the Reds
Let’s be real. The format of this season’s playoffs meant that there were more mediocre teams in the postseason than ever before. The Braves are an outstanding team, and even in a normal season, it would have been less than surprising to see them oppose the Dodgers in the NLCS. It’s a great matchup.
Nevertheless, we can’t read too much into Atlanta’s dominance through the first two rounds. Including the playoffs, the Reds and Marlins combined to go 64-63 and were outscored by 54 runs. Anything could have happened because it’s the playoffs. But we can at least say that the Braves have not yet encountered a postseason-level opponent.
Can we say that about the Dodgers? To be sure, L.A. vs. the Brewers in the first round was a mismatch, especially given the key pitching injuries that hit Milwaukee late in the season. And the Dodgers caught a break when San Diego’s top two pitchers, Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet, turned up injured at just the wrong time. However, the Padres were an elite club this season, especially on offense, and the Dodgers still rolled through them with little drama save for a bad ninth inning in Game 2.
The Braves have looked great so far in the playoffs. But they haven’t seen anything like the Dodgers’ machine to this point.