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A Data-Driven Look at Who Could Come Out on Top in the NL Wild Card Round

By: Taylor Bechtold

Everything considered it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that one of the perennial last-place clubs could play above expectations over a 60-game season.

As was the case in our American League playoff preview, there are plenty of surprises in the National League as well. That conversation begins with a Miami Marlins team that took second place in the NL East at 31-29 and earned the franchise’s first postseason berth since winning the 2003 World Series. Miami accomplished this despite being the 27th-ranked team in the majors this season, according to our model (more on this in a bit).

Though it was expected to be a down season for the division, four teams qualified out of the NL Central. But that includes the Milwaukee Brewers, who joined the 2020 Houston Astros as the only teams to do so with a losing record, and the Cincinnati Reds, whose .212 batting average is the worst of any playoff team in MLB history.

The San Diego Padres emerged as the NL version of the Chicago White Sox – a club that has arrived a year earlier than expected. The Los Angeles Dodgers, however, did follow the script and rolled to an eighth straight NL West title at an MLB-best 43-17 record. But can they carry that performance over to the playoffs and capture their first World Series title since 1988?

Let’s take an advanced look at the best-of-three wild card round in the National League and determine which teams should move on to the NLDS. To project our winners, we’re using a model that combines each club’s Raw Value data into a single rating.

Raw Value+ (RV+) examines how a hitter performs throughout each pitch of an at-bat rather than just the end result, while Raw Value- (RV-) does the same from a pitcher’s perspective.

OFFENSE

The top-seeded Dodgers have gotten a subpar performance from 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger (.239, 12 HRs), but Corey Seager hit .307 with 15 home runs and finished third (186) in the majors in RV+, AJ Pollock batted .276 with 16 homers and new addition Mookie Betts had a .292 average and 16 homers.

Los Angeles led the majors with 118 home runs and 5.8 runs per game and is our top-rated offensive club heading into the postseason. The Brewers rank ninth in the NL offensively by our metrics, though only the Cincinnati Reds, Texas Rangers and Pittsburgh Pirates scored fewer runs per game (4.1).

Much like Bellinger, 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich has struggled with a .205 batting average and 76 strikeouts in 200 at-bats. Orlando Arcia (.260, 5 HRs) is the only other Brewers player with an above-average RV+ among those with at least 170 plate appearances.

EDGE: DODGERS

STARTING PITCHERS

The Brewers have the third-ranked starting rotation in the NL and the Dodgers are fourth, but the advantage swings to Los Angeles with NL Cy Young candidate Corbin Burnes (oblique) out for at least the wild card round. Burnes was 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA in 12 starts and finished 12th in the majors with a 64 RV-.

The Brewers haven’t announced their starters for this series, but Brandon Woodruff is likely to get the ball after ranking seventh in MLB with a 57 RV- during the regular season. Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell will likely rely heavily on the bullpen with Brett Anderson’s status also uncertain after going down with a blister on Sunday.

Walker Buehler, who was limited to eight starts this season due to a recurring blister, will take the ball for the Dodgers in Game 1 before Clayton Kershaw takes the bump in Game 2. Kershaw has put himself in the NL Cy Young conversation by going 6-2 with a 2.16 ERA in 10 starts, but he’s just 1-4 with a 6.04 ERA in his last seven postseason appearances.

EDGE: DODGERS

BULLPEN

The Dodgers are one of the few NL teams that can match the Brewers’ firepower in the bullpen. And closer Kenley Jansen has had a bounce-back season with 11 saves in 13 chances.

Milwaukee has one of the game’s best closers as well in Josh Hader (13 saves) and one of the top setup men in NL Rookie of the Year candidate Devin Williams (0.33 ERA). As a result, the Brewers’ relievers top the majors in Whiff+, which measures the swing and miss ability of a pitcher – a critical component in the performance of a bullpen. The Dodgers are fourth in the category, and second in our bullpen rankings overall while the Brewers are sixth.

EDGE: DODGERS

STATS PERFORM’S PROJECTION: DODGERS IN 2

OFFENSE

Behind breakout seasons by Fernando Tatis Jr. (.277, 17 HRs) and Jake Cronenworth (.285, 4 HRs) and big years from veterans Wil Myers (.288, 15 HRs) and Manny Machado (.304, 16 HRs), the Padres boast four players in MLB’s top 21 in RV+. Tatis Jr. led the bunch with the eighth-best RV+ (164) for San Diego, which was behind only the Dodgers in our offensive rankings.

Paul Goldschmidt (19th, 150) was the only Cardinal to finish in the RV+ top 20. St. Louis ranked 11th in the NL by our metrics, giving San Diego a clear-cut advantage.

EDGE: PADRES

STARTING PITCHERS

San Diego’s Mike Clevinger is dealing with an elbow injury and NL Cy Young candidate Dinelson Lamet left his last start due to tightness in his biceps. Lamet went 3-1 with a 2.09 ERA in 12 starts and finished ninth in MLB with a 60 RV-. Neither has been ruled out but the Padres have yet to announce their starters for the series. Zach Davies, who led the majors in Command+ (121), figures to be the next man up after going 7-4 with a 2.73 ERA in his 12 starts.

The Cardinals have had their own injury issues with Dakota Hudson, Carlos Martinez and Miles Mikolas out for the season. Rookie left-hander Kwang Hyun Kim is scheduled to start Game 1 after going 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA in seven starts since joining the rotation on Aug. 17. Among those who have faced at least 170 batters, Game 2 starter Adam Wainwright (5-3, 3.15 ERA) is the only member of the St. Louis rotation who has an RV- (99) better than the league average (100).

Assuming that one or both of their top-line starters will be able to go, the Padres will have the advantage.

EDGE: PADRES

BULLPEN

With Drew Pomeranz (1.45 ERA) and recent acquisition Trevor Rosenthal (4 saves) forming a solid 1-2 combo, the Padres have one of the better bullpens in the National League. In fact, they had the third-best ERA (3.16) in baseball over the final month of the season and ended up our fifth-ranked pen in the NL.

St. Louis relievers allowed the third-lowest batting average (.211) in the majors, but that mark rose to .231 while they posted a 4.31 ERA over their last 34 appearances and our metrics reveal that they’ve had some pretty fortunate results on batted balls.

EDGE: PADRES

STATS PERFORM’S PROJECTION: PADRES IN 2

OFFENSE

With so many of their big names struggling, the Cubs’ offense has been horrendous for most of 2020. But a final three-game series in which they totaled 25 runs against the Chicago White Sox has them feeling better heading into their fifth playoff appearance in six years.

Jason Heyward (141) and Ian Happ (132) finished well above average in RV+, but Anthony Rizzo (.222), Kris Bryant (.206), Kyle Schwarber (.188) and Javier Baez (.203) hovered around or below the Mendoza Line for much of the season. Bryant, however, showed signs of life by going 3 for 8 with two home runs and six RBIs in two games against the White Sox.

While we rate the Cubs 10th in the National League offensively, the Marlins are below them at 13th in the NL – and only the Texas Rangers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Colorado Rockies are ranked worse in all of baseball. Jesus Aguilar (.277, 8 HRs) is the only Marlin with an RV+ (124) higher than the league average among qualified batters.

EDGE: CUBS

STARTING PITCHING

The Cubs’ battle-tested rotation certainly holds the advantage in terms of experience with Kyle Hendricks going in Game 1, Yu Darvish in Game 2 and Jon Lester in a Game 3 if necessary. Darvish, an NL Cy Young Candidate, finished 10th in the majors in RV- (61) and fifth in Strike+ (116), while Hendricks was 19th (68) in RV-, sixth in Strike+ (115) and seventh in Command+ (115).

The Marlins are countering with Sandy Alcantara in Wednesday’s opener at Wrigley Field, Pablo Lopez in Game 2 and Sixto Sanchez in a decisive third game. Lopez (6-4, 3.61 ERA) was quietly one of the best pitchers in the majors, ranking 11th in RV- (63) and 25th in Whiff+ (116).

The Cubs had the fifth-ranked starters in the NL during the regular season while the Marlins ranked seventh.

EDGE: CUBS

BULLPEN

After a terrible start, the Cubs’ bullpen became a strength by the end of the season with the best ERA (2.96) in the NL over the final month. Chicago is expected to be without key setup man Rowan Wick (3.12 ERA, 4 saves), but Craig Kimbrel should fill that role after posting a 1.42 ERA over his last 14 appearances.

Former Cub Brandon Kintzler has stabilized the back of Miami’s pen with 12 saves in 14 chances and a 2.22 ERA in 24 appearances. However, the Marlins’ bullpen is rated 14th in the NL and 28th in MLB. The Cubs’ pen crept up after its dismal start and ranked 11th in the NL.

EDGE: CUBS

STATS PERFORM’S PROJECTION: CUBS IN 3

OFFENSE

As mentioned earlier, the Reds have the worst team batting average (.212) of any playoff team in the history of baseball. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Cincinnati actually finished 13th in the majors with an RV+ right at the league average (100). That’s partly because of a .245 BABIP, which translates to a ton of bad luck.

Jesse Winker has been a bright spot with a 156 RV+ that ranked 10th in MLB, while Joey Votto (136), Eugenio Suarez (121) and Nick Castellanos (118) also finished better than average in that metric. Votto (.226, 11 HRs), Suarez (.202, 15 HRs) and Castellanos (.225, 14 HRs) each hit double-digit home runs, but they also ended up with batting averages below .226.

With four players in MLB’s top 32 in RV+, the Braves have the advantage with the No. 3 offense in the majors by our metrics. NL MVP candidates Freddie Freeman (202) and Marcell Ozuna (170) were in the top 10 in RV+, while Ronald Acuna Jr. (154) ended up 13th and Travis d’Arnaud (138) was 32nd.

EDGE: BRAVES

STARTING PITCHING

The Reds had three starters in the top eight in RV-, and no rotation in the majors performed better over the course of the season. NL Cy Young candidate and scheduled Game 1 starter Trevor Bauer finished second (47) in RV-, Game 2 starter Luis Castillo was sixth (57) and Tyler Mahle ended up eighth (59). Sonny Gray, who is lined up to pitch Game 3, also posted a solid 87 RV-.

The Braves have announced only that Cy Young candidate Max Fried will start the opener. The left-hander went 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA and was 13th in MLB with a 65 RV-. Rookie right-hander Ian Anderson could get the ball in Game 2 after posting a 1.95 ERA in six starts. Atlanta starters ranked sixth in the NL during the regular season. Good, but not at Cincinnati’s level.

EDGE: REDS

BULLPEN

Powered by several talented relievers and veteran Mark Melancon (11 saves) at closer, Atlanta’s bullpen had the fourth-best ERA in MLB at 3.40. It was also the fourth-best bullpen in the majors, according to RV-.

Cincinnati’s relievers were 16th in MLB with a 4.39 ERA, but they were much better than that – ranking seventh overall by our metrics. The Braves have the advantage in the pen, but our model gives a surprising overall nod to the Reds – rated third in all of baseball – over Atlanta – our No. 5 team.

EDGE: BRAVES

STATS PERFORM’S PROJECTION: REDS IN 3

 

Data modeling and analysis provided by Lucas Haupt.

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