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Each NL Playoff Team’s Biggest Strength — And Weakness

Between the record-smashing rookie campaign of Aaron Judge, the Cleveland Indians’ win streak and the Houston Astros’ ridiculous feats of offense, the National League has felt like a bit of an afterthought this season. (A huge amount of NL attention went to a player who isn’t even in the playoffs.) But in any other season, elite contenders like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals wouldn’t be flying under the radar. As we did with the American League earlier this week, we picked out each National League team’s most important strength, plus the one weakness that might trip them up en route to the World Series.

Los Angeles Dodgers

(17 percent chance of winning the World Series)

Strength: Best form.

Although the Dodgers had baseball’s best Elo rating (FiveThirtyEight’s pet metric for judging a team’s strength at any moment) for a decent chunk of the season, they ultimately finished the year behind the Indians. But when the Dodgers were at their very best, they reached a higher peak than any other team this season — including Cleveland during its 22-game winning streak. In the course of a scorching midseason run — winning 52 times in 61 games — LA’s Elo rating hit a high of 1612, not only the best of any MLB team this year, but also the 19th-best of all time (and the second-best of the last 48 seasons, trailing only the 1998 Yankees). The Dodgers looked totally unbeatable for more than two months, with a lineup full of hot hitters crawling out of the woodwork and an excessively deep pitching staff.

Weakness: Recent form.

As invincible as the Dodgers seemed during their hot streak, they stumbled badly beginning in late August, losing 16 of 17 games (including 11 straight at one point) before righting the ship with a 12-6 finish to the regular season. In the process, they became the only team in baseball history to have separate 16-game stretches where they both won and lost 15 times. A late-season swoon doesn’t carry any special penalty in terms of “momentum,” but the fact that LA was even capable of such putrid play for a sustained period means there are still some questions to be answered about how reliable a favorite the Dodgers really are.

Arizona Diamondbacks

(6 percent chance of winning the World Series)

Strength: Power, speed and pitching.

As they showcased in the wild-card game against the Colorado Rockies — crushing two home runs and legging out three triples — the D-Backs can beat you in a variety of different ways. During the regular season, they ranked second among all MLB teams in isolated power (trailing only the hard-hitting Astros), first in baserunning value over average1 and first in Bill James’s Speed Score (a composite that indexes a bunch of speed-related stats). Before Arizona did it this year, no team since 2001 had posted a .190 slugging and a 5.0 Speed Score in the same season. Add in a pitching staff that ranked second overall by WAR, and the Diamondbacks might have the most unique combination of strengths in this playoff field.

Weakness: Hitting for average.

Despite playing in a ballpark that boosts batting average the second-most of any team’s home digs (only Coors Field is better to hit in), the Diamondbacks hit just .254 this season, 18 points lower than we’d expect of an average team in the same park. Only three teams — the Blue Jays, Rangers and Padres — hit for a lower average relative to expectations, and all three of those teams had below-average offenses. Arizona managed to make things work anyway because of their rare combination of power and speed, but the D-Backs’s lousy average meant they were mediocre at plating base runners with two outs, and generally subpar in the clutch. On Wednesday night, Arizona’s lineup showed everyone how it can erupt in big offensive outbursts, but it still needs to prove it can do some of the situational hitting the playoffs will inevitably require.

Washington Nationals

(11 percent chance of winning the World Series)

Strength: Ace-level starters.

The Nationals have long been led by a superb starting rotation, but Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez put up some of their best career performances this year. According to The Baseball Gauge’s wins above replacement meta-metric,2 the Nationals ranked third in the majors in total WAR from their starting pitchers, and the Scherzer-Strasburg-Gonzalez trio was especially great — each ranked among baseball’s 10 best starters by WAR.3 For Strasburg and Gonzalez, the 2017 season was somewhat out of line with their recent track records, but Scherzer has been dominant forever — only LA’s Clayton Kershaw has been a more valuable starter over the past five seasons. In the postseason, when top-of-the-rotation pitching is paramount, Washington’s aces give them an enviable advantage against just about anybody.

Weakness: Their best might not be enough.

There aren’t many holes in Washington’s roster, especially now that two of its top players — shortstop Trea Turner and, more recently, right fielder Bryce Harper — are back after missing large portions of the season with injuries. But even with all their stars, it’s fair to ask where the Nationals stand relative to what might be the most stacked postseason field ever. Our Elo ratings currently place Washington seventh in MLB.4 Most years, a team as good as Washington would rank third or fourth,5 but this is no ordinary season. And as much as MLB’s playoffs have earned their reputation as a crapshoot, there’s a definite relationship between a team’s talent and its World Series chances.

Chicago Cubs

(10 percent chance of winning the World Series)

Strength: Completeness.

The defending-champion Cubs were nowhere near as dominant in 2017 as they were in 2016, dropping from No. 1 in WAR (by far) to a lowly seventh. But one area where the club still had that championship feel was in its lack of a glaring weak point. A year removed from sending an absurd number of players to the All-Star Game, Chicago still had one of the best top-to-bottom teams in baseball. According to WAR, the Cubs got the most production in baseball from its catchers, the second-most from its third basemen, the third-most from its first basemen and — most importantly — didn’t rank any lower than 14th at any single position.6 Not even the mighty Indians can say their weakest links were so strong. In the playoffs, important contributions often come from unlikely sources. Chicago should be covered.

Weakness: Inexplicably mediocre pitching.

One of Chicago’s deadliest weapons a year ago was its stellar pitching staff, led by an outstanding crop of starters. The group got a lot of help from a historically sturdy defense, which fell back to earth (though was still excellent) this season, but that doesn’t explain why Chicago’s pitchers declined in fielding-independent measurements. Chicago hurlers fell from 3rd to 8th in strikeout rate this season, from 18th to 24th in walk rate and from 6th to 16th in home run rate — perhaps because their average fastball velocity was among the slowest in baseball. As a result, the Cubs’ top pitchers saw their value drop almost across the board, and as a group they generated about 7 fewer wins this year than last. Without that fearsome rotation, Chicago’s title hopes are a shadow of what they were this time last season.

 

Footnotes

  1. Averaging together the baserunning metrics found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com.

  2. The metric takes Baseball Gauge’s own WAR metric and averages it with aspects from two other versions of WAR — Baseball-Reference.com’s and FanGraphs’. Specifically, for this article, I set the meta-metric to average together every option equally in each category, with no regression for fielding metrics and the positional adjustment not included in offensive and defensive WAR. To see the leaderboards I saw while writing this piece, click through to the Baseball Gauge links and make sure the filters are set correctly.

  3. Cleveland, with Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, is the only other team that can even claim two of the top 10.

  4. Behind the Indians, Astros, Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers and Red Sox.

  5. Since the wild-card era began in 1995, the average MLB ranking for teams who finished the regular season with an Elo between 1550 and 1560 was 3.48.

  6. Including pitchers but excluding designated hitters, to fairly compare NL and AL teams.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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