NLDS Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks vs Los Angeles Dodgers

Diamondbacks and Dodgers 2017 Regular Season

Arizona Diamondbacks 93-69 (1st NL Wild Card)

2017 for the Diamondbacks wasn’t quite as drastic of a turnaround as the Minnesota Twins, going from 100 losses to the second AL Wild Card spot, but it was huge none the less. After making one of the worst trades in recent memory for Shelby Miller, and signing Zack Greinke to a monster contract, the Diamondbacks flopped to a 69-93 record in 2016. They had some good players on the roster, but nothing came together for them. That season saw Diamondbacks pitching sport a 5.09 ERA/4.50 FIP, the ERA tied for lowest in the MLB and the FIP 26th overall. Their offense did not fare much better, with the team hitting .2631/.320/.432, good for a 93 wRC+ bringing park factor into play. It was one of the worst seasons in Diamondbacks history. Luckily for them, everything turned around in 2017.

To start with, the pitching for the Diamondbacks went from a near league-worst to top five in the MLB. After tying for the worst ERA in the MLB the season prior, they shot all the down to a 3.67 ERA, third best overall. The same thing happened to their team FIP, going from 4.50 to an excellent 3.80 mark, 4th best overall. A big reason for this turnaround was Zack Greinke returning to form, pitching to a 3.20 ERA/3.31 FIP in 202.1 innings pitched, a stark contrast from the 4.37 ERA/4.12 FIP in 158.2 innings pitched the season before.

Outside of Greinke, the Diamondbacks had breakout seasons from many young pitchers including Zack Godley (2.89 ERA/3.41 FIP in 155 IP), Robbie Ray (2.89 ERA/3.72 FIP in 162 IP), Patrick Corbin (4.03 ERA/4.08 FIP in 189.2 IP), and Taijuan Walker (3.49 ERA/4.04 FIP in 157.1 IP). To cap it off, former top starting pitching prospect Archie Bradley became a bullpen ace this season, pitching a 1.73 ERA/2.61 FIP in 73 innings out of the bullpen, giving them their very own Andrew Miller-type pitcher.

On the offensive side, they were led by perennially underrated MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt, putting up a line of .297/.404/.563 and a 142 wRC+. Helping along with him was Jake Lamb (.248/.357/.487 and 111 wRC+), AJ Pollock (.266/.330/.471 and 103 wRC+), David Peralta (.293/.352/.444 and 104 wRC+, and Chris Iannetta (.254/.354/.511 and 120 wRC+). However, the biggest thing for the Diamondbacks was the mid-season trade for outfield slugger, J.D. Martinez.

Martinez, who was acquired for mere peanuts, to the surprise of many, was already hitting very well for the Detroit Tigers before the trade. From his first game on 5/12 until his last game with the Tigers on 7/17, Martinez was hitting .305/.388/.630 with 16 HR and a 160 wRC+. From the point of the trade until the end of the season, Martinez went insane with the bat hitting .302/.366/.741 with 29 HR and a 172 wRC+ in just 257 plate appearance. The addition of Martinez to this Diamondbacks lineup takes them from an average or above average lineup to a real threat every time through.

Los Angeles Dodgers 104-58 (1st NL West)

For the fifth straight season, the Dodgers captured the NL West crown. With their MLB leading 104 wins, they also won the most games of any Dodgers club since moving to Los Angeles in 1958. These are not things many people imagined would be said after a 9-11 start to the season by 4/24. At that point, the Rockies lead the division with a white-hot 14-6 start, with the Diamondbacks just behind at 13-8. Things were just not clicking for the Dodgers to start the season. Their pitching was doing well, but on offense, it seemed that only Corey Seager and Justin Turner were hitting. It was not until the call-up of rookie phenom Cody Bellinger that jump-started the 2017 Dodgers.

Something changed the day that Bellinger got the call to the Dodgers. Adrian Gonzalez had been the Dodgers anchor at 1B since joining the team in August of 2012, but had zero home runs in April and was just not hitting. Through just under two months in the majors, Bellinger became the fastest player to 21 home runs in MLB history.  Bellinger brought a level of power to the Dodgers that had not been seen in years. He eventually broke the NL rookie home run record and ended with 39 home runs, an amount that had not been seen by a Dodger since Matt Kemp’s magical 2011 season. In fact, no other Dodger had eclipsed 30 home runs since then. His effect on the team was undeniable, with the club going 95-47 after his call-up.

Although they once again had a powerful middle of the order slugger in Bellinger, this was a team built on depth. There may be no better example than the Dodgers starting pitching depth, going seven or eight deep to start the season. The Dodgers got another wonderful, yet slightly sub-par season from Clayton Kershaw (2.31 ERA/3.07 FIP in 175 IP), who sadly missed a month and a half due to another back injury. They also got a breakout season from Alex Wood (2.82 ERA/3.36 FIP in 147 IP), along with good although abbreviated seasons from Rich Hill (3.32 ERA/3.72 FIP in 135.2 IP) and Brandon McCarthy (3.84 ERA/3.35 FIP in 86.2 IP). Kenta Maeda (4.35 ERA/4.14 FIP in 126.1 IP) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (3.89 ERA/4.80 FIP in 122.2 IP) both started out the year very rough, but rebounded to better second half numbers. One of the biggest changes to the rotation was the July 31st addition of Yu Darvish (3.44 ERA/3.38 FIP in 49.2 IP), who helped lengthen the playoff rotation.

Oh, and just a side note, Kenley Jansen was even better than last season, with a 1.32 ERA/1.31 FIP in 68.1 innings pitched. He also did not issue his first walk until striking out 51 batters first.

On the positional player side, the depth shone through just as brightly with the emerge of super-utility-man Chris Taylor (.288/.354/.496 and 126 wRC+) and backup catcher Austin Barnes (.289/.408/.486 and 142 wRC+). The emergence of the pair allowed the Dodgers to make many different lineup combinations as well as resting players more than they were able to in the past. This Dodgers club was not only filled with very good offensive players but defensive as well. While finishing fourth in wRC+ at 104, they also finished third in Fangraphs defensive runs at 62.1 behind just the Cubs and Marlins. A lot of this was thanks to good two-way players such as Corey Seager (.295/.375/.479, 127 wRC+ and 12.6 defensive runs), Justin Turner (.322/.415/.530, 151 wRC+ and 0.6 defensive runs), and Yasiel Puig (.263/.346/.487, 117 wRC+, and 5.9 defensive runs).

Thanks to the depth that the Dodgers front office has been working to build for the last few years, leading the MLB in wins was not just a thought, it was a reality.

Players To Watch In The NLDS

This series between the Diamondbacks and Dodgers may be the most interesting first-round matchup. While the teams don’t have a rivalry like the Dodgers and Giants, there is still some bad blood over the last few seasons. This may have started back in 2013 with a HBP from Ian Kennedy to Yasiel Puig. The next inning Zack Greinke hit catcher Miguel Montero, which cleared both team’s benches. In the bottom of the inning, Kennedy then drilled Greinke with a pitch which incited a brawl between the two teams, kicking off bad feelings between the clubs.

Later in the season, the Dodgers clinched the NL West after a victory in Arizona and celebrated in the Diamonbacks stadium pool. This was the first NL West crown for the Dodgers since 2009, the start of now five straight, while the Diamondbacks hadn’t made the playoffs since 2011 until this season. This incident along with the brawl earlier in the season has given an interesting edge to the two teams series ever since. Zack Greinke leaving the Dodgers in free agency after the 2015 season to go to Arizona is something that only fueled the fires since. This rivalry along with the great players on both teams makes for some intriguing stories in this NLDS.

JD Martinez

JD Martinez has simply been one of the best hitters in the MLB since coming to Arizona. From 7/18 on, Martinez’s 172 OPS is the third best in the MLB with minimum 100 PA behind Matt Olson and Giancarlo Stanton. His 29 home runs in that time were just two behind Stanton’s MLB leading 31, and five ahead of the next closest Josh Donaldson. The pair of NL MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt and JD Martinez is among the best of any pair of hitters in the MLB. Getting through the middle of this lineup is no easy feat, and the Dodgers cannot just walk Goldschmidt anymore because someone just as great is following him.

Robbie Ray

For the second straight season, Robbie Ray put up a 3.0-plus fWAR season. However, this season he dropped his ERA an unbelievable 2 full points, going from a 4.90 ERA to a 2.89 this season. On just his talent and his 2017 season numbers alone (12.11 K/9, 3.94 BB/9, 84.5 LOB%), Ray is a tough pitcher to contend with. When looking at his 2017 season numbers against the Dodgers? Well, he’s on another level. As Eric Stephen at the wonderful wrote about, Ray dominated the Dodgers this season. In five starts, Ray put up a 2.27 ERA with 53 strikeouts, including 10 or more strikeouts in four of those games. It is clear that Ray has had the Dodgers’ number this season, and although he may not start until game 3 of the series, the Diamondbacks have the ability to use him in a relief role late in the series if necessary.

Clayton Kershaw

Is there any story for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the playoffs than Clayton Kershaw? Of course not. Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball in the 2010s, and it’s not particularly close. Thanks to a couple of back injuries in 2016 and 2017, some other pitchers may look to be taking over, but Kershaw is still excellent. But when looking at his playoff history, we know it has not been kind. The narrative of Kershaw failing in the playoffs really started on October 18th, 2013.

The Dodgers were down 3-2 in the NLCS to the St Louis Cardinals, and Kershaw took the mound trying to save the Dodgers season. The first two innings were fine, but the third inning saw Kershaw give up 4 runs. Two innings later, Kershaw gave up another 3 runs while Ronald Belisario gave up another 2 runs of his own. This was the first bad playoff appearance for Kershaw since his age 21 season in 2009 against the Phillies. 2014 gave Kershaw a chance at redemption, starting off with a game 1 NLDS start once again against the Cardinals. This is where the Kershaw playoffs narrative really took shape.

The first 6 innings of game 1 could not have gone better. The Dodgers scored 6 runs off of Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, and the Dodgers had a 6-2 lead going into the 7th inning. Through 6 innings, Kershaw had 8 K 0 BB 2 H and 2 R allowed. What followed was 6 hits and 6 runs in the 7th inning in a heartbreaking game for Kershaw and Dodger fans. Kershaw’s next start in game 4 of the series started off even better, with another 6 innings of great baseball including 9 K 2 BB 1 H and 0 R. Kershaw was absolutely cruising. In the 7th inning, it started off with a groundball single by Matt Holliday. Next up was a live drive single by Jhonny Peralta that tipped off of Hanley Ramirez’s glove, a play a better SS would have likely made. Next up was the infamous Matt Stairs, I mean Matt Adams home run to break the Dodgers’ back.  The Dodgers lost this game 3-2, and the series was over.

This was now two straight playoff starts with Kershaw going 6 good or great innings with the lead, only to lose everything and not finish the 7th inning. Up next was game 1 of the NLDS against the New York Mets in 2015. This game was a bit different than the three preceding it, as Kershaw went into the 7th inning down 1-0. He was brilliant through 6 IP yet again, with 11 K 1 BB 4 H and 1 R allowed. It didn’t seem to matter, as the dreaded 7th inning struck again with Kershaw losing all control to walk 3 batters and get just 2 outs. Pedro Baez came in to try and contain the mess, but David Wright got his only hit of the series which plated 2 runs and the Dodgers lost 3-1.

These three straight 7th inning meltdowns feel almost otherworldly to Dodger fans, something of an aberration. Since then, Kershaw has had mixed results, throwing some gems and getting some wins, and completely falling apart in game 6 of the NLCS against the Chicago Cubs last season after not being able to keep the team on his back any longer. While there are many great players, MVP candidates, and Cy Young candidates between the two teams, fans and media alike will be following the results of Clayton Kershaw more closely than anything else in this series.

Bobby’s NLDS Series Prediction

In a season filled with stacked teams that you wouldn’t want to face in the playoffs, the Diamondbacks are pretty high up my list as a Dodger fan. Outside of the Indians, the Diamondbacks may just have the best rotation in the MLB. If not the best, then perhaps the best 3-4-5. Then you consider how many average to above average hitters are surrounding two of the very best in Goldschmidt and Martinez? This is a scary team.

However, it would be foolish to count out the team that won 104 games this season. The Dodgers still have the best pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw, and they have perhaps the best reliever in baseball, Kenley Jansen. Outside of the Astros, the Dodgers may have the deepest lineup as well, with no real holes and a deep bench. This is not going to be an easy series for either team and much like my colleague Greg Huss and his Cubs/Nationals series prediction, I believe this one goes 5 games and comes down to the late innings of game 5. If the Dodgers can contain one or both of Goldschmit and Martinez, they will come out on top.

Los Angeles Dodgers Win NLDS In 5 Games