NLDS Preview: Can Anyone Stop Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers?

The Dodgers are numberFire's top team, but do the Cardinals have a chance at an upset?

Friday night starts a matchup between two of the powerhouses in the National League. The Dodgers have controlled the NL West nearly all season, starting high in our power rankings and steadily rising through the top five over the course of the season.

The Cardinals were the typical Cardinals - they plodded through the regular season, let the Brewers control the division for a while, watched them fade, saw the Pirates surge here and there but, finally, they took the division at the end of the season. The Cardinals have made the playoffs in 10 of the last 14 years, so they know what it takes to get to the second season of baseball, and how to win it all when they get there.

This is the third time these teams have met in the playoffs over the last six years. The Dodgers took three of four when the Cardinals visited Los Angeles this season, but the Cards had better results when they were hosts, taking two of three games in that series.

So how did the Cardinals and Dodgers end up on a crash course to this matchup? Let’s look at some numbers to see how each team got here, analyzing some key aspects for each team in this five-game series.

How the Dodgers Got Here

You could answer any question regarding the Dodgers with two words: Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw pitched many gems this year and had only one game that was non-Kershaw-like when he gave up seven runs against the Diamondbacks in May. But on the other side of the spectrum, he gave the Dodgers two complete game shutouts and didn’t allow a run in six other outings.

With so many strong games from Kershaw – which includes his no-hitter against Colorado in June – he led or nearly led all pitchers in many categories. Of starters that threw at least 160 innings, Kershaw allowed the third fewest home runs per nine innings, led in strikeouts per nine innings, and had the seventh-lowest walk rate per nine.

The Dodgers aren’t all about pitching though, as the team’s offense wasn’t a slouch over the regular season thanks to Yasiel Puig. Puig finished the season as the 14th-best position player in numberFire’s nERD rankings. His 2.61 nERD indicates that a lineup full of Puigs would score 2.61 more runs than your average lineup.

But Puig was just the start of it all. Matt Kemp and Puig combined to hit 41 home runs, helping the Dodgers to finish tied for second in wRC+ with the Angels.

The Dodgers also finished the season sixth in runs scored and tied for seventh in walk rate with the Nationals, which is second-best among the playoff teams. The Dodgers will find a way to get on base as indicated by their .327 wOBA, third best in the league. Once they get on base, this lineup can’t be taken lightly as they have plenty of bats that will drive in runs.

How the Cardinals Got Here

The Cardinals enter the postseason as the 13th-best team in numberFire’s nERD, second-lowest of all remaining playoff teams. The Cardinals won the division, but it wasn’t easy, as they were six-and-a-half games back by the end of June, barely competing for second place.

The one guy who helped carry this team through the season was a pitcher almost as good as Kershaw: Adam Wainwright. I don’t expect Wainwright to be the strikeout machine that Kershaw is, but Wainwright doesn’t allow many to hit home runs off of him either. Wainwright finished the season at 49th among pitchers in strikeout rate per nine innings (7.1 K/9), but was the second-best pitcher among home runs allowed with only 0.4 home runs per nine innings.

Other than Wainwright, there weren’t many bright spots on the Cardinals pitching staff. Lance Lynn provided quality starts and the trade for John Lackey helped to strengthen the rotation, but the next best pitcher may have been Trevor Rosenthal and his 45 saves.

Matt Holliday was the best offensive player for the Cardinals according to numberFire, posting a 2.05 nERD, 28th-best among batters for the 2014 season. In looking at FanGraphs, Jhonny Peralta posted the highest WAR of any Cardinal batter at 5.4, 1.6 wins above replacement more than Holliday.

Holliday and Peralta combined for 41 home runs and 166 RBI. Holliday also had the highest wOBA of any Cardinals player at .365, followed by Peralta’s .343 wOBA. Holliday was the 24th-best outfielder when you evaluate his WAR, basically filling the role that Justin Upton did for the Braves or Jacoby Ellsbury did for the Yankees.

Peralta, on the other hand, was the best shortstop in the league only because Troy Tulowitzki missed half of the season. Peralta posted a 120 wRC+ and a .343 wOBA, both the fourth-best among shortstops with at least 90 plate appearances. Holliday provided the punch and Peralta posted the opportunities for the Cardinals offense. If it wasn’t for both players, the Cardinals would likely be sitting at home this postseason.

Keys to Victory for the Dodgers

It starts with the rotation behind Kershaw. Zack Greinke finished the season well with a 2.97 FIP, but he doesn’t have dominant stuff like he used to. Dan Haren needs a near perfect game from the defense behind him and has to try to not put himself in a hole early in the game. He's one of worst in allowing home runs, as he allowed 1.31 per nine innings, but if he can avoid serving up bombs to Holliday and Peralta, he may survive. As long as the pitching staff keeps it close for the Dodgers, they have the ever reliable Kenley Jansen, who finished with one less save than Rosenthal.

If the pitching staff doesn’t do well, the offense will be relied upon heavily. As I mentioned above, the Dodgers had one of the best offenses in the league. But who specifically needs to step it up?

The Dodgers lineup is filled with a bunch of speed and power. Carl Crawford and Hanley Ramirez aren’t who they used to be but if they, along with Dee Gordon, continue to get on base, Puig and Adrian Gonzalez should be there to knock them in. Gonzalez led the team – and league – with 116 RBI, so he will be counted on to produce on a nightly basis. If he doesn’t, the Dodgers could be in trouble.

Keys to Victory for the Cardinals

I mentioned Wainwright before and he’s worth mentioning again. If the Cardinals are able to steal a game in Los Angeles, he will be needed for a pivotal Game 4 in the NCLS. His FIP and numberFire’s nERD have him as a top-notch pitcher – 13th in FIP and 11th in nERD (pitchers only) – so he should be able to carry the pitching staff for two games.

Offensively, this team needs a little more punch. Holliday has done well for the team all year and Peralta should be a key force in giving the Cardinals a fighting chance. But Yadier Molina may be the biggest key for the offense – and the team overall.

Before Molina went down with an injury in early July, he was hitting well. Molina was carrying a .324 wOBA and had driven in 29 RBI before the injury. Molina’s wRC+ was slightly above average as well at 107. After his return from his injury late August, Molina’s wRC+ and wOBA were never the same. Molina doesn’t need to drive in five runs a game this series, but if Holliday or Peralta falter in the heat of the moment, Molina will need to be there to keep the Cardinals afloat. If he’s not, the Cardinals might not have much of a fighting chance in the playoffs this year.

Who Takes the Series?

The Dodgers look a lot better than the Cardinals in many statistical categories, but that doesn’t mean you should count St. Louis out. It should be noted that the Cardinals have struggled mightily on the road this year, so if they can’t steal Game 1 or 2, it could be a short series for the Dodgers.

Our analytics project this series to be over after four games, which likely means two starts from Clayton Kershaw. With him leading the way, it’s not a surprise that the Dodgers are overwhelming favorites in this series with a 62.57% chance to move on to the NLCS.