At long last, the National League Championship Series will begin Monday night at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. The Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers swept their NLDS matchups over the Marlins and Padres, respectively, and neither team has played since Thursday. They will both be well-rested going into Game 1.
The Dodgers and Braves were the two highest-scoring teams in baseball during the 60-game regular season. Los Angeles scored 349 runs and Atlanta was right behind with 348. The Padres were a distant third with 325 runs. Offensively, the Dodgers and Braves are similar in that they are not shy about swinging at the first pitch.
Here are the teams that swung at the first pitch most often in 2020:
- Mets: 12.8 percent
- Astros: 12.2 percent
- Blue Jays: 12.2 percent
- Braves, Dodgers, Phillies: 11.9 percent (tied)
(MLB Average: 10.2 percent)
MLB teams hit .353 with a .597 slugging percentage on the first pitch this season. There is some selection bias here though, because when a player swings at the first pitch, it's usually because he gets something good to hit. If everyone started swinging at the first pitch all the time, the league wouldn't hit .353 on the first pitch much longer.
The Braves had the third-highest batting average (.399) and the highest slugging percentage (.788) on the first pitch during the regular season. Their 26 first-pitch homers led baseball and some of the individual numbers are incredible:
|Batting average on first pitch||Slugging percentage on first pitch||Homers on first pitch|
Ronald Acuna Jr.
The Dodgers lag a bit behind the Braves and hit .363 with a .641 slugging percentage on the first pitch, which is still comfortably above-average. They hit 20 first-pitch homers with Corey Seager (.357 average and .690 slugging) and A.J. Pollock (.381 average and .824 slugging) leading the way with four apiece.
These are two excellent offensive teams and it is not a coincidence they are two excellent first-pitch hitting teams. Walks are great, but the Braves and Dodgers go up to the plate ready to hit. When they get something hittable in the zone, they pounce. Working the count is a secondary concern. They're up there to do damage.
A potential NLCS X-factor is how each team's pitching staff approaches the first pitch. The Dodgers are the most aggressive first-pitch strike pitching staff in the game. No team has thrown a higher rate of first pitch strikes the last five years:
- 2020: 63.0 percent (1st in MLB)
- 2019: 63.0 percent (1st)
- 2018: 64.1 percent (1st)
- 2017: 63.7 percent (1st)
- 2016: 63.1 percent (T-1st with Mets)
For reference, the MLB average is 59.9 percent first pitch strikes. The Braves have been a more middle of the pack team when it comes to throwing first pitch strikes, sitting right round 60 percent the last few years. For the Dodgers, it's clear pounding the zone with the first pitch is intentional. You don't lead the league in anything five straight years by accident.
That means the NLCS features arguably the best first-pitch hitting team in the game (Braves) with the team that throws the most first pitches in the zone (Dodgers), and that's pretty fun. Does either team change their strategy? The Braves swinging less often on the first pitch isn't a great idea because the Dodgers throw so many first pitch strikes and you don't want to fall behind the count.
- MLB average after first-pitch strike: .215/.267/.355
- MLB average after first-pitch ball: .257/.381/.451
On the other hand, if you're the Dodgers, you don't want to just lay a first-pitch strike in there out over the plate, because the Braves are an aggressive first pitch hitting team and could take you out of the yard. Perhaps the solution for Los Angeles is throwing more first-pitch breaking balls to keep those aggressive Braves hitters off-balance and guessing?
Swinging at the first pitch can bring extreme results. Do it well and you can put runs on the board in a hurry. If it doesn't work though, you're looking at an opposing starter with a low pitch count in the middle innings. As a fan, there's nothing more frustrating than your offense having quick scoreless innings. The results aren't there and the pitcher's pitch count is low. It's a double whammy.
Aggressiveness on the first pitch, particularly by Braves hitters against Dodgers, could be an X-factor that decides the NLCS. In the never-ending cat and mouse game that is postseason baseball, one team may be forced to make an adjustment on the fly and do something they haven't done all year, meaning fewer first pitch swings or Atlanta or fewer first pitch strikes for Los Angeles.