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National League Locks for the MLB Playoffs

Though no team has clinched a postseason berth yet, some teams seem all but certain to make the MLB playoffs. Is your team on the list?

Chicago Cubs by Arturo Pardavila is licensed under CC BY 2.0

National League Locks for the MLB Playoffs


Estimated Reading Time: 11 Minutes

We know now that the MLB playoffs will be played in a bubble. We know that the teams will be banned from having alcoholic beverages as part of their postseason celebrations. So now, it’s time to look at which teams seem most likely to be jumping up and down six feet apart from each other in Texas and California, flapping their hands back and forth in an attempt, unconscious or not, to mimic spraying bottles of champagne.

That’s right. It’s time to look at the teams that are locks for the postseason, and how they got here.

Of course, it’s 2020. Anything could happen. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic.  There are murder hornets. The least terrible part of the devastating wildfires on the west coast is that San Fransisco looks like Blade Runner: 2049. I was just canvassing this weekend, and spoke with a woman who said she wasn’t sure if she would vote in the election because she believes the apocalypse is nigh, and she quoted scripture as specific evidence. I just had to say: Ma’am, you have a point.

So yes, we have been conditioned beyond surprise. But these are the teams, even if they don’t end up clinching their division title, that seem safe to make it as the second playoff team in this year’s expanded postseason.


Looking for the American League Locks? You can find it here!


Los Angeles Dodgers

I know I just wrote that “anything could happen,” but the Dodgers are making the playoffs unless California crumbles into the sea. That’s really the only way to hedge this bet.

The Dodgers Lineup

I could very nearly write “they’re the Dodgers” in place of analysis and move on, but the depth of this team continues to make it the powerhouse of the league. They can play Mookie Betts at second base for the first time since 2014 just because it’s fun.

The newly-extended Betts has unquestionably been one of the five best batters in baseball this season, and Corey Seager is posting the best slugging percentage of his career as part of his .317/.365/.616 slash line. So the Dodgers still float above the rest of the national league, even when 2018 breakout Max Muncy and 2019 MVP Cody Bellinger have struggled, together producing less fWAR than their teammate Chris Taylor. According to this piece by Dan Szymborski, Bellinger is swinging more with the least hard contact of his career. A swing change developed in the season’s Covid-interim does not appear to be serving him.

The Dodgers Pitchers

The Dodgers’ rotation depth may face question for the first time, as Walker Buehler has battled blister issues this season, and Dustin May, Gingergaard of the time-and-space-bending 99 MPH two-seamer, recently took a comebacker off his foot. The team decided to ship Ross Stripling to the Blue Jays for minor league assets at the trade deadline, so no longer have an immediate back-up.

However, with Kershaw sporting a vintage King-Kershaw 1.98 ERA, and rookie-eligible Tony Gonsolin’s 1.57 ERA surprising everyone, the Dodgers will still win the, let me check, two games necessary to clinch a playoff berth. They haven’t done it yet, but it’s going to happen any day now.

San Diego Padres

They may be in the same division as the Dodgers, but Slam Diego boasts the second-best winning percentage in the National League at .640. The Padres are only one game behind LA for their “magic number” to secure a postseason spot.

Also, anyone who has the ocular proof of watching the Padres play can’t foresee them giving up their playoff spot as the second-place team in the division. As far above expectations as the Giants have played, they still stand 7.5 games behind the Padres.

The Padres Lineup

The obvious headline is Fernando Tatis, leading all position players in fWAR, treating the laws of physics as if we’re all living in his Matrix, and generally convincing everyone who watches him that it is, actually, good to be alive in 2020. (I believe that the table of The Church of Fernando Tatis accepts all comers.)

But Manny Machado isn’t far behind his showstopping teammate. Machado’s .313/.380/.593 slash line is the best of his entire career, heartily proving that he can be effective outside of Camden Yards. And Machado is actually exceeded in wRC+ by Wil Myers, whose 157 mark leaves the entire rest of his own FanGraphs page in the dust.

Meanwhile, Jake Cronenworth has showed his—that’s right—value, with a .323/.385/.549 campaign for Rookie of the Year, and Trent Grisham has brought a very solid bat to his team-leading 5 Defensive Runs Saved, a nice redemption for his moment in the Brewers Wild Card game last October. Which won’t be named, but might be linked to.

And before he hit the injured list, Eric Hosmer was hitting the ball in the air! After much time as a detractor of the Fly Ball Revolution, Hosmer’s career-high 35.8 fly-ball percentage was yielding dividends. Sadly, Hosmer fractured his finger in a bunt attempt (karma for bunting?) and will be out for 2-6 weeks, so the Padres may not see him again until their all but assured playoff appearance, at the earliest.

The Padres Pitchers

But seemingly uncertain of what it may take to run deep into October, the Padres decided to use the trade deadline to acquire the rest of the league. The team had one of the most entertaining deadlines for any team in history, when AJ Preller handled trades for a total of 26 players in three days, breaking his own record from 2014.

The prize jewel of this very large tiara made of baseball players was Mike Clevinger, the largest name moved at this year’s deadline.

Clevinger is coming off his best start of the year this Sunday versus the Giants, after some command issues and a dip in fastball velocity earlier in the season. But even if neither Clevinger nor his new teammate Chris Paddack have been their 2019 selves, Dinelson Lamet has been a slider/fastball magician, throwing the slider more than ever before, and Zach Davies has exceeded expectations (and his own 4.31 xFIP) with a 2.48 ERA.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves Pitchers

The starting rotation has been the question mark for the Braves this season. I won’t say ‘Achilles heel,’ since that feels like a cruel turn of phrase in light of the injury that brought their ace Mike Soroka’s season to an end. Max Fried, however, had very capably filled that role, with a 1.98 ERA on the season, until back spasms sent him to the IL. The young lefty will look to get his Cy Young candidacy back on track with a return this weekend, however, and the Braves also plan to get Cole Hamels into the rotation this week, having lost most of the season to triceps tendinitis.

This will be particularly welcome since their trade deadline acquisition, Tommy Milone, suffered elbow inflammation that put him with the solid rotation they currently have on the IL. But four spectacular starts from rookie Ian Anderson, currently boasting a 1.64 ERA, mean that the stretch run with Fried and Hamels should have the division-leading Braves coasting to the playoffs.

And despite implementing starters that were not necessarily part of the Braves’ plan, like Kyle Wright, Robbie Erlin, Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint, and Bryse Wilson–none of whom have quite achieved positive fWAR this year–the Braves have a firm spot atop the NL East. Partly they have their excellent bullpen to thank, whose 3.23 ERA is third-best in MLB…

The Braves Lineup

…but also, their bats have stayed lively, even amidst injuries to Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies. And no sooner does Acuna land back in the lineup, but he’ll mash a homer. Or twelve.

Freddie Freeman’s 186 wRC+ is second in all of baseball, and also leads the majors in wOBC+ (weighted on-base conversationalist, where 100 is league-average). Marcell Ozuna has been every bit the Donaldson replacement in the lineup that was hoped. Both Ozuna and Adam Duvall have clubbed 14 homers, with Duvall hitting 10 in his last 14 games at the time of this tweet. Meanwhile, Dansby Swanson has been having the season that his proponents always anticipated. He can also steal bases while looking like the teenage romance novel hero that his name suggests.

In fact, in their 29-9 football game with the Miami Marlins, the Braves tied the most runs scored by home runs in history. This club can thump, and they’re taking it all the way to the postseason.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs Lineup

It’s a feat that the Cubs sit 5 games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals, despite puzzling performances from some of Chicago’s 2016 championship superstars. Their .592 winning percentage is partly fueled by their hot 8-1 start to the season, important in a 60-game sprint. But I feel confident in the Cubs making the postseason, since Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant, all barely clearing the Mendoza line, are due positive regression towards their career norms.

Bryant may be the most troubling, since he has dealt with a number of injuries to his elbow, finger and wrist, injuries that can “affect his swing,” according to manager David Ross. On the other side, Tony Two Chains has an expected batting average, based on quality of contact, of .260, and his .198 BABIP also suggests that he’s just been unlucky. Baez is the most mysterious, since his .226 xBA offers limited consolation, although his 33% strikeout rate is his worst since his rookie 2014 season. But when he can produce runs like this, you have to feel like El Mago is always on the precipice of turning his season around:

Instead, the Cubs’ offense has been propelled by Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, and Willson Contreras.

It may be confirmation bias on my part, since I thought Happ would break out this season and I’ve always considered Heyward to be underrated. But I don’t see anything that suggests Happ and Heyward are necessarily due the opposite kind of regression from their teammates. Happ is putting together 2018’s walk rate with 2019’s strikeout rate (both good), and Heyward’s expected batting average of .332 not only exceeds his .293 mark, it’s in the top 3% of the league.

And an important inside source (my best friend, who is a Cubs fan) has also observed that from the top to the bottom of the lineup, David Ross’s managerial style inspires all of the players to work particularly hard to make him proud. Winning probably helps the clubhouse mood, too.

The Cubs Pitchers

And the Cubs’ pitching deserves the credit for many of those wins. Yu Darvish, with his 23.5 different pitches and 1.77 ERA (hint: only one of those is the real number), is making a serious bid for NL Cy Young. Kyle Hendricks opened the season with a complete game shut-out versus the Brewers, and his performance this year would make him the top of the rotation on many other teams.

Meanwhile, this past Sunday, Alec Mills spun a no-hitter against the same Milwaukee team. This feat from the 28-year old, who had been a college walk-on for the University of Tennessee-Martin baseball team, and had only pitched 57.1 innings in the majors before 2020, surprised one and all. It’s the kind of stupendous, feel-good story that might make a completely hypothetical person wonder why nice complete surprises like that never happen for her 100% hypothetical baseball team.

The Cubs are also hoping for the return of Tyler Chatwood next week, who surprised everyone this year by transforming his pitch mix with a revamped cutter, about a mile per hour faster and with significantly more horizontal break. This led to two excellent starts and two starts that might even charitably be termed a bombardment, but Chatwood has shown, at least, a higher ceiling than was expected.

In the bullpen, Jeremy Jeffress has proved solid where Craig Kimbrel has not, but peripherals suggest that Kimbrel has been unlucky and Jeffress fairly fortunate, so the truth is somewhere in the middle for this 32 year-old closer duo.

Ellen Adair is an actor, probably best known as Janet Bayne in “Homeland,” Bess McTeer in “The Sinner,” and Bridget Saltire in “The Slap,” but has been in a lot of other TV shows, films, and theater that the truly curious can investigate at www.ellenadair.com. As a human being, she is best known for her unhealthy love of baseball. It says so on her business cards. She loves baseball in general, but the Phillies are her life partner. She is the author of "Curtain Speech," from Pen & Anvil Press, and is working on bringing to life a TV series about baseball writers. Connect with her on Twitter at @ellen_adair or Instagram at @ellenadairg.

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