At least it’s not another Cubs-Dodgers NLCS, y’all. Only 50 percent of the NLCS matchup we’ve been getting used to the past couple of years is here this time around. The fresh blood the Dodgers will face in the Brewers are themselves a big part of the reason that we aren’t enjoying a third year of the status quo. Milwaukee took it upon themselves to defeat the Cubs in a Game 163, forcing Chicago into the Wild Card Game and a very early postseason exit. While the TV networks might have preferred otherwise, it’s nice to have a break, even if the Brewers made it this far as recently as 2011. While we’re talking about the past...
In terms of postseason history, there isn’t a speck of it. The Brewers have been around since 1969, but didn’t move to the NL until 1998. Thus, there just weren’t many chances for it, considering that the Brewers have only played in one World Series so far, a loss to the Cardinals in 1982.
In the seven games they played this year, Los Angeles won four of them. While the Dodgers outscored Milwaukee by a whopping 48-25, that was heavily weighted by a 11-2 Dodgers win in July and even more so by a 21-5 routing by Los Angeles the last time they met in early August. In the other 5 games, which didn’t feature blowout pitching management, the Brewers outscored the Dodgers 18-16, with four of the five contests decided by two runs or less.
This isn’t the first time that we’ve talked about how unlucky the Dodgers were in the regular season this year, but it bears repeating now that they’re in the NLCS, because they were very, very unlucky, even though they still won 92 games and their division (as with the Brewers, requiring a 163rd game). Their plus +194 run differential was the best in the NL and better than, for example, the Yankees who won 100 games with a +184 run differential. They scored a lot more runs than they gave up, but they just didn’t distribute them correctly. Thus, they underperformed their BaseRuns record by -9 wins and their Pythagorean record by an MLB-leading -10 wins. It’s not quite the 1905 Cubs, who were -14, but it’s altogether impressively unlucky, and we’ll get to some the reasons why soon.
Milwaukee, on the other hand, finished the season with a 96-67 record that was exactly four wins better than their predicted record by both Pythagorean and BaseRuns. Their run differential was almost exactly 100 runs lower than Los Angeles at +95. Whereas the Dodgers projected to be around a 102-win team, the Brewers were actually closer to 92 wins. Right off the bat, you have to think that Dodgers have an edge, at least just looking at their ability to score more runs than they give up.
If we look at how things have been going lately, both teams have been on fire, even though they trailed in their respective divisions at the start of September. Milwaukee’s 20-7 record down the stretch was the best in the NL, and the Dodgers were right behind them in second place with a 19-9 record. But if you believe in the notion of momentum (rather than the siding with Earl Weaver about it being the next day’s pitcher), the Brewers have a bit more of it going than the Dodgers, as they’re undefeated in their last 11 straight games and have outscored their opponents 80-34.
A year after they had the best offense by fWAR in the NL and made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series, only to lose to the best offense in all of MLB, we expected the Dodgers to be good again, and good they were, delivering 33.0 fWAR to lead all of MLB. That’s not to say that they weren’t without their issues, with health being a big one. Justin Turner barely passed the 100-game threshold and they lost shortstop Corey Seager to Tommy John surgery in mid-May.
But then they went and traded for Manny Machado prior to the trade deadline to replace Seager, just to make it clear that they weren’t going to settle for anything less than another trip to the World Series. They added the best available player to a team that was already stacked with the likes of Turner (162 wRC+, 5.2 fWAR), Cody Bellinger (120 wRC+, 3.6 fWAR), Yasmani Grandal (125 wRC+, 3.6 fWAR) and a whole mess of other quality players returning from last year, along with 2018 breakout extraordinaire Max Muncy (162 wRC+, 5.2 fWAR). The Dodgers were tied for the Yankees for the best wRC+ (111) in baseball. While the Yankees got most of the attention due to all the longballs, the Dodgers play in a very different ballpark and only had slightly lower power numbers and a slightly higher OBP.
But there was another issue for the Dodgers’ offense this year, one that was unrelated to health. While L.A. had the best offense in baseball by fWAR, they were also the most unclutch in all of MLB, with a -7.83 Clutch score. That’s a stat that doesn’t really provide any insight into what you can expect moving forward, only about what has happened, and it certainly goes a long way to explain how the Dodgers could have underperformed so impressively on the year. They got lots of hits, but they weren’t coming at the right time. No matter what announcers like to say about hitters’ ability to deliver in the highest leverage situations, you really just want the best possible hitter at the plate no matter what, and the Dodgers can almost certainly lay claim to having the best collection of hitters in the postseason now that the Yankees are out of the picture.
Despite L.A.’s problems with timing their hits during the regular season, the bad news for he Brewers is that the lineup has been excellent down the stretch. Since September started, they lead the league by a host of offensive stats, including AVG (.274), OPS (.849) and wRC+ (132). They notched eight home runs in four games in the NLDS and look like a very different team from the one that struggled up until the final month of the season to ensure that they would still be playing baseball come October.
That’s not to pick on the Brewers’ lineup, as they’ve been quite good as well, with their collective fWAR (26.6) good enough for third in the NL. Christian Yelich, who flew under the radar for so long in Miami, is having an MVP-level season in his first in a Brewers uniform. He’s been the best hitter in the NL, leading in a variety of categories during the regular season, including AVG (.322), SLG (.577), wOBA (.410) and wRC+ (158). So far, he’s being treated very carefully this postseason, as he’s walked in 6 of his 14 PAs.
And it doesn’t end there. Lorenzo Cain (124 wRC+, 5.7 fWAR) hasn’t hit quite as well as Yelich, but he’s been good enough defensively to work himself into the MVP conversation. Travis Shaw (119 wRC+, 3.6 fWAR) is having another great year in his second in Milwaukee and Jesus Aguilar had a breakout year as well (134 wRC+, 3.4 fWAR), even if the latter has struggled so far in the postseason. Cain has also been notably quiet as of late, with only one hit in 14 PAs in the NLDS, but it would probably be less than entirely wise to assume that will continue based on his overall body of work this season.
There’s certainly not the same depth in Milwaukee, though, and the team as a whole only sports a 99 wRC+. While their overall fWAR ranking comes in very high, it’s worth noting that a big chunk of that value comes from Milwaukee’s defense, with a teamwide 89 DRS (2nd best in MLB) and 24.9 UZR (8th best). The Dodgers have not done as well in that department, with 31 DRS (8th) and -17.6 (24th). Simply put, there are defensive distributed throughout L.A.’s lineup, but there’s also enough fire power up and down it to make up for a few mistakes, and the edge certainly goes to LA. here.
If you saw that the Dodgers were starting someone other than Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 of an NLDS, despite his being available, you might have expressed both consternation and concern. But the pitcher they started in his stead, Hyun-Jin Ryu, has a 1.97 ERA this season, and he rewarded their decision, pitching seven innings of shutout baseball. Kershaw was there for Game 2, though, and even if his 2018 season (161 IP, 2.73 ERA, 3.19 FIP) isn’t up to his normal Cy Young Award level of excellence, he still went eight innings in Game 2 without allowing a hit. He’s still pretty good, and maybe we can finally put the postseason misgivings to rest.
Then, they’ve got Walker (2.31 ERA, 2.92 FIP) and Alex Wood (3.65 ERA, 3.55 FIP). If you can afford to move Kenta Maeda (3.85 ERA, 3.30 FIP) to the bullpen, you’re probably in pretty good shape in terms of your rotation. The overall numbers back that up, as the Dodgers rank 4th in MLB by fWAR (17.4).
The same can’t be said on the other side of the ledger. First-year Brewer Jhoulys Chacin, with his ridiculous slider that he’s throwing more than ever, has been the brightest of the bunch (3.50 ERA, 4.03 FIP, 116 ERA+). Although it was only a single game, it’s worth pointing out that he was also the starter in the 21-5 rout by the Dodgers, allowing 8 earned runs in 4.1 innings. But he’s done quite well starting at the Game-162 mark, pitching 5.2 innings and allowing one run in the tiebreaker against the Cubs and holding the Rockies scoreless for five in his NLDS appearance. After that, there’s Wade Miley (2.57 ERA, 3.59 FIP), who also held Rockies hitters scoreless in the DS clincher for 4.2 innings (in Colorado, no less). After that, things ain’t quite so pretty, with the entire rotation coming in 17th in MLB by fWAR (9.4).
Given that it’s the year of the “opener”, the Brewers started mostly-relieving Brandon Woodruff in the first game of the division series. Given that the Athletics’ similar attempt at employing an opener in the Wild Card Game blew up in their face, it’s certainly good to see the strategy work out, and we’ll almost certainly be seeing it again, given the starting pitcher situation in Milwaukee. They can only start Chacin on short rest, as they did in the DS, so many times. The extra days off mean that the Brewers can lean more heavily on their bullpen, but there is absolutely no way that you can argue that the Brewers have a better starting rotation than the Dodgers on paper.
The same cannot be said on the reliever front. Milwaukee relievers combined for a 3.47 ERA, 3.57 FIP and 7.1 fWAR, ranking them 2nd in the NL in all three categories. Led by Josh Hader (81 IP, 2.43 ERA, 2.23 FIP, 2nd-best-in-MLB 15.82 K/9) and Jeremy Jeffress (76 IP, 1.29 ERA, 2.78 FIP), there’s also a lot of depth in Milwaukee’s relief corps.
Corey Knebel (55 IP, 3.58 ERA, 3.03 FIP), Joakim Soria (22 IP, 4.09 ERA, 2.93 FIP) and Woodruff (26 IP, 2.03 ERA, 2.26 FIP) all provide proven options. There’s been some excellent work in very small sample sizes from the likes of Junior Guerra, Xavier Cedeno and Freddy Peralta (who have combined for 18 innings and only allowed 13 hits and 2 earned runs). Guerra and Peralta struggled in longer outings, but they’ve excelled in shorter ones, so Milwaukee is going to take advantage.
The bullpen is going to be called upon, and called upon repeatedly, but, so far, they’ve been up to the task. The real issue that arises when you’re planning on throwing as many bullpen innings as Milwaukee likely will is making the right decisions in terms of who they carry for the series, a fact that can get overlooked in terms of the value provided by a starter in this day of weaponized bullpens.
In the opposite corner, the Dodgers’ bullpen collectively put up a 3.72 ERA, 3.88 FIP and 3.1 fWAR, coming in 5th in the NL by both ERA and FIP and 7th by fWAR. They’ve had a ton of issues this year, but the biggest has probably been Kenley Jansen, who was extremely dinger-prone in the second half, with a 2.84 HR/9 that was very unlike him.
So far, Jansen has availed himself in the postseason, tossing two innings of one-hit baseball and not allowing a run and striking out three of the seven batters he’s faced. Whatever got into him after missing time in August seems to be at least somewhat behind him, as batters went from hitting for a .383 AVG down to .182 and his HR/9 dropped from 4.50 to a still-high by his standards 2.19. He’s still has, on the season as a whole, not been the unhittable closer we’ve gotten used to in recent years.
Like the lineup before them, the bullpen has struggled in clutch situations, too, with the second lowest clutch score in the NL (-1.32). Again, it doesn’t really tell us anything about what will happen in a best-of-seven series, but it at least helps to explain why their expected record was so much worse than their actual one. They weren’t just giving up hits more hits than the Brewers, they were giving them up at precisely the wrong times. The fact that they can employ Maeda in relief certainly changes the equation a bit, as well.
But even if we adjust our expectations a bit, the Brewers had one of the best bullpens in baseball this year and it’s definitely better than the Dodgers’. They can and will certainly lean more heavily on it, especially given the state of their rotation. Manager Craig Counsell is going to have be careful in how he deploys them, because if he’s planning on throwing some bullpen games, there is definitely the possibility that they end up gassed. Considering that they pitched a ridiculous 15.1 innings in their three-game sweep of the Rockies NLDS (plus another three if you count the opener’s start), Counsell has to at least be happy that it was a sweep and they’ll have some extra time to rest them up.
Can the Brewers win this series? Oh, they most certainly can. They’re enjoying home field advantage because they have a better record than the Dodgers. But if you’re a gambling man or woman, you probably want to stick to the Dodgers. The Brewers certainly have the better bullpen and defense, but pretty basically everything else tilts in favor of Los Angeles. While I’m rooting for the Brewers as the underdog and I’m definitely all in a Brewers-Astros World Series given the league-switching of yesteryear, I have to go with my gut and think that the Dodgers are going to keep Milwaukee from winning more than a couple of games.
- Dodgers over Brewers in 6