There’s a question that pervades every aspect of the series that will decide the National League pennant, from the surface-level records you’ll see on every box score to the little bits of narrative you’ll hear uttered on the television broadcast. What’s the difference between the ability to outscore your opponent and the ability to win games? Is there any air between them? Is the Venn diagram a perfect circle? Or just a bit offset?
We can be confident it’s not as offset as the Dodgers’ and Brewers’ regular-season records would indicate, as Jared Diamond explored in The Wall Street Journal. Play that season 500 times, and the Dodgers win more games in at least 400 of them, right? Maybe the inverse is true, on a less extreme scale, of the Brewers. Maybe it was also true of the Royals a few years ago.
With seven contests to decide who will go to the World Series, it’s hard to decide whether an extra little oomph—be it from a strong bullpen, savvy baserunning, a relentless lineup, whatever—revealed over 162 games should be thrown out the window or held up as the X-factor.
For at least a few days, and maybe for a whole winter, we’re going to feel as though there has been a definitive ruling on the topic based on how two very different collections of players perform. The Dodgers are looking for that elusive World Series title, underachieving summer be damned. The Brewers don’t yet have the edge of frustration and loss.
All of these giant, borderline philosophical questions linger overhead. They’ll be fun to talk about, think about, argue about. But don’t be surprised if this whole thing is decided by how good one bullpen’s stuff looks, and how prepared the other team’s hitters are to deal with it.
LF-L Joc Pederson (.248/.321/.522/.294)
3B-R Justin Turner (.312/.406/.518/.332)
1B-L Max Muncy (.263/.391/.582/.340)
SS-R Manny Machado (.297/.367/.538/.306)
C-S Yasmani Grandal (.241/.349/.466/.295)
CF-L Cody Bellinger (.260/.343/.470/.299)
RF-R Yasiel Puig (.267/.327/.494/.290)
2B-R Enrique Hernandez (.256/.336/.470/.291)
In racing past the Braves in the NLDS, the Dodgers’ offense popped eight of its 20 hits out of the park, and took 27 walks. Clearly, this shows an over-reliance on the longb — … kidding, kidding. What it actually shows is serious power and patience. Turner, Puig, and Muncy essentially took up residence on the bases, carrying surges over from September.
As erstwhile BP minor-league editor Craig Goldstein noted after the Brewers announced their pitching plans, the very interchangeable Dodgers lineup is still at its best when formulated to face righties. For the first two games, which take place in hitter-friendly Miller Park, that won’t be the case. Bellinger may begin those games on the bench, and Pederson, who took only 57 plate appearances against southpaws all season, almost certainly will.
That ideal Dodgers lineup above is most likely to appear in Game 3 against right-hander Jhoulys Chacin, and perhaps in the first few innings of any games where the Brewers use tandem starters or opener plans.
CF-R Lorenzo Cain (.308/.395/.417/.309)
RF-L Christian Yelich (.326/.402/.598/.356)
LF-R Ryan Braun (.254/.313/.469/.282)
1B-R Jesus Aguilar (.274/.352/.539/.313)
3B-L Mike Moustakas (.251/.315/.459/.274)
2B-R Hernan Perez (.253/.290/.386/.259)
C-R Erik Kratz (.236/.280/.355/.227)
SS-R Orlando Arcia (.236/.268/.307/.214)
The performances from the Brewers’ bulldozing of the Rockies could be discussed, but a 1.375 OPS from Kratz probably says enough. Milwaukee is on a roll. Which will be the case right up until it isn’t.
The lefty-heavy Dodgers rotation isn’t what Craig Counsell would face given the choice, but the engine of his offense won’t necessarily even slow down. Cain ran a .451 on-base percentage against lefties this season (yes, really) and Yelich slashed .337/.396/.587, though that’s a huge uptick from previous years. Beyond that, boppers Aguilar and Braun excel against southpaws. The main drawback will be Travis Shaw‘s potential relegation to bench duty. Even if it’s based in flighty recent performance, the starting keystone gig seems destined to land with Perez on those nights instead of trade acquisition Jonathan Schoop.
To counter the depth disadvantage that will become apparent shortly, the Brewers are going to need someone in the bottom third of that order to over-perform. On the bright side, all relevant parties have done just that within the past two weeks.
OF/INF-R Chris Taylor (.254/.331/.444/.282)
OF-R Matt Kemp (.290/.338/.481/.291)
2B-R Brian Dozier (.215/.305/.391/.249)
INF-R David Freese (.296/.359/.471/.299)
C-R Austin Barnes (.205/.329/.290/.238)
There will be starts for some of these guys. But regardless of who technically populates the bench, it will be deep. The most fascinating strategic element of the series—and possibly the decisive one—will be Roberts’ deployment of his hitting depth against Counsell’s bullpen brigade. It’s a case of the teams’ most prominent strengths butting up against each other.
Here’s a snapshot of a talking point that could alter at least a few games: If a lefty starts for Milwaukee, and exits in the third or fourth frame, how much of a lineup makeover will Roberts undertake with the knowledge that Josh Hader could loom in a higher-leverage spot down the line?
IF-L Travis Shaw (.241/.345/.480/.305)
OF-L Curtis Granderson (.242/.351/.431/.276)
OF-R Domingo Santana (.265/.328/.412/.283)
IF-R Jonathan Schoop (.233/.266/.416/.240)
C-R Manny Pina (.252/.307/.395/.253)
Shaw will probably be inserted into games at the first sign of a right-handed pitcher, while Granderson and Santana handle pinch-hitting duties. There’s some chance Keon Broxton displaces one of these gentlemen for his defensive prowess in the outfield, but we know only five bench players will be carried this time.
There’s some thought that Schoop might be the odd man out, but frankly, let’s hope he’s on the field just for the reunion with close pal Manny Machado.
Starting Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA)
LHP Clayton Kershaw (161, 2.73, 3.11)
LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu (82, 1.97, 2.45)
RHP Walker Buehler (137, 2.62, 3.21)
LHP Rich Hill (133, 3.66, 3.92)
It’s back to the familiar feel for the NLCS, with Kershaw leading the way. He’ll probably need to find a way to miss more bats against the Brewers to achieve the success he no doubt craves. Ryu, Buehler, and Hill will follow. With any luck, Buehler’s control problems won’t flare up like they did in the NLDS. That one poor frame made the Braves tilt his worst start since July, but even that doesn’t look so bad, all things considered.
The Dodgers will have the upper hand in every technical starting pitching matchup. The question, of course, is how long that lasts or matters. Is the fifth inning of Ryu better than whatever the Brewers will be rolling out at that point? This, of course, is not exactly how it works, but it’s a way to think about the manner in which urgency and ability shifts through time within a game. There will be differing approaches in this series. L.A. is hoping the more familiar one takes the cake.
LHP Gio Gonzalez (171, 4.21, 4.17)
LHP Wade Miley (81, 2.57, 4.13)
RHP Jhoulys Chacin (193, 3.50, 4.51)
RHP Brandon Woodruff (42, 3.61, 3.16)
I’m just going to say it: Those pitchers would not be arranged in the correct order without Counsell providing a key to the puzzle. It’s still not totally clear whether Woodruff will actually start Game 4 in any shape or form, but that’s the best guess. Chacin could also see action in Game 1 as a form of human platoon dynamite.
Just about anything is possible with the Brewers’ pitching staff. Oh, except for a complete game. That seems pretty unlikely. (Somewhere, Miley sets down his drink. Challenge accepted.)
Relief Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA)
RHP Kenley Jansen (72, 3.01, 2.56)
RHP Kenta Maeda (125, 3.81, 2.78)
LHP Scott Alexander (66, 3.68, 5.33)
LHP Caleb Ferguson (49, 3.49, 3.17)
RHP Ross Stripling (122, 3.02, 2.94)
RHP Pedro Baez (56, 2.88, 3.35)
RHP Ryan Madson (53, 5.47, 5.17)
LHP Alex Wood (152, 3.68, 3.41)
Roberts’ pen figures to be tested a bit more strenuously against Milwaukee. If there’s a weakness to the Dodgers, this remains the place. We’re going to lob another guess out there for Stripling to make the roster. It could very well be wrong! Dylan Floro worked in the NLDS and may keep rolling with the club.
What remains to be seen is whether Roberts and the front office above him will change tactics any based on last year’s wearing out of Brandon Morrow. Could they swap out three or four NLDS relievers for fresher arms, hoping to swap them back in for the World Series?
Outside the realm of the hypothetical, the highest-leverage innings, besides Jansen’s, seem headed in the direction of Maeda and Baez.
RHP Jeremy Jeffress (77, 1.29, 2.62)
LHP Josh Hader (81, 2.43, 2.00)
RHP Corey Knebel (55, 3.58, 2.53)
RHP Joakim Soria (61, 3.12, 2.56)
RHP Corbin Burnes (38, 2.61, 3.39)
RHP Freddy Peralta (78, 4.25, 5.21)
RHP Junior Guerra (141, 4.09, 4.50)
LHP Xavier Cedeno (33, 2.43, 2.40)
This is going to be a much more significant test than the Rockies’ sleepwalking and all-around blah offense. The Brewers are carrying one more reliever than they did in the last round, and it’s likely going to be lefty specialist Xavier Cedeno.
How they use Knebel, Hader, and Jeffress will be fascinating. The moment that train leaves the station, the Brewers have to like their chances of scoring more than the opposition in the remaining innings.
Beyond them, Counsell will have interesting and emerging chess pieces to move around. If Burnes keeps channeling whatever he was doing against the Rockies, there’s a chance he will have a national coming out party over the next week or so.
If these weren’t the two best defensive teams in the NL, then they were probably two of the top three. Despite some odd looking “position” choices like Shaw at second base, the Brewers are stellar in the field, with Cain sometimes seeming to apparate into the path of line drives in the gap. The Dodgers—this is going to sound familiar—will put a whole bunch of different personnel combinations out there, but most will patrol the open spaces with aplomb.
If you enjoy being genuinely shocked and intrigued by a manager signaling to the bullpen, we have found the series for you. That’s a bit of a generalization, but it’s also just a fact: These are two of the most aggressive tacticians in the league, particularly when it comes to pitching. An Aaron Boone moment seems … unlikely.
If you’re looking for an edge here, there is of course Roberts’ year of experience. It’s pretty easy to make the case that he over-did it with his bullpen at times in 2017, that perhaps he will return to the big stage with some lessons learned or a newer toolbox at his disposal via the front office. Counsell will be trying to navigate his team through a draining seven-game series for the first time, though if his sense of urgency carries over from the last week of September and the torrid opening to the postseason, he should be just fine.
There are probably more ways for this to go sideways for Milwaukee. A trusted reliever hitting the skids with little backup on the way. Two early out-getters failing to live up to their roles. The bottom third of the order falling silent. Conversely, there might be more ways for things to go right. One guy not having it feels less disastrous for the Brewers than if the “one guy” is a Dodgers starting pitcher.
This is an opinion that neither Las Vegas nor the wisdom of the projections can reasonably share, and that’s OK. No one has real reasons for predicting four to seven games of baseball—not good ones at least. So for now, I’ll embrace that which I cannot totally explain and take the Brewers in seven.
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