The Milwaukee Brewers might not make the playoffs often, but when they do, they prefer to advance to the NLCS. The Crew is now just one round away from the World Series as they look to avenge their 2011 NLCS defeat and capture their first National League pennant in franchise history.
But, of course, you’ve got to beat the champ to be the champ. The defending NL champion Los Angeles Dodgers will be waiting for the Brewers in the upcoming round as they pursue their first World Series title in 30 years.
Here are the areas to watch, with numbers to know, going into the series.
Star power: 1-12
Likely National League MVP Christian Yelich lived up to his end of the bargain in the NLDS, reaching base eight times in three games, plating four runs and driving in two more. But his running mate, centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, struggled to find traction over the weekend, even against Colorado's hittable pitching staff. Cain posted a meager 1-12 batting line with several key K's against the Rockies – and going back to mid-September, he is just 12-55 (.218 batting average) with one extra-base hit and six walks. Milwaukee is nearly unbeatable when they grab an early lead, which makes Cain’s presence atop the order in front of Yelich even more paramount.
The Dodgers’ stars have not been quite as productive this season as in the past, but they still have deep core of elite players that can turn a game in an instant. Clayton Kershaw, Manny Machado and Justin Turner are all among the best at their respective positions. If Cain continues to underperform, the Dodgers have enough stars to eventually overwhelm the Brewers.
Lineup Depth: .849
The Dodgers sleepwalked through the first five months of the season, sputtering with injuries and the general malaise that comes from winning the previous five division titles. But since the calendar flipped to September, the Dodgers have turned into the offensive juggernaut we always expected, posting an .849 OPS down the stretch of the regular season before tacking on another eight home runs in four games against Atlanta in the NLDS. Injured players are now healthy (like Turner), midseason acquisitions have found their footing (like Machado), and the Dodgers’ typical under-the-radar weapon is lighting up October (this time it’s Max Muncy).
Nine players cranked at least 20 home runs for the Dodgers during the regular season – not counting Turner, who only played 103 games in 2018 but topped 20 dingers in both 2016 and ‘17. Los Angeles has several streaky performers, but anyone can go yard at any given moment. The Brewers possess similar offensive depth with Travis Shaw, Ryan Braun, Mike Moustakas and the great Erik Kratz (only half-kidding), but Milwaukee just doesn’t have the same game-changing power at its disposal.
Even though advanced defensive metrics are notoriously fickle, the Brewers rate well enough across the board that is clear they are the best defensive team in this series by a wide margin. Milwaukee ranked second in baseball in the regular season in defensive runs saved (89), fourth in Fangraphs’ defensive rating (29.9), and eighth in ultimate zone rating (24.9). Meanwhile, Los Angeles finished eighth in DRS (31), 24th in Fangraphs defensive rating (-19.6), and 24th in UZR (-17.6).
L.A.’s Machado, who was one of the premier defensive third basemen in the game earlier in his career, has been one of the biggest culprits since shifting over to shortstop in 2018, where he has been worth minus-12 defensive runs saved. By comparison, Brewers’ shortstop Orlando Arcia saved three runs in the field this year. Even Shaw, who rated out surprisingly well over at third base, has handled the shift to second base well enough (just one error in the regular season with minus-one defensive runs saved). The margins are so thin in the postseason that one defensive stop by the Brewers or one misplay by the Dodgers could be enough to swing the entire series.
Starting Pitching: 2.59
Los Angeles’ starters posted the best ERA in the NL this season (3.19), and they backed that up with a 2.59 ERA in 24.1 innings against the Braves in the NLDS. Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu are the two horses for the Dodgers, and will likely start Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS. Ryu has only tossed 87.2 innings since April 10 (including the postseason), but he still posted a 1.54 ERA with 95 strikeouts and just 10 walks. And even though the 30-year-old Kershaw is in the middle of his worst season since his rookie year in 2008, his 2.73 ERA would still mark one of the best starting pitching seasons in Brewers history.
Milwaukee’s starting pitchers – sorry, I can’t get behind the out-getters term yet – did not allow a run in 12.2 innings against Colorado, but the Dodgers have more top-shelf talent and depth among their starting pitchers. In a longer series, the Brewers will probably have to move deeper through their iffy rotation, though this extended layoff between series should give the Milwaukee pen a needed rest.
The Brewers’ relief corps was arguably the best collection of talent of any group (offense, defense, starting pitching, etc.) on any team entering the postseason, and they certainly lived up to the billing in the three-game walloping of the Rockies.
Milwaukee tossed a remarkable 15.1 innings in the NLDS (not counting Brandon Woodruff’s three scoreless frames to open the series), allowing just eight hits and a 1.17 ERA with 22 strikeouts to three walks. Outside of a small hiccup from Jeremy Jeffress in the ninth inning of Game 1, Craig Counsell’s bullpen strategy could not have played out more perfectly.
Kenley Jansen is the big name in the Dodgers’ bullpen, but he has been inconsistent throughout 2018 and was extremely vulnerable to the long ball. (He surrendered 13 home runs this year after never allowing more than six in any previous season.) During the year, the Dodgers’ bullpen ranked 16th in wins above replacement (3.1) and eighth in baseball in ERA (3.72). Milwaukee finished fourth (7.1) and fifth (3.47), respectively, in those categories. The Brewers’ bullpen recipe should be good enough to lock down the Dodgers if the Milwaukee offense can continue to grab early leads, something easier said than done against L.A.’s starters.
Los Angeles’ manager Dave Roberts has steered the Dodgers to an 18-12 postseason record over the last three years, including a World Series appearance in 2017. Counsell has managed his pitching staff with artistry and aplomb throughout the year, and his expertise has not subsided so far this month. Still, Counsell has not been in an October situation yet where his plans truly go awry. Part of that is because he has put his players in positions to succeed, but sometimes even the best-laid plans backfire. What if a potential bullpenning game blows up in the first inning? How will he react in those moments? Roberts has an extensive playoff track record to hark upon, while Counsell is walking into uncharted waters.
In seven head-to-head matchups this year, Los Angeles scored 48 total runs and won four games. However, a good chunk of those runs came in the final meeting of the regular season, when the Dodgers pounded the Brewers 21-5. In the first six games, the aggregate score was a much closer 27-20, and four of those games finished with a margin of victory of two runs or less.
Some matchup notes for the Brewers: Yelich posted a monstrous 1.267 OPS in 30 plate appearances against L.A. this year, and reliever Josh Hader struck out seven Dodgers in four scoreless innings in 2018. However, pitcher Jhoulys Chacin has just a 4.41 ERA in 26 appearances (25 starts) against Los Angeles in his career, and he allowed nine runs (eight earned) in the Brewers’ blowout loss to the Dodgers this year.
Prediction: Brewers in 7
This will be an extraordinarily tight matchup, featuring the two hottest teams on either side of the postseason bracket. Milwaukee is 23-7 since the start of September, and Los Angeles is not far behind at 22-10. The playoffs have been relatively quiet thus far, but this is the type of matchup that should jump-start the October energy.
The two teams have ridden very different identities into the NLCS. Roberts and the Dodgers want to get five-plus innings from their starting pitchers so they can hold on to the lead with their wobbly bullpen, while the Brewers need to get at least five clean frames from their bullpen to survive their own shaky starting pitching. Expect the Brewers to work deep counts against the L.A. starters, while the Dodgers’ hitters will attempt to jump on Milwaukee as early as possible before the Hader-Knebel-Jeffress trio emerges.
I would be very surprised to see either team take this series in four or five games, which means either squad could advance in a long, drawn-out battle. In the end, even though I trust the Dodgers’ offensive firepower a little more, and I have concerns about heavy workload for the Milwaukee bullpen, the Brewers get the nod with their home-field advantage at the raucous Miller Park.