NLCS Preview: Dodgers vs Brewers
by Tyler Young
This is where the Los Angeles Dodgers always planned to end up. As one of MLB’s perennial big spenders, anything less than the game’s semi-finals would be inadequate. For the Milwaukee Brewers, an NLCS appearance this season seemed possible, but improbable in a division alongside two of baseball’s most storied franchises in Chicago and St Louis.
Each club made their superiority felt throughout the year. The Dodgers outscored opponents by a whopping 194 runs, the best mark in the NL. The Brewers received MVP-worthy performances from two offseason trade acquisitions, Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, and wound up with an NL-best 96 wins because of it.
Just like their junior circuit counterparts, this feels like the most fitting Championship Series matchup possible, and the winner is likely to be decided when one team’s strength asserts itself while the other falls back to reality.
Deep Dodgers rotation
Jacob DeGrom and the New York Mets received much of the praise heaped upon starting pitchers in the NL this past summer. But it may have been the Dodgers with the better starting staff as a whole, led by Clayton Kershaw.
Los Angeles’s rotation had a 17.4 fWAR, second in the NL behind only New York. But the NL West champs led the league in ERA (3.19), FIP (3.42), xFIP (3.36), walk rate (2.24), strikeout rate (9.46), ground ball rate (45.9 percent) and left on base rate (76.9 percent). You get the idea. They were dominant.
Kershaw is not the pitcher he once was. His velocity is down along with his strikeout rate (8.65). But he remains effective (3.19 xFIP, 3.5 fWAR). Who pitches after the lefty in this series is a mystery, but there are plenty of capable candidates.
The rookie Walker Buehler struggled against the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS, but he dominated hitters to the tune of a .164 batting average and 2.03 ERA in the second half of the regular season. Hyun-jin Ryu is finally healthy and pitched great last series (7 IP, 0 R, 4 H, 0 BB, 8 SO). And of course there is the veteran Rich Hill, a staple in the last three Dodger playoff teams.
Milwaukee’s starting pitchers aren’t great. As a unit, they were middle of the pack for most of the season, which is perfectly fine, but less than ideal for a team on the cusp of the World Series. Craig Counsell is well aware of this fact, and it is precisely why he opted for his bullpen early and often in their NLDS sweep of the Colorado Rockies.
Brewers starters threw just 45.2 percent of innings in their series’ win. Gio Gonzalez will get the ball in game one of this NLCS, followed by Wade Miley in game two and Jhoulys Chacin in game three. If any of them see the fifth inning, Counsell will be thrilled. The plan will be to have them navigate the Dodgers lineup one time successfully. Anything beyond that is gravy.
There is no reason to stretch an average starter when Milwaukee can turn to a superb group of relievers. Among NL playoff teams, their ‘pen has the best fWAR (7.1), xFIP (3.47) and strikeout rate (10.38).
Josh Hader may have the nastiest stuff of any pitcher in the league, and it showed in his stats as he struck out a ridiculous 15.82 batters per nine innings. But it’s Jeremy Jeffress that leads the team with a 1.29 ERA. Meanwhile, Corey Knebel has rebounded from midseason struggles, posting 16.1 consecutive scoreless innings to conclude the regular season and then adding three more clean frames in the postseason. To top it all off, Joakim Soria has dominated in 2.2 innings of work so far, striking out five batters. The entire unit is clicking.
The Brewers relievers will be put to the test against a Dodgers lineup that is vastly superior to the Rockies offense they just shut down. It’s not an impossible task, but could be difficult to count on considering the volatile nature of bullpen pitchers. Look for the Dodgers roster depth and overall quality to prevail in this matchup.