Breaking Out the Big Sticks, and Breaking Down the Dodgers-Brewers NLCS Matchup
Christian Yelich and the Brewers are scorching, but can the NL’s top seed outlast Clayton Kershaw and the powerhouse Dodgers?
Eleven days ago, the National League was in shambles. No one knew who they were playing, where they were playing, the meaning of life, or if any of their pitchers’ arms would survive the potentially eternal series of tiebreakers and playoff games. It was awesome.
Today, the two teams that untied themselves from their respective divisional knots launch the National League Championship Series, with the Dodgers visiting the somewhat-improbable top seed Brewers. Los Angeles enters the series like one of new neighbor LeBron’s Cavs teams — a flip-switching behemoth come playoff time — while the Brewers have played better baseball than God himself over the last month.
The matchup promises to be wildly entertaining for scorecard junkies and Baseball Twitter alike. Managers Dave Roberts and Craig Counsell do not mind making moves, and the statheads will no doubt be treated to a cavalcade of bullpen entreaties, pinch hitters, and funky lineup switcheroos. For the “Let the Kids Play” crowd, LA has the edge in swag, although Christian Yelich’s big-stick, “living the g — — n dream” Pete Davidson impression is growing hilariously awesome.
The two teams have plenty of similarities, and their reckless September abandon has left them standing four wins from the World Series. Which team has the advantage? Who will win? Which (annoyingly random Dodger) player will hit a couple massive home runs to swing the series? Let’s find out!
Three Things to Watch in the NLCS
Milwaukee’s Starting Pitching
Brewers manager Craig Counsell is starting Gio Gonzalez (yes, that Gio Gonzalez, who you may know from his role as Terrible Starter Gio Gonzalez from the Nationals this season) in Game 1, which is not an elaborate practical joke. It’s real! Probably not real: Gio’s 25-inning Brewer sample size, in which his WHIP dropped by sixty points, his BABIP by .140, and his opponents average by .110. His xFIP in that time? The same as it was in Washington (4.43 to 4.44).
Counsell’s idea, though, is to minimize LA’s power and bombard the Dodgers with lefties — something that, in theory, can work simultaneously. Gonzalez has given up just two homers in his small Milwaukee sample (though can’t you just see a three-run Machado dinger happening in the first inning of Game 1?), and Game 2 starter, lefty Wade Miley, has the second-lowest HR/9 in the major leagues. By tossing lefties, too, Milwaukee avoids Max Muncy’s reign of terror (his 166 wRC+ is sixth-best in baseball), though submits themselves fully to Manny Machado’s powers (there were a lot of m’s in this sentence). Game 3 starter Jhoulys Chacin even brings some Muncy-killing mojo to the table: the major’s second-best slider by FanGraphs’ pitch values, the only pitch against which Muncy experienced problems.
It seems weird to spill so much ink about Gio Gonzalez, Wade Miley, Jhoulys Chacin, and Max Muncy (narrator: it is weird), but if the Brewer trio can offset the slugging lefty, that can go a long way towards the Brew Crew’s chances.
The Stars Align
This matchup appears to favorite the Dodgers, who bested Milwaukee by 100 runs of run differential in the regular season, led the majors in offensive WAR, and finished second in xFIP. The Dodgers are deep, versatile, and chock full of legitimate superstars. Machado and Muncy will define the LA offensive attack, but Yasiel Puig (123 wRC+) and Cody Bellinger (137 wRC+ against RHP) are presences in a deep lineup. Clayton Kershaw, of course, stands tall and imposing and on constant postseason trial in Game 1 and however many more times Roberts can throw him in the series.
But the Brewers do have the presumptive National League MVP, Christian Yelich. Yelich has basically been 2001 Barry Bonds in the second half. In that time frame, the dude has slugged .739 with a 1.171 OPS against lefties, whom the Dodgers figure to throw at Milwaukee in waves. Lorenzo Cain, who finished fourth in the bigs in Defensive Runs Saved, is a gamechanger in center. Jesus Aguilar has cooled from his gargantuan first half.
The Dodgers have a starrier roster, but if Yelich keeps mashing home runs off any and everyone, does it even matter?
Seven games is a lot. It provides ample opportunities for a week bullpen to be exposed, yet also plenty of opportunities for a strong bullpen to be taxed. Milwaukee is almost certain to overuse their pen, though to what extent that strain will be evident is unclear. LA’s pen is weaker, but the Dodgers have the best chance at not having to dial those bullpen phones.
In the division series, Dodger starters threw 70% of the available innings. If Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu (51 ERA-), and Walker Buehler (68 ERA-) can get the ball to Jansen without many LA relievers in between, it will mean bad things for the Brewers. Of course, there’s always Kershaw’s playoff…strangeness to worry about.
The Brewers are an excellent team, and you can bet that Craig Counsell’s managing will be as extra as his batting stance. There’s really no forecasting what might be possible if Yelich continues his psychotic hitting streak — we’ll all just throw our hands up and rend our garments in genuflection. It’s also possible that the Brewers perform some kind of Muncy/Machado wizardry, and emerge unscathed through the middle of Los Angeles’ order for the duration of the series. This seems unlikely, and even if they do, LA will no doubt sic postseason-dinger-hittin’ David Freese on us all. Dodgers in 6.