NLDS Preview: Milwaukee Brewers vs. Atlanta

Who will live to fight the NL West titans?

(2) Milwaukee Brewers vs (3) Atlanta

 

Game One: Friday, October 8, 4:30 pm, on TBS — Corbin Burnes vs Charlie Morton

Game Two: Saturday, October 9, 5 pm, on TBS — Brandon Woodruff vs Max Fried

Game Three: Monday, October 11, TBD, on TBS — TBD vs TBD

Game Four (if necessary): Tuesday, October 12, TBD, on TBS — TBD vs TBD

Game Five (if necessary): Thursday, October 14, TBD on TBS — TBD vs TBD

 

Recent History

 

Milwaukee and Atlanta split their season series, 3-3, with each team taking two of three as the road team. Milwaukee scored 21 runs to Atlanta’s 19 during the season series. The two teams last met from July 30-August 1 in Atlanta, so it will have been a full two months since the teams last battled. In that 3-game series, Milwaukee won the first game, 9-5, on homers from Avisail GarciaWilly Adames, and Eduardo EscobarMilwaukee SP Corbin Burnes and Atlanta SP Touki Toussaint gave up a combined 12 runs in the first 4 innings and the Milwaukee bullpen was able to keep Atlanta off the board in the final 5 frames to get the win.

In the second game of the series, Atlanta crushed Milwaukee, 8-1. Atlanta SP Kyle Muller went 5 strong innings, giving up 1 run and striking out 7, while Milwaukee SP Brandon Woodruff surrendered 3 runs across 5.1 innings and took the loss. In the rubber match of the series, Milwaukee SP Brett Anderson stifled Atlanta and outdueled SP Charlie Morton, holding Atlanta’s offense to just 1 run before the Milwaukee bullpen stepped in to hold down the lead. Milwaukee escaped Atlanta with a 2-1 win and a series victory.

These two franchises have never met in the postseason, so this series will be a good chance to crown a new winner of their postseason H2H record!

 

Milwaukee Brewers (95-67)

 

Offense

Name G PA AVG OBP SLG HR wRC+ wOBA
Kolten Wong 116 492 .272 .335 .447 14 109 .337
Willy Adames 140 555 .262 .337 .481 25 119 .349
Christian Yelich 117 475 .248 .362 .373 9 101 .325
Avisail García 135 515 .262 .330 .490 29 115 .346
Eduardo Escobar 146 599 .253 .314 .472 28 107 .334
Omar Narváez 123 445 .266 .342 .402 11 99 .322
Luis Urías 150 570 .249 .345 .445 23 111 .340
Lorenzo Cain 78 286 .257 .329 .401 8 97 .319

 

On the surface, looking at the Brewer lineup you might be surprised to learn they have just been around a league-average offense this season. After all, none of their regulars have a wRC+ below 99 (a league-average hitter is 100), but there’s the rub. Willy Adames has been the highest wRC+ at 119– a good season, to be sure, but there hasn’t been a standout hitter to carry the offense through slumps. Christian Yelich, expected to be that hitter, has managed league-average production mostly through taking a ton of walks and hardly any power. It’s an offense without a ton of black holes or obvious weaknesses, but also with limited upside.

 

Bench

Name G PA AVG OBP SLG HR wRC+ wOBA
Manny Pina 75 208 .189 .293 .439 13 95 .315
Jace Peterson 94 302 .247 .348 .367 6 97 .318
Rowdy Tellez 106 325 .242 .325 .414 11 89 .335
Daniel Vogelbach 93 258 .219 .349 .381 9 101 .325
Tyrone Taylor 93 271 .247 .321 .457 12 106 .312
Luke Maile 15 34 .300 .382 .433 0 122 .358
Jackie Bradley, Jr 134 428 .163 .236 .261 6 35 .255

 

If you’re Craig Counsell, what do you do about Rowdy Tellez and Daniel Vogelbach on the roster? They’re both first-base only lefty pinch hitters with fairly similar production. As the Brewers have decided to go with Vogelbach and Tellez on the NLDS roster, they leave off Pablo Reyes with his defensive versatility (OF/3B). The Brewers have somewhat surprisingly also kept Luke Maile as a third catcher on for the NLDS, as well as outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr.  Though Bradley has struggled heavily at the plate (.497 OPS in over 400 PA), he’s still an elite defender (5 outs above average in 2021). That could prove valuable in late-game situations as a defensive upgrade or pinch-runner. Luckily, for the Brewers, there’s always…

 

Rotation

Name GS IP ERA FIP WHIP K% BB%
Corbin Burnes 28 167 2.43 1.63 0.94 35.6% 5.2%
Brandon Woodruff 30 179.1 2.56 2.96 0.96 29.8% 6.1%
Freddy Peralta 27 144.1 2.81 3.12 0.95 33.6% 9.7%
Eric Lauer 20 118.2 3.19 4.04 1.13 23.9% 8.4%
Adrian Houser 26 142.1 3.22 4.33 1.27 17.5% 10.7%

 

The Brewers will go as far in the playoffs as their pitching staff takes them. It starts with Cy Young candidate Corbin Burnes, who just put together the best FIP season since 1999 Pedro. Eric Lauer and Adrian Houser are almost afterthoughts but have still managed to post ERAs in the low-threes with over 20 games started apiece. One of those pitchers will likely be moved to a bullpen/long relief role with the days off and in a short series, so I’d give the nod to Lauer to start if it comes to it because of Atlanta’s struggles with lefties (.732 OPS vs. LHP and a .762 OPS vs. RHP).

In between, Atlanta “only” has to worry about Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, who each strike out better than 10 per nine innings and combined for over 8 fWAR between them. While Atlanta fares better against right-handed pitchers, the Brewer starting pitcher hydra will put that to the test, as they don’t demonstrate much of a split between right and left-handed batters:

 

AVG OBP SLG
vs RHB  .220 .293 .373
vs LHB .216 .304 .335

 

Bullpen

Name IP SV ERA FIP WHIP K% BB%
Josh Hader 58.2 34 1.23 1.69 0.84 45.5% 10.7%
Brad Boxberger 3.34 4 3.34 3.65 1.07 31.2% 9.4%
Hunter Strickland 36.1 0 1.73 3.66 0.91 26.8% 8.5%
Aaron Ashby 20 1 4.50 3.47 1.05 37% 9.9%
Jake Cousins 30 0 2.70 3.84 1.17 35.2% 15.2%
Jandel Gustave 18.1 0 3.44 4.64 1.09 16.5% 6.3%

 

The bullpen sure would look a lot more formidable with Devin Williams and his airbender in it. Alas, he’s likely done for the season after breaking his pitching hand punching a wall after the Brewers clinched the NL Central in late September. Credit to Williams and the Brewers for being forthright and admitting the mistake, but Craig Counsell’s job likely took on a greater degree of difficulty to bridge the innings to All-Star closer Josh Hader.

Further complicating matters for the Brewers, Brent Suter (3.07 ERA in 73.1 IP this season) has been left off the roster due to a minor oblique issue. It’s another blow to what has been a major strength for the Brewers this season.

Brad Boxberger, who signed a minor-league free-agent deal with the Brewers this winter and did not even make the team coming out of spring training, has had a tremendous season, mostly in 7th-inning duty to tee up Williams and Hader. He’s struggled a bit down the stretch, though, making him far from a sure thing for the setup role. The rest of the bullpen has been excellent, even if as a group they perhaps walk a few more batters than is ideal (with a league-leading 10.89 k/9 as a bullpen, you can afford some traffic). However, there hasn’t been a sure thing like the Williams/Hader combo has been over the past two seasons– Jake Cousins has been great but will be coming off the IL for the postseason– leaving the late innings much more of a toss-up in the postseason than they have been and than the Brewers would likely prefer.

 

How They Got Here

 

The Brewers haven’t found themselves looking up at anyone in the division since June 18. Up seven games in the division in the series before the all-star break, the Brewers went 1-3 against the Reds, then promptly returned from all-star festivities to sweep the Reds in the first series back and never really looked back after that point. The Brewer pitching kept them in it all season, but the offense going from historically bad to average– helped along substantially by trades for Willy Adames and Eduardo Escobar— pushed the Brewers to one of the franchise’s best-ever seasons.

Wrapping up the division early, if not officially then in all probability, the Brewers struggled down the stretch, mainly again on offense as Adames and Escobar found themselves on the IL at various points.

 

Potential Breakout Star of the Series

 

If the Brewers are going to have a breakout, surely it will need to come from the offense. I’ve written about Luis Urías’ improvements at the plate this season, and with a much better second half (.266/.367/.483) than his first (.237/.328/.418), he’s a prime candidate to surprise a national audience with a big home run amidst a lineup that has seemingly been interchangeable if not pedestrian throughout the year.

 

If the Brewers win, it’s because…

 

They’ve scored enough runs. Pitching has been the Brewers’ carrying card all season, and it wasn’t until the acquisition of Willy Adames on May 22 that the offense took off to anything approaching average. Before that trade, the Brewers ran a 76 wRC+ as a team, the second-worst in baseball over that span. Since that time, they’ve run a nearly-perfectly average wRC+ of 98. There isn’t much reason to think the Brewers won’t rely once again on their pitching to take them as far as they’re going to go in the postseason, but with several arms approaching (or already blowing past) their previous career highs after a shortened 2020 season, the Brewers sure could use some firepower at the plate if they want a backup plan. The real hitter to watch in the lineup continues to be Christian Yelich, who has put together a very un-Yelich like season at the plate. If Yelich is putting the ball in the air or getting extra-base hits, that might be enough to put them over the edge in a short playoff series. If not, the Brewer bats are going to have to stay at a league-average level and hope the pitching continues to carry them.

 

Prediction

 

Wisconsin has been on edge after the Brewers finished the season 4-10, with three of those wins coming against the Mets, and then going 1-9 against the playoff Cardinal and Dodger teams. There are reasons to be concerned, especially with the loss of Devin Williams and the bats slumping (even if the Brewers were taking their foot off the gas after wrapping up the division). However, for Atlanta to win the short series, they’ll likely have to find a way to win three games in which they start out facing Burnes, Woodruff, and Peralta, and then likely would have to face Burnes again in a potential game five. It’s a tall task, and the Brewers are going to hope their team’s architecture holds up in October. Brewers in five.

– Sean Roberts

 

Atlanta (88-73)
Lineup:

 

Note that Joc Pederson will likely slot in for one of Duvall or Soler against RHP. Terrance Gore was added to be a defensive replacement/speedy pinch-runner.

This lineup is built to hit a lot of dingers. They finished the season with 239 HRs as a team, good for 3rd in all of baseball. Atlanta finished with the second-highest team ISO in baseball (.191) as well, so they pack a serious power punch overall. And, they get on base at a fairly decent clip, with the 12th-ranked OBP. However, a look at the team run totals indicates that Atlanta is a little more reliant on the longball. They got 52.6% of their runs off of home runs, which ranks 2nd among all playoff teams (see below), which will be interesting to watch against a Milwaukee team that does an excellent job of suppressing homers (5th best HR/9, 8th in GB%).

Team Home Run-Run Percentage (Guillen Number)

It’s a shame that we will have to watch Atlanta take on Milwaukee’s trio of stud pitchers without the studly Ronald Acuña Jr., but this Atlanta lineup still has a handful of very good hitters to surround Frederick Freeman. You may have noticed that Austin Riley quietly stacked up 33 homers and a 135 wRC+ this season or that Ozzie Albies also hit the 30 HR mark. And, Jorge Soler left Kansas City hitting a dreadful .192/.288/.370 (79 wRC+) but proceeded to hit at a .269/.358/.524 (132 wRC+) clip as a member of Atlanta. This is a deeper lineup than people may be giving them credit for and one that, even without Acuña and Marcell Ozuna, is still quite dangerous.

Rotation:

Atlanta was able to ride this rotation to the NL East division title, finishing with the 7th-best starting pitcher ERA and 13th-ranked FIP in baseball in the second half of the season. That second-half ERA mark was buoyed by Max Fried’s absurdly good 1.74 ERA across 14 appearances (3rd-best in that span) and Charlie Morton’s 3.01 ERA across 15 games. They will be the first two starters in this series and for good reason.

Meanwhile, the rest of the rotation was very uninspiring down the stretch, as Ynoa finished the second half with a 5.05 ERA across 9 games and Smyly posted a 5.30 ERA in 8 games as a starter, while Anderson had a pretty steady 3.62 ERA across his six second-half appearances. As you can probably see, this rotation is quite thin after Fried and Morton, so I would expect Smyly to remain in the bullpen for this series, while Ynoa will have a very short leash in Game 4, should Atlanta get that far. A quick note on Smyly: Once the clock turned to September, Smyly moved to the bullpen to work in a longer-relief role and was quite solid there, holding a 1.64 ERA across 6 appearances and 10 IP. He could be an interesting option to piggyback on Ynoa in Game 4 or Anderson in Game 3 if Atlanta decides to put him on the postseason roster.

Bullpen

The bullpen finished the first half with a suspect 4.58 ERA (21st in baseball) but turned into the lights-out unit we expected in the second half, collecting a second-half ERA of just 3.24 (4th). The bullpen, much like the other units of this team, came together down the stretch, with several of the above-listed names (Matzek, Smith, Jackson, among others) rounding into form just in time for this series.

Will Smith is the unquestioned closer, while Luke Jackson acted as the setup man as the season concluded. Manager Brian Snitker can throw Rodríguez (Pittsburgh’s closer of the first-half and deadline acquisition), Matzek, Martin, and Minter out to follow up their pitching staff. Jesse Chavez has been excellent as an opener out of the pen, giving Snitker the additional option of a bullpen game if he doesn’t feel Ynoa or Anderson is up to the task in Game 3 or 4.

There were a couple of surprising choices for Atlanta in the bullpen. Richard Rodríguez, Atlanta’s deadline acquisition, was left off the roster. Same with Chris Martin, who has struggled with elbow issues and overall effectiveness. Martin struggled a little in September (3.86 ERA across 7 innings) but finished the season with a 3.95 ERA/3.47 FIP. Rodriguez struggled to keep runs off the board, finishing with a 5.25 (12 innings) ERA in September and October.

 

How They Got Here

 

Atlanta got here by playing some very good baseball in the second half, coinciding with the cratering of the New York Mets and the consistent mediocrity of the Phillies.

On August 11, Atlanta had a 36.7% chance of winning the division. They were just a half-game back of Philadelphia for the division lead at that point, as the Mets had made their epic slide from first place. Their Pythagorean W-L record showed a team that was not performing quite as well as their run differential would indicate, while the Phillies and Mets appeared to be overperforming their expected record relative to run differential.

Following that date, Atlanta played some very solid baseball, going 29-17 since. Atlanta was able to reel off 9 straight wins from August 13th to August 22, although that stretch included 3 games against Washington, 3 against Miami, and 3 against Baltimore. From there, Atlanta simply maintained a steady course, playing roughly .500 ball through the middle of September.

Atlanta was finally able to clinch the division on the last full week of the season, sweeping the Padres and the Phillies to win their 4th-straight division title. A fun little note: As you may have noticed, Atlanta only played 161 games this season. This is because their final game of a series against the Rockies in mid-September was postponed and never replayed. Atlanta was lucky to escape that final game, as the Rockies were threatening to sweep Atlanta after having won the first two games of the series.

 

Breakout Star of the Series

 

It’s simply unfair to pick Austin Riley or Freddie Freeman or Ozzie AlbiesSo, instead, I’m going to go with someone who has been red-hot since joining Atlanta.

I think this is the series that MLB fans discover just how surprisingly good Adam Duvall has been and can be. Duvall was dealt to Atlanta from Miami before the trade deadline and has since knocked in 16 home runs and 45 RBI in just 55 games with Atlanta. He finished with 113 RBI, good for 4th in all of baseball. So, it might be a little unfair to say that Duvall has been quietly good, but… he’s not someone you’d necessarily expect to knock in so many runs. Now, Duvall hasn’t been and won’t be someone who gets on base often (I would guess Atlanta doesn’t expect him to get on base much), so he won’t add a ton of value on the basepaths, but he sure can hit a lot of home runs. And, he will do exactly that against the Brewers, protecting Freeman and Riley in the lineup. Atlanta could always use more homers.

 

If Atlanta wins this series, it’s because…

 

  1. The pitching is as good as it was in the second half of the season. Atlanta will need to be lights-out against the Brewers’ offense because the Brewers’ pitching isn’t in the business of giving up many runs, so Atlanta’s staff and bullpen will need to make do with whatever run support the offense can generate.

  2. The offense hits home runs. This seems like an obvious one for any team but it especially rings true for Atlanta because they are especially geared towards home runs in our HR-focused era of baseball. As mentioned previously, the Brewers typically don’t give up a lot of HRs, so if Atlanta can get to Woodruff, Burnes, and Peralta with the longball, they can put themselves in a position to win.

 

Prediction

 

This Atlanta team is much better than people give them credit for, but Milwaukee is deeper and more talented and should be able to suppress Atlanta’s offense. Atlanta’s bullpen will keep them in every game, but Milwaukee’s offense and staff will do just enough to help them escape with the series W. Brewers in five.

– Adam Sloate

 

Photos of Hank Aaron from Focus on Sport and Brewers| Adapted by Shawn Palmer (@SPDesigns__) on Instagram

Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a contributor to Pitcher List and writes mostly about the Brewers at Sausage Racing Form. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league.

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