(1) Los Angeles Dodgers vs. (8) Milwaukee Brewers
In advance of the Wild Card round starting today, we’re going to break down each series for you. In this article, we cover the first-seeded Dodgers’ series against the eighth-seed Brewers, broken down by Noah Scott and Asher Dratel, respectively.
After a chaotic final day of the season with five teams vying for the final playoff spots in the National League, the Brewers emerged with the 8th seed following a loss to the Cardinals. They were benefactors of the expanded postseason, having finished the abbreviated regular season in fourth place in the NL Central with a 29-31 (.483) record, having never played a game above .500. Milwaukee will now face off against the team with the best record in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who cruised to their eighth consecutive NL West division title with an impressive 43-17 (.733) season. As the class of the MLB, their expectations are once again championship or bust as they seek to win their first World Series since 1988. In this altered playoff format, the two teams will face off in a quick best-of-three series in order to determine who will advance to the NLDS.
Game 1: Wednesday, September 30 at 10:00 pm ET on ESPN, Walker Buehler vs. Brett Suter
Game 3 (if necessary): Friday, October 2, TBD, on ESPN, TBD, vs. TBD
Los Angeles Dodgers (43-17)
The Los Angeles Dodgers have arguably been the team to beat in the National League entering the playoffs for the last three years. Led by 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger, they finished last season atop the senior circuit with a 106-56 record, only to get promptly bounced from the NLDS by a red-hot Nationals squad. With a roster featuring talented hitters in Max Muncy, Justin Turner, and Corey Seager, along with an impressive pitching staff, it seemed that there was little they could do to improve their team entering the offseason. Then they added Mookie Betts.
When Andrew Friedman completed the three-way deal with the Red Sox and Twins in February to bring Betts to Los Angeles, he acquired a superstar outfielder and leader, and arguably the best player in the league not named Mike Trout. Before the first day of the rebooted season, Betts agreed to make Los Angeles his home for presumably the rest of his career, signing a deal worth $365 million over 12 years.
His impact for the Dodgers was immediate in 2020, as he quickly established himself as one of the best players on an incredibly deep roster, and led a campaign for NL MVP with a .927 OPS and 149 wRC+.
Mookie has been the lightning rod at the top of a nightmarish Dodgers lineup that led all teams in runs per game with 5.82. Their slugging offense has continued to excel in 2020, leading baseball with 118 home runs, including double-digit performances from Betts, Corey Seager, AJ Pollock, Cody Bellinger, and Max Muncy. The shortstop Seager has really shined in 2020, his first healthy season since undergoing both Tommy John and hip surgeries prior to 2019. He’s also quietly been putting up MVP-caliber numbers with a .307 average, 15 home runs, and a 152 wRC+.
Meanwhile, reigning Most Valuable Player Cody Bellinger has struggled to find his rhythm for much of this year, slashing .239/.333/.455 with a 114wRC+. That said, he may have started to hit his stride in the last few weeks of the season, as he finished the year with a 1.167 OPS in his last 11 games. He will look to carry his positive momentum into October, where he has struggled in past years with a 35.9 K% and 49 wRC+ in 36 postseason games.
The typically stalwart Max Muncy has also struggled in 2020, with an uncharacteristically low .389 SLG amid some bad batted ball luck. He’s remained a threat to go deep, however, with 12 home runs, and is as likely as anyone to catch fire in the playoffs. Justin Turner also looks to build on his already impressive postseason resume (.310 AVG, 154 wRC+), and is taking a 31 game on-base streak into October. Oh, and then there’s Will Smith, their catcher, who’s batting .289 with 8 home runs and a 163 wRC+. They should have no problem putting up runs, even if a few of their hitters are slumping.
On the pitching side, the Dodgers have once again put together an impressive staff, leading all teams with a stingy 3.02 ERA. Hitters are only batting .211 against Dodgers pitching this year, and their 1.10 HR/9 is second only to Minnesota. The staff is once again led by Clayton Kershaw, who enjoyed a resurgent year after regaining some velocity on his fastball, posting a 2.16 ERA and lowering his career mark to 2.43. He will once again look to overcome his inconsistent playoff history, and now has more help than ever to do so. Kershaw is joined by fellow ace Walker Buehler, who after a slow start to the season had a 1.53 ERA in his last four starts. The Dodgers’ Game 3 starter is still to be decided, but will likely be one of the young trio of Tony Gonsolin (2.31 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Dustin May (2.57 ERA, 1.09 WHIP), and Julio Urías (3.27 ERA, 1.15 WHIP). There is also a strong possibility that one or more of those pitchers is deployed out of the bullpen in a bulk role over the course of the playoffs. The projected rotation for the Dodgers in the first round will be Buehler for Game 1, Kershaw for Game 2, and Game 3’s starter is to be determined.
The Dodgers bullpen is one of the best in baseball with a 2.71 ERA, but the Dodgers will only go as far as their relievers take them in the postseason. The status of Kenley Jansen as the Dodgers closer has been called into question after some rough blown saves in 2020, and he has felt the effects of declining velocity on his signature cutter. Outside of Jansen, the Dodgers have largely been playing the matchups out of the bullpen, which they look to continue to do in October. Veterans Dylan Floro, Adam Kolarek, and Jake McGee will be relied on heavily as they were during the regular season, as will Blake Treinen. The high-octane Brusdar Graterol is also likely to see some high leverage innings and may even close some games out with his blistering 100+mph sinker. Pedro Báez and the infamous fireballer Joe Kelly will also be in the mix out of the bullpen, so there will be no shortage of weapons to turn to in a pinch. The key will be if manager Dave Roberts can deploy his staff effectively.
At this point, the Dodgers have little excuse not to produce in the postseason. Yes, the three-game opening series format is cutthroat and anything can happen, but the Dodgers are far and away the favorite to make their third World Series in four years. They once again have a punishing lineup and dominant pitching staff that has combined for a league-best +136 run differential (the next best is San Diego at +84). With their unparalleled depth on both sides of the ball, Los Angeles is looking to finally put it all together for a championship in 2020.
Milwaukee Brewers (29-31)
*CORRECTION*: Devin Williams has been left off the playoff roster with an arm issue.
When I sat down to start gathering all the numbers up for this playoff preview, my overriding thought was: the Brewers sure were a group of people playing baseball this year.
Now, that seems rude but please know that one of my best friends lives in Milwaukee and I honestly consider them “my NL team” so I definitely didn’t go into this looking for reasons to make fun of them. The expanded playoffs lead to some uh, iffy inclusions in the playoff pool, and well, the Brewers are one of them. Don’t just take my word for it:
The Brewers lost today and fell to 29-31. They never spent a day over .500. They set a slew of franchise records for offensive futility. And they are going to the postseason.
— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) September 27, 2020
Offensively, the Brewers turned in a team line of .223/.313/.389, good for an 89 wRC+, ranking them 25th in baseball and 12th in the NL. (The rest of the NL Central didn’t exactly light the world on fire with their bats though, the Cardinals put up the best team wRC+ with only 93.) As far as individual contributors go, the Brewers position players were lead by late-season waiver acquisition DH Daniel Vogelbach, who hit .345/.429/.600 (174 wRC+), but in only 18 games. As far as “full-season” starters go, it’s 1B Jedd Gyorko who tops the leaderboard, with a .248/.333/.504 (118 wRC+) line in 43 games. Not exactly the names anybody would have expected coming out of Cream City this year. While Christian Yelich did end up with an above-average offensive year, his .205/.356/.430 slash is far from what the team expected from him when the season kicked off. His 112 wRC+ did lead the team in qualified hitters, for whatever that’s worth. Yelich also actually lead the team in fWAR this season, finishing with a whole 0.8 win above replacement, just to give you an idea of what was going on out there in Miller Park.
With Yelich in LF, CF duties this year were handled largely by Avisaíl García, who followed right behind Yelich with 0.7 fWAR. RF was a bit of a timeshare between Ben Gamel and Ryan Braun. Taken as a full unit, that’s an OF that grades out as average at best both defensively and offensively. At 2B we’ll be seeing Keston Hiura, who took a step back at the plate (87 wRC+) but has graded out as a much better defender in 2020 with -1 OAA compared to his -9 from his debut season. SS Orlando Arcia put together the best offensive season of his career, although it still added up to a below-average 90 wRC+ to go with his 0 OAA. 3B saw an even split between Luis Urías and Eric Sogard in the regular season, but given that both were below-average hitters (noticing a theme?) I would imagine that Sogard’s better defense (3 OAA) will get him the nod in the postseason. Finally, C is a toss-up between Omar Nárvaez and Jacob Nottingham with Manny Pina out for the year following his September knee surgery. Both catchers ended the season under the Mendoza line on average, but Nárvaez managed only a .269 SLG over 40 games. He is the superior framer though, and Nottingham only tallied 54 plate appearances this season. The pair are Milwaukee’s only options behind the dish, though, so we’ll almost assuredly be seeing them both suit up.
Where the Brewers ended up finding some very unexpected help was on the pitching side. Coming into 2020 without anybody on staff who would be labeled their staff ace, Milwaukee ended up getting a season out of Corbin Burnes that will likely earn him at least a few down-ballot Cy Young votes, throwing up a 2.11 ERA/2.03 FIP over 59.2 innings (12.2 of those innings came out of the bullpen, and his ERA as just a starter in 9 games drops to 1.72, with a 1.64 FIP to go with it.) Of course, since this is 2020 baseball, he left his final start of the season in the 4th inning with an oblique injury which will ensure he misses at least the full first round of playoff games. Burnes was backed up by the true workhorse of the team, Brandon Woodruff, who threw a team-high 73.2 innings over his 13 starts, with a higher yet still respectable 3.05 ERA/3.20 FIP. After those two, however, the rotation gets a little dire, with Josh Lindblom, Brett Anderson, and Brent Suter all pitching to ERAs above 4.00 (actually, only Anderson managed a 4.00 ERA, Lindblom and Houser both ended with 5.40 ERAs.) The bullpen situation is only slightly better, with rookie phenom Devin Williams atop the group, throwing 27 innings of sterling 0.33 ERA/0.86 FIP ball. After him comes Freddy Peralta, with a 3.08 ERA/2.20 FIP performance over 26.1 innings (the inverse of Burnes, Peralta made 1 start this year, throwing only 3 innings.) Peralta’s line this year looked much better prior to his 2IP/3ER performance in the final regular-season game on Sunday, which is both an ill omen and somehow almost reassuring. Josh Hader looked downright unstoppable when the season began, but a massive 1.42 HR/9 on the season saw him finish with a mere mortal’s 3.79 ERA/4.03 FIP to go with his 19 innings pitched in 21 games. An interesting wildcard here is Eric Yardley, a 30-year old rookie who threw 23.1 innings in 24 games with a 1.54 ERA. However, that ERA comes with a 4.09 FIP, 19.6 K%, and 10.3 BB%. Yardley is helped along by his 61.2% groundball rate, it’s a Zack Britton toolkit without the pedigree or the pitch velo (he averages 88mph on his sinker.)
The last time these two teams squared off in a playoff series was in the 2018 NLCS, when Los Angeles just edged out Milwaukee in seven games to win their second straight pennant. In the series, the Dodgers were led by key performances from Yasiel Puig, Chris Taylor, and Manny Machado. Orlando Arcia and Lorenzo Cain were the standouts for Milwaukee, as well as Josh Hader and Brandon Woodruff. While 2018 may have only been two years ago, this Brewers squad is very different from the 96-67 team that took Los Angeles the distance.
The Dodgers sweep in back-to-back games. The Brewers starting pitching is not able to contain the Los Angeles lineup, and Craig Counsell will be forced to call upon Josh Hader and Devin Williams for multiple high leverage innings in both games. The Dodgers pitching staff should lock down a struggling Brewers offense, and their bullpen is deep enough to overcome a bad start. If the Brewers can steal a game anything is possible, but I don’t like their odds to beat out the Dodgers in one game, let alone two.
Dodgers win 2-0. 2018 was a long time ago. The Brewers had a much stronger offense, winning the NL Central with a .589 winning percentage and a +95 run differential. In 2020 they eked into the playoffs thanks to the expanded pool, limping on a .483 winning percentage and a -17 run diff. They are largely below average offensively, and they’re without Burnes due to injury. While I can imagine a scenario where a combination of Woodruff, Williams, and Hader combine to stymie even an offense as good as LA’s, it seems pretty remote and unless Woodruff goes on short rest, we’re already talking about Game 2. Meanwhile, a below-average offense would need to light up some combo of Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, and then well, honestly pick any of the available names from the Dodgers’ hat.
While the First Round matchup in 2020 looks like a rematch from 2018, I foresee the Brewers season finishing a lot more like it did in 2019. At least there’s still beer.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)