The Los Angeles Dodgers were supposed to be here. The Milwaukee Brewers were not. Regardless, that’s what we have. The National League is down to 2. The Brewers advanced to the NLCS in relatively breezy fashion by sweeping away the Colorado Rockies in 3 games in the NLDS, while the Dodgers were able to get past the Atlanta Braves in 4 games in their first-round series.
Now, 2 teams that have taken starkly different paths are on a collision course. The Dodgers are the owners of baseball’s third-highest payroll, and they are coming off a disappointing World Series defeat in 7 games at the hands of the Houston Astros around this time last year. The Brewers, meanwhile, are appearing in their first NLCS since losing to the St. Louis Cardinals back in 2011. Comparatively, Milwaukee has Major League Baseball’s eighth-lowest payroll this season.
The Dodgers arguably have as much or more talent up-and-down their roster than any team in the majors. The Brewers certainly aren’t lacking in the talent department themselves, but few imagined before the season that they would enter the National League playoffs with home field advantage. Milwaukee won an NL-best 96 games during the regular season, so the pennant will go through Miller Park.
Despite the fact that Milwaukee does have home field advantage, Los Angeles will actually enter the series as the odds-on favorites. As of this writing, the Dodgers are listed at -125 favorites to advance to the World Series. The Brewers are priced at -105.
Starting Pitching is Key
The most glaring discrepancy between these 2 teams at first glance is the starting pitching. The Dodgers have compiled a deep starting rotation. Of the 12 pitchers that were on the team’s NLDS roster, 7 started a game at one point or another for Los Angeles this season. On the flip side, the Brewers’ starting rotation is very much up in the air. Milwaukee opted to go with a bullpen game in Game 1 of the NLDS, with Brandon Woodruff drawing the nominal start. Jhoulys Chacin gave Milwaukee 5 shutout innings on short rest in Game 2, while Wade Miley pitched 4 ⅔ scoreless frames in the decisive Game 3. Bullpenning will likely be the Brewers’ course of action once again in this series.
While Dave Roberts has a longer leash for his starters than Craig Counsell, it’s not like Roberts is known for leaving his pitchers in too long. If anything, Roberts has a reputation as a manager that may resort to his bullpen too quickly. How Roberts sets his rotation for this series will be interesting.
Clayton Kershaw, who was dominant in the Dodgers’ 3-0 win over Atlanta in Game 2 of the NLDS, was scheduled to start against the Braves had the series needed a decisive Game 5. Because no Game 5 was necessary, one would imagine it will be Kershaw taking the ball for L.A. at Miller Park in Game 1 on Friday. Hyun-Jin Ryu started Game 1 against the Braves, but he has had far more success pitching at home than on the road this year. Could Roberts move Walker Buehler into the Game 2 spot in Milwaukee and leave Ryu to pitch at Dodger Stadium in Game 3? There is certainly plenty of merit to the idea. Ryu had a 1.15 ERA at home this season compared to a 3.58 mark on the road.
We are used to dominant starting pitching being the key to any team’s championship aspirations. As more and more managers have started to embrace expanded bullpens, however, that traditional thought seems to be trending downward. A team like the Astros still leans heavily on excellent starting pitching, but the Brewers certainly do not. Counsell seems to be taking a different approach. His starters may top out around 5 innings before giving way to the team’s excellent group of relievers. Considering the quality of the Brewers’ bullpen, it’s hard to fault that strategy.
Milwaukee’s bullpen had a collective ERA of 3.47 during the regular season, which was the fifth-best mark in all of baseball. The Dodgers, for their part, ranked eighth. The Brewers’ bullpen has an ERA of 1.17 through 3 postseason games, which ranks third so far behind the Dodgers and Astros. Milwaukee’s entire staff had a microscopic ERA of just 0.64 against Colorado.
After his starter is out of the game, Counsell will regularly rely on some combination of Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, Corey Knebel, Joakim Soria and Corbin Burnes. Jeffress was the only reliever to allow any runs against the Rockies in the NLDS.
The Dodger bullpen hasn’t gotten the same kind of praise the Brewers’ pen has, but let’s give L.A. some credit here. Alex Wood, who gave up what was ultimately the game-winning solo home run to Freddie Freeman in Game 3, was the only Los Angeles bullpen arm to concede a run in their NLDS. Pedro Baez has quietly emerged as arguably the team’s best reliever, while Caleb Ferguson, Ryan Madson, Dylan Floro, Scott Alexander and Kenta Maeda all handled themselves well in high-leverage situations. Closer Kenley Jansen hasn’t been as dominant this year as he’s been in years past, but he is still among the best closers in the game.
Ryu gave the Dodgers 7 innings in Game 1, while Kershaw followed up with 8 innings in Game 2. Buehler scuffled through 5 innings in Game 3, while Rich Hill was pulled after 4 ½ in Game 4. We know the Dodgers’ starters can give their team more length than the Brewers’, and that could prove crucial over the course of a long series. If bullpens start to get taxed, they begin to struggle. The Dodgers should know that well after the Astros pummeled their tired bullpen in the latter stages of last year’s World Series.
It remains to be seen whether bullpenning can truly work over the course of a long 7-game series. The Brewers were able to get away with it against what appeared to be a tired Rockies team, but I’m skeptical that this is a strategy that can hold up in a long, grueling series. Being able to project how a long series will play out is crucial to betting on a playoff series. Can we trust the Milwaukee ‘pen to hold up?
Battle of the Bats
Both the Brewers and Dodgers were active around the trade deadline. Somewhat surprisingly, though, both teams opted to add some bats rather than fortify their respective pitching staffs. The Dodgers made the biggest splash of all by trading for Baltimore Orioles superstar Manny Machado just after the All-Star break. Machado has been up-and-down during his half-season in Dodger blue, though he did hit a couple of crucial home runs in the NLDS. L.A. also added some quality veteran hitters in Brian Dozier and David Freese around the deadline.
The Brewers’ moves weren’t as splashy, but they made some waves. Milwaukee snagged All-Star third baseman Mike Moustakas from the Kansas City Royals before swooping in for Machado’s old Orioles teammate, Jonathan Schoop. Milwaukee’s two bigger moves came before the season when they signed Lorenzo Cain away from Kansas City as a free agent and they traded for disgruntled Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich. All Yelich would do in his first season as a Brewer would put together an MVP-caliber campaign.
While the pitching on both sides of this series is stellar, there will be runs in this series. The Dodgers led the National League in runs scored (804) this season. The Brewers ranked just seventh, but they were fourth in that department over the last month of the season. The Dodgers also hit an NL-leading 235 home runs during the regular season. The Brewers ranked second with 218 long balls of their own.
These teams are just going to try and outslug one another. Their splits are fairly even. The Dodgers’ crop of right-handed power hitters includes Machado, Dozier, Justin Turner, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig. Milwaukee has Cain, Schoop, Jesus Aguilar and Ryan Braun swinging powerful bats from the right side. On the left, L.A. has the likes of Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, Yasmani Grandal and Joc Pederson. The Brewers can counter with lefties like Yelich, Moustakas and Travis Shaw.
How They Got Here
The Dodgers have plenty of homegrown talent, but the Brewers have gotten here essentially entirely by bringing in players from the outside. Of the 23 players that appeared in a game in the NLDS from the Brewers, just 4 of them were drafted and promoted through the Milwaukee system. Those players were Burnes, Braun, Woodruff and Orlando Arcia. The Brewers were right there with the Oakland A’s in terms of lowest WAR among homegrown players.
Aguilar, Hernan Perez and Junior Guerra were acquired via waiver claim. Cain, Miley and Chacin were free agent pickups. Shaw, Yelich, Moustakas, Hader, Jeffress, Domingo Santana and a host of others came to Milwaukee via trade.
The Dodgers have made a name for themselves with reclamation projects. While decorated prospects like Puig, Buehler, Kershaw, Bellinger and Pederson have worked their way up to this level, L.A. has also had amazing success in turning also-rans into legitimate contributors. Max Muncy, Chris Taylor and Justin Turner were essentially discarded by other teams. Since joining the Dodgers, they have emerged as All-Star caliber players.
We know the Dodgers’ ownership group has deep pockets, which has certainly helped. Being able to afford to pay their own stars while signing others and bringing up a number of talented prospects has helped L.A. win the NL West 6 years in a row. It’s a run that has not yet resulted in a World Series title, but the Dodgers once again find themselves on the doorstep.
My main hang-up with Milwaukee is the aforementioned bullpen idea. They have the bats to win it all, and the bullpen in its own right is filthy. I’m just not convinced that those mediocre starters will be able to put up scoreless outings against a loaded Dodgers offense. I’m also not convinced that the massive workload for the bullpen arms won’t catch up with the Brewers if this turns into a long series.
With better and more experienced starting pitching in tow alongside a comparable offense and a decent bullpen of their own, I have a hard time imagining Los Angeles not winning this series. I don’t think it will be a breeze by any means, and this could certainly go as many as 6 or 7 games. The Brewers have been one of the hottest teams in baseball for several weeks, which counts for something come playoff time.
I just think the Dodgers are too good, and that their roster is better equipped to handle the rigors of a lengthy postseason series. It’s not a bold stroke by any means, but I think the Dodgers are the best bet here at -125 to represent the National League in the World Series. I would suggest you jump on -125 now before the odds get less profitable.