With the presence of two analytically driven clubs in the NLCS, much of the attention paid to the series will focus on how each team responds to moves made by the other in an effort to gain the upper hand. For the Brewers, one area particularly well suited for creative decision-making is the rotation. As documented by Jeff Sullivan last week, Brewers starters recorded the highest collective ERA of all this year’s playoff teams after accounting for league and park. The weaknesses of the rotation, however — in the hands of a club willing to ask questions — also represents an opportunity for creative solutions.
Consider: in the team’s incredibly important Game 163, manager Craig Counsell opted for the team’s best starting pitcher, Jhoulys Chacin, on short rest. Then, in Game One of the Division Series against the Rockies, the Brewers piggybacked Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes before going with Chacin on short rest again for the second game of the series. Counsell bypassed Wade Miley until Game Three of the Division Series and passed over Gio Gonzalez entirely.
For the series with the Dodgers, though, those final two pitchers, Gonzalez and Miley, have been named as the starters for Games One and Two, respectively — even though nominal ace Chacin is available on full rest. In this case, however, the use of the two lesser pitchers might ultimately give the Brewers and advantage,
The Brewers employed a bit of gamesmanship with regard to their probable starters for the NLCS, waiting until just yesterday to announce their choices. How they deploy their rotation, though, could have a real effect on the starting lineup selected by Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. To get a better sense of what I mean, let’s start by examining the potential lineups for the Dodgers with the right-handed Chacin on the mound versus either of the two left-handers.
Below is a table featuring the players used of late by Roberts depending on the handedness of the opposing starter. I’ve included the Dodgers lineup against the Braves’ Sean Newcomb in the recently completed NLDS plus the last handful of games against lefties in the regular season. I’ve tried, as best as possible, to organize players by position.
|Pos||v. RHP||v Braves LHP||v LHP Reg Season|
|C||Yasmani Grandal||Yasmani Grandal||Yasmani Grandal|
|1B||Max Muncy||David Freese||David Freese|
|2B||Enrique Hernandez||Enrique Hernandez||Brian Dozier|
|3B||Justin Turner||Justin Turner||Justin Turner|
|SS||Manny Machado||Manny Machado||Manny Machado|
|LF||Joc Pederson||Chris Taylor||Chris Taylor|
|CF||Cody Bellinger||Cody Bellinger||Enrique Hernandez|
|RF||Yasiel Puig||Matt Kemp||Matt Kemp|
In the regular season, Dodgers non-pitchers recorded a 124 wRC+ against right-handers and just a 106 wRC+ against lefties. On the surface, then, it would appear as though the decision to use Gonzalez and Miley is almost a no-brainer.
There’s some reason to think that those numbers don’t represent the true talent of the team’s lineup versus lefties. For one, Brian Dozier and Logan Forsythe combined for just a a 47 wRC+ in 172 PA. Against Atlanta, Roberts used neither of them, instead moving Cody Bellinger out to center and Kike Hernández to second. While Bellinger might not be great against lefties, he’s produced an 88 wRC+ against them this season and was well above average a year ago. Add in a full complement of Manny Machado, who only arrived in mid-July, and there’s going to be some improvement there as well.
Max Muncy actually hit very well against lefties during the season, but David Freese has crushed them over the last three years, with a 140 wRC+ during that period and 134 wRC+ mark for his career. With the remaining right-handers getting boosts from the platoon advantage against a Gonzalez or Miley, that leaves the move from Joc Pederson (against righties) to Chris Taylor (against lefties) as the most significant drop-off between the two lineups. Add in Grandal’s inferior numbers from the right side and Bellinger’s drop against lefties, and the Dodgers certainly appear more well equipped to beat right-handed pitchers, even if not to the extent that their season-long numbers indicate.
So Counsell will go with consecutive lefties, and Roberts will go with his (weaker, but not-that-weak) platoon lineups. Strategically, that only accounts for part of the game, however. The next question comes when the Brewers elect to pull their Gonzalez and Miley. While both are technically starting pitchers, neither are likely to be managed as typical starters in the NLCS, especially if they get into trouble or the Brewers take an early lead. Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes showed in Game One of the Division Series that they can pitch multiple innings. The same goes for Junior Guerra and Freddy Peralta. Milwaukee could use a variety of potential partnerships — like following Gonzalez with Woodruff or Miley with Burnes — in an attempt to navigate the game into the latter innings. The Brewers want Knebel, Hader, Soria, and Jeffress to get innings six through nine, so using a lefty one time through the order could be the play. With four potential relievers capable of going multiple innings and all currently available for outs late in games, the Brewers can use their bullpen early without worrying too much about fatiguing pitchers early in the series.
For those scoring at home, we have now established a move (Counsell’s use of a lefty starter), a countermove (Roberts’ platoon lineup), and a counter-countermove (the Brewers’ options after pulling their lefty starter). Next comes the option for Roberts to potentially replace some of his righty-batting starters. That’s exactly what Roberts did against the Braves when Sean Newcomb was pulled in the third inning, substituting Max Muncy for David Freese. The problem for Roberts isn’t that he doesn’t have the bench to make these moves, it’s that it takes away his flexibility. Because Walker Buehler settled down in that Atlanta game, Yasiel Puig didn’t have to pinch-hit until the sixth inning. Because his best bench bat in Muncy was burned, however — and because he wanted to keep Puig in the game — a double-switch moved the pitcher’s spot up four spots in the order to fifth. Then, when the fifth spot came up, another bench bat was used in Brian Dozier. After Dozier singled, Roberts had no right-handed bench bats to face lefty A.J. Minter. Bellinger struck out in one of the highest-leverage plate appearances in the game.
More double-switches were then required to move the pitcher’s spot into the seventh spot in the lineup, but that meant keeping Dozier in the game. That made a difference, as the highest leverage plate appearance of the game was taken by Dozier with runners at second and third and two outs in the ninth against righty Arodys Vizcaino. Dozier struck out swinging with only backup catcher and right-handed hitting Austin Barnes on the bench.
Counsell could be accused of overmanaging. The conventional wisdom says simply, “Start your best pitcher.” While Jhoulys Chacin has been good this season, he isn’t exactly a conventional ace, having put up a roughly league-average 4.03 FIP on the season. He also has some platoon issues that could be exploited by a team like the Dodgers. Waiting to use Chacin until the team is in a bigger park in Los Angeles and giving him extra rest after three starts in 10 days could help the right-hander. Counsell isn’t necessarily trying to outsmart the Dodgers. He’s simply forcing them to make some moves that could result in suboptimal choices. The Brewers don’t have Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, or Walker Buehler. Pretending like they do would simply be playing into the Dodgers’ hands. The advantages here might be slight, but Milwaukee needs to take them where they can get them in a short series.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.