NL Wild Card Series Preview: Milwaukee Brewers vs Los Angeles Dodgers

My favorite part of the animated series Attack on Titan, in which a race of giants appears out of nowhere and starts feasting on humanity for no apparent reason, is watching the humans try to assess and exploit the giants’ vulnerabilities more quickly than they’re being consumed. It’s analogous to any series against the juggernaut Los Angeles Dodgers, a club coming off a major-league best 43-17 regular season and the presumptive National League favorites to advance to the World Series. Do the Dodgers have a weak spot, a thread on which the limping Milwaukee Brewers can pull and unravel their season?

Not especially. Los Angeles scored the most runs in baseball this year, their hitters have the highest collective average exit velocities and barrel rate leading to the greatest collective ISO (they also have the lowest collective chase rate), and their starters have the third-lowest collective walk rate while their bullpen has the lowest. Even the Dodgers defense, which is mediocre at best to my eye (especially on the infield, aside from Cody Bellinger and an improved Edwin Ríos), has held opponents to a .252 BABIP, the second-lowest mark in baseball. They are also remarkably healthy, only without bullpen lefty Caleb Ferguson, whose void has been filled by rookie Victor Gonzalez and his surprising strike-throwing improvement, as well as a resurgent Jake McGee, who is firing almost exclusively fastballs.

They’re a tough task for a Brewers club that backed into a playoff spot over the weekend and is without Corbin Burnes, their top 2020 starter, who succumbed to an oblique strain during his last outing of the season and is now on the IL. This places more weight on the shoulders of Craig Counsell and Brandon Woodruff.

The timing of Burnes’ injury made it impossible for the Brewers to set up their rotation in a traditional manner for the series since Woodruff, their best healthy starter, threw on Saturday. It means, against Walker Buehler in Game 1, Counsell will likely need to lean on members of the bullpen, perhaps for the entire game. Buehler threw four innings of shutout ball in his final regular season start, which was his first in over two weeks after hitting the IL with blister issues for the second time this year. He barely threw his slider and cutter in that final outing, which is perhaps related to the blister.

What might be heavy use of the Brewers bullpen in Game 1 (some combination of Brent Suter, Freddy Peralta, and Milwaukee’s hard-throwing late-game bullpen hydra headlined by Devin Williams and Josh Hader) puts further emphasis on Woodruff going deep in Game 2. But he could! Woodruff has been marvelous lately. Two of his last four outings — 8 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 10 K and 7 IP, 1 H, 0 BB, 12 K — have been among the best single-game efforts in baseball this year. He, alone, could give the Brewers a puncher’s chance to take Game 2 against the enduring Clayton Kershaw, whose fastball velocity has fallen each of his last two starts but remains better than the last two seasons (when Kershaw was merely very good rather than elite). Woodruff has also had previous success against a Dodger lineup that looks a lot like the one he’ll face this week (except, y’know, for all-world talent Mookie Betts). Woodruff pitched three times against the Dodgers in the 2018 NLCS, twice in relief and once as a starter. His line during that series: 9.1 IP, 7 H, BB, 2 ER, 17 K — and a memorable home run against Mr. Kershaw in Game 1.

I mentioned Kershaw’s velo tapering off a little bit lately and so, too, has Kenley Jansen’s. His was down a full four ticks in his last outing (90 mph) compared to his peak (94 mph) on September 19th. Perhaps clincher’s apathy is to blame. Regardless, the very back of Milwaukee’s bullpen (again, Williams & Hader hydra) is better than Los Angeles’ and perhaps the best in all of baseball.

But if the meaty middle of each relief corps is to play a significant role (which I think is likely in two of the three potential games, even if Woodruff shoves in Game 2), then the Dodgers have an advantage. Milwaukee’s ‘pen is built around relievers who are tough on same-side hitters (Peralta, Justin Topa, Eric Yardley, Alex Claudio) that the Dodgers’ many talented bench bats match up with quite well. Rios can hit balls out on a line with a flick of his wrist, Enrique Hernández mashes lefties, and Chris Taylor’s ability to move around the diamond means either of them can hit for Joc Pederson, or AJ Pollock, or whomever the Brewers are trying to match up with, without costing Dave Roberts multiple reserve cards at once.

Quick Hits

This series also features two MVP-level talents in Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich who, in a shortened season, never reached peak altitude. Both have righted the ship to some degree, but neither is hitting for big power. Since the start of September, Bellinger is slashing .267/.382/.413 while Yelich is hitting .217/.404/.386 and striking out about twice as much as his contact rates, in-zone and out, have tanked.

Dodgers infielder Max Muncy has also struggled and is hitting below the Mendoza line after suffering a finger fracture during summer camp, and he appeared to have some hand discomfort during the weekend (he had wrist issues in 2019, as well). But his underlying numbers, including his exit velocities, are very similar to last year’s, so he may be more dangerous than his 2020 performance has indicated.

Jedd Gyorko and his mid-70s Steve Martin locks are hitting .440/.559/1.080 against fastballs this year. He’s carried the Brewers offense all summer as Yelich struggled and the league adjusted to Keston Hiura and threw him fewer fastballs.

We don’t know who would start a potential Game 3 for either club, but it’s likely the Dodgers would use some combination of Dustin May, Julio Urías, and Tony Gonsolin there, any of which would arguably be Milwaukee’s second-best starter in this series.





Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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jtrichey
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jtrichey

Dave Roberts has said that AJ Pollock and Chris Taylor are going to be everyday starters in the playoffs. Probably at the expense of Gavin Lux in Taylor’s case. Joc will still start against righties, likely in platoon with Kike Hernandez.