Postseason Preview: The NL Wild Card Game

The 2019 Playoffs begin Tuesday evening as the Milwaukee Brewers (89-73) head to the nation’s capital to face the Washington Nationals (93-69). After a season during which most of the National League was in the playoff picture until very late in the season, both teams finished their respective campaigns in surprisingly convincing fashion, managing to clinch postseason appearances with time to spare. Both squads also fell short in their improbable runs for a division title late in the season, but making the Wild Card is still good enough to earn a bit of bubbly.

For the Washington Nationals, the end of the Bryce Harper era didn’t spell the end of their contending years. As it turns out, there is a foolproof way to replace a Bryce Harper: make a new one. Juan Soto only needed 121 minor league games to prepare for instant stardom in the majors had a fantastic 2018 run, hitting .292/.406/.517 with 22 homers and 3.7 WAR in 116 games for Washington. But Harper was still the Big Name on the team, and it wasn’t until his lucrative departure to Philadelphia that Soto could define Washington’s outfield.

Anything can happen in one game — the Detroit Tigers beat better teams on 47 occasions this season — but if I’m one of the other NL playoff teams, the Nationals aren’t the team I’d be pulling for to win. When considering the playoff construction of the teams — with less of an emphasis on depth and more on the top of the rotation — ZiPS projects the Nationals as the second-best squad in the National League. Second-in-the-National-League means they even edge out the Atlanta Braves by the slenderest of threads.

WAR for Top Three Starting Pitchers
Team WAR
Nationals 17.0
Mets 15.9
Astros 15.7
Dodgers 13.2
Indians 12.8
Rangers 11.7
Rays 11.4
Twins 11.4
Reds 10.9
Cubs 10.3
Red Sox 9.4
White Sox 9.4
Cardinals 9.2
Yankees 8.7
Braves 8.6
Diamondbacks 8.1
Tigers 7.9
Orioles 7.3
Athletics 7.1
Rockies 7.0
Padres 6.8
Brewers 6.3
Phillies 6.0
Blue Jays 5.9
Pirates 5.7
Giants 5.3
Mariners 5.3
Royals 5.0
Marlins 4.9
Angels 4.3

Washington’s top three of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin makes them a danger to any team in a short series. While the Brewers will duck two of them on Tuesday, this is the only game in the postseason that you know well ahead of time is going to be an elimination game. As a result, this is an “all hands on deck” game, and if the Silver Hammer doesn’t go deep, the Nats will likely be unafraid to bring out Strasburg and/or Corbin for short stretches given the frighteningly high stakes. It’s certainly better for Washington than relying solely on a bullpen that ranked second-to-last in ERA (5.70, besting only the 0rioles) and 23rd in WAR.

I have to admit to a great deal of surprise at seeing Milwaukee advance to October. I was extremely critical of the team’s passivity at the trade deadline, when Jordan Lyles was their sole addition to a rotation with more serious holes than the final season of Game of Thrones. While I still stand behind my analysis at the time, my August piece will definitely be in the pantheon of my articles that aged very poorly, very quickly. My only defense is that I at least noted that Jordan Lyles had a good history with the Brewers, who have fared very well with their scrap heap rotation pickups.

One last note: While I’m not sure it really alters my basic feelings about the trade, Milwaukee does have a successful history with Jordan Lyles. For those who may need their memories refreshed, the Brewers claimed Lyles off waivers from the Padres last August. He proceeded to have arguably had the most successful run of his career with a 3.31 ERA and 2.49 FIP in 11 games for the Brewers down the stretch. There’s no guarantee that Milwaukee can fix what’s gone wrong with Lyles, but they have worked with him before.

Lyles more than fulfilled the promise of even the most optimistic fan of the Brew Crew, and in his second stint number two with the club, went 7-1 with a 2.45 ERA (though with a 4.43 FIP) in 11 starts for 0.8 WAR.

But even more surprising than Lyles proving to be a critical member of the rotation was the Brewers not missing a beat as a result of the sudden, serious end to Christian Yelich’s season due to a foul ball applied directly to the knee. Through September 10, the Brewers ranked a disappointing 20th in baseball in offense, despite having the services of Yelich, who will almost assuredly be either the MVP or the runner-up when the award is announced in November. Since then, the Brewers have ranked 10th in runs, which should provide yet another important lesson in how insignificant any single player in baseball is compared to an elite player in football or basketball, even Mike Trout. Remind me to throw a chair if Yelich loses an MVP vote because the Brewers “didn’t need him.”

While the Cubs didn’t help Milwaukee’s quest for a Game 163 on the final day of the regular season, they did at least provide a service in rolling over very quickly for the St. Louis Cardinals. That’s more important than it may sound as it instantly transformed Milwaukee’s must-win game against the Rockies into one that only mattered for personal pride. The Brewers knew well before their game was over that the Cardinals had clinched the NL Central title, which enabled them to start using relievers who were unlikely to make the playoff roster. That actually matters, as the Milwaukee bullpen hasn’t pitched as well as it did in 2018, seeing their ERA and FIP rise from 3.47 and 3.57 to 4.43 and 4.32, while having to do without Corey Knebel.

The Brewers’ answer to Scherzer will be Brandon Woodruff, albeit likely in a shorter-than-typical stint. Worked in slowly from an injured oblique, Milwaukee has brought Woodruff back carefully, only having their FIP-leader go two innings in each of his starts. Woodruff would normally have been scheduled to pitch on Sunday, but the Brewers instead went to Adrian Houser, freeing Woodruff up for a Tuesday turn.

When running out the projections, ZiPS gives the Nationals a 57%-43% edge on Tuesday, assuming that Woodruff will pitch three innings on average. At six innings, that projection would improve to 54%-46% for the Brewers, but it’s difficult to commit Woodruff to throwing that many pitches after returning so recently. If the game is tied after six innings, ZiPS projects it as nearly a coin flip thanks to Milwaukee’s bullpen edge (49% Nationals, 51% Brewers). Washington has had a lot of reasons for regret in recent years, but the team letting Blake Treinen, Trevor Gott, and Austin Adams go may be among the greatest.

The Nationals go into Tuesday’s wild card matchup as the slight favorite, but the 2019 Brewers proved in September that they’re not going to go gentle into that good night.

We hoped you liked reading Postseason Preview: The NL Wild Card Game by Dan Szymborski!

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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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stever20
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stever20

absolutely ZERO% chance of Woodruff pitching 6 innings. He’s made 2 starts since coming off the IL and went 2 innings both times. Threw 37 and 38 pitches in those 2 outings. Think he goes 2 innings, and gets pinch hit for in the 3rd.

What are the numbers if he pitches 2 innings on average?

sphenreckson
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sphenreckson

Agree with you on that: I don’t think Counsell plans on letting a single pitcher hit. He’s probably right. The value of having a legitimate hitter bat instead of the pitcher combined with the fact that the new pitcher will be on the first time through the order instead of the second, probably outweighs any difference in the talent of said pitchers.

stever20
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stever20

Only problem with this- Brewers pinch hitters this season have been rather pedestrian. .191 avg with 8 hr in 313 PA’s 71 wRC+ 2nd half of the season only .186 with 4 hr in 161 pa’s. 76 wRC+.

sphenreckson
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sphenreckson

70 wRC+ is not great. But it’s way better than the -13 their pitchers have put up.

stever20
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stever20

There is that. But there again, this is where the Yelich injury comes into play. Instead of having someone around to pinch hit, they’re having to start- not to mention that a guy that wouldn’t be around now has to be on the WC Roster. Also, with the Braun and Cain injuries- they’re going to have to be somewhat mindful of that as well.

kbpms2
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kbpms2

Why would you look at team-wide wRC+ for pitchers? Woodruff has a career 71 wRC+ in a very small sample of 49 PAs. If it’s a high leverage spot, obviously it makes sense to pinch hit for him, but he’s at least competent enough with a bat to not sub him for a sub-par pinch hitter in lower leverage situations .

stever20
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stever20

I didn’t.

The problem is that after 2 innings he’ll be at least to 30 pitches, if not more. Given that he’s only gone 37 and 38 pitches- it would totally make sense to pull him there- and give the pitcher who would be following him a clean situation. Especially since that pitcher is most likely going to be a starter type.

kbpms2
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kbpms2

I was responding to sphenreckson, not you. Fangraphs stops forming new comment levels after 4 replies.

stever20
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stever20

ahh….

Nats have a huge advantage I think on the bench. Going to have likely Gomes, Zimmerman, Dozier, Parra, MAT for sure on the bench. Maybe Matt Adams. Maybe Stevenson(who is 8-19 as a PH this season). This is by far the best bench the Nationals have ever had going into a playoff.

sphenreckson
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sphenreckson

kbpms2 you’re right Woodruff is better than your average pitcher. I was referring to Counsell’s plan in general not to have any of the pitchers bat. But if one of them was going to, Woodruff would definitely be the choice.

Psychic... Powerless...
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Psychic... Powerless...

“…after 2 innings he’ll be at least to 30 pitches, if not more”

You’re stating that as a fact?

stever20
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stever20

what’s the average number of pitches per inning? 15 seems pretty reasonable.

I think the only way he possibly goes 3 innings is if his slot comes up to bat in the 2nd inning.

Dag Gummit
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Dag Gummit

“…after 2 innings he’ll be at least to 30 pitches, if not more”

You’re stating that as a fact?
________

It’s much more like a highly plausible prediction given that the MLB average pitches/ inning is greater than 15.

losdiego
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losdiego

I’d imagine that the 71 or 76 wRC+ isn’t that different from the overall line from the Brewers bench this year…without Yelich they have 5 “good hitters” (Hiura, Grandal, Braun, Thames, Moustakas, then a lot of very below average to terrible hitters. Pina, Spangenberg, Grisham, Cain, Arcia, Perez, and Shaw have combined to have a…73 wRC+ this year in 2502 plate appearances. I mean, they’re just not a very good team, they have absolutely no quality depth. I continue to have no idea how they’re here, but as a Dodgers fan I sure hope they beat the Nationals.

Of course, they will then inevitably beat the Dodgers as Grandal hits .750 with 25 home runs in 25 at bats in the series after being the worst playoff performer I’ve ever seen. Because that’s baseball and life as a Dodgers fan.

stever20
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stever20

how did they get to the playoffs? Their bullpen(and specifically the guys that will be used in the playoffs)- is still very good. Can’t go based off the whole bullpen numbers- because they’ve had some guys implode on them. They won’t be near Washington DC tomorrow night.

SteveMcAnderson
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SteveMcAnderson

But is the expected production of Woodruff for 6 innings really better than Woodruff+Suter +Lyles? I expect the ideal scenario for Counsell is for the 3 of them to hold down the Nats and turn it over to Pomeranza and Hader with a lead.