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.
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.
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.