The Brewers’ Best Laid Plans Were Just Good Enough

For eight innings, everything went as planned for Craig Counsell and his Brewers in their NLDS Game One matchup against the Colorado Rockies. Their MVP homered. A non-traditional arrangement of pitchers got them to the ninth inning with a 2-0 lead. Their All-Star closer took the mound needing to record only three outs. It was, more or less, the ideal scenario.

Then things fell apart a little. The closer faltered, and the Rockies tied the score. Counsell was forced to adjust. In the end, everything worked out anyway. The Brewers won the game on their home field and took a 1-0 lead in their best-of-five battle against Colorado. The plan, ultimately, worked.

Let’s take a look at the finer points of that plan to get a sense of Counsell’s logic and the Brewers’ strengths.

The Starter

Ever since the Tampa Bay Rays used Sergio Romo in a one-inning start back in May, the idea of the opener has spread across the league. And while Brandon Woodruff’s appearance could easily have been mistaken for another example of that strategy — Woodruff recorded many more relief appearances (15) than starts this year (4) — that’s not how Craig Counsell saw it.

Said Counsell before the start of the game on Thursday:

I think from our perspective, Woody is — he’s not a reliever. He has the ability to do more than that, if that’s what the game calls for. So that’s — one, he’s throwing the ball really well and, two, I think he has the potential to do a little more than a reliever maybe.

Whatever the case, the decision paid off: Woodruff pumped upper-90s four-seamers and two-seamers to get batters out. The sinkers were a bit of a surprise — Woodruff had only used the pitch during one appearances all season, his final one against Detroit — but were also effective. Only one batter reached base over Woodruff’s first three innings of work — a first inning walk of DJ LeMahieu — and he was erased on a caught stealing. By the end of three complete, Woodruff had produced three strikeouts against one walk while throwing 71% fastballs. But the velocity appeared to be waning, as the graph below indicates.

With Woodruff’s spot due up in the order and the top of the Rockies’ own order up the next inning, the decision to remove Woodruff, even with the no-hitter still intact, was the smart play. Stage Two of Counsell’s plan commenced.

The Star

In the bottom of the third, Christian Yelich came to bat with one out and a runner on base after Lorenzo Cain drew a walk. Yelich did what he’s being doing all season — and doing the last month, in particular.

Like a lot of the things Yelich has done this year, his third-inning home run seemed improbable: he took a first-pitch changeup on the outer half of the plate and drove it out to center field. And yet, in the context of Yelich’s work this season, it was also somewhat ordinary. Christian Yelich finished the regular season 12th in MLB with 36 homers. Here are the home-run leaders on the first pitch of an at-bat from 2018.

First-Pitch Home-Run Leaders
First Pitch HR
Christian Yelich 12
Manny Machado 10
Khris Davis 10
Bryce Harper 10
Joey Gallo 10
Nicholas Castellanos 9
Trevor Story 9

And here are the leaders on home runs hit to center field:

Center-Field Home-Run Leaders
Name HR
Christian Yelich 21
Khris Davis 21
Nelson Cruz 15
Bryce Harper 15
Joey Gallo 14
Mike Trout 13
Kole Calhoun 13
Nolan Arenado 12
Manny Machado 12
Eugenio Suarez 12
Shohei Ohtani 12

And for good measure, here are the ISO leaders on changeups this season, per Baseball Savant.

ISO Leaders v. Changeups
Player ISO
Eugenio Suarez .392
Kyle Schwarber .370
Trevor Story .357
J.D. Martinez .338
Francisco Lindor .330
Mookie Betts .328
C.J. Cron .320
Giancarlo Stanton .313
Miguel Andujar .300
Anthony Rizzo .278
Christian Yelich .278
Anthony Rendon .268
Matt Carpenter .263
Daniel Palka .258
Eddie Rosario .258
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Min. 50 AB v changeups

Yelich did what Yelich does — even if it’s not something anyone else does quite as well.

The Bridge

Counsell chose the 23-year-old prospect Corbin Burnes for the fourth inning. Burnes, ranked the 27th-best prospect in baseball at midseason, was used as a starter for much of the minor-league season. He served as a reliever in all 30 of his major-league appearances, however, over the last 27 of which, he went more than an inning just seven times. He gave up runs in three of those seven outings, as well — including his final appearance of the year against the Tigers — suggesting that he might be something less than a sure thing.

After a 1-2-3 fourth inning requires just 13 pitches, though, Burnes retired the first two batters of the fifth inning, as well. With three strikeouts and two infield flies, he did as well as could possibly be expected. After giving up the first Rockies hit of the game, a triple from Carlos Gonzalez, Burnes got Ian Desmond to ground out softly.

The Bullpen

Corey Knebel entered the sixth inning on the heels of an incredible September during which he recorded 33 strikeouts and just three walks over 16.1 innings. He gave up no runs, produced a 0.04 FIP, and pitched in a number of key situations — as his 0.95 WPA, which ranked eighth among all relievers in September, indicates.

Knebel struck out nearly 60% of the batters he faced during the season’s final month, but he didn’t strike out a single one in the sixth inning last night. What he did do was get some help from Manny Piña and Orlando Arcia when Ryan McMahon tried to steal. Piña actually caught two batters stealing in the game, which shouldn’t be a surprise. He caught 20 of 49 runners trying to steal overall this season, and his combination of quick release and arm strength are among the best in baseball.

He caught McMahon, but not without help from a quick tag by Orlando Arcia.

You can see the safe call in the video here, but replay reversed it. Knebel, who had pitched more than one inning three times in September, came out for the seventh inning, as well. He induced a ground out from LeMahieu before retiring Nolan Arenado with a K. With lefty David Dahl coming up, Counsell called on Josh Hader, who overwhelmed Dahl on strikes. Two more strikeouts and a fly out later, and the Brewers were 24 outs into a perfectly conceived and executed plan.

The Plan Falls Apart

Jeremy Jeffress took over closing duties toward the end of the season and pitched very well in the second half, recording a 2.93 FIP and 1.21 ERA, but there were some concerns about Jeffress’s health after he didn’t pitch on Monday’s Game 163 to win the division over the Cubs. Craig Counsell tried to assuage those fears before the game Thursday:

He’s ready to go. Look, on Monday, we were — we had to make decisions about — we never ended up talking about this, but it was such a strange game Monday that you have to prepare — we have to be ready for the game on Tuesday. So in the end, my goal was to not use one of those three guys. I really thought it was important that we didn’t use one of Josh [Hader], Corey [Knebel], and J.J. [Jeffress], and so we ended up not suing J.J., and that puts J.J. as the most rested guy and a very rested guy going into the series.


I was concerned about J.J.’s usage frequently this season. He got to his innings in a different way, on much more frequent appearances. And I thought, in the month of September, getting him a break if possible would be very fruitful for the month of October, and the way his usage worked and the games worked, we were able to do that. He’s not — he’s good to go, man. He’s going to pitch a lot of innings this series.

Jeffress proceeded to give up back to back singles to Gerardo Parra and Matt Holliday, with Charlie Blackmon appearing to hit a ground-rule double that turned out to be just foul after a replay review.

After a single, an error, and a sacrifice fly, the game was tied 2-2 with runners on first and third and only one out. A fielder’s choice and strikeout later prevented more damage. Both Counsell and Yelich pointed to Jeffress’s recovery — his ability to preserve the tie — as an important part of the game, but there will be more questions about Jeffress’s performance. In his final appearance of the regular season against the Tigers, Jeffress’s fastballs averaged 96.2 mph. In last night’s game, he sat just below 95 mph, though, and every pitch after Arenado’s tying sac fly game was a breaking pitch.

All’s Well That Ends Well

In the 10th, after a scoreless inning from Joakim Soria, Christian Yelich battled from 0-2 to draw a walk. Yelich didn’t get the opportunity to test Adam Ottavino’s weakness, as a wild pitch sent him to second base, but after a strikeout, an intentional walk, and a fielder’s choice, Mike Moustakas stepped to the plate with runners on first and third.

With Manny Piña on deck, Bud Black could have walked Moustakas intentionally like he had done earlier in the game, but Ottavino recorded a 12% walk rate this year — and a 16% mark a year ago — so loading the bases might have increased the odds of a loss no matter who was at the plate. Bringing in a reliever would likely have been just as risky. Given that Moustakas almost struck out on a foul tip in the same at-bat, it’s hard to say Ottavino shouldn’t have been pitching in that situation. If the game had continued, the Brewers would have pitched Gio Gonzalez in the 11th inning. Fortunately for them, they didn’t need to reformulate their strategy once again.

The Brewers didn’t quite execute as planned, but their parade of relievers/semi-starters and Christian Yelich got the job done. With one game in hand, the Brewers will advance as long as they don’t lose three of four games, something they’ve only done once since August 19, a period of 38 games.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

Good game analysis!