With their win in the divisional tiebreaker on Monday, the Brewers took home the National League Central title, their second Central crown and third division title in their 49-year existence. By winning, besides avoiding the scramble of the winner-take-all Wild Card game, they get to face the Colorado Rockies. This is surely preferable for the Brewers for many reasons. For one, the Rockies offense is significantly less potent than either the Cubs or Dodgers — the Brewers’ other potential opponents — putting up an 87 team wRC+ compared to 100 for the Cubs and 111 for the league-leading Dodgers. The Brewers also (albeit in rather small samples) took five of seven from the Rockies this year, compared to three of seven from the Dodgers and nine out of 20 from the Cubs.
Despite the optimism, there is one catch to playing the Rockies; eventually, you have to go to Coors Field. Coors can be a tricky place to play, as many NL West players could tell you. From the elevation to the humidor, there are many factors that come into play once you travel to Denver. However, the Brewers are uniquely situated to combat one of Coors Field’s most difficult attributes.
Coors is known for many things, but the most common is that it is a pitcher’s hell. The Rockies’ past struggles to piece together a starting rotation are well-documented, and much of the blame from the outside seems to be placed on the fact that Denver sits at a high elevation. But that’s not the only thing that drives the offense up in Colorado.
Coors has the largest fair territory in baseball. In 2014, Business Insider estimated Coors’ fair acreage at 2.67 acres, 0.18 more than the MLB average. That represents nearly 8,000 square feet more than the average MLB ballpark. Think of that, an extra 20′-by-400′ area — or 90′-by-90′ if you prefer a square — players have to cover.
Unsurprisingly, the extra area leads to more hits falling into play. Since the earliest FanGraphs BABIP park factors were calculated, Coors has stood out in the results. Of course, more hits falling in means more runs, more relievers out of the pen, and more chaos. Whenever a team goes into Coors, it’s just generally not great for them on the pitching side of things.
The thing is, the Brewers happen to have one of the best defensive outfields in recent memory. By DRS, they are the 7th-best outfield since the metric was introduced in 2003, with 50 runs saved. UZR is a little harsher on the team, placing them 41st — and second in 2018 behind the Royals — with 27.6 runs. The accolades continue. In 2018, the Brewers’ BABIP against on fly balls stood at .096, 8th-best since 2003. While this is of course highly influenced by park, it is still a testament to the ground that the team can cover.
Statcast sheds further light on the individual players on the team. Lorenzo Cain was fourth in the league in Outs Above Average (OAA) and added 5% to catch probability. Keon Broxton put up one of the best small-sample defensive seasons ever, generating nearly a win in value in less than 200 innings in the field. Christian Yelich was good in right, Domingo Santana was serviceable, and Ryan Braun had one of his better recent defensive seasons. Many of these players have excellent speed, with Broxton (29.7 ft/sec, 15th in baseball), Yelich (28.6, 94th), Cain (28.6, 96th), and Santana (28.2, 133rd) all clocking in at over 28 ft/sec.
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Again, all of this is very important going into Denver. Since 2004, teams visiting Colorado have allowed a higher BABIP on fly balls than the Major League average, and this number has only grown in recent years. The Brewers’ impressive range could help them combat this better than many teams could possibly hope.
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The flies in the ointment here are Braun and the recently acquired Curtis Granderson. Neither of them are good defensively, though Braun isn’t actively bad, and both are below-average runners. Their range will be tested with Coors’ large left-center gap, extending back to 390′ from home. Neither player is good going back and to their left, with Braun being worth -3 runs and Granderson worth -1 runs in that direction according to Statcast. Luckily for the Brewers, they have Broxton — who, again, might have put up one of the best defensive rate seasons in history and only let two competitive balls in play drop all year — on the bench as a defensive substitute for either player in late-inning run-prevention situations. Broxton would likely take over center-field duty while Cain — who is the best in baseball at going back and to the left according to Statcast — tames the gap.
All of this may prove not to worry the Brewers. They may take the first two games in Miller Park and ease into a simple series win. Maybe the openers in Game Three will keep the ball on the ground and make the infield do the work. Maybe Josh Hader will just strike everyone out, obviating the need for fielders at all. But when the Brewers do have to deal with Coors Field’s massive dimensions, they have the players and toolkits to put them in an excellent position to succeed.
Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.