The Brewers and Dodgers, Team Entropy’s darlings, both had to win Game 163 tiebreaker games to claim their respective division titles. They then dispatched their NL Division Series opponents with relative ease this past week, with the former sweeping the Rockies and the latter taking three out of four from the Braves. Now they’ll meet in the NLCS, which opens tonight at Miller Park. The Brewers, NL Central champions, earned home-field advantage by virtue of their 96 wins, whereas the Dodgers, the NL West champs, won a comparatively modest 92 games.
Besides being very good baseball teams that nonetheless had to work overtime to avoid going the Wild Card route, the Brewers and Dodgers have some commonalities. They’re analytically-driven clubs whose managers, Craig Counsell and Dave Roberts, work well with their front offices in ways that show outside-the-box thinking, the former most notably with regards to bullpen usage and the latter with regards to the lack of a set lineup and a lot of in-game position switching. Both teams were among the NL’s best at run-prevention, with the Dodgers allowing a league-low 3.74 runs per game and the Brewers ranking fourth with 4.04. Nor was that just a function of ballpark or other environmental factors. The pair also ranked first and fourth in ERA- (88 and 91, respectively), and first and fifth in FIP- (90 and 97, respectively).
What’s more, both teams have power galore and have been quite reliant on the home run. The Dodgers and Brewers ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the NL in homers (235 to 218); the latter had the NL’s top “Guillen Number,” the percentage of runs scored via homers (46.5%) while the former was fourth in the league. The Brewers outhomered the Rockies 4-2 in their series, with five of Milwaukee’s 13 runs (“only” 36.8%) coming via the homer; the Dodgers outhomered the Braves 8-2, with 14 of their 20 runs (70%) scoring via dingers.
For all that similarity, the two teams differ in significant ways. What follows here is an exploration of a few of their more notable contrasts, some of which constitute distinct advantages and others of which are more stylistic — which is to say, they may not be factors in determining the outcome, but they’re notable nonetheless.
Experience and Payroll
Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, the Dodgers ranked third in the majors in Opening Day payroll ($186.2 million, according to Cot’s Contracts), while the Brewers ranked 26th ($90.9 million). But that didn’t prevent Milwaukee from signing Lorenzo Cain to the fourth-largest free-agent deal of the winter ($80 million for four years) or making more in guaranteed free-agent commitments this past winter than all but five other teams ($105 million, with Jhoulys Chacin the most notable other signing, and Matt Albers, Yovani Gallardo, and Boone Logan serving as reminders that some of their deals went south). The Dodgers committed just $4 million to free agents ($2 million apiece to Tom Koehler and Chase Utley), less than all but three teams, in an attempt to get under the $197 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold and reset their marginal tax rate.
And yes, the Dodgers are certainly familiar with this situation, having been to the NLCS in three straight seasons, with six straight NL West championships, the longest streaks besides those of the Braves (11, from 1995-2005) and Yankees (nine, from 1998-2006). The Brewers haven’t been to the playoffs since 2011, but it’s not as though several key players — Cain, Ryan Braun, Gio Gonzalez, Curtis Granderson, Jeremy Jeffress, and Mike Moustakas — haven’t been through this before. Nor did the likes of Chacin, Josh Hader, or Christian Yelich struggle in their first postseason exposure. All four of Milwaukee’s NLDS homers and 22 of their 28 innings — all scoreless innings, at that — came from players who had never been to the postseason before.
Starters vs. Bullpen
This is one of the most glaring contrasts between the two teams. Even with Clayton Kershaw in something less than peak form this year, the Dodgers ranked second in the league in starter WAR (17.4) to the Brewers’ 10th (9.4), with similarly sizable advantages in ERA- (83, first in the league, vs. 96, tied for seventh) and FIP- (85, first in the league, vs. 105, 10th). Kershaw and Walker Buehler both ranked among the NL’s top 15 in WAR (12th at 3.5 and 14th at 3.4 WAR, respectively) despite having too few innings to qualify for the ERA title. Chacin ranked 20th at 2.6 WAR, basically even with Dodgers’ third-most valuable starter, Alex Wood, who’s been consigned to the bullpen for the postseason. Seven Dodgers starters finished with at least 1.8 WAR (Kenta Maeda at 2.2, Hyun-Jin Ryu at 2.0, Rich Hill at 1.9, and Ross Stripling at 1.8), while the second-ranked Brewer, Wade Miley, had just 1.5 WAR, and the third-ranked Junior Guerra, had just 1.4. (Gonzalez, an August 31 acquisition from the Nationals, finished at 2.0 overall.)
Like Wood, Maeda and Stripling are in the bullpen this October, with Hill and Ryu joining Buehler and Kershaw in the rotation. The Brewers used Chacin and Miley in the Division Series after choosing to open with Brandon Woodruff, who made just four starts in 19 appearances in the regular season, in Game One — and they may well employ this tactic at some point again. (Gonzalez has been named the NLCS Game 1 starter.) I’m quite fond of Jeff Sullivan’s attempt to pare down to the playoff teams’ expected rosters and rotations to get a better read on the relative strengths of the squads. By his reckoning, the contrast between the two teams’ playoff rotations is rather remarkable:
In light of that, it’s not tremendously surprising to find that the Dodgers got the most innings out of their starters in the Division Series (24.1, an average of 6.08 per turn) and the Brewers the least (12.2, an average of 4.22 per turn). Both were quite effective, with the Dodgers’ quartet delivering a 2.59 ERA and 2.99 FIP, and the Brewers a 0.00 ERA and 2.73 FIP.
The flip side of the rotations, of course, is the bullpens. Led by Hader, who posted a 2.43 ERA and 2.23 FIP in 81.1 innings while leading the league’s relievers with 2.7 WAR, the Brewers ranked second in bullpen innings (614), WAR (7.1), WPA (8.06), ERA- (85), FIP- (86), and K-BB% (18.1%). They were first in strikeout (27.6%). The Dodgers were only in the same ballpark as the Brewers by strikeout rate (25.7%) and K-BB% (17.5%), in both of which categories they ranked third. They were fifth in ERA- (97), sixth in innings (581.1), and eighth in WAR (3.1), FIP- (97), and WPA (2.81). Kenley Jansen, their three-time All-Star closer, did not have a very good year; his FIP was three times higher than his 2017 mark (from 1.31 to 4.03), and his WAR fell from 3.6 to 0.4. Between August 20, when he returned from a stint on the DL, to the end of the season, he served up seven homers and allowed 12 runs in 17.1 innings. Some of it may have been due to the extra stress of pitching 18.2 postseason innings last year, and some of it may be attributable to struggles with the medication he is taking in the wake of an irregular heartbeat, an issue with which he is dealing for the third time in his career and which, for the second time, will require offseason surgery.
Beyond performance, there’s also the bullpens’ respective structures. It’s here Counsell has deviated from orthodoxy by getting his players to move beyond the typical setup/closer labels in favor of “go in and get outs.” Hader wasn’t even the Brewers’ regular closer; during the season, his 12 saves ranked third on the team behind the marks produced by Corey Knebel (16) and Jeremy Jeffress (15). Knebel, an All-Star last year, missed time with a hamstring injury, lost his job, and was even optioned to Triple-A late in the year. Hader has worked in a pattern reminiscent of Andrew Miller during the 2016 postseason. Of his 55 appearances, he entered in the eighth inning or earlier 50 times and got more than three outs an MLB-high 33 times. Jeffress entered in the eighth inning or earlier in 52 of his 73 appearances, and got four or more outs 18 times. Seven of Hader’s saves, five of Jeffress’s, and even two of Knebel’s were of four outs or more, and four other Brewers relievers each notched one multi-inning save for an MLB-high 18.
Jansen had five long saves and 38 total (second in the league), but he wasn’t his usual dominant self. Beyond that, after losing righty Brandon Morrow and lefty Tony Watson to free agency (due in part to payroll concerns), Roberts struggled to build a bridge from his starters to the ninth inning out of holdovers like Pedro Baez, Josh Fields and Yimi Garcia, and bargain-basement pickups such as Scott Alexander, J.T. Chargois, Erik Goeddel, and Daniel Hudson. Out of desperation as much as depth, the team moved Maeda, Stripling, and Wood to the bullpen, where they mostly helped, as did midseason arrivals Caleb Ferguson (a call-up) and Dylan Floro (a pick-up from the Reds). August 31 acquisition Ryan Madson, who didn’t help much during the regular season, came up huge in Game Four of the Division Series by wriggling out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fifth inning of a game the Dodgers trailed by a run.
Again from Sullivan, here’s the comparison between the two teams’ postseason bullpens:
Performance-wise, the Brewers’ bullpen threw 15.1 innings (54.8% of their total innings) in the Division Series, allowing just two runs while posting a 22:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Dodgers’ bullpen threw 10.2 innings (30.5% of their total) in their series, allowing just one run with an 11:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
The Brewers ranked second in the league in defensive efficiency — the rate at which they converted batted balls into outs — at .704, while the Dodgers finished in a virtual tie for fifth at .698. By Baseball Prospectus’ Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, they ranked first and third in the league, with the former 1.93% above average in converting balls in play into outs, and the latter 1.4% above.
By those two metrics, there doesn’t appear to be a tremendous amount of separation between the two teams, but both DRS and UZR give a clear edge to the Brewers’ defense. Milwaukee’s 89 DRS ranked second in the NL, well behind the Diamondbacks (116) but 58 runs better than the seventh-ranked Dodgers. The spread between them was less in UZR, but there the Brewers ranked second (24.9) and the Dodgers 12th (-17.6). By Sullivan’s estimate, there’s a 27-run gap as far as the expected lineups and rosters go (Brewers 13, Dodgers -14).
That said, the Brewers traded some defense for offense in late July when they landed third baseman Mike Moustakas, shifted Travis Shaw to second base — a position he’d never played before — and sent Jonathan Villar, their regular second baseman, to the Orioles for Jonathan Schoop, the last of whom forgot how to hit (50 wRC+ post-trade) and was consigned to a reserve role. Shaw was above average at the hot corner (9 DRS, 2.2 UZR in 868 innings) and didn’t do too much damage at the keystone (-1 DRS, -1.5 UZR in 268 innings), albeit in a small sample. Late in the year, Counsell often moved him to first base in place of Jesus Aguilar (who rates surprisingly well at 6 DRS and 0.8 UZR), with Hernan Perez taking over second. Including his work with the Royals, Moustakas was a hair above average (2 DRS, 1.0 UZR), in line with his career norms.
One thing that’s also worth noting: the Brewers shift more often than the Dodgers and appear to be better at it. Their 1,462 shifts ranked fifth in the majors in terms purely of frequency, and they held hitters to a .281 wOBA under such circumstances (eighth). The Dodgers were 14th in total shifts (1,182, about two fewer per game), with a .288 wOBA (12th).
Where the Brewers really shine is in the outfield, where Cain can Go Get It (an MLB-high 20 DRS, and fourth-ranked 8.7 UZR). As Sports Info Solutions’ Mark Simon noted, he’s the best in the game at converting balls hit to the deepest part of the ballpark into outs. Yelich has stronger numbers in right field (where he started all three NLDS games as well as 68 in the regular season) than in left (where he started 63 times but played slightly more innings). Per Simon, his combined numbers on deep balls ranked second only to Arizona’s David Peralta. Braun, though never known for his glove, was a few runs above average in left via both metrics.
The Dodgers love them some versatility and platooning, but the variety of configurations yields a lot of small sample sizes, few of which stand out. Most notable is that, after dreadful numbers with his return to shortstop in Baltimore (-18 DRS, -7.2 UZR), Manny Machado fared much better according to the advanced stats in LA (6 DRS, 0.8 UZR in 424 innings). Enrique Hernandez had better numbers at second than Brian Dozier, while Cody Bellinger is a better first baseman than Max Muncy — and has surprisingly strong numbers in center field, where he started all four NLDS games. A lot of the moving parts in the lineup have to do with juggling the outfielders for lefty/righty or offense/defense purposes; the Joc Pederson-Bellinger-Yasiel Puig outfield configuration is their best defensively, Chris Taylor is solid wherever Roberts puts him, and Matt Kemp is still a liability.
One area where the Dodgers do have some advantage is behind the plate. According to Baseball Prospectus’ catcher metrics, Grandal led the majors in Framing Runs (15.7) and was second overall in Fielding Runs Above Average (17.7). That said, Erik Kratz was actually better on a rate basis, with 9.9 Framing Runs and 10.4 FRAA while playing only 52% as many innings. Backups Austin Barnes and Manny Pina were both above average by these metrics, as well, with the latter more likely to see a start in the series; lately, he’s been paired with Gonzalez.
While the Dodgers and Brewers have power in common, the two teams do differ markedly elsewhere in their offense — particularly when it comes to plate discipline. The Dodgers’ 27.2% rate of swinging at balls outside the strike zone was the NL’s lowest mark by 1.7 percentage points, and their 43.5% overall swing rate was the lowest by 1.8 points. The Brewers were much more free-swinging by comparison, with a 32.1% rate of going outside the zone (the league’s third-highest) and a 46.5% overall swing rate (eighth). Overall, the Dodgers walked in an NL-high 10.2% of their plate appearances, while the Brewers were eighth at 8.6%, while striking out more often (23.5% vs. 22.2%). Given that Dodgers pitchers were the league’s best at getting opponents to chase outside the zone (32.7%) while the Brewers were mid-pack (30.0%), this could be an advantage the Dodgers exploit.
A big difference in the two lineups’ potency comes from the fact that the Dodgers’ depth and versatility yields the platoon advantage more often (57.3%, fifth in the league, versus the Brewers’ (48.6%, 13th). While the teams were similarly productive versus lefties (101 wRC+ for the Dodgers, 98 for the Brewers), Los Angeles was much more productive against righties (117 wRC+) than Milwaukee (100). Between Max Muncy (169 wRC+ for the split, second in the majors), Pederson (139), Bellinger (137), and the switch-hitting Grandal (122), the Dodgers have four lefties who destroyed righties, with Muncy quite potent against lefties as well (141), Bellinger subpar (88) and Pederson rarely exposed. On the Brewers’ side, Yelich ranked third in the league against lefties (168) and Shaw was strong (134) but Moustakas was only a bit above average (111 overall), and both he and Shaw suffered against southpaws (92 and 66, respectively).
Given the above factors, Sullivan’s numbers give the Dodgers’ lineup a clear advantage over the Brewers’:
I strongly suspect that Counsell’s facility with his bullpen will help to neutralize at least some of this apparent advantage, because the Brewers’ plethora of lefties (Gonzalez, Hader, Miley, Dan Jennings, and probably Xavier Cedeno) could bait Roberts into midgame changes that could be suboptimal by the end. How will the Dodgers react if the Brewers start Miley or Gonzalez but go short with them, switching to righties for the middle innings and coming back with Hader late?
If Milwaukee can execute at the top of its game, they’ll be NL champions; if not, however, the Dodgers’ depth will win out. It’s going to be a fascinating series to watch.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.