Dodgers vs. the 818 Brewers (NLCS Preview)

Screen Shot 2018-10-09 at 12.18.01 PM.pngI’ve been intrigued with the Brewers all season. It is not solely because they have an owner and THREE players from the 818. They are a young team with a gritty manager that has an outstanding bullpen. This club is somewhat reminiscent of the Royals ‘mini-dynasty‘ from earlier this decade, which reached two World Series and took home one ring. Those Royals, led by the oft-maligned Ned Yost, rode the arms of Wade Davis, Ryan Madson (more on him later), Kelvim Herrera, and closer Greg Holland to become a precursor to the 2018 model of ‘bullpenning it’ in order to win ballgames. These Brewers approach the game similarly. 

With a starting pitching staff of Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, and Wade Miley, the Brew Crew wins games from the backend with Jeremy Jeffress, Josh Hader, Corey Knebel, and to a lesser extent Dan Jennings and Corbin Burnes. The Jeffress/Hader duo has been particularly remarkable this season, combining for a 1402 record and 1.85 ERA, with 232 K’s in 158 innings. Knebel is the closer, and after mid-season struggles that prompted a demotion to AAA, he has reclaimed closer duties, though his 3.58 ERA on the year proves that he is indeed fallible. They key, ultimately, is for the Dodgers to jump out to early leads, as they have excelled in that area this season, scoring in the first inning 38% of the time during the 2018 season, second in MLB. Brewers manager Craig Counsell has proven adept at managing a pitching staff, even going with an outright “Bullpen Game” in Game 1 of the National League Division Series vs. the Rockies.  Starting Brandon Woodruff – who only appeared in 19 games during the season, starting four – the Brewers built the proverbial bridge throughout the game, winning the first of what would be an eventual sweep. 

The Dodgers, on the other hand, come in to the series with outstanding starting pitching. Clayton Kershaw, bemoaned throughout the year as he evolved from power pitching left-hander to crafty off-speed southpaw, still compiled a 2.73 ERA. Walker Buehler, despite his second inning jitters in Game 3 of the NLDS, proved his mettle, completing five innings even after the implosion, and is truly an Ace-in-the-making, if not already. Perhaps most impressively for the Blue Crew, Hyun-Jin Ryu extended his amazing 2018 season, taking his regular season 1.97 ERA into the postseason and spinning seven more scoreless vs. the Braves in a surprise game one start. Rich Hill provides a change of pace for virtually any lineup, throwing a higher percentage of curveballs than any pitcher in the major leagues. he also delivers from many angles, which tends to befuddle hitters two times through the lineup. It is on that third time around, however, that Hill struggles, and along with the other starters – the bullpen plays a prominent role for manager Dave Roberts. 

That is where the Dodgers are the most vulnerable. Though Kenley Jansen stands as the inimitable closer, he has been vulnerable at times throughout the season, perhaps a result of his heart issues, or perhaps mechanical – but regardless, his 3.01 ERA is downright unsightly for a pitcher of his magnitude. Roberts tends to use a pastiche of relievers based on matchups, but it looks as if Kenta Maeda has been his ‘eighth inning guy’ in recent weeks. Pedro Baez, the source of much heartache and consternation for Dodgers fans over the last few years, has re-emerged as a reliable power arm, and is the preferred seventh inning pitcher, though he may be saved for matchups against Ryan Braun. Otherwise, Dylan Floro, Scott Alexander, and Ryan Madson will be counted on to get the difficult outs, as well as Ross Stripling, who is expected to be placed on the NLCS roster. Madson could end up being key here – as he was during the Royals run – as he was a late-season addition for the front office, a 38-year old cast aside by his former club, picked up as yet another reclamation project. The Dodgers hopes that he turned into the next Brandon Morrow were quickly dashed during some uninspiring outings in late August and early September, but it appears he has rediscovered his devastating change up, getting two key outs with the bases loaded in the Game 4 clincher vs. the Braves. He is another example of Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi valuing experience and track record to help guide the Dodgers to another World Series appearance.

But to get to the bullpens, both teams need to hit – this is where the Dodgers, in my assessment, have the advantage. Much has been made of their struggles to hit in clutch situations, but their team record 235 home runs has enabled Roberts to stack lineups with the specific purpose of bludgeoning opponents. This team is more Eal Weaver than Whitey Herzog, and Roberts is content to wait around for the longball, because in an offense with eight players that eclipsed 20 home runs in 2018, the odds are that the home run is only a few swings away. Roberts favors platoons, and really uses a “vs. righties” and “vs. lefties” lineup that frustrates fans, but the players have bought in and, in the words of Matt Kemp, “we’re trying to win a championship, and every guy is on the same page, and our own common goal is to win a championship.” That is a testament to the respect that Roberts receives in the clubhouse, and a major reason that the Dodgers are able to function with this much talent in one room. The fact is, Justin Turner is still their best hitter and as a postseason on-base machine – he is third all-time to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in on-base percentage (minimum 100 PA) – and the team will go as he goes, regardless of who is around him. It does appear that Manny Machado is starting to get locked in, and I expect a big series out of him vs. the Brewers. Yasiel Puig’s approach has been notably improved this season, Kiké Hernandez is playing an extremely valuable & versatile part in this run, and look out for more big moments from David Freese, former World Series MVP and another elder, with clutch hits and key experience in his bones.

Now on to the 818 Brewers. Owner Mark Attansio sits on the board of Studio City Harvard-Westlake High School, not to be confused with Westlake High School, the alma mater of 2018 NL MVP-to-be Christian Yelich. Right down the 101, you’ll find Mike Moustakas alma mater Chatsworth High School, a rival of Ryan Braun’s Granada Hills High School. Safe to say that most, if not all, of these folks grew up rooting for the very team they will be trying to defeat in the NLCS. The Brewers’ offense is not nearly as potent as the Dodgers, but with Yelich’s 36 home runs ande 119 RBI backing up Lorenzo Cain’s .395 OBP, with Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw’s 35 and 32 home runs, there is more than enough pop to do some damage to the Dodgers. That said, Dodger pitching coach Rick Honeycutt is a master at game planning, and the Brewers’ lineup has enough holes to provide outs when necessary. Catcher Manny Pina and shortstop Orlando Arcia each hit less than 10 home runs and batted lower than .262. Braun is not the player he once was, but he did launch 20 home runs in 125 games. The Brewers have a little bit of depth with Eric Thames, Schoop, Domingo Santana, Hernan Perez, and recent postseason hero/backup catcher Eric Kratz, so Counsell will have some good matchup options in this chess match. 

It is worth noting that the Dodgers took four out of seven games from the Brewers during the 2018 regular season, and that’s the exact outcome I’m picking here. Dodgers in seven. When the Dodgers score first, or more accurately – when the Dodgers attack the Brewers starting pitching – they will win. If the game gets to the bullpen with the Brewers ahead, it will be tough for the Dodgers to surmount. The key to the series will be the bullpen – if Kenley Jansen holds up, the Dodgers will once again face the Houston Astros in the World Series.

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