On Sunday the Milwaukee Brewers clinched the No. 8 seed in the National League playoff bracket. They will be taking on the Dodgers in the newly implemented Wild Card Series beginning Wednesday.
“We’re in. We’re in the playoffs,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said in a postgame interview on Sunday. “We got the eighth spot, so we’re in. And we got a chance. We got a chance to win the World Series still.”
The Dodgers enter the playoffs after winning an MLB-high 43 of their 60 games. The Brewers won 29 games for a winning percentage under .500. Fangraphs.com gives the Dodgers a 65% chance of winning the Wild Card Series and the best chance of winning the World Series.
Dave Roberts summed it up with his postgame comment following Sunday’s game: “We can’t wait for Wednesday.”
Ahead of the Wild Card Series, here is a positional comparison between the Brewers and the Dodgers.
Starting Pitching: Advantage - Dodgers
Though the Dodgers have a much deeper rotation than the Brewers, a short series relies much more heavily on quality over quantity. In fact, having a single elite starting pitcher gives a team a significant advantage toward winning a three-game series since the winner of Game 1 has historically won the series 76% of the time.
Dodgers starting pitcher Walker Buehler will take the mound for Game 1, followed by Clayton Kershaw in Game 2. The if-necessary elimination game starter has not yet been determined.
Though Buehler posted a respectable 3.44 ERA this season, his 4.36 fielding independent pitching stat (FIP) shows that some of his performance may be attributed to good luck. In fact, his .198 batting average allowed on balls in play (BABIP) was fourth lowest among starting pitchers to throw at least 30 innings. BABIP is largely influenced by luck, so this low number is likely not a product of skill alone.
Additionally, Buehler’s fly ball percentage rose to 41.9%, which is significantly higher than his 33.9% career average, while his ground ball percentage dropped to 35.5%, nearly ten percentage points below his career average. Fly balls typically lead to higher offensive performance than ground balls, so this could be of concern, especially since home run rates rise as temperatures rise, and Wednesday is forecast to have a high of 96 degrees in Los Angeles.
Clayton Kershaw presents a formidable opponent for the Brewers in Game 2. In the shortened season, Kershaw posted his best ERA since 2016 to go along with a respectable 3.31 FIP over 58.1 innings. In addition, he boasted a career-high ground ball rate in 2020.
These improvements are likely a result of higher breaking pitch usage and lower fastball usage. Kershaw threw his fastball a career-low 40.8% of the time, and increased his curveball usage to 18.8% and slider usage to 40.2%. Relying more on breaking pitches has helped him keep hitters off-balance, especially since his velocity has declined as he’s aged.
Had it not been for a strained left oblique, the Brewers would likely have tabbed starting pitcher Corbin Burnes for Game 1. In 2020 Burnes emerged as a legitimate Cy Young Award contender, posting the lowest FIP and second-highest strikeout percentage in the NL among pitchers to throw at least 40 innings.
In Burnes' absence the Brewers could turn to starting pitchers Josh Linblom or Adrian Houser, or they could deploy left-handed reliever Brent Suter, who started four games in 2020 but never threw more than four innings in any of his starts. Suter posted the best numbers among the group with a 3.13 ERA and 3.00 FIP, but he hasn’t worked as deep into games as a traditional starter. Lindblom posted a 5.16 ERA and a 3.87 FIP, while Houser posted a 5.40 ERA and a 4.84 FIP.
Starting pitcher Brandon Woodruff will likely start Game 2 for the Brewers, and he could present problems for the Dodgers' offense. In 2020 his strikeout percentage (31.3%) was nearly eight percentage points higher than league average, and his FIP (3.20) was significantly lower than league average (4.45).
Relief Pitching: Advantage - Dodgers
This is close, but the Dodgers have a slight advantage over the Brewers in relief pitching. In 2020, the Dodgers' bullpen was among the best in the MLB in many respects, and they will likely be relied on to play a key role in the Wild Card Series.
In particular, left-handed reliever Jake McGee has enjoyed a resurgent season with the Dodgers. After posting a 4.35 ERA and a 6.00 FIP last season with the Colorado Rockies, McGee posted a 2.66 ERA and a 1.66 FIP this year.
McGee’s FIP ranked fourth overall among relievers to throw at least 20 innings and his 41.8% strikeout percentage ranked fifth. His 97% fastball percentage garnered a swing and miss rate of 34.2%.
The bullpen is anchored by closing pitcher Kenley Jansen, who finished the season with a 3.09 ERA and a 3.10 FIP. However, there may be underlying cause for concern since his ground ball rate declined this season to a career-low 24.1% while his fly ball rate increased to 50.0%. His 4.22 xFIP (expected FIP based on home-runs per fly ball rate) suggests he should likely have given up more home runs than he did, and his high fly ball tendencies support this.
The Brewers boasted a dominant bullpen this season as well. As a group, they ranked first in the MLB in skill-interactive earned run average (SIERA) with a mark of 3.42. This number is on the same scale as ERA and FIP, and it attempts to measure a pitcher’s underlying skill.
The Brewers bullpen has been led primarily by rookie Devin Williams. Williams posted the lowest ERA and FIP among all pitchers who threw at least 20 innings and ranked first in wins above replacement (WAR) among relievers, which shows how much value he provided relative to a theoretical replacement-level player.
Milwaukee’s bullpen is anchored by closing pitcher Josh Hader, who posted a 3.79 ERA and a 4.03 FIP. Though Hader induces many swings and misses and records many strikeouts, when opponents make contact against his pitches, they often do damage. Hader posted the eleventh worst Barrel% among relievers to throw at least 10 innings. This is good news for the Dodgers offense which excels in both discipline and power.
Offense: Advantage - Dodgers
The Dodgers' offense ranked second in runs scored with 344 runs, while the Brewers ranked 25th with 245 runs.
The L.A. offense was fueled by stellar seasons from right fielder Mookie Betts, shortstop Corey Seager, catcher Will Smith and third baseman Justin Turner. The Dodgers' depth allowed them to withstand underperformance from 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger, first baseman Max Muncy and outfielder Joc Pederson.
In particular, Betts, who recently signed a 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers, made notable adjustments in his profile that have enabled him to thrive in his first year with the Dodgers. Betts cut his swinging strike percentage to 13.8%, the lowest total of his career and fourth lowest in the MLB. In addition, he has increased his line drive rate to a career-high 34.8%. These adjustments have made Betts an excellent leadoff hitter in front of a powerful offense.
The depth to withstand underperformance is part of what gives the Dodgers' offense an advantage over the Brewers. The Brewers experienced underperformance from 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich, whose weighted runs created plus (wRC+) fell to a career-low 110. Though this indicates that Yelich remained 10% better than league average in his overall offensive production, it’s a large drop from the 174 mark he posted the year prior.
The Dodgers experienced similar disappointment from Bellinger, whose wRC+ fell by 48 points to 114, but other Dodgers players were able to support the offense in the midst of Bellinger’s underperformance.
The Brewers ranked 25th in wRC+ with a mark of 90, indicating their offense as a whole was 10% worse than league average. Their team strikeout rate of 26.6% was the third highest mark in baseball, and they posted the fifth highest swinging strike percentage in baseball with a mark of 12.4%. Since swinging strikes are highly correlated with expected strikeout rate, this shows that the Brewers' high strikeout rate was not a result of bad luck.
Game 1 is set for Wednesday at 7 p.m. PT on ESPN.