Playoff baseball is finally here! Led by the hot bats of Soler, Riley, and Freddie, and the hot hands of Fried, Morton, and Anderson, the Braves have set off for Milwaukee to take on the Brew Crew for the first two-game stand of their NLDS. Just two months after the Braves’ playoff odds were in the tank, here we are; not in a Wild Card slot, but champions of the entire NL East! However, Milwaukee should not be underestimated under any circumstances. After clinching the NL Central on September 26th and punting the last 7 games of the season, the Brewers still managed to finish 28 games above .500. This is one of the sharpest Braves teams we’ve seen in years, and we still only finished 15 games above the break-even point.
What I find most interesting about the Brewers is that they don’t seem to have too many big-name stars, with the exceptions of Christian Yelich and perhaps Kolten Wong. Compared to the volume of Tatis, Guerrero, and Ohtani highlights that inundated everyone’s social media feeds this year, you probably didn’t see a whole lot of flashy Brewers clips; instead, the Milwaukee roster consists of humble, hard-working professionals who show up and get the job done. While their individual batting numbers aren’t overwhelmingly impressive, a combination of day-to-day consistency, solid hitting throughout the order, and a phenomenal pitching staff makes them a very dangerous team. Milwaukee’s leader in home runs and RBI is right fielder Avisail Garcia, with 29 HR (tied for 44th in the MLB) and 86 RBI (tied for 47th). The Brewers have only one active starting fielder with a slugging percentage above .500, and that’s shortstop Willy Adames. The Braves, on the other hand, have five (Rosario, Riley, Duvall, Soler, Freeman). Milwaukee’s infield is rounded out with veteran Eduardo Escobar at third, star second baseman Kolten Wong, Rowdy Tellez at first, and Omar Narvaez at catcher. Rounding out the Brewers’ defense is Christian Yelich in left field, a three-man platoon in center which most prominently features Jackie Bradley Jr., and Garcia in right. Bradley Jr. represents the weakest link offensively, slashing only .163/.236/.261 through 134 games.
Milwaukee’s offense can content itself with consistently mediocre batting averages, because their pitching staff has been superb all season with a team ERA of 3.48. Only the Dodgers and the Giants had better team ERAs during the regular season, and both of those teams had over 105 wins! Corbin Burnes, who boasts a 2.43 ERA through 167 innings pitched, leads off the Milwaukee rotation this series, and will likely be followed by Brandon Woodruff then Freddie Peralta. The Brewers’ relief unit provides no relief to opposing hitters, with Hunter Strickland, Brad Boxberger, and Brent Suter shutting things down in late innings. However, Milwaukee is missing their second-best reliever, Devin Williams, because he punched a dugout wall in celebration and broke his pitching hand (sound familiar?). Closer Josh Hader has been absolutely phenomenal this season, allowing only 8 earned runs in 58⅔ innings pitched. Will Smith, who has somehow become the Braves’ best closer this year, has allowed 26 earned runs in about 10 more innings. Burnes, Woodruff, Peralta, Strickland, and Hader all have a WHIP (average walks and hits allowed per inning pitched) below 1.0. This means that, on average, those pitchers allow less than one baserunner per inning. For context, Jesse Chavez is the only pitcher on the Braves’ current 40-man roster with a WHIP of less than 1.
Much like the Braves, the tight-knit Brewers are a dangerous group to face in the playoffs, because they don’t back down from adversity; they embrace it and let it unify them. We all witnessed the Padres’ implosion when it became apparent that they were not destined for a Wild Card spot, and the ensuing shouting match between Machado and Tatis. (I don’t fault the passion, but letting the egos destroy team morale is not cool.) That type of demoralizing implosion is not going to happen with the Brewers, and we can’t rely on early-game leads to break their spirits. Atlanta will have to fight through every inning of this series, because the Beermakers thrive in close games.
The Braves’ first three scheduled starters for the series are Morton, Fried, then Anderson. Throughout the season, that trio had a combined 3.34 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP. In the Braves and Brewers’ 6 matchups so far this year, Milwaukee has faced both Morton and Anderson once apiece, but not Fried. Charlie and Ian both went 6 innings, with Morton allowing 2 earned runs in a game we somehow lost 2-1, and Anderson only allowing 1 in a 5-1 victory. So, with a very small sample size, both Anderson and Morton have dominated the Brewers this year, and Fried will, of course, do what Fried does best.
Here’s a brief team stats comparison, showing how the two stack up and where they rank in the MLB in a few interesting categories. The only real conclusion I can draw from this is that this series is a complete toss-up. Braves are better hitters, Brewers are better pitchers; seems like a recipe for a fascinating set of games!
|Team batting average||0.244 (#12)||0.233 (#27)|
|Team ERA||3.88 (#8)||3.48 (#3)|
|Average runs scored per game||4.91 (#8)||4.56 (#12)|
|Run differential||+134 (#7)||+115 (#8)|
Keys to the Series
1. Score early, score often.
All season long, the Braves have relied on early runs to win games. Against the Brewers, early runs are a must-have, because you do not want to face Josh Hader in a losing situation. Hader has allowed 8, albeit in 10⅓ fewer innings. With rest days built into the NLDS schedule, we can count on the Brewers using Hader as often as needed.
2. Be aggressive on the basepaths.
As previously discussed, the Brewers’ pitching staff does not let many runners get on base. As such, we need to leverage every opportunity to advance runners into scoring position. When guys like Dansby, Ozzie, or Duvall get on first, we need to be thinking “steal.” Additionally, Brewers’ catcher Omar Narvaez has allowed 62 stolen bases and only caught 17 runners, a caught-stealing percentage of .215. I would—almost literally—send Ozzie against every right-handed pitcher.
3. Let starting pitchers go the distance.
Morton and Anderson have proved they can dominate the Brewers this year, and Fried is, of course, a genius. Don’t be afraid to let these guys go 6-7 innings before turning things over to the oft-shaky bullpen.
4. Win Game 1.
While I mentioned earlier that Milwaukee is always in danger of making a comeback within a game, a comeback within a series is a totally different matter. The Brewers are 62-33 following a win, and 32-34 following a loss. Atlanta, on the other hand, is 46-41 after a win and 42-30 after a loss. This implies that the Braves aren’t affected at all by positive or negative momentum within a series, but the Brewers are hugely impacted by positive momentum stemming from a win. It is critical for the Braves to take this first game on the road.
Summary / Prediction
I’m feeling pretty good about this one, to the point where I’ve already started the document for the NLCS Series Preview. My optimistic prediction is that the Braves win games one and two, with Morton and Fried on the bump, and can take the series in four or five. However, I’m really hoping for a Braves’ sweep for two reasons: 1) I’ll be at Truist for Game 3 (foregoing my typical ballpark Miller Lite in solidarity), and 2) it’s only been a week since we clinched the division and I’m already sick and tired of trying to spell the word “Milwaukee.” Let’s hope that, just like the word “Milwaukee,” the Brewers find themselves in possession of an unexpected “L” this weekend!