The Dodgers and Brewers open their wild card series on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, a best-of-3 affair between the team with the best record in baseball (43-17) and a team with a losing record (29-31).
The Dodgers are the favorites, naturally. FanGraphs pegs them at a 66.3-percent chance to win the series, so they have roughly a two-in-three chance to win two of three games against the Brewers.
Every game will be at Dodger Stadium, the main advantage the Dodgers get for winning their division. Here are some notes about these two teams heading into their second postseason meeting in three years.
Remember us? We’re MVPs
The last two National League Most Valuable Players both had down years, in eerily similar fashion.
Cody Bellinger hit .239/.333/.455 with 12 home runs, a 114 wRC+.
Christian Yelich hit .205/.356/.430 with 12 home runs, a 112 wRC+.
Yelich was hampered by a 1-for-27 start, while Bellinger was 5-for-36 at the outset, without a home run until August.
Both will be counted on by their teams, and rightfully so. Yelich has batted second or third in every game this season for the Brewers. “I feel like he can be a difference-maker in this series,” manager Craig Counsell said on a conference call Monday.
The Dodgers’ depth shows in that they could easily withstand down years from Bellinger, Max Muncy (.192/.331/.389, 100 wRC+) and Joc Pederson (.190/.285/.397, 88 wRC+) and still led MLB in runs scored and home runs.
Bellinger has batted sixth or lower in 10 of his last 15 games. He’ll try to turn around his dismal postseason record to date, hitting .178/.234/.326 in 36 games, including 4-for-19 (.211) in last year’s NLDS loss.
Catcher if you can
Behind the plate might hold one of the largest advantages for the Dodgers, both offensively and defensively. Will Smith has been the breakout star of the Dodgers lineup this season, hitting .289/.401/.570 with eight home runs, his 163 wRC+ leading all major league catchers with at least 100 plate appearances. Smith is hitting so well, he’ll likely be the designated hitter in Game 2, when Austin Barnes catches Clayton Kershaw.
Barnes had a nice bounce back this year, hitting .244/.353/.314 after just .204/.311/.316 in 2018-19 combined. He also ranks 12th in baseball in catcher framing runs, per Baseball Prospectus. Smith (24th) is also above average, while Omar Narvaez (110th) and Jacob Nottingham (52nd) lag behind.
Brewers catchers hit .191/.296/.346 with eight home runs in 2020, a 76 wRC+. Dodgers catchers hit .258/.371/.454 with nine home runs, a 127 wRC+.
Given how the Dodgers split up the catching workload in the first few weeks of the season, Smith didn’t wear down like he did last September and into October, when he was 1-for-13 in the NLDS, though that narrative might have shifted had his would-be walk-off home run in Game 5 didn’t die at the warning track. Barnes was 2-for-29 in the 2018 postseason, part of a trend of poor hitting from Dodgers catchers in the playoffs.
Dating back to 2016, Dodgers catchers in the postseason hit .148/.268/.272. That has to improve, and with Smith’s improvement there’s reason to believe it will.
“This is as confident we’ve been with the catching situation,” manager Dave Roberts said Saturday. “Behind the plate, in the batters box, getting good at-bats, I think the net is really good. I have confidence in both those guys and on both sides of the baseball.”
Changing things up
Devin Williams has been the best reliever in baseball this season, allowing only one run in 27 innings. His ERA was a minuscule 0.33, and his FIP was even more absurd at 0.86. He throws his changeup over half the time (52.7 percent), a pitch that helped him to an absurd 53 strikeouts in those 27 innings.
Williams set a major league record with a 53-percent strikeout rate (minimum 20 innings).
The changeup is so good it has a ridiculously cool nickname: “Airbender.” Williams explained the devastating pitch to Marc Carig at The Athletic last week:
“I’m maintaining that it’s a changeup,” Williams said this week, noting that his signature offering is thrown with the standard grip of a circle change. But just as quickly as he appeases one camp, he offers a glimmer of hope to the other. “I see it as a backwards slider,” he said. This description, of course, aligns more closely with the description of a pitch that once ruled the world and is now on the brink of extinction, the screwball.
Williams throws his fastball 96.4 mph and his changeup 84.1 mph. Batters against his changeup this season, per Baseball Savant, are just 2-for-62 with two singles and 41 strikeouts.
The Dodgers led the majors with 118 home runs, 15 more than any other team. They allowed 66 home runs, the second-fewest in baseball (behind only Minnesota, with 62), but Brewers pitchers were right behind them, allowing only 67 home runs.
Dodgers vs. Brewers matchup
|Runs scored||5.82 (1st)||4.12 (27th)|
|Home runs||118 (1st)||75 (16th)|
|OPS+||121 (2nd)||88 (24th)|
|wRC+||122 (1st)||89 (25th)|
|Runs allowed||3.55 (2nd)||4.40 (11th)|
|ERA+||141 (1st)||110 (11th)|
|FIP||3.79 (2nd)||3.80 (4th)|
|FIP-||87 (5th)||85 (3rd)|
|K rate||23.8% (12th)||28.1% (3rd)|
|BB rate||6.7% (1st)||8.7% (11th)|
|Run differential||+136 (1st)||-17 (18th)|
Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee’s best healthy starting pitcher, who figures to start Game 2 (the Brewers haven’t yet announced their rotation for the series), allowed nine home runs this season, but only three in his seven road starts.
With the designated hitter for both teams, Woodruff won’t get a chance in this series to replicate his home run against Kershaw in Game 1 of the 2018 NLCS.
The Dodgers hit 64 home runs in 30 games at Dodger Stadium this season, behind only the Yankees (67) in home runs at home. Los Angeles had 11 games this season in which they didn’t homer, and they were 4-7. The Dodgers are 39-10 when they do homer.
The Dodgers have all the confidence in the world in Walker Buehler, who they tabbed to start Game 1. His performance has warranted the hype, but there has to be some concern that he was sidelined by a blister on his right index finger twice in the last five weeks. He started only four games in the last 38 games; three were great, allowing one total run with 23 strikeouts and two walks, and one game disrupted by the blister, in which he allowed two home runs and five runs.
“We’ve figured some things out on how to treat it, and moving forward I hope it won’t be a problem,” Buehler said last Thursday. “The sim games helped. You can control it, and learn how to navigate it.”
On a lesser scale, old friend Brett Anderson is also dealing with blister issues with the Brewers. He left Sunday’s start against St. Louis with a blister, which makes it unlikely he would pitch in this series.
Given the oblique injury to Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee will scramble to fill the non-Woodruff starts, and Anderson would have at least been considered for Game 3. Now that’s up in the air. “If he’s active, we’re taking some risk,” Counsell said Monday.
Game 1 of this wild card series is 7 p.m. PT on Wednesday night.