- The Rockies surprised most pundits by knocking off the Cubs in the NL Wild Card Game. Will they stay hot against the Brewers?
The National League’s two hottest second-half teams will face off to see which will play for a pennant. By virtue of eliminating the Cubs in a tense 13-inning Wild-Card Game at Wrigley Field on Tuesday night, the upstart Rockies will battle the Brewers, who edged Chicago for the NL Central title on Monday in a Game 163. But which squad has the advantage in this Division Series clash?
How They Got Here
Both Colorado and Milwaukee surged into playoff spots by catching fire down the stretch: The former went 19–9 in September, the latter 19–7. Each also had a chance to win its respective division in a tie-breaking Game 163, but only the Brewers pulled off the feat by topping the Cubs. The Rockies fell to the Dodgers, leaving them in the NL Wild Card Game and with a hellacious travel schedule: Since Sunday, they’ve gone from Denver to Los Angeles to Chicago and now to Milwaukee, with NLDS Game 1 representing their fourth in the last five days.
It’s weird to think of the Rockies having a better rotation, but that’s the case here, where Colorado has the top two starters on either side in lefty Kyle Freeland and righty German Marquez. The former was brilliant in the wild-card game, blanking the Cubs over 6 2/3 innings on three days’ rest, to continue a season in which he’s been Cy Young caliber. The latter struggled against the Dodgers in Game 163, giving up four runs—two earned—in 4 2/3 innings, though he did strike out nine. More importantly, Marquez was dominant in the second half, with a 2.61 ERA and 124 punchouts in 93 frames of work.
Unfortunately for Colorado, neither Freeland nor Marquez will be on the mound for either Game 1 or 2 (and won’t pitch at all if Milwaukee sweeps). Instead, the Rockies will turn to righty Antonio Senzatela and lefty Tyler Anderson to start the series. Neither is a comforting choice. Senzatela’s strikeout numbers are poor (a 17.7% rate) but he gets tons of groundballs, adding up to a 4.38 ERA in 90 1/3 regular-season innings. Anderson, meanwhile, posted a 4.55 ERA in 176 innings and is a league-average pitcher by peripherals. They’re both back-of-the-rotation starters, but that’s what the Rockies have to work with unless they bring Marquez back on short rest for Game 2.
Milwaukee’s starters, meanwhile, are an uninspiring bunch. The best is veteran righty Jhoulys Chacin, who held the Cubs to one run over five innings in Game 163. Manager Craig Counsell also has lefties Gio Gonzalez and Wade Miley at his disposal. Gonzalez has plenty of postseason experience from his time with the Nationals, and after being acquired by Milwaukee on Aug. 31, he put up a 2.13 ERA in 25 1/3 frames with 22 strikeouts. His perpetual problem, though, is command: In those 25 1/3 innings, he walked 10 batters. As for Miley, he survives on guile and groundballs and is no one’s idea of an ace or anything close to it.
For Game 1, though, Counsell is going to let it ride entirely with his bullpen, with an opener yet to be determined. That’s the same strategy the Athletics followed for the AL Wild-Card Game, and with Milwaukee’s particular contingent of excellent relievers, it’s a gambit that makes sense. More on that bullpen and its composition coming in a little bit.
Slight Edge: Rockies
Milwaukee’s starting nine is a minefield for pitchers. Between Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Ryan Braun, Jesus Aguilar, Travis Shaw, Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop, the Brewers have several hitters who can hurt you with a single swing. Yelich is the engine here: The NL MVP favorite went supernova in the second half, hitting .367/.449/.770 with 25 home runs. Cain was a terrific presence atop the lineup, posting a .395 on-base percentage. Aguilar broke out with 35 homers, while Shaw cracked 32. Neither Moustakas (a 104 OPS+ after coming over from Kansas City) nor Schoop (a meager 53 OPS+ after being acquired from the Orioles) hit well down the stretch, but both have prodigious power if nothing else.
The Brewers’ lineup is just plain deeper than Colorado’s, too. Few teams have a trio as strong as the Rockies’ combo of Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon, but things fall off after that. David Dahl was scorching in September, but otherwise, Colorado is counting on turn-back-the-clock performances from declining veterans like Ian Desmond, Carlos Gonzalez and Gerardo Parra. You got a taste of how shaky a strategy that was against the Cubs, when the Rockies scratched together only two runs over 13 innings.
One thing that should help both sides offensively is that Miller Park and Coors Field are both hitters’ paradises, with the latter a potential stage for a run-scoring bonanza in Game 3. Also worth noting is that Colorado’s bench is short on righthanded hitters, which should help Gonzalez and Miley and will be important for Counsell in playing matchups in the late innings.
Here’s where Milwaukee really shines. The Brewers’ bullpen ranked in the top six in the majors in ERA (3.47), strikeout rate (27.6%), swinging-strike rate (13.1%) and FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (7.1) and was sixth in strand rate (76.5%) and seventh in average fastball velocity (93.9). Led by lefty strikeout king Josh Hader (a staggering 143 in 81 1/3 innings, or 15.8 per nine) and a pair of closers in Corey Knebel (88 punchouts in 55 1/3 frames) and Jeremy Jeffress (89 in 76 2/3), this relief corps is hard to touch.
Counsell will use them heavily as well, with Hader likely to get six to eight outs in an Andrew Miller-type role. Behind him, Counsell will have Knebel, Jeffress, southpaw Dan Jennings (against whom lefties had a .570 OPS this season), veteran righty Joakim Soria, and multi-inning weapon Corbin Burnes, among others. It’s a Swiss Army knife of a bullpen, with a tool for every job.
Rockies manager Bud Black has no such luck. His bullpen careened through an up-and-down season, emerging in October battered and shallow. Righty Adam Ottavino is Black’s go-to option in the late innings, and closer Wade Davis is a postseason-tested veteran. But the latter had a 4.13 ERA in 65 1/3 innings and was terrible in last year’s playoffs for the Cubs, though he shone in the wild-card game against Chicago on Tuesday, throwing 1 1/3 scoreless frames.
Beyond those two, Black has Korean righty Seunghwan Oh, who was solid after coming over midseason from Toronto, and Scott Oberg, a groundball-machine who closed out the wild-card win. What will likely worry him is that he lacks a shutdown lefty to counter Yelich, Shaw and Moustakas: Chris Rusin is his top choice there, but the 31-year-old southpaw is coming off a brutal 2018 (a 6.09 ERA and 26 walks in 54 2/3 innings).
Big Edge: Brewers
This will be Counsell’s first trip to the postseason in three-plus years at Milwaukee’s helm. The former Brewer has proven adept at managing his bullpen—arguably a manager’s most important task in this postseason era—and routinely deploys his bench to good results: The Brewers’ 10 pinch-hit homers ranked first in the majors this season. Milwaukee doesn’t bunt often, eschewing small-ball for power.
For Black, this is his second straight year taking the Rockies to the playoffs, though he and Colorado fell short in the wild-card game last season. An 11-year veteran, Black is as old school as it gets: His team was tied for third in baseball in sacrifice attempts this year, his relievers were rarely asked to get more than three outs at a time, and his starters frequently faced a lineup a third time.
X-Factor: Milwaukee’s bullpen
Making up for a thin rotation, the Brewers’ relief corps is going to be the deciding factor in this series. They’ll be tasked with getting tons of outs—only A’s relievers pitched more innings this year among playoff teams than Milwaukee’s group—in every game. If they can do that, this will probably be a quick series. But a drop in effectiveness opens the door to a Rockies upset.
Milwaukee’s bullpen gives it a huge edge, and its lineup features both the best hitter of the series and more tough outs. Without Freeland and Marquez early, Colorado is at a big disadvantage on the road and will be hard-pressed to make up for that.
Brewers in 4