- The Brewers have a loaded bullpen and several big bats. It's the starting pitching that is the question.
On Friday night, the Dodgers will send Clayton Kershaw, the greatest pitcher of his generation, to the mound in Milwaukee to open the NLCS. The three-time Cy Young winner and 2014 NL MVP is coming off an eight-inning shutout of the Braves in the Division Series, allowing only three baserunners all night. His stuff has taken a step down from his prime, but he’s still the kind of pitcher most general managers would sacrifice family members for to get on the hill in a playoff game.
To oppose the mighty Kershaw, the Brewers have tabbed a 33-year-old lefthander who throws 89 mph and was acquired in August off waivers. Gio Gonzalez is no longer anyone’s idea of a front-line starter, and while he and Kershaw both share similarities—namely handedness and fastball speed—the comparison stops there. If Kershaw is a classic Mustang, then Gonzalez is a nondescript four-door sedan, puttering along in anonymity.
Yet this is the best the NL Central-winning Brewers can muster in a fight for a pennant, and it only gets uglier from there. Behind Gonzalez in the Brewers’ NLCS rotation is soft-tossing groundball specialist Wade Miley, who will start Game 2, and journeyman righty Jhoulys Chacin, who draws the Game 3 assignment. By contrast, the Dodgers will turn to hard-throwing righty Walker Buehler, a rookie whose fastball sits at 97 mph, and lefty Hyun-jin Ryu, who posted a 1.97 ERA in 82 1/3 innings. On paper, it’s as brutal a mismatch as you can imagine.
But while it’s easy to predict the Brewers’ starters as the fatal flaw that will undermine their World Series dreams, it’s not quite that simple. Chacin and Gonzalez and Miley aren’t the trio you’d take if given the choice, and they will be sorely tested against a Dodgers lineup that can platoon nearly every position to gain the handedness advantage. There’s reason to believe, though, that Milwaukee can squeeze enough out of that group—and perhaps some other extra arms—to make this a closer battle than you’d think.
Start with Chacin, who is the best of the bunch despite getting pushed to Game 3. The righty is coming off one of his better seasons ever, with a 3.50 ERA and 115 ERA+ over 192 2/3 innings. He didn’t get there through either velocity or swing-and-miss stuff, though; as noted, his fastball averaged just 90.1 mph, and his 19.6% strikeout rate was well below the league average of 22.3.
What’s Chacin’s secret? A wipeout slider that hitters can’t touch: Opponents hit just .161 on the pitch on the season, the second-lowest batting average on a slider among all pitchers with 250 or more plate appearances against them. That pitch helped Chacin utterly ruin righthanded hitters, who batted just .171 against him. That was better than, among others, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Blake Snell, and Aaron Nola.
Easy enough to counter, says Dodgers manager Dave Roberts: I’ll just stack my lineup with lefty hitters like Joc Pederson, Max Muncy and Clay Bellinger (plus Yasiel Puig, who was better against righties than lefties this season). But while southpaws did do damage against Chacin—a .781 OPS against compared to .528 for righties—they still struggled with that slider, hitting only .165 against it. Chacin has the tools to get through that lineup regardless of how Roberts builds it. The key will be limiting his exposure: His OPS each time through the order jumps from .577 to .669 to .762 on the third go-round.
Navigating Miley and Gonzalez through that order will be a tougher task. The former was surprisingly excellent for Milwaukee after joining the rotation in mid July, posting a 2.57 ERA in 80 2/3 frames. But his peripherals were ghastly: only 50 strikeouts against 26 walks to go with a 90.8-mph fastball and a below-average swinging-strike rate. And while he authored the most inexplicable shutout of the season in the Division Series by blanking the Rockies for 4 2/3 innings in Game 3 at Coors Field—the baseball equivalent of safely crossing a six-lane highway blindfolded—a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that Colorado had a terrible lineup. Gonzalez was similarly strong after being acquired from the Nationals at the end of August, with a 2.13 ERA over five starts, but his propensity for walks and his general inefficiency make him a bad bet for sustained success.
Still, each has their strong points. Miley’s cutter, which he only started throwing last year and was his go-to pitch this season, was a legitimate weapon this season. Batters hit just .196 against it, and righties managed only a .190 average and .319 slugging percentage. That pitch also induces tons of groundballs, particularly pulled to the left side of the infield, which Milwaukee takes into account: Miley gets the most shifts of any Brewers pitcher against righthanded hitters, at 36.4%.
As for Gonzalez, he’s an even softer tosser at 89.8 mph with his four-seamer, but he handcuffs lefties, holding them to a .597 OPS against this season. But that’s about all he offers: Righthanders hit him well, and he’s awful the second and third time through a lineup. That, though, could work to Milwaukee’s advantage. Starting Gonzalez would result in a Los Angeles lineup full of righty hitters, but if he can get through the order unscathed once, Counsell can start playing matchups with his bullpen going forward, forcing Roberts to choose between emptying his bench early or sticking with suboptimal situations.
In the end, it’s going to be the bullpen that saves the day for the rotation. Not one of Chacin, Gonzalez or Miley will go deep into the night, barring a bad night from the Dodgers’ lineup, and it’s the depth of that relief corps that will help maximize the performance of whichever starters Counsell tabs. In the end, you’re likely to see the Brewers’ manager treat Gonzalez and Miley (and possibly Chacin) more like long relievers than starters: three-to-four inning outings that are carefully managed. It’s essentially what Counsell did in NLDS Game 1, when he eschewed a traditional starter altogether and opened with righty reliever Brandon Woodruff, a converted starter who went three scoreless innings before giving way to the rest of the bullpen. (And Counsell will probably do that again in the NLCS at some point, as he lacks anything approaching a decent fourth starter.)
In essence, that’s the strategy behind the Brewers’ rotation: treat it like a bullpen, going batter to batter and limiting exposure. Counsell knows his best pitchers are the ones who operate in relief, so he’s going to go to them at the first chance he gets. So while Milwaukee’s rotation is nowhere near Los Angeles’ at first glance, that likely won’t matter too much. If they can handle 12–15 outs a night, then the Brewers will thank them for it and hand the ball to the pitchers who will truly decide whether or not a pennant flag will fly over Miller Park next season.