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5 things to watch for in the NLCS

A viewer’s guide to the Dodgers & Brewers series.

Divisional Round - Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Two
Clayton Kershaw pitches in the NLDS
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and Brewers starts tonight and really the two teams couldn’t be more different. The Dodgers are a large market team with one of the highest payrolls in the league. They will be playing in their third consecutive NLCS, and were one game away from winning the World Series in 2018. The Brewers are a small market team with one of the lowest payrolls in the league. They haven’t played in the postseason since 2011. The Dodgers have appeared in the last six MLB postseasons. The Brewers have appeared in five total MLB postseasons since the team was founded in 1969.

The Dodgers are a team in the middle of a championship run that hasn’t been able to close the door on the World Series. They are battle tested and under a ton of pressure. They acquired Manny Machado and Brian Dozier to bolster their infield after losing Corey Seager for the season, but the core of their team is the same team that played the Cubs in 2016 and 2017 in the NLCS.

The Brewers are a team at the start of what they hope is a series of championship teams who finally pushed themselves ahead of the Cubs in the NL Central after a down to the wire regular season that took a game 163 and the acquisitions of: Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Jonathan Schoop, Curtis Granderson, Joakim Soria, and Gio Gonzalez.

This has the makings of a tremendous series, so here are five things I’ll be looking for during the NLCS.

The Dodgers starters

One of the Dodgers’ greatest strengths is their starting pitching. Their starters have the lowest ERA in the National League at 3.19 and batters are hitting just .227 off of them. They did all of this despite a relatively weaker season from Clayton Kershaw. Let me be really clear, “relatively weaker” Clayton Kershaw is still an outstanding pitcher. In 2018 he threw 161⅓ innings. His ERA was 2.73 and his FIP was 3.19. Opponents are batting .225 off of Kershaw in 2018.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the Dodgers rotation is how many people have stepped up to have strong seasons while Kershaw battled injuries. Hyun-Jin Ryu, Walker Buehler and Rich Hill round out their rotation and all four have been excellent in 2018. Buehler started game one in Atlanta and only Rich Hill has an ERA over 2.00 (3.69) for 2018. If any of their starters has a rough outing they should have Alex Wood, Ross Stripling and Kenta Maeda available out of the pen for long relief.

The Brewers bullpen

The Brewers’ pitching strength is in their bullpen. Once they’ve gotten about five innings out of their starters they can turn their pen over to a combination of Josh Hader, Corey Knebel, and Jeremy Jeffress, who have been quite effective out of the pen this year for Milwaukee.

The Ringer had a good write-up of the Brewers bullpen that you should definitely check out, but the bottom line is really visible in this chart that they compiled:

Brewers platoon splits
The Ringer

The Brewers’ bullpen arms are just stifling bats. The Brewers will need their relievers to continue dominating against a much deeper Dodgers lineup if they are going to make it to the World Series. It will be interesting to see if their bullpen arms can hold out, particularly considering the workload some of these arms have already acquired over the season.

Christian Yelich

There was a time a couple of months ago where I was sure that Javier Baez was going to win the MVP, and then Yelich basically exploded. I’ve really never seen anything like it. How good has Christian Yelich been for the Brewers recently?

The last time the Brewers lost a baseball game was September 22 (more on that in a second). During that 11 game winning streak Christian Yelich’s wRC+ is 345. That is not a typo. Yelich is currently 245 percent better than the MLB average hitter at generating runs for the Brewers. His slash line during this 11-game period made me do a triple take. He’s slashing .458/.649/1.208. Yes, you read that right. Yelich is getting on base almost two-thirds of the time in that stretch. Most people would be happy with that SLG as their OPS.

Streaks like this always come to an end, and I’ll be watching to see how long Christian Yelich is the hottest hitter in baseball. If the Dodgers pitch to him and he continues to perform at that level, he’s likely going to do a lot of damage in the NLCS.

The Dodgers offense

While no single hitter on the Dodgers is having anywhere near the 11 game stretch Yelich is having, quite a few of them are having stretches that would have made me do a double take all on their own. The table below shows the top ten Brewers and Dodgers by wRC+ since September 22:

Dodgers and Brewers top 10 hitters by wRC+

Player Team PA Avg OBP SLG wRC+
Player Team PA Avg OBP SLG wRC+
Christian Yelich MIL 37 .458 .649 1.208 345
Matt Kemp LAD 16 .500 .500 .875 278
David Freese LAD 16 .500 .563 .786 268
Ryan Braun MIL 29 .346 .414 1.000 264
Enrique Hernandez LAD 30 .500 .500 .692 238
Max Muncy LAD 26 .417 .462 .792 238
Yasmani Grandal LAD 27 .375 .444 .583 181
Curtis Granderson MIL 10 .375 .500 .500 177
Orlando Arcia MIL 27 .423 .444 .538 168
Cody Bellinger LAD 25 .318 .400 .591 155
Top hitters offensive stats since September 22 Fangraphs

Admittedly some of these sample sizes are pretty small, but the postseason is a small sample size in and of itself. Historically success in the postseason is all about getting hot at the right time, and the Dodgers have a lot of players who are riding some really hot streaks right now. They currently have four players with a wRC+ over 200, and that is pretty impressive. Whereas the Brewers have some concentrated force with Yelich and Braun, the Dodgers have more players riding slightly less hot streaks.

The streaks

Speaking of streaks, both teams come in scorching hot. The Brewers are riding an 11-game winning streak and the Dodgers are 9-2 over their last 11 games. Both teams won Game 163 against divisional rivals and then swept their respective NLDS. One of these streaks is coming to an end in the next seven games, so I looked at the season head to head between the teams to try and get an idea of which team might have an edge:

Dodgers v. Brewers head to head
Baseball Reference

The Dodgers won the season series 4-3 and they scored at least six runs in the games they won. They had an offensive explosion against game three starter Jhoulys Chachin and the back end of the Brewers bullpen on August 2 where they scored a ridiculous 21 runs.

If the games were close, however, the Brewers had an edge. This tracks with what I noted above about the strength of the Brewers bullpen. If the games are high scoring and the Brewers can’t get it to the top end of their pen look for the Dodgers to have an edge. If the Brewers can get a lead and stifle the Dodgers offense, look for the Brewers to have an edge.

The bottom line? Two very different teams will take the field tonight at Miller Park and baseball fans should prepare themselves for all of the drama that accompanies a classic David v. Goliath match up.