It’s easy to discount the Milwaukee Brewers entering the National League Championship Series.
The Los Angeles Dodgers opened the 2018 season with a payroll of more than $187 million, according to Cot’s Contracts, more than double Milwaukee’s figure. In fact, that number alone would comprise approximately 70 percent of the Brewers’ total revenue. Those contracts feature players like Clayton Kersaw, an elite southpaw who defies the rule that aces don’t exist, the exception that proves the rule, a pitcher boasting approximately 66 career Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP). That’s no fluke; Kershaw may not be as magical these days as he works in his age-30 season, but the lefty still managed a 3.11 Deserved Run Averaged (DRA). By comparison, Jimmy Nelson, the Brewers ace that everyone missed due to injured in 2018, posted a DRA of 3.32 last year. Ryan Braun, the Brewers’ best player, falls short of Kershaw by 20 WARP; Gio Gonzalez, the waiver trade deadline acquisition that serves as Milwaukee’s best career pitcher, has produced half the career value as Kershaw.
But that’s not it; the Dodgers traded for superstar shortstop Manny Machado, they boast elite prospects from Cody Bellinger to elite reclamation projects like Justin Turner. The best position player prospect developed onto the 2018 Brewers is Orlando Arcia, who could certainly build a career as a glove-first shortstop, but struggled in 2018 before a demotion to Triple-A helped him his offensive production. Los Angeles boasts such a deep batting order that you might be forgiven if you forget that Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Max Muncy, Enrique Hernandez, Yasmani Grandal, or Chris Taylor are a part of it (at any given moment); in fairness, though, I suppose the Brewers bullpen works the same way, as L.A. faithful might forget about Jeremy Jeffress, Josh Hader, Joakim Soria, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and company. Perhaps in a few years we’ll be writing about how the Brewers’ best pitching prospects developed onto the 2018 club (Hader and Burnes) forged their respective careers in the 2018 stretch run; that remains to be written.
|2018 NL||Wins||RS / RA (Park)||Overall|
|Dodgers||92||+106 / +74||+180|
|Cubs||95||-1 / +110||+109|
|Atlanta||90||+51 / +51 (!!!)||+102|
|Brewers||96||+27 / +60||+88|
|Rockies||91||-53 / +81||+28|
By using Baseball Reference Multi-Year Park Factors, the Dodgers are easily the better team. Park-adjusting Runs Scored and Runs Allowed, and scaling them to the National League, one would have expected the Dodgers to win approximately six more games than the Brewers.
Team Deserved Run Average says the same (Los Angeles comes in at 3.51 while the Brewers are at a [still-respectable] 4.31); True Average (TAv) says the same, although it’s closer (Milwaukee’s overall batting performance of .275 is just behind the Dodgers’ MLB-leading mark of .280). The key areas where Milwaukee has the edge are in fielding (both in terms of Defensive Efficiency and Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, although, again, it’s close), and the bullpen (again, it’s close).
Thankfully for all of us, they don’t play the games on paper. Thankfully for Brewers fans, fielding and bullpen can help to decide playoff series. On the field, the Brewers have a fighting chance.
It’s so easy to call the Dodgers the better team. What’s fascinating about the Dodgers, however, is that on the whole their overall on-field performance was worse than Milwaukee’s throughout the season. One way to measure the overall strength of a ballclub throughout the season is to average the team’s Winning Percentage pace (against a 162 game schedule) and average the team’s so-called “Pythagorean W-L” (this is the difference between a team’s Runs Scored and Runs Allowed translated into expected wins and losses).
|LCS Comparison||LA Avg W||LA Avg RS/RA||MIL Avg W||LA Avg RS/RA||LA Actual||MIL Actual|
Certainly, the Dodgers’ overall average Runs Scored and Runs Allowed performance looks much stronger than that of Milwaukee, but between games 28 and 81 the teams were basically equal to one another (that’s not an inconsequential number of games, either; that’s fully one third of the season). Interestingly enough, the Dodgers and Brewers started the season in completely inverse fashion. Los Angeles struggled to produce actual wins despite strong underlying run differential fundamentals, while Milwaukee used a bunch of close game victories to drive a mediocre run differential to elite record. Those following @BPMilwaukee on Twitter know that via Daily Pythagorean reports, the Brewers were basically an 84-win club as late as September 1.
Viewing these data in progressive fashion, one can see how each season unfolded:
|2018 Progressive||LA Avg W||LA Avg RS/RA||MIL Avg W||MIL Avg RS/RA|
Brewers fans loved to pick out random dates from the season and proclaim that Milwaukee was basically a .500 team. For this hobby, Los Angeles may have even been the better team to follow. On June 5, the Dodgers were 30-30; it even took a four game winning streak to get there. Of course, the Dodgers were battling quite a set of injuries, as one could literally form an All-Star team from some of their key beleaguered players from the first three months of the season. The rest is history, anyway, as the Dodgers sustained .600 baseball for three months to reach the playoffs. The underlying elements always looked good, and the on-field results eventually followed suit.
Milwaukee’s hot streaks came in fits and starts, by comparison. The Brewers were also a 30-30 baseball team, with their stretch occurring from June 1 through August 8 (the pessimists will point out that they really went 33-37 from late May deep into August!). Like the Dodgers, the Brewers snapped out of it and then some, basically book-ending their mediocrity with lights-out May and September campaigns.
For both teams, the successful narratives converge in September, which was the best month for both clubs in terms of actual record and runs scored / runs allowed. And so, their fates continued in Game 163, and through the Divisional Series, to what appears as a predestined series. Who else could take on these almighty Dodgers, the big-spending small market club that seemingly does everything right (save for ranking their executives’ criminal culpability). When you’re tempting to fall back on the narrative that the Dodgers indeed are the better team, as I frequently have been while studying both teams this week, remember that in the case of converting actual wins, the Brewers have been better for the entire season; when it comes to surging at the end of the season and forcing crucial games, both teams are equal. So why should there be any other League Championship Series on the Senior Circuit?