For as good as the Dodgers offense can be, if the 7 games between these teams during the regular season are any indication, it’ll be the pitching that ends up playing the bigger role. Four of the games the teams played were decided by either 2 or 1 runs, and one of the games needed extra innings to decide.
While these aren’t statistically the two of the best-pitching teams still standing in the playoffs -- that would easily go to the Houston Astros -- the arms are a big reason why both the Brewers and Dodgers were able to catch fire in September and steal playoff berths.
Despite losing Yu Darvish to free agency, the Dodgers still managed to put together the best pitching staff in the National League. Having the greatest pitcher of his generation certainly helps, and many will likely jump to the Dodgers’ astronomical payroll, but the truth is the strength of the LA staff actually lies in its depth, which is surprisingly cheap for a big-market club.
That’s not taking anything away from Clayton Kershaw, though, who had a “down” year and still finished with a 2.73 ERA/3.19 FIP/3.11 DRA. It’s been 10 years since he had an ERA over 3, and his 3.5 fWAR is nearly a run higher than the Brewers’ top pitcher (Josh Hader at 2.7 fWAR). His 155 strikeouts in 161.1 innings are the lowest total he’s had since his first year in 2008, when he struck out 100 in 107.2 innings. Still, he’s striking out 24% of the batters he’s facing and largely keeping the ball out of the air, carrying a groundball rate of 47.9% for the second straight year and cutting his flyballs down to 29.6% this year.
Unfortunately for the Brewers, their lineup against the lefties lacks less thump than their lineup against righties, due to Travis Shaw being left on the bench in favor of Hernan Perez or Jonathan Schoop -- and the Dodgers throw a lot of lefties in their rotation.
Hyun-jin Ryu (somewhat controversially) started Game 1 of the NLDS against the Braves instead of Kershaw and went out and shut everyone up, throwing 7 shutout innings while only allowing 4 hits with no walks, striking out 8. He only made 15 starts this year due to missing May, June and July due to injury, but was incredibly hard to hit since his return, only allowing 2 or more earned runs in a start 3 times in those 9 starts. Ryu has the kind of stuff that you’ll either swing and miss at or hit weakly, and he doesn’t walk batters, which makes it hard for a team like the Brewers to string multiple hits together to score runs. The Dodgers announced today he’ll start Game 3 of the series in Los Angeles.
The ageless Rich Hill is still somehow putting up decent numbers at the age of 38, and while he may be slightly overpaid -- he made $16.6 million this year and will make $18.6 million next year -- he’s at least produced in the first two years of the contract he signed following the 2016 season. He finished the year with a 3.66 ERA/3.97 FIP and struck out 10.2 batters per 9 innings this year (150 in 132.2 innings), which is a pretty absurd number for a guy his age who isn’t exactly Nolan Ryan. As of now, he’s not slated to make a start in the first 3 games of the series, but could prove to be a dangerous multi-inning weapon out of the Dodgers bullpen, which likely prevents Craig Counsell from stacking the lineup in a Walker Buehler start with left-handed batters.
Alex Wood wasn’t as good as he was last year when he made an All-Star team and finished with a 2.72 ERA/3.32 FIP, but still struck out 8 batters per 9 innings this year and finished with a lower FIP (3.53) than the Brewers’ Jhoulys Chacin (4.03). The Dodgers’ rotation is so deep that he also likely won’t get a start in this series, but like Hill, could still make an impact in the rotation.
With that seemingly endless supply of lefties, the Dodgers could have easily decided to just line them all up against the Brewers and either force the Brewers to play Shaw against left-handers or keep one of their biggest run producers on the bench. In fact, they probably would have if they didn’t have one of the best pitching prospects in the game.
It’d be a little early and a little unfair to Walker Buehler to compare the Dodgers going from Clayton Kershaw to him to the Packers going from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers, but it certainly looks like a similar embarrassment of riches through Buehler’s first full season in the majors. In 24 games (23 starts) this year, virtually the only prospect the Dodgers refused to give up in any trade over the past couple years posted a 2.62 ERA/3.04 FIP in his age-23 season, striking out 151 batters in 137.1 innings. He’ll take the ball in Game 2 of the series against Wade Miley.
Middle relief was occasionally a problem for the Dodgers during the regular season, but in a short series, they’ll be able to use guys like Wood and Hill and Ross Stripling to help bridge the gaps to Kenley Jansen. Their group of pitchers may not be as deep as their lineup, but it’s still deeper than just about any team the Brewers have faced this season.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference