The big storyline of this year’s National League Championship Series — whether it was actually true or not — was that the Brewers simply couldn’t hang with the Dodgers because LA’s starters had the ability to pitch deep into games theirs were unable to provide.
That will likely be a perception of the Brewers heading into this offseason again, with quite a few people likely to claim the Brewers need to add a starting pitcher to put them over the top, but that ignores the one big takeaway from the NLCS: the Brewers need offense.
Despite a number of guys capable of big power numbers, it didn’t translate into actual numbers for much of the year. As Fangraphs pointed out at the beginning of the tournament, Milwaukee came into the playoffs as one of the worst offensive teams in the field, with only Colorado ranking lower in terms of wRC+ and WAR this season when accounting for players actually on the playoff roster. The Dodgers, meanwhile, were tops in both categories, and pretty clearly in their own tier.
The Brewers’ biggest weakness was exposed in both rounds of the playoffs, and it wasn’t starting pitching, but instead an inability to hit left-handed pitching. Colorado’s Tyler Anderson held the Brewers to 1 run on 4 hits over 6 innings in Game 2 of the NLDS before the Brewers were able to rally against the right-handers in the Rockies bullpen. The Dodgers, with a slew of left-handers on their roster — including one of the greatest left-handers of all-time in Clayton Kershaw — were effectively able to bench one of the Brewers’ biggest power threats in Travis Shaw for the vast majority of the series while neutralizing Christian Yelich and rendering Mike Moustakas ineffective.
The Dodgers had no such weakness in their lineup, and while manager Dave Roberts may have been too quick at times to make his hockey-style “line shifts” — a tendency that allowed Craig Counsell’s Wade Miley/Brandon Woodruff bait-and-switch to work — Los Angeles very rarely saw themselves at a platoon disadvantage in the series. Roberts was able to put his best bats in a position to succeed, and while the Dodgers also struggled mightily offensively in the NLCS, LA was able to come through in the close-and-late situations just enough to advance to the World Series.
Moustakas is likely to become a free agent this winter and may not fit into the team’s long-term plans, but was a large part of why the Brewers’ offense struggled to maintain rallies in the NLCS.
After being one of the Brewers’ most valuable pieces of the NLDS, Moustakas fell into a terrible week-long slump against the Dodgers, putting up a .138/.194/.172 line in 31 plate appearances. With the Dodgers starting Kershaw or Hyun-Jin Ryu in 4 of the 7 games and seeing a steady diet of Rich Hill and Alex Wood in the other games, Moustakas went 1-for-16 with a walk and 9 strikeouts against southpaws in the NLCS, with his lone hit coming on an RBI double off of Ryu in Game 6, when the entire Brewers lineup saw something that allowed them to jump on Ryu early in counts.
Yelich fared only slightly better during the series, going 3-for-15 against lefties, drawing 2 walks and striking out 4 times. While Yelich was likely to come back to earth at some point when it came to hitting against lefties, it was still a largely disappointing outcome. Two of those 3 hits came against Ryu, with the third being a bunt single off of Alex Wood in Game 3.
With 5 of the 7 games featuring left-handed starters for the Dodgers, Travis Shaw only saw starts in 4 games, sitting to start Games 1, 4 and 5. While that led to some frustration from seeing too much of Hernan Perez and an ill-fated start of Jonathan Schoop, it was likely the right move to make, as Shaw’s play solidified the perception among some that he’ll struggle to be much more than a righty-mashing platoon player. After hitting .235/.303/.439 against lefties in his breakout 2017 season, his performance against them cratered this year to the tune of a .209/.303/.296 line, an OPS nearly 300 points lower than his numbers against righties. If the question was “Is Shaw really that much worse against left-handers than Perez or Schoop or anyone else?” the answer is pretty clearly yes. In limited action against lefties in the NLCS, Shaw went 2-for-10, although one of those hits was a home run.
David Stearns likely saw some of these problems coming when he made the deal for Schoop at the trade deadline. In theory, if Schoop had performed to an acceptable level, the Brewers could have protected both Shaw and Moustakas against lefties by running a starting infield that had Schoop at second base and Perez at third — not the most offensively intimidating group, sure, but likely still better than giving up 100 points’ worth of OPS.
Unfortunately, we know how the Schoop deal played out. Already not much of a disciplined hitter, Schoop found himself trying to do too much for his new team and ended up getting himself out more often than not, and he couldn’t even secure a platoon advantage when he was in the lineup. His .204/.241/.306 line against left-handed pitching was just as bad as his .200/.250/.347 line against right-handers, and actually worse if you weight on-base and slugging percentages more than batting average.
The effectively made Schoop a wasted roster spot in both playoff series, and while Perez did hit for a high OPS against left-handers in the regular season with a .277/.304/.479 line, getting on base is the much more important half of that equation in the postseason, where home runs tend to come few and far between. Perez ended up hitting .188/.222/.313 in the postseason, with almost all of the positive moments coming in Game 2 of the NLDS when he went 2-for-4 with two doubles. Outside of that, he was on base a grand total of 2 times in the other 12 plate appearances.
It should be noted there should not be much shame in struggling to hit against what was the National League’s best pitching staff by far this year in the NLCS, but when you add in the fact the Dodgers were a matchup nightmare for the Brewers, it’s pretty incredible Milwaukee was able to take the series as far as they did.
The first step in becoming a contending team is building up enough good pieces to win that many games. The Brewers accomplished that feat, racking up 102 total victories between the regular and post-season. But the teams that end up winning titles take a look around the league and see what they specifically need to do in order to beat the other contenders. In 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals did that when they went out and acquired Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepcynski specifically to get Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder out.
This winter, the Brewers now know if they want to beat Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill and Alex Wood (and, looking at other teams, Kyle Freeland and Jon Lester and Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels and Patrick Corbin, wherever he ends up) in a 7-game series, they’ll need to have a better balance in their lineup — or, at the very least, find a better platoon partner for Travis Shaw.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs