If we’re being brutally honest, at this point, the Chicago Cubs would have been an easier opponent for the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLDS.
The Colorado Rockies are good. They may not be as well-known to Brewers fans as the Cubs are, but they -- and their home park -- pose some significant challenges to the Brewers.
Colorado was every bit as hot as the Brewers in the month of September, going 19-9 and outscoring opponents by nearly 60 runs, 154-95. That included an 8-game winning streak in the season’s final week that wasn’t broken until the second-to-last game of the year, which forced the NL West tiebreaker game. While they ultimately came up short against the Dodgers -- the one team who has had their number this year -- they showed on Tuesday night why they’ll be a tough out in the NLDS.
It starts with a lineup that packs some of the most power in the NL. Nolan Arenado is the best hitter in the league not named Christian Yelich, hitting .297/.374/.561 with 38 doubles and a league-leading 38 home runs this year, driving in 110. Shortstop Trevor Story was just one behind Arenado on the home run leader board, crushing 37 of them while also adding 42 doubles and hitting .291/.348/.567. Charlie Blackmon narrowly missed giving the Rockies three 30-home run guys, hitting 29 out while slashing .291/.358/.502. And outfielder David Dahl is on a tear, hitting .287/.330/.655 with 9 of his 16 home runs in September.
The Brewers did well in their two regular season series against Colorado, taking 3 of 4 at Coors Field -- highlighted by Freddy Peralta’s record-breaking MLB debut -- and coming within an extra-inning series finale of sweeping the Rockies at Miller Park. Colorado was a different team in both series, though, with the first series happening in May and the second in August, a month that saw them stumble at 14-14 between their two hot months of July and September.
For years, the Rockies have been known for good offense, but what sets this year’s Colorado team apart from the rest -- possibly even the team that went on a run to the World Series -- is their quality pitching.
Kyle Freeland has turned into a bonafide ace, putting up a 2.85 ERA and 164 ERA+ in 33 starts. He strikes out a decent amount of hitters -- 7.7 per 9 innings -- but has found success in the high elevation by limiting line drives and home runs. And he’s done it with a very similar strategy that Freddy Peralta used in his debut at Coors Field: lots and lots of fastballs. More than 81% of Freeland’s pitches this year was some variation of a fastball -- whether it’s his 91.6 mph four-seamer or 85.8 mph cutter -- with changeups sprinkled in only about 14% of the time. The Rockies seem to have unlocked the secret to pitching at Coors Field after all these years: developing pitchers who can make their fastball move and balanced with a decent changeup, since breaking pitches go to die in the elevation.
Luckily for the Brewers, the Rockies used Freeland on short rest in the Wildcard Game, meaning he likely won’t be available until Game 3 in Denver at the earliest. That would make it even more important for the Brewers to capitalize on their homefield advantage in the first two games of the series -- a split would mean either having to beat Freeland in Game 3 to avoid going down 2-1, or facing him in a possible elimination game in Game 4 if the Rockies were to win Game 3 without him.
Freeland isn’t the only Rockies starter to have exceled this year. German Marquez, who started the NL West tiebreaker, put up a 3.77 ERA with a 3.40 FIP and 124 ERA+, racking up 230 strikeouts in just 196 innings. The Brewers got a taste of that in August, when he struck out 9 batters in 7 innings, allowing just 2 runs on 3 hits in a game the Brewers were still able to win. Marquez, like most Colorado pitchers, was much better away from Coors Field, holding batters to a .203/.260/.349 line on the road. Luckily, the Brewers likely won’t see him in Milwaukee. If the Rockies don’t start Freeland on short rest again, Marquez would be the likely Game 3 starter.
Instead, reports are manager Bud Black is leaning towards lefty Tyler Anderson starting Game 2. Like Milwaukee’s own Anderson, Colorado’s left-handed version has struggled with the longball, giving up 30 home runs this year in his 32 starts. His home runs have hurt more than Chase Anderson’s, though, leading to a 4.55 ERA and 4.57 FIP. He does strike out a good amount of batters, though, piling up 164 in 176 innings to average 8.4 per 9 innings.
You might expect most of those home runs to have occurred at Coors Field, but it was actually a pretty even split, with 14 flying out on the road. Those homers did more damage, though, leading to an ERA that was actually higher on the road -- 5.02 in away games, as opposed to 4.15 at home. Despite that, he still has only allowed a batting line of .233/.296/.445 on the road, which indicates the hits he has been allowing just happen to be a bit of bad luck that carries out of the park.
Colorado will be going with Antonio Senzatela in Game 1. After joining the rotation halfway through the year, he’s put up a 3.95 ERA as a starter. He’s much more likely to pitch to contact than some of the other pitchers in the Colorado rotation, but it’s worked for him. He’s been hot lately, too, allowing just 1 earned run in each of his past three starts. When pitching on the road, he’s allowed a batting line of just .220/.287/.341.
The bullpen was a problem for Colorado early in the year -- you may remember Wade Davis blowing multiple saves against the Brewers -- but has since settled down. After the rough start, Davis was able to get his ERA down to 4.13 and saved 43 games. Adam Ottavino and his sidewinding delivery was the true ace of the Rockies bullpen this year, putting up a 2.43 ERA and 193 ERA+ while striking out a Hader-ian 112 batters in just 77.2 innings. Scott Oberg contributed a 2.45 ERA with an ERA+ of 192 in 58.2 innings. A deadline deal for Seunghwan Oh also helped solidify the bullpen, as he put up a 2.53 ERA in 25 outings since being traded from Toronto to Colorado, striking out 10.1 batters per 9 innings.
The Colorado roster is loaded with talent, and Coors Field is always a scary place to pitch -- but especially so in the middle two games of a series that could present at least one must-win game.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs