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Series Preview: Milwaukee Brewers @ Washington Nationals

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The Brewers have owned the NL West, but will their struggles against the East continue this weekend?

Cincinnati Reds v Washington Nationals Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

After another impressive series win over one of the best teams in baseball, the Brewers head back east to face another team from a division that’s given them some trouble this year.

While the Brewers’ 25-25 start to the year has been frustrating at times, they’re a combined 8-3 against the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers — two teams expected to make deep playoff runs in the National League, if not contend for a World Series title. Against teams from the NL East, though, they’re just 4-9, including a four-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies.

Now they get another team from one of the deepest divisions in baseball, as they face the Washington Nationals for the first time. The Nats are again off to a disappointing start, coming into Memorial Day weekend at 4 games under .500. Their offense — just like everyone else’s this year — has left plenty to be desired, but their supposedly strong pitching hasn’t been able to carry them. You could probably think of them as “The Brewers if they only had one of Brandon Woodruff or Corbin Burnes.”

The Lineup

After a disappointing 2020 after winning the World Series in 2019, the Nationals went out to try to fix their offense by adding more power. They scooped up Kyle Schwarber after he was cut loose by the Chicago Cubs, then swung a deal for former Pittsburgh slugger Josh Bell, with the hope that pairing those two with Trea Turner and Juan Soto would be enough to return to good fortunes.

While Turner and Soto, two of the game’s best young stars, have held up their end of the bargain, Schwarber and Bell have been up and down. Schwarber has hit just .224/.317/.442 this year, but given the depressed state of offense this season, that’s still been good enough for a 113 OPS+. Bell, meanwhile, has hit just .217/.277/.403. Neither are very good against lefties, although Schwarber has been able to draw walks against them.

Turner remains one of the best all-around shortstops in baseball, coming into the weekend hitting .316/.356/.524 with a 146 OPS+, while hitting 10 home runs and 9 doubles while also going 10-for-11 in stolen base attempts. Soto has struggled to hit for power, but still has an OBP north of .400 with a .286/.401/.413 line despite hitting just 4 home runs and 4 doubles in 36 games.

The Probable Pitchers

Schwarber and Bell’s struggles against lefties may work in the Brewers’ favor in the first game of the series against Brett Anderson, and it’ll be another familiar face on the mound against him — Jon Lester. The veteran has looked like he’s nearing the end of his career this year, with a 5.33 ERA and 4.88 expected ERA in 5 starts so far this year while not missing many bats with his 89 mph fastball. Still, Lester has historically owned the Brewers when he’s faced them over the years, with a career ERA of 3.09 in 13 starts.

Patrick Corbin was supposed to help Washington build a three-headed pitching monster, but their high-priced trio has been disappointing this year (outside of Max Scherzer, who will pitch in the finale). Corbin has been the most disappointing, getting shellacked to the tune of a 6.13 ERA in his first 9 starts while only striking out 36 in 47 innings — a low rate in today’s game — while carrying a 1.55 WHIP. Like Lester, his fastball is on the slow end — averaging about 91 this year — but he’s still managed to get a decent chase rate with his slider. Unfortunately for him, opponents have been able to hit him hard when making contact. One would hope this matchup would provide a chance for the likes of Keston Hiura to build some confidence. In the meantime, the Brewers’ trio of Woodruff, Burnes and Freddy Peralta has outperformed Sherzer, Corbin and Strasburg by miles for a fraction of the price.

Scherzer vs. Woodruff will close out this series on Sunday in what will be must-see TV. The 36-year-old La Crosse Loggers legend has shown no signs of slowing down, with a 35.6% K% that ranks in the top 7% of the league. His whiff rate also ranks in the top 8% of the league, and he’s still not walking anyone. After an uncharacteristic 2020 season, Sherzer looks like he’s back to being his future Hall of Fame self — and could be on pace for his best season of his career.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Statcast