NL Wild Card Game: Who Has The Edge?

As we near the pair of highly anticipated Major League Baseball Wild Card Games, it’s imperative to examine which advantages and disadvantages the participating teams hold against their WC opponents.

In the National League, we’ll see a battle between two clubs who really shouldn’t be here after each losing their respective superstar right fielders. The Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers will face-off at Nationals Park on Tuesday night for a chance to advance to the NL Division Series.

Washington (93-69) committed to postseason contention despite losing Bryce Harper in free agency last winter and made a late sprint to clinch a postseason spot with time to spare. Meanwhile, a season-ending injury to NL Most Valuable Player Award candidate Christian Yelich surprisingly did not mean the end of the season for the resurgent Brewers (89-73), who won 20 of 27 September games and separated themselves from the Chicago Cubs to get into the postseason.

Now it’s time to look deep into which teams hold critical advantages in major aspects of the one-off, do-or-die game. We’ll start with the NL and take a look at six tactical aisles: starting pitching, relief pitching, offensive firepower, defensive prowess, managing, and historical trends.

Starting Pitching

Nationals: Max Scherzer (11-7, 2.92 ERA, 7.36 K/BB)
Brewers: Brandon Woodruff (11-3, 3.62 ERA, 4.77 K/BB)

I could leave it at here, but for the sake of #content, I will explain. Scherzer is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, an eternal NL Cy Young Award contender, and a righty who just completed his sixth season out of the last seven with an ERA under three. The major-league leader in strikeout-to-walk ratio and the NL leader in K/9 (12.7), Scherzer is about as fearsome as any starting pitcher in the game.

Woodruff was arguably the most consistent and reliable starter in the Brewers’ dugout in the 2019 regular season, posting a K/9 of 10.6 and a 3.01 FIP. The 26-year-old is definitely no scrub and will give Milwaukee some solid innings as their [cough] “initial out-getter,” but he simply can’t compare to the mastery of his counterpart on the hill.

Advantage: Nationals

Relief Pitching

Nationals: Hunter Strickland, Sean Doolittle, Fernando Rodney, Daniel Hudson, Roenis Elias, Tanner Rainey, Jeremy Hellickson, Wander Suero
Brewers: Matt Albers, Josh Hader, Alex Claudio, Drew Pomeranz, Junior Guerra, Corbin Burnes, Brent Suter, Jimmy Nelson, Jay Jackson

The Nationals bullpen is not the same detriment it once was. Doolittle has been one of baseball’s best relievers since joining the Nationals midway through the 2017 campaign, and Hudson — a trade deadline acquisition via the Toronto Blue Jays — has a 1.44 ERA through 21 innings with Washington. Good enough, surely, but Milwaukee’s bullpen is beyond anything that the Nats can put up there.

Hader (2.62 ERA, 138 strikeouts), Pomeranz (2.39 ERA in 26.1 innings), and Claudio (MLB-best 83 pitching appearances this season) provide the boost the Brewers need on the hill.

One thing to watch out for is the use of traditional starters out of the bullpen. Both Craig Counsell and Dave Martinez are known to get creative with player deployment at times, and we could see guys like Stephen Strasburg or Zach Davies relieve their team’s starters. But regarding the known relievers, Milwaukee holds the advantage.

Advantage: Brewers

Offense

Nationals: Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Asdrubal Cabrera, Yan Gomes, Victor Robles, Adam Eaton, Brian Dozier, Howie Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman
Brewers: Mike Moustakas, Ryan Braun, Yasmani Grandal, Keston Hiura, Lorenzo Cain, Trent Grisham, Eric Thames, Hernan Perez

Ah, man. Yelich’s absence from this game is an absolute shame, and Milwaukee’s offense is significantly less dangerous without the reigning league MVP and his 1.100 OPS. But it’s still serviceable with a mix of powerful sluggers and some guys who can run and keep the line moving.

By FanGraphs wins above replacement, Grandal was the Brewers’ second-best player this season, posting a 5.3 fWAR with 28 home runs and an .848 OPS. Moustakas, whose playoff experience will be crucial in the one-off contest, hit 35 home runs and posted a .516 slugging percentage in the regular season.

But from top to bottom, the Nats hold the edge in the offensive battle. Rendon (7.0 fWAR) has quietly blossomed into one of baseball’s 10 or 15 best players, hitting .319 with 34 home runs and 126 RBIs in 2019. Turner (35 steals) and Robles (28 steals) will tear up the basepaths and put runners in scoring position with their speed, while Soto’s discipline (.401 OBP) and power (34 home runs) can break a game wide open.

Advantage: Nationals

Defense

Nationals: Scherzer (1), Gomes (2), Kendrick (3), Cabrera (4), Rendon (5), Turner (6), Soto (7), Robles (8), Eaton (9)
Brewers: Woodruff (1), Grandal (2), Thames (3), Hiura/Perez (4), Moustakas (5), Orlando Arcia (6), Braun (7), Cain (8), Grisham (9)

Neither team is a spectacular defensive club by any measure, with both being league-average at best. But going by some of the FanGraphs defensive metrics, Milwaukee comes out on top. The Brewers (41) lead their Wild Card opponent in defensive runs saved, with the Nationals at -2 while also coming out on top in Ultimate Zone Rating, with Milwaukee (11.3) posting a top-10 UZR in the majors and the Nats (0.8) lagging behind.

If the game comes down to minimizing mistakes on the field and executing high-leverage defensive plays, the Brewers have what it takes to pull ahead.

Advantage: Brewers

Managing

Nationals: Dave Martinez
Brewers: Craig Counsell

Trying to properly estimate a manager’s value to an MLB team is a fool’s errand. Big-league skippers are not only tasked with being great on-field tactical minds but also dealing with the stuff that happens behind closed doors, such as merging a few dozen people with different personalities and backgrounds together for the greater good.

It’s difficult to quantify that kind of stuff, because I am not a major-league manager and never will be. So, let’s focus on the stuff you and I can see: what happens on the diamond.

Counsell and Martinez are very creative managers with the perfect attitude for a single-knockout Wild Card Game. They will use a variety of pitchers in a variety of settings and are never afraid to play the matchup game with platoon players subbing in and out. The only advantage can be given to Counsell, however, for his experience in games of this high-stakes caliber.

Winning a Game 163 tiebreaker to capture the NL Central title last season, as well as fighting all the way to Game 7 of the NL Championship Series, the former NLCS MVP has more time under his belt than the second-year manager Martinez, who will be calling his first postseason game as a big-league manager. Again, it’s hard to say “this manager is better than this other manager,” but Counsell gets my thumbs up here.

Advantage: Brewers

Historical Trends

Let’s look at some trends and come to a conclusion on those Wild Card Game records, recent postseason success, head-t0-head record this season, and team momentum going into the game.

Nationals: 0-0 All-Time in NL Wild Card Game
Brewers: 0-0 All-Time in NL Wild Card Game

Oh okay, never mind on that. Sorry.

Nationals: 7-12 Postseason Record in Wild Card Game Era
Brewers: 6-4 Postseason Record in Wild Card Game Era

The Nationals have obviously been infamously linked to their many postseason failures in recent memory, never making it out of the Division Series since their move from Montreal to Washington, D.C. in 2005. The Brewers have a winning record in playoff games since the implementation of the Wild Card Game in 2012, but all 10 of those games were in the 2018 postseason (three-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies, seven-game defeat to the Los Angele Dodgers).

Milwaukee might have an advantage here based on Washington’s inability to keep it together in October, but it also might mean nothing at all. Baseball is kind of funny that way.

2019 Head-to-Head Record: Milwaukee 4, Washington 2

The Brewers won the season series against Washington, thanks to an early May sweep in a three-game set at Miller Park. One of their six head-to-head matchups was a 15-14 win by the Brewers in a game that went 14 innings in Nationals Park. If we get that for the Wild Card Game, I would be pretty thrilled as an unbiased fan.

Nationals in September: 17-11, 153 Runs Scored, 121 Runs Allowed
Brewers in September: 21-7, 135 Runs scored, 89 Runs Allowed

Both teams enter the game absolutely steaming hot. They needed to be this hot to have a chance, and now they’re on a collision course that might induce the heat death of the earth.

Prediction

Brewers 3, Nationals 1

Max Scherzer throws seven innings of one-run ball and leaves in a 1-1 game but is matched by Woodruff and various Brewers relief arms. Stephen Strasburg relieves him and allows a two-run home run to Mike Moustakas in the eighth. The Nationals then load the bases with one out against Josh Hader in the bottom of the ninth before pinch-hitting Ryan Zimmerman grounds into a game-ending double-play.

If the Nationals lose, it has to be the most Washington Nationals way possible.

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