The similarities between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Arizona Diamondbacks are creepy. In 2010, both teams had very good offenses but sputtered to losing records due to horrible pitching. With their issues solved — a rebuilt bullpen in Arizona, a revamped starting rotation in Milwaukee — both teams stormed back from the depths of mediocrity (or worse) to hoist a division title in 2011.
The construction of both teams is remarkably similar. Both have a legitimate MVP candidate (Ryan Braun, Justin Upton). Both have good offenses, although with significant holes (Willie Bloomquist, Yuniesky Betancourt), and both have rotations turned from weaknesses to strengths, largely thanks to great one-two punches (Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke, Ian Kennedy and Dan Hudson).
What will set these two teams apart? Let’s take a look at the advantages each team will carry into the series, both perceived and real.
Perceived advantage: Starting Pitching
Actual advantage: Relief Pitching
This isn’t to say that starting pitching isn’t an advantage for Milwaukee — it is. It just isn’t that large of one. Zack Greinke is one of the league’s best pitchers, posting an FIP below 3.00, but he will likely only go once as he was needed to secure home field advantage in game 162. Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum are both good, but fail to reach ace level upon stringent analysis. Randy Wolf is an innings eater who doesn’t put up the strikeouts one would hope for in the postseason.
The top of the Diamondbacks’ rotation is very formidable, though. Ian Kennedy and Dan Hudson both compare well to Gallardo and Greinke, the first two starters for Milwakee, in terms of ERA (72 and 87 ERA- for Kennedy and Hudson; 93 and 101 for Greinke) and FIP (79 and 81 FIP- for Kennedy and Hudson; 94 and 78 for Gallardo and Greinke).
After that things get dicey, as Josh Collmenter, Joe Saunders, and Wade Miley round out the Diamondbacks’ rotation options (the game three and four starters haven’t been announced yet). Collmenter is the only one who has performed well this year, and his stance as a good pitcher is a bit tenuous (weird delivery, all based on deception, and a 109 xFIP-). The Brewers’ advantage in starting pitching really comes at the back of the rotation, but in the postseason, particularly a five-game series, rotations tighten up and such an advantage means far less than it does over 162 games.
The bullpen, on the other hand, is a clear advantage for Milwaukee. In the back end, John Axford (1.95 ERA, 2.41 FIP) and Francisco Rodriguez (1.86 ERA, 2.23 FIP with Milwaukee; 2.64 ERA, 2.72 FIP) outclass J.J. Putz (2.17 ERA, 2.54 FIP) and David Hernandez (3.38 ERA, 2.94 FIP). Kameron Loe and Brad Ziegler both shut down right-handed batters (Loe is less of a disaster against lefties, but Ziegler is better strictly against righties).
But the Brewers are deeper, with Takashi Saito, LaTroy Hawkins and Chris Narveson giving them six quality relievers. The Diamondbacks have Bryan Shaw and whichever starter they send back to the bullpen, a thinner corps. In a series featuring two high-powered offenses the bullpen could be a real key, both early and late in games.
Overall, the Brewers have a 0.4 run lead in bullpen ERA and a 0.5 run lead in bullpen FIP, and their strength in the bullpen appears to be their greatest advantage.
Perceived advantage: Defense
Actual advantage: Defense
Defense was supposed to be the thing to keep the Milwaukee Brewers out of the playoffs. It still could be the thing to keep them out of the World Series. The Brewers defense has come together in the second half, perhaps stabilized by Jerry Hairston Jr.’s addition to a club only carrying talented defenders in center field. The Brewers defense has rated much higher than expected, with a defensive efficiency rating ranking 15th and a park adjusted rating barely below average.
The Diamondbacks, however, simply have more defensive talent. Chris Young, Gerardo Parra, and Justin Upton make a very solid outfield. Aaron Hill is a solid defender at second. Willie Bloomquist is not Yuniesky Betancourt, and John McDonald, when he fills in, is an excellent fielder all across the diamond.
The Brewers might close the gap somewhat if they continue to play Jerry Hairston Jr. over Casey McGehee at third, and they could close it even more by playing Hairston at shortstop (although Ron Roenicke hasn’t shown that inkling before). According to defensive efficiency, the gap isn’t that large — the Diamondbacks are only two points higher by raw efficiency and a half-percent higher by park-adjusted.
Defense is an individual thing, and therefore the whole projection could be messed up by how the opportunities are distributed. Maybe the the Diamondbacks hit a bunch of balls to center field, where Nyjer Morgan and Carlos Gomez make swift work of them. Or maybe they pound the ball up the middle and form a hit parade as Yuni watches helplessly. But overall, the advantage goes to the Diamondbacks, who have fewer black holes and a better distribution of talented gloves across the diamond.
Batting: Advantage, Milwaukee
The Diamondbacks have to hope the defensive advantage plays up during this series, because although the offenses appear similar on the raw numbers (4.5 runs per game for both; .321 wOBA for Arizona versus .327 for Milwaukee), once we adjust for park the advantage is squarely in Milwaukee’s favor (105 wRC+ for Milwaukee against just 96 for Arizona). The Diamondbacks have eliminated a weakness at first base by plugging in Paul Goldschmidt and seen one created by the injury to Stephen Drew. The Brewers have plugged a hole on the left side with Jerry Hairston.
The offensive firepower of Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, Nyjer Morgan, and Rickie Weeks is more than the Diamondbacks can present, as their offensive star power dwindles after Justin Upton. Of players with at least 200 plate appearances, Miguel Montero‘s wRC+ of 109 marks the second highest for the Diamondbacks. The very same mark would rank sixth on the Brewers, behind the five names mentioned above.
The Brewers hold home field advantage and the apparent advantage on paper. The advantage the Diamondbacks hold on defense doesn’t stand up to the Brewers advantages on the mound and at the plate. The Brewers have been the best team in the major leagues since Zack Greinke returned on May 4th, going 83-49 in that stretch. Look for Milwaukee to keep rolling in the NLDS.