It’s finally official; for the fourth consecutive season, the Braves are NL East champions. The team secured its postseason fate with a 5-3 win over the Phillies on Thursday night, and in turn, guaranteed an NLDS matchup with the NL Central representative, the Milwaukee Brewers.
Atlanta still has an inconsequential weekend series versus the Mets, but the next several days will be all about what’s next. For all of us in Braves Country, our focus now turns to the Brewers and what the Braves need to do to win a best-of-five Division Series. I’m not saying all of the answers are found here, but we’ll at least take a closer look at the upcoming matchup in today’s preview.
A dive into the Brewers 2021 season
The Brew Crew has essentially owned the NL Central (or at least possessed a share of first-place) since the first week of June. It’s really no surprise that this team is in the postseason for the fourth consecutive year. With 95 wins as of Friday, this is just the second time Milwaukee has ripped off at least 90 wins in the last decade.
For the second consecutive season, the Brewers have been led by right-handed starting pitcher Corbin Burnes, who leads the majors with his 2.29 ERA. The 26-year-old, and former star prospect, has once again been a dominant force in the Milwaukee rotation as he’s put up some ridiculous numbers so far in 2021, highlighted by his 7.6 fWAR in 165 innings.
You can’t talk about Burnes, though, without discussing this Brewers starting staff. At the moment, the Milwaukee rotation leads all of baseball in fWAR as not only has Burnes been key to the team’s success, but so have starters Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta. All three of these arms have posted at least 3.5 fWAR this season, and for a playoff series, this may be the most difficult three-headed monster any team will have to deal with. All of them are strikeout artists and are plenty capable of going deep into games, so the Braves must do everything they can to force the Brewers to go to its bullpen.
Speaking of bullpens, the Milwaukee relief core is built a lot like Atlanta’s in that it’s neither great nor bad. This season, the Brewers rank middle of the road in bullpen WAR, though they do have their share of wipeout arms. Closer Josh Hader is the most well-known weapon to be aware of, but Brad Boxberger and Brent Suter are two workhorses that have been extremely stingy as well. Fortunately for the Braves, Brewers set-up man, Devin Williams will not be available for this series as he’s currently dealing with a broken pitching hand. Losing Williams is a huge blow for Milwaukee and a setback that, hopefully, Atlanta can take advantage of late into games.
This brings us to perhaps the Brewers’ only real weak link — its lineup. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a bad offense. It’s just not one that I believe is constructed very well for the playoffs. Milwaukee doesn’t hit many homers, and its .238 team AVG ranks within the bottom ten of baseball. If we’ve learned anything over the last several years, to be successful on offense in the postseason, you have to either slug or be able to string together hits. The Brewers have three really key hitters: the power comes from Avisail Garcia (29 homers) and Willy Adames (19 homers), while the contact is provided by Omar Narvaez (who’s sporting a solid 18.7% K rate and .271 AVG). All-in-all, I’m not terribly scared of this lineup. However, Milwaukee does do a pretty nice job of threatening on the bases. The team has several base-stealers, and overall they rank within the top ten in swipes this season. They’ll need to get on base first, though.
3 keys to success versus the Brewers
1. More dominance from the bullpen
This is a must regardless of the opponent, but necessary for the Braves to win this series. Of late, the Atlanta bullpen has been lights out, and it will need to continue to be that way.
Luckily for the Braves, the Brewers haven’t been as successful late in games and when it’s close. According to Baseball Reference’s Late & Close split, Milwaukee has struggled as an offense this season. In 886 PA in situations late in the game AND when the game is considered close, the Brewers are slashing just .221/.312/.365. The team’s .677 OPS in that particular situation is its worst OPS of all the listed game situations by BR.
*Late and close situations are PA in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck.
2. Get to the bullpen early!
I’ve already mentioned it, but the Brewers starting rotation is filthy and one that the Braves really don’t want to have to deal with more than necessary. The aforementioned injury to Milwaukee’s set-up man could be huge, but Atlanta’s offense must get there first.
So far this season, the disparity has been rather obvious: the Brewers are much better in the run-prevention department when its starters are on the mound. Just consider the numbers…
Brewers starters: 3.08 ERA, .212 AVG, .608 OPS
Brewers relievers: 3.85 ERA, .223 AVG, .710 OPS
I mean, both groups have been pretty successful for the Brew Crew this year, with each holding opponents to a sub-4.00 ERA. However, in a playoff series, when every hit and run matters, Atlanta’s best chance at moving on is getting Milwaukee’s starting pitchers off the field.
3. The Braves starting rotation’s recent success must continue
This one is pretty obvious, and like Key #1, it’s also one that’s necessary for any opponent. But the Braves starting staff must keep up its recent surge. Over the last seven days, Atlanta’s starters are tied with the Giants and White Sox for the most fWAR in the majors as the Braves have posted a 2.57 ERA in that span (35 innings / six starts). It hasn’t come via strikeouts or some kind of crazy left-on-base luck, but the Braves are consistently putting together solid outings, and that’ll have to continue to beat the Brewers in the NLDS.
Over the last week of play, all but Huascar Ynoa has provided quality starts for the Braves…
Braves starters (last 7 days)
Max Fried – 2 starts, 16 IP, 7 H, ER, 10 K
Charlie Morton – 1 start, 7 IP, 3 H, 2 BB, 10 K
Huascar Ynoa – 1 start, 4.2 IP, 7 H, 7 ER, 6 K
Ian Anderson – 1 start, 6 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 2 K
With this being a best-of-five series, manager Brian Snitker should be able to ride his hottest three arms versus the Brewers, meaning each of Morton, Fried, and Anderson should get the Game 1 through 3 assignments. If those guys can keep up the good work, then Atlanta is halfway there.
In a nutshell, this NLDS between the Braves and Brewers should be an exciting series. Both teams wield strong starting pitching and a bullpen that, at times, is nearly impossible to get to. There’s a reason each of these teams is a division winner and has made it to the postseason for the fourth-straight year.
However, I’m feeling pretty confident about the Braves’ chances. Atlanta just simply has more firepower on offense, from top to bottom, which should give the Brewers’ starters fits. Atlanta currently rosters three players with 30 or more homers in Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, and Austin Riley. And that’s not even counting guys like Adam Duvall and Jorge Soler — two guys that can get on a slugging streak at any time. Meanwhile, Milwaukee has no one with 30+ homers.
So if this NLDS comes down to the two offenses, I’m definitely giving the edge to the Braves. This team knows how to barrel up the ball, and as of late, the lineup has done an excellent job of stringing together hits, which, as I mentioned above, is crucial in a postseason series. We’ll see what happens, but at this point, the Braves look like they’re having fun. And given how challenging this season has been, that could be a dangerous thing.
Game 1 – Friday, Oct. 8
Game 2 – Saturday, Oct. 9
Game 3 – Monday, Oct. 11
*Game 4 – Tuesday, Oct. 12
*Game 5 – Thursday, Oct. 14
Times haven’t been listed yet, but the schedule above is for the Braves and Brewers upcoming Division Series. The AL and NL Wild Card rounds will start next Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.