The Brewers and Nationals both entered the 2019 season with some doubt surrounding them. How were the Nationals going to rebound without Bryce Harper? Could they be just as good? Could the Brewers follow up last season with just as impressive a run? Were they really for real?
The answers were both yes. There was never a doubt about the Nationals; their talent and pitching staff was too overwhelming. Milwaukee had issues in that department, reducing their odds a bit. But both prevailed and ended up here. In the crapshoot, incredibly variable Wild Card Game.
The most meaningful trait in a wild card game is being just good enough. Pitchers are everything in the postseason, but in these contests they’re a little less meaningful. You just need guys who aren’t going to blow it or blow up.
The Brewers are starting Brandon Woodruff while Washington is rolling with their ace in Max Scherzer. It’s already clear to see where the advantage is. But Woodruff has been very good this season posting a 3.62 ERA and 123 ERA+ in 23 starts, proving that the promise he showed mostly in relief last season was real. He also has sneaky postseason experience from last year, where he pitched in four games, posting a 1.46 ERA.
Nothing indicates Woodruff should blow up. He had one start this season in which he was shelled and left early (Shelled being four runs or more given up). It’s perhaps his recent injury history and lack of action lately that’s the bigger concern. Woodruff missed a good portion of the last third of the season with an oblique injury. He’s pitched just four innings of baseball since returning from it, giving up zero runs. Throwing him into a high leverage situation like this so fresh off an elongated rest is a little risky.
But the Brewers have the luxury of pulling Woodruff whenever they want. If a situation makes them uncomfortable, or Woodruff surrenders 1-2 quick runs, they won’t be afraid to go straight to their bullpen, where the 10th best hands in baseball by fWAR will all be on deck. You’d think someone who could go three innings would come in first, so that Josh Hader would be ready for the later 1-3 inning stretch, but the Brewers’ versatility in their staff allows them to do really whatever they chose given the matchup.
Brewers relievers though have been below average when it comes to not allowing home runs. Sure, those numbers have been completely inflated due to another season in which home runs have ballooned, but Milwaukee’s bullpen ranked sixth-worst in baseball in home-run-to-fly-ball percentage at 16.6%. They were much better at not allowing fly balls in general though, ranking 23rd. Milwaukee just has to limit the hard contact on those fly-ball prone pitches. Another proposition toward going with a starter a little longer? Milwaukee’s starters were slightly above average in HR/FB%, ranking 18th in baseball at 14.9%.
Will it all really matter though? Max Scherzer might be the most unlikely pitcher in baseball to blow up in a big game. He could go a legitimate seven innings, saving critical outs for Washington’s bullpen. A classic Scherzer game dominates any lineup, and doesn’t allow mistakes (The lowest qualified FIP in baseball this season? Scherzer’s 2.45. That is 47 points lower than his ERA).
Scherzer isn’t going to give up a back-breaking home run or blow up in an inning. Plus, the Nationals had the 10th-besth wRC+ in high leverage situations this season. The Brewers were ironically seventh, but they have to face Scherzer. Washington will be facing one pitcher, no matter what the scenario, who is somewhat as close to as good as him.
The Brewers late season run to get back in the playoff race without the reigning NL MVP and this year’s runner-up was incredible. But with Scherzer on the mound for Washington and a pitcher who may be being rushed back a bit from injury, this game is the Nationals’.
Prediction: Nationals-5 Brewers- 2