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NLDS Series Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Milwaukee Brewers

Syke!  Just when you thought you were done reading these series previews once and for all, here I am with at least one more.  Since Jim compared the two teams on a position-by-position basis yesterday, and I will be covering the pitching matchups in my individual game previews starting tomorrow, this preview will be oriented towards a more macro perspective on the series.  But first, an important word about the playoffs:

Throughout the playoffs, a lot of people, including me, will be pretending that they know what's going to happen in these series.  Without exception, they are either lying or wrong.  I can write about how evenly matched these two teams are, about how this series is going to go down to the last out of the final game, but that doesn't change the fact that it's five games, and anything can happen in five games. The Diamondbacks' bats could all go cold at the same, they could strand 172 runners in scoring position.  Ian Kennedy could have a rare bad start, Daniel Hudson could have one of his famous first innings, Joe Saunders could suddenly remember that he's Joe Saunders, and the Diamondbacks could get swept.  So in conclusion, articles like this are dumb.  I'm dumb for writing it, and you're dumb for having read this much of it.

Still here?  Good.  Because while we can't predict what's going to happen in this series, we can observe trends from the season, and predict what might happen.  It probably won't, because baseball, but it might, and that's enough to keep us idely speculating about it.

How the Brewers got here: It's not often that a team that finished 77-85 a season prior gets playoff hype in the preseason, but that's exactly what happened for the 2011 Brewers.  Feeling constrained by Prince Fielder's impending free agency, the Brewers went all in over the offseason, gutting their farm system to revitalize their starting pitching, a huge weakness for the previous two seasons.  They brought in Shawn Marcum from Toronto and Zack Greinke from Kansas City to give them one of the best top of the rotations in baseball with a fantastic offense to go with it.  

Just like us, the Brewers struggled out of the gate, going 16-21 in their first 37 games.  By the All-Star Break, however, the Brewers were in the thick of the race, tied for the lead in the NL Central.  But in the second half, they took their success to another level, going 27-5 over a stretch in late July and August to put the division out of reach.  Despite a late run by the Cardinals, the Brewers were able to hold on for their first division win since 1982.  To show how long it's been since 1982, the last time the Brewers won their division, that division was the AL East. 

Partway through their fantastic stretch, the Brewers continued to go all out in 2011, acquiring controversial reliever Francisco Rodriguez at the trade deadline.  While their pitching was a bit hit-or-miss over the course of the season, the offense was great from the beginning, led by MVP candidates Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun.  But despite their success, this season feels a bit like a last hurrah for the Brewers.  Playing in baseball's smallest market, the Brewers are unlikely to retain the services of their star first baseman, and their farm system is utterly depleted after all of their trades.  It's been a good run for this core of Brewers, but there's a real chance that this is their last opportunity to win a title.

What the Offensive Stats Say:

                           Arizona (94-68)                                       Milwaukee (96-66)                                  Edge

Runs/Game:          4.51                                                             4.45                                                 Arizona

Batting Avg:         .250                                                             .261                                                Milwaukee

OPS:                     .736                                                             .750                                                 Milwaukee

ISO:                       .163                                                            .164                                                 Milwaukee

wRC+:                     95                                                              103                                                 Milwaukee

BB%:                      8.7%                                                          7.9%                                                 Arizona

K%:                        20.5%                                                       17.7%                                               Milwaukee

fWAR:                    31.5                                                           32.9                                                 Milwaukee 

So that's an ugly mess of numbers.  Moral of the story: the Diamondbacks and Brewers are pretty evenly matched on offense, with a slight advantage to the Brewers.  In most catagories, they are separated by very little, with only wRC+ showing a substantial difference, thanks to the park adjustment.  It is also worth considering the Brewers' home/road splits, which show that the Brewers score just over 4 runs per game on the road, and have an OPS over 100 points lower.  Each team will have a decided offensive advantage over the other while playing at home, which really isn't that much of a revelation in the first place.

What the Bullpen Stats Say:

                          Arizona (94-68)                                      Milwaukee (96-68)                                   Edge

ERA:                       3.71                                                          3.32                                                 Milwaukee

WHIP:                     1.32                                                          1.22                                                 Milwaukee

FIP-:                         93                                                             85                                                   Milwaukee

K/9:                         7.74                                                          8.01                                                 Milwaukee

BB/9:                      3.40                                                          2.78                                                 Milwaukee

HR/9:                      0.80                                                          0.68                                                 Milwaukee

fWAR:                     3.4                                                            4.9                                                  Milwaukee

The Brewers' bullpen has quietly been very good this year, particularly in the second half of the season, and they are better than you (or I) remember.  The only bullpen arm we are likely to see in this series who had an ERA over 4 during the season is middle reliever Marco Estrada (4.38).  But while the team has plenty of bullpen depth, that advantage is likely to be minimized in a short series where both teams are using their best arms.  As Jim mentioned, our best arms match up quite favorably with the Brewers', so this is less of a disadvantage than it looks like on paper.

What the Defense/Baserunning Stats Say:

                        Arizona (94-68)                                      Milwaukee (96-66)                                      Edge

Fielding%:           .985                                                           .982                                                     Arizona

UZR:                    55.8                                                           16.2                                                     Arizona

SB%:                   70.7%                                                         75.2%                                               Milwaukee

Bsr:                       0.9                                                            -3.9                                                     Arizona

Though defensive stats are far from perfect, and typically take a while to stabilize.  I think that we can say fairly unequivocally that the Diamondbacks' defense is a huge boon, and it gives them an advantage in almost every series they play.  For that reason, stats like FIP will always underrate the Diamondback pitching staff, since their defense is turning more balls in play into outs than an average defense would.  This chart also highlights the importance of being aggressive but smart on the basepaths.  We joke about how many outs the Diamondbacks give up while on base, but it will stop being funny in a hurry in the playoffs.  Their speed and aggressiveness gives them an advantage over the station-to-station Brewers in the running game, but they need to choose their spots.  This means you, Willie Bloomquist.

Matchup to Keep an Eye On:  The Diamondbacks' late inning offense vs. the Brewers' bullpen.

As you are probably aware, the Diamondbacks lead all of baseball with 48 comeback wins in 2011.  For whatever reason, the D-Backs just hit better later in games.  Their team OPS is under .700 the first two times through the order, but it skyrockets to .868 the third time through, and up to an astonishing .981 if they see a pitcher four times in one game. 

I'm willing to bet that Ron Roenicke knows this, and is planning to use his bullpen depth to his advantage if his starters begin to fade.  Thus, there is a reasonably good chance that at least one game will turn on how well the Diamondbacks hit the Brewers' relievers who bridge the gap between the starters and their K-Rod/Axford combo at the front of the bullpen.

Final Verdict: The national consensus seems to be that Brewers are the superior team.  Of course, up until recently, the national consensus was that Arizona didn't actually have a professional baseball team in the first place, so I'm not sure how much stock I'd put into that.  Most of the stats seem to suggest that the Diamondbacks and Brewers are pretty evenly matched.  The Brewers probably have a slightly better offense, but their inability to hit away from home mitigates that advantage somewhat.  They've also squandered any advantage they might have with their starting pitching by having Zack Greinke pitch on Wednesday, as he may now only get one start or have to go on short rest.

If I were to go by the book, I'd probably conclude that the Brewers have home-field advantage, more star power, and a slightly better team.  But then again, if baseball went by the book, the D-Backs would have just finished their season in last place, so maybe it's time to find some new reading material.  I say the Brewers' mishandling of Greinke comes back to bite them, as Kennedy and Hudson pitch well, and the Diamondbacks have at least one come-from-behind win to win the series in five games.

Head over to Brew Crew Ball for the Brewers' perspective.

All batting data courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise mentioned, all pitching data courtesy of Fangraphs.