This afternoon, with their entire season hanging in the balance, the Milwaukee Brewers will send Zach Greinke to the mound on their home filed, Miller Park, where they won more home games than any other team in baseball in 2011. While I feel they may have overpaid in terms of weakening themselves in previous games to set-up Greinke starting a do-or-die game at home, Milwaukee and their fans will hear none of it – this is exactly what they wanted and to them, the end result justified the cost of getting there.
That’s what I wrote two issues ago, on Friday morning hours before the Milwaukee Brewers were hosting the Arizona Diamondbacks in a Game 5 elimination contest. It looked awfully silly/careless when a look in the morning newspaper revealed Yovani Gallardo would actually be taking the mound for the Brewers. I had relied on Milwaukee’s stated reasoning for starting Zach Greinke, on short rest, in Game 2 of that series, wrote the newsletter issue late at night Thursday on the West Coast, and then sent it out Friday morning. While the lede looked silly when Milwaukee decided to save Greinke, the body of the issue would not have changed. I would have made the identical points about Greinke – that is, I think he’s the best (not the most valuable) starting pitcher in baseball even if his traditional statistics hide that. Whether that’s true or not isn’t really important – as I mentioned to one reader who e-mailed me, it’s like arguing about the relative merits of Jessica Biel vs. Jessica Alba. If you’ve got either one of them in your starting line-up, you’re not coming out on the losing end of any argument. My point is that Zach Greinke is terribly underrated by both fans and, perhaps more importantly, oddsmakers.
In any event, Milwaukee now is just where they want to be. At home, with Zach Greinke throwing the first pitch of the game. And I still think they got there in a sub-optimal manner over the last week and a half.
NLCS – St. Louis at Milwaukee
One week ago this evening, the Cardinals were trailing Philadelphia one game to none and behind in Game 2, 4-0 after three innings, with Cliff Lee pitching for the Phillies. At that point, they probably had no better than a 10% chance to make it to the National League Championship Series. Those odds may have been longer than those they faced in overtaking the Braves in the last week of the season just to get to the playoffs. However, five unanswered runs off Cliff Lee later, and subsequent defeats of Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay in the ensuing days, and here they are. St. Louis has certainly earned the moniker, The Cardiac Cards.
St. Louis and Milwaukee, as a result of inhabiting the same division, know each other well. They’ve played each other 18 times this year, and 51 in the last three, with Milwaukee holding the slimmest of edges 26 wins to the Cardinals 25. Both the 2011 and 2009 series were split, 9 games apiece. In addition, the two teams had a little dust-up this summer, with the requisite cleared benches, hit batsmen, and even some gamesmanship in which the Cardinals accused the Brewers of altering the hitting background at Miller Park when the home team batted. There is some bad blood here, and the pressure, as well as the antics of Nyjer Morgan – which have raised the intensity of the entire Brewers team and fan base – are sure to bring it all to the surface.
On the field, the advantages are split. The Brewers have the better starting pitcher in each of the first three games. While that will switch in Game 4 (assuming both teams use four man rotations) it’s only because Kyle Lohse is just a little better brand of bad than Randy Wolf is. If you’re lucky enough to have tickets to Game 4 in St. Louis and you’re sitting in the outfield bleachers, not only is it a good idea to bring a glove, you may want to wear a helmet as well.
These teams can both rake but Milwaukee’s weakness is that the tremendous hitting talent they possess is pretty much confined to the first five batters in their line-up. St. Louis, the highest scoring team in the National League in 2011 is stronger top to bottom. Milwaukee finished six wins better than St. Louis during the regular season, and going through the numbers, that seems about right to me. In-season injuries (chiefly to Corey Hart) line-up changes (starting Nyjer Morgan the second half of the year) and trades (Jerry Hairston, Jr. for the below replacement level Casey McGhee who played 155 games for Milwaukee but is confined to the bench during the playoffs) means the line-up the Brewers bring to the playoffs is only a bit less potent than St. Louis’. With an edge in starting pitching and a much more settled back end of the bullpen, the pick here is Milwaukee in seven games.
Interestingly, my model thinks Milwaukee (at -140 or implied odds of winning of 58%) is a bit overvalued for the Series. (More accurately, it’s probably a public underrating of St. Louis.) However, thanks to the lack of appreciation for Zach Greinke, the Brewers look like a solid value in Game 1. (I’ll officially release the model’s selection, with percentage edge, on Twitter (@MagicRatSF) when the starting line-ups are announced.)