The Cardinals’ 17-day absence was bound to result in a whole host of schedule abnormalities. One of which is that we’ll get into mid-September before the Cardinals play their first game against the Brewers. Then St. Louis will meet Milwaukee...twice...for a five-game series both times. The Cardinals will face the Brewers 10 times over their final 18 games. The Brewers currently sit two games behind the Cardinals for the second playoff spot out of the NL Central, so let’s take a look at the team the Cardinals are about to get a lot of looks at.
The Brewers, 18-21, are posting a -34 run differential on the year by averaging 3.97 runs scored and 4.85 runs allowed per game. Both the Pythagorean win-loss formula (16-23) and BaseRuns (17-22) think they’re slightly “overperforming” thus far. They find themselves among a heap of NL teams—per FanGraphs, everyone but the Nationals, Pirates, and Diamondbacks has at least a 27% chance of reaching the postseason—vying for the 7th or 8th seed if they can’t leapfrog into their division’s top two. Milwaukee were technically sellers at the deadline in that they traded reliever David Phelps to the Phillies for three prospects, but, other than that move, they stood pat.
A quick glance at their FanGraphs’ team page will tell you that Jedd Gyorko and Christian Yelich have both put up 0.4 fWAR this season. That’s because Gyorko leads all Brewers regulars with a 143 wRC+ while Yelich is running the worst mark of his career at a pedestrian 109. That’s not going to last for long. Yelich’s lifetime BABIP is .355; his 2020 BABIP is .237. The gap between his expected (.381) and actual (.334) wOBA is the 10th “unluckiest” in baseball among batters with at least 150 PAs. So expect Yelich to club 90 homers and bat .800 against the Cardinals because it’s 2020 and why wouldn’t that happen?
Also heading the position player side of the Brewers’ roster is Keston Hiura, the 9th overall pick in the 2017 draft who made the most of his 2019 debut with 2.1 fWAR in 84 games. He already has 11 homers at second base in 171 PAs, but a high K%, low BB%, and middling defensive and baserunning value have held him to 0.6 fWAR this season. That still ties him with Avisail Garcia for the team position player lead, in large part because of black holes in their lineup. Ryan Braun has been bit by poor batted ball luck—his 63 point xwOBA vs. wOBA gap is even larger than Yelich’s—en route to a 66 wRC+ and -0.2 fWAR. Eric Sogard (-0.4 fWAR) is trying to do his best Ryan Raburn impression by alternating between solid and abysmal years at the plate. His year-to-year wRC+ leaps from 66 to 109 to 14 to 115 to 44, which means the Brewers would be idiots to decline his club option ahead of his next good year in 2021. Meanwhile, Justin Smoak stopped walking and barreling the ball and instead started striking out a bunch, so much so that the Brewers cut him on Sunday after a -0.5 fWAR campaign. It’s also worth noting that Lorenzo Cain opted out of the remainder of the season at the beginning of August.
The Brewers’ pitching staff, by comparison, has been worth about two-and-a-half times as many wins as the position player core. Brandon Woodruff (3.91/3.56/3.75 ERA/FIP/xFIP) and Corbin Burnes (2.35/2.37/3.62) have led the way, but Josh Lindblom (6.25/4.66/4.38), Brett Anderson (4.64/4.75/4.52), and Adrian Houser (4.97/4.94/3.82) are lagging behind. The only other Brewer to start multiple games this year, Eric Lauer (12.54/6.36/6.96), was optioned off the active roster about a month ago and hasn’t returned since. That should be good news for the Cardinals, especially considering how both series against the Brewers call for five games over four days.
Milwaukee’s bullpen ranks in the top 10 leaguewide by most metrics, but it hasn’t quite met the “among the best in baseball” level expectations many had entering 2020*. The aforementioned Phelps (2.77/2.76/1.83) was one of its most effective arms before he was traded. Josh Hader appears to be having his usual dominant season with a 2.31 ERA, but his strikeout rate fell (47.8% to 36.7%) while his walk rate ballooned (6.9% to 20.4%). Then there’s the fact that just 31.6% of batted balls against Hader have been grounders, yet he has somehow allowed zero home runs this season on top of a .105 BABIP. Looking a bit further, his average fastball velocity is down over a full MPH from a year ago, and only 35.7% of his pitches have been in the strike zone after consistently being in the high 40s each of the previous three years. All of this is to say that, for someone holding opponents to an .054 batting average, Hader is looking human.
Devin Williams (0.53/1.03/1.08), on the other hand, has been nothing short of absolutely incredible. Essentially a two pitch pitcher (a fastball at 96 mph and a wicked changeup at 84 mph), he has fanned—and this is not a typo—53.8%(!!!) of opposing batters. After struggling as a starter at High-A ball in 2018, the Brewers moved Williams to the bullpen and he’s been electric ever since. Freddy Peralta (4.35/1.99/2.79) is rocking a 42.2% strikeout rate while Brent Suter (3.66/3.25/2.67) is walking just 2.5% of opposing hitters. *You’re currently watching me realize that clunkers from Bobby Wahl (11.57/13.43/7.37), Justin Grimm (17.36/14.29/6.96), and Corey Knebel (9.45/10.65/6.70) are a major reason why this bullpen’s overall stats don’t reflect how impressive it truly is.
All in all, expect fairly low scoring games between the Cardinals and Brewers. Barring an extreme week from one or both of these clubs, it’s safe to say that these 10 games will carry significant postseason ramifications for St. Louis and Milwaukee. I don’t know if it feels like it, but we’re in the midst of September baseball, y’all.