NLDS Preview: Brewers and D-backs must protect their house
Arizona won the NL West while Milwaukee won the NL Central this season
Both teams had noticeably wide splits between their home and road records
Pricne Fielder, Ryan Braun and Justin Upton give the series plenty of star power
Five keys to the Brewers-Diamondbacks National League Division Series -- a battle between the presumptive top two finishers for the manager of the year award, Arizona's Kirk Gibson and Milwaukee's Ron Roenicke -- which begins Saturday afternoon at Miller Park:
1. Keep the opponent in the ballpark
There will be no shortage of home runs this series. The Brewers led the National League with 185 homers, and the Diamondbacks ranked fourth with 172. Three players hit more than 30 -- Milwaukee's Prince Fielder (38) and Ryan Braun (33) and Arizona's Justin Upton (31) -- while each team had five players with at least 18, though that doesn't include Diamondbacks rookie first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. He was only promoted in July and slugged eight homers in 177 at bats which, for comparison's sake, was the same rate (22 AB/HR) as the Brewers' Rickie Weeks, but in 40 percent of the at bats.
The pitching staffs had their own trouble keeping balls from leaving the yard -- a product of the same environs their hitters enjoy. The Brewers allowed 147 homers, which ranked eighth in the NL, while the Diamondbacks allowed 159, which ranked 12th. Some of those numbers are skewed, however, by pitchers who won't appear in this series. The starters who will pitch all had moderate homer-allowed rates, ranging from Arizona's Daniel Hudson (0.7 HR/game) to Arizona's Joe Saunders and Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo, both of whom allowed 1.2 HR/game.
2. The pitching is even on paper
Both clubs have quality rotations and eighth- and ninth-inning relievers and enter the postseason pitching the best they have all season.
The Diamondbacks will start Saturday with Ian Kennedy (21-4, 2.88 ERA), who had the single best season of any pitcher in this series, with Hudson (16-12, 3.49) as a more-than-competent No. 2, Saunders as the No. 3 (12-13, 3.69) and Arizona rookie Josh Collmenter (10-10, 3.38) as the No. 4.
On full-season stats, the Brewers essentially had three No. 2 starters in Gallardo (17-10, 3.52), Zack Greinke (16-6, 3.83 ERA) and Shaun Marcum (13-7, 3.54), but Greinke was a second-half ace. His first 11 starts of the year, spanning May and June, in which he had a 5.63 ERA in 62 1/3 innings (5 2/3 per start) suggested he didn't feel comfortable after fracturing a rib in spring training. In his last 17 starts of the year, however, Greinke had a 2.80 ERA and averaged 6 1/3 innings per outing. He won't pitch until Game 3, however, after pitching the regular-season finale. Veteran Randy Wolf (13-10, 3.69 ERA) makes for a good No. 4 option.
Arizona anchors the back of the game with closer J.J. Putz (45 saves and 2.17 ERA) and set-up man David Hernandez (23 holds, 11 saves and a 3.38 ERA), while the Brewers boast closer John Axford (46 saves, 1.95 ERA) and set-up man Francisco Rodriguez (17 holds, 1.86 ERA in 29 innings with Milwaukee), who closed for the Mets before being traded in July. All four of those relievers notch at least 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
K-Rod, in particular, gave shape to the Brewers' pitching staff. The team ERA was 4.14 before he arrived, but his dominance of the eighth inning -- allowing other relievers to be deployed at other times -- was a key reason the team ERA was 2.94 after he debuted with the Brewers on July 16. Arizona's hot streak isn't quite as long , as it only started on Aug. 21, but before that date the club had a 4.07 ERA and 2.84 after it.
3. The Brewers need to double up on their star power
There's a reason Braun and Fielder were touted as possible MVPs all season long. They, along with the Dodgers' Matt Kemp, were the NL's best and most consistent options this year. Braun finished second for the batting title (.332), had a 30-30 season and ranked first with a .994 OPS. Fielder was second with 38 home runs, 107 walks and a .415 on-base percentage; he was third with a .981 OPS.
Fielder, who played all 162 games, batted behind Braun, who received only two intentional walks this season. Fielder, meanwhile, received 32 intentional free passes but just three in the 24 games in which Weeks started in the fifth spot of the lineup.
Upton, Arizona's own MVP candidate (though likely a distant fourth in the voting), should not expect to see many good pitches to hit, at least not when he bats with men on base. He hasn't hit his ceiling but is rapidly maturing into the player he was projected to be when Arizona selected him No. 1 overall in the 2005 draft. He put together a gaudy batting line of .289/.369/.529 with 31 home runs. His OPS+ -- on-base plus slugging, adjusted for league average and ballparks -- was 141, meaning he was 41 percent better than average.
The D-backs' next best hitter, Miguel Montero, bats behind Upton for protection but is merely above-average rather than a true star, checking in with a 121 OPS+ and 18 homers. One bonus for Arizona is a lack of a first-rate LOOGY -- lefty one-out guy -- in Milwaukee's bullpen to face Montero in late inning situations. Zach Braddock had a 7.27 ERA and starter Chris Narveson may be used in that role, though he only made two relief appearances all year.
4. Make the most of homefield advantage
There's a reason the Brewers started Greinke on the season's final day, rather than save him to pitch either Game 1 or 2 of the NLDS on normal rest: homefield advantage is that important to the Brewers. Indeed, Milwaukee and Arizona had the NL's two widest splits between the number of wins at home and on the road. The Brewers were 57-24 at Miller Park -- the best home record of any team in baseball by a margin of five wins -- and 39-43 elsewhere; the D-backs were 51-30 at Chase Field and 43-38 elsewhere. Because both clubs play in "Comb-Over Domes" (i.e. stadiums with retractable roofs), weather conditions aren't a factor, but there's an obvious comfort level to playing at home.
The Diamondbacks won the season series 4-3 by winning two of three in Miller Park and splitting a four-game set at Chase Field. As good as both teams were at home all season, they'll need to protect their turf carefully.
There isn't much of a historic rivalry with these clubs that could ignite passions on either side, though Arizona fans likely remember that Fielder, the NL Home Run Derby captain, snubbed the local favorite, Upton, in favor of his teammate, Rickie Weeks -- a decision that led to resounding boos at the Midsummer Classic.
5. The Diamondbacks need to make the most of their edge in speed and defense
And, alternately, the key for Brewers is to limit that advantage. The Diamondbacks scored 10 more runs than the Brewers (731 to 721) this season despite having hit fewer homers (172 to Milwaukee's 185), and having a worse team number in each of the rate categories: .250 average to Milwaukee's .261, .322 OBP to .325 and .413 slugging to .425.
Arizona made up the gap by legging out more doubles and triples (330 to 307) and by stealing a lot more bases (133 to 94). The Diamondbacks ranked second in the NL in steals and had six players with at least 13; the Brewers ranked 12th and had only three players with 13 or more steals. One of the Brewers' better stolen-base threats, Weeks, missed 41 games with a badly sprained ankle before returning Sept. 10 and hasn't been the same runner since his return. Lucroy, the Brewers' starting catcher, threw out 21.4 percent of would-be basestealers this year, which ranked 16th out of 28 qualified major league catchers.
Much of that speed resides in the outfield where Parra in left and Young in center led their respective positions, among NL players, in Ultimate Zone Rating, while Upton in right was second. Such an across-the-board ranking suggests some local favoritism by whomever is inputting the data, but it's likely just a small exaggeration on what is measurable range. In August Towers also traded for infielders Hill and John McDonald partly to shore up his infield defense, an area that hasn't been a strength for the Brewers, who have tried to make up for their fielding deficiencies with creative positioning from manager Ron Roenicke.
THE PICK: Brewers in five.
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