The Milwaukee Brewers challenged traditional position labels all season. They’ve helped push bullpenning forward in the postseason. They’ve been the most forward-thinking club this October in part out of necessity, entering the playoffs with one of the weaker starting rotations in the field.
But they’ve never been more radical than they were early in Wednesday afternoon’s Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell stepped out of the visiting dugout at Dodger Stadium and pulled left-handed Brewers starter Wade Miley after he had faced only one Los Angeles batter, the left-handed-hitting Cody Bellinger. Miley was replaced by right-hander Brandon Woodruff, who has limited right-handed batters to a .199 average over the course of his career. It was a premeditated plan, something of a surprise attack, against one of the heaviest platoon teams in the league.
While the short-term results did not work in the Brewers’ favor — the Dodgers won 5-2 to take a 3-2 lead in the series — the strategy’s long-term ramifications could be far-reaching. In a season of openers and bullpenning, managers might now have to think more deeply about how much they want to bet on that day’s listed opposing starting pitcher working deep into the game. (Especially if that listed starting pitcher isn’t an ace.) Platoon-heavy lineups are more vulnerable. And game-planning might become more complicated as starting pitcher designations become increasingly less relevant.
“Look, they’re trying to get matchups, we’re trying to get matchups,” Counsell said after the game. “They’re a very tough team to get matchups against.”
When he takes the mound Friday as the Game 6 starter, Miley will become the first pitcher to start consecutive postseason games since 1930, according to MLB.
“It’s not my job to question it. We’re trying to get to the World Series,” Miley told reporters. “This is the strategic side of it. I was in. Everybody bought in.”
The Brewers have thrown 75⅔ innings this postseason, but only 26⅔ (35 percent) have been logged by their starting pitchers, distressing traditionalists. Milwaukee’s upside-down approach became extreme Wednesday.
It is baseball tradition that teams announce their starting pitching assignments days in advance, even in the playoffs. (Imagine an NFL team announcing its personnel plans in advance of a game.) And because the starting pitcher is typically expected to absorb the lion’s share of innings in any particular game — well, at least until this season of “the opener” — opposing managers often try to create as many favorable matchups as possible within their lineup cards.
What has become a common part of daily game-planning — trying to gain platoon advantage against a starting pitcher — might be in jeopardy, particularly in high-stakes games.
Because of the angle pitches travel toward home plate and the way pitches break, batters tend to perform better against opposite-handed pitchers. That is, right-handed batters typically perform better against left-handed pitchers and vice versa, gaining what’s known as a platoon advantage. The Dodgers ranked ninth out of 30 Major League teams in platoon advantage, owning it in 57.3 percent of plate appearances.
Consider how differently the Dodgers constructed their lineups in this series based on the handedness of the opposing starting pitcher. In Game 3 against right-handed Brewers starter Jhoulys Chacin, Dodger manager Dave Roberts penciled in Yasmani Grandal, Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig as right-handed-pitching mashers. They were replaced in the lineup Wednesday against the left-handed Miley with David Freese, Chris Taylor and Austin Barnes.
The Dodgers were weaker this season facing left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching. They produced .324 on-base and .409 slugging marks against left-handed starters with 101 weighted runs created plus compared with .337 on-base and .458 slugging marks against righties with a 117 wRC+, which ranked second in the game .
By starting a left-hander, the Brewers were able to keep some of the Dodgers’ strongest bats against right-handed pitchers out of the game temporarily — though Puig and Pederson eventually entered and combined for four at-bats.
Moreover, against the left-handed Miley, the Dodgers featured a weaker defensive lineup. Max Muncy switched from first (where he most often plays) to second base to accommodate Freese at first, forcing Enrique Hernandez from second base to right field, where he replaced Puig. Puig is credited with 24 defensive runs saved over the past two years in right field, ranking second only to Boston’s Mookie Betts.
The Dodgers responded with a number of in-game substitutions.
In the top of the fourth, Pederson replaced Freese and went to left field. Bellinger switched from center to right, Muncy moved from second to first, and Taylor moved from left to center. Hernandez switched from right to second before he was replaced by a pinch-hitting Puig in the sixth inning, sending Bellinger back to center and Taylor to second. After Brian Dozier pinch-hit for Pederson in the seventh, he took over second, and Taylor went back to left field.
Ultimately, Dodger lefty Clayton Kershaw pitched so well — one run allowed over seven innings — and the Dodgers did enough damage off Woodruff (three runs, two earned in 5⅓ innings) that the plan did not yield a win. But in a season of radical strategies, Milwaukee’s move could have a lasting impact. The Brewers are rethinking everything — and baseball just might follow.
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