Determining the NL Wild Card Winner Using Statistical Data

The postseason is the equivalent of a coin flip. Every team is here for a reason –– their ability to play baseball better than the other 20 teams. Usually, any team is capable of winning or at least putting up a fight, on any single day. Granted, there are some favorites like the Astros or the Dodgers, but in October anything can happen.

Now, all that being said, statistical data and trends still hold high value. While there are not as many trends at determining a World Series Champion as opposed to a postseason contender there are still some trends that still exist. Eno Sarris did an amazing job highlighting those trends and analyzing each team in one of his recent articles. Effectively he ranked each team in the postseason on the basis of low strikeout rates, home runs, more pitchers with higher velocity, more hitters with higher exit velocity, and more good relievers, and determined a World Series favorite ­­–– the Astros –– based on that data. There is one thing that stood out to me that is a huge factor in the postseason. In the postseason, you don’t have to be better than every team, you just have to be better than the teams you play. So, the Astros and Yankees might be the best two teams on paper, but clearly one of them is going to lose, and if somehow both of them lose then the best team in the NL only has to be better than the third-best team in the AL. Another thing to note, a lot of the data is aided by players who aren’t currently on the roster. The opening day Brewers are not the same as the postseason Brewers. For example, Christian Yelich provided a huge boost to Milwaukee’s offensive stats. All that matters is comparing the stats of each team’s current 25 man roster. Baseball is wild and unpredictable, especially in the postseason. So, let’s go and predict it.

 Rather than power rank the teams, let’s work on individual matchups, analyzing the factors Eno highlighted as well as some other factors. The Nationals may have a significant starting pitcher upgrade over the Brewers, but in a one-game series that doesn’t matter. It’s all about Max Scherzer and the likely bullpen plan. So, let’s start off by using our statistical data, unbiased opinion, and game factors to determine the winner of the first game of the postseason ­­–– Brewers at Nationals.

Going into the wild card game we’ll have both teams start at 50-50 favorites to win the game. It’s a one-game series and there are two outcomes, either the Nationals win or the Brewers win. Now, take into account that the Nationals are the home team. Since 2012, the home team has won 56% of their games. Now the split is 56-44 in favor of the Nationals. Now, let’s look at the trends Eno Sarris says defines a champion.

Off the bat, we have to discredit the Brewers’ home run advantage. Christian Yelich was responsible for 44 of those home runs and he’s clearly not playing. This adds to my point that it doesn’t matter how many homeruns every player who played for the Brewers hit in 2019, all that matters is how many homeruns the 8 hitters in their lineup hit. The same goes for the Nationals. The lineups haven’t been announced yet, but we can predict to a reasonable degree of certainty a rough starting 9.

Starting with the Brewers, Yasmani Grandal will be at catcher, Eric Thames at 1B, Keston Hiura at 2B, Orlando Arica/Corey Spangenberg at SS, Mike Moustakas at 3B, and an OF consisting of Ryan Braun, Lorenzo Cain, and Trent Grisham.

Based on actual utilized lineups for the Brewers, I would expect the lineup to look roughly like this: (Players in red denote a recent increase in exit velocity)

Injuries to note: Braun (calf) and Cain (ankle)

The Nationals lineup was just announced as I was typing this and here’s what it looks like

Note* Asdrubal Cabrera has a 12.3 SO% and 6.9 AB/SO with the Nationals in 2019 (started season with the Rangers).

**Zimmerman and Gomes are hot on the bench as well.

Looking at the projected lineup stats, it is the Nationals who have a clear edge, striking out less and hitting more home runs. The difference may be slight, but every advantage makes the difference in an elimination game.

Let’s compare these lineup stats to the “starting pitchers”

Brandon Woodruff will “start” for the Brewers, most likely he won’t go more than three innings, but he is trending in a positive direction. He has had a 1.0 mph increase in his velocity in the past 14 days. He also has only allowed TWELVE balls to leave the park all year. Woodruff, however, will likely only throw 50 pitchers max. Here are Woodruff stats in comparison to the Nationals lineup:

Now let’s look at Max Scherzer vs the Brewers

Clearly, in the starting front, the edge favors Scherzer. The Nationals will try to get him as deep as possible tonight and hope he will rack up a heavy strikeout count and keep the ball in the park against the Brewers.

The key in this game could come down to the bullpen.

Here is the Brewers bullpen vs the Nationals bullpen in K/9-BB/9 which is the best measure of bullpen ability:

The Brewers have the better bullpen, while the Nationals are notorious for their bullpen implosion. So, if needed, expect the Nationals to deploy their starters after Scherzer. Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin could both receive innings in a game that holds do or die implications. Drew Pomeranz, Freddy Peralta, and Josh Hader seem like candidates that will very likely take the mound for Milwaukee after Woodruff comes out of the game. 

The Brewers have actually been playing above their expected record. They were projected to go 5-5 in their last ten games and wound up going 7-3.

If we analyze every statistic, data, and trend we can determine who in fact has the edge. A lot of the work was done off the screen to not clutter up the article. For example, I did not discuss injuries in-depth or go too in-depth in the Woodruff vs Scherzer matchup as that should be pretty obvious.

The advantage leans towards the Nationals. I ran a bunch of game simulations using different resources, using Markov Chains, MLB the Show, and OOTP, and the Nationals have roughly a 68% chance of defeating the Brewers, which obviously leaves a chance for Milwaukee to emerge victorious.

The Brewers’ biggest advantage actually comes from their OBP percentage, but it is home runs that rule the postseason, not walks, and Scherzer allows a low 1.7 BB/9 and has a 1.02 WHIP so that won’t really help them as Scherzer will not fall behind in counts often. If the Brewers continue their trends and take the first pitch against Scherzer those strikeout numbers will go way up. Hitters have a 0.871 OPS against Scherzer on the first two pitches. Scherzer only allows 3 ball counts in a measly 17% of plate appearances. If the Brewers manage to get one of those, they need to swing away. On 2-1 and 3-1 counts the OPS against Mad Max is 1.400 and 1.500 respectively, the issue is how rare it is. Oh, and if the Brewers do manage to run Max out of the game somehow, Strasburg is poised to follow him, and he has similar numbers. The Nationals will do whatever they can to avoid their horrendous bullpen which is their one flaw. So, by eliminating their biggest flaw, it is a very difficult path for the Brewers to pull this one off. The Brewers have to hope they can get a run or two off Scherzer and hope to feast off the inexperience of Strasburg in a relief role.

The Brewers need to be aggressive and jump on the first pitch strikes off of Max, that will be their ultimate key to success in this game.

When it’s all said and done, the Nationals will get out to an early lead and never look back. The game will be relatively low scoring but, in the end, the most likely simulations had the Nationals winning 4-1. The Nationals jump out to a 2-0 lead, the Brewers cannot touch Scherzer, but they mount a run after he is out of the game. The Brewers will get men on base but ultimately will be unable to score them, and will fail to put the ball out of the park save for a solo home run. On the other side, the Nationals hitters have been way too hot to cool down against the Brewers. The Brewers will limit them but not enough. The game will feature a ton of strikeouts, the most we’ll see all postseason. The Nationals will prevail, saved by the one-game series, but note: THIS DOES NOT COUNT AS A PLAYOFF SERIES WIN.

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