Alright, here’s a dumb headline from Saturday morning that read “The Brewers are set up beautifully for Game 7 of the NLCS.” This wasn’t a great take. It doesn’t read better now that the Brewers have been defeated by the Dodgers, who are heading to the 2018 World Series. It doesn’t read better at all.
Still, the headline sounded good in my head, and I’ll stand by the general concept. For a team that needed to win with their bullpen, Game 6 of the NLCS went just about as well as the Brewers could have hoped. Everyone was fresh. Josh Hader was rested enough to throw three scoreless innings in a Game 7, and guess what, he did. Jeremy Jeffress was rested and refreshed. The rest of the bullpen was talented and prepared. Everything had played right into their hands.
Except the Dodgers were already leading when the Brewers’ bullpen came into Game 7.
Therein lies the fatal flaw with bullpenning: Either you have six Josh Haders, or you need the lead when the bullpen comes in.
The Brewers didn’t have six Josh Haders. They didn’t have the lead when the bullpen came in.
The Brewers probably could have used an ace after all.
This isn’t to suggest that they did anything wrong, or that there’s something they could have done before the deciding game, or even the months leading up to it. We already know that they somehow signed the best available starting pitcher this offseason, and he started Game 7 of the NLCS, so it’s kind of silly to second-guess that. There wasn’t a magic ace to trade for at the deadline, there wasn’t a Justin Verlander on the market. There wasn’t a top-five prospect in the system who could take the world on. It’s not as simple as ordering an ace with two-day Prime and waiting around for the package to arrive.
Still, for all the talk about relievers and openers and bullpenning, it’s always a million zillion times better to have starting pitchers who can go at least five or six. At least one of those pitchers, two if possible. After you get that much, then you bring in the fastball death monster for three innings. The Brewers were set up for that sort of game, but they had to readjust when it turned out that Jhoulys Chacin was actually Jhoulys Chacin. He’s not a bad starter, don’t get me wrong, but at some point, the Brewers noticed their World Series fate was in the hands of a guy who was a Padres reclamation project just 12 months ago.
Bring in the fastball death monster, everyone screamed. And Hader did come into the game in the third inning, which was about three innings earlier than we would have guessed.
On the other side, the Dodgers had an ace, and they used him as a closer. They also had an ace-in-training with Walker Buehler. If you want to ride on the bandwagon with me, future ace Julio Urias pitched in the game, too. I would also trust Rich Hill or Hyun-jin Ryu as much as any of the Brewers starters, if not more.
It’s not just that the Dodgers have an ace, but they have several starting pitchers who can power their way to the sixth without you wondering how it happened. Buehler is just one of them, and he’s likely to blossom into something more.
The Brewers had a bunch of Not Josh Haders who would eventually give away to Actual Josh Hader, and that was almost enough to get them to the World Series. There were a (characteristically) strong start from Chacin away. They were a two-homer game from any of their sluggers away. They were a poor first step from Chris Taylor away. There were so many paths for the Brewers to get to the World Series, and a lot of them would have made sense. If they hit homers here ... used this guy there ... had that bullpen there ... boom.
The Brewers probably could have used an ace, though. That guy coming into Game 7, guns a-blazing, with everyone glad that he’s the starting pitcher. It’s a luxury that a lot of postseason teams have, but it’s still easy to take for granted.
Next year? Look out for Brandon Woodruff. Look out for the Brewers getting greedy on the free agent market. It’s not like David Stearns is reading this column like ...
Stearns knows that aces help baseball teams win baseball games. We all know! But it seems important to remind everyone that, even in the post-Andrew Miller era of bullpenning and openers, there’s a utilitarian beauty that comes with a team riding a starting pitcher until the 7th-inning stretch. There might be some necessary beauty in it, too.
The 2014 Giants were a master class in a team having exactly one great starting pitcher, which was ironic because it was four years after they needed three to win a championship. The 2015 Royals were probably the best analog for this year’s Brewers, except they at least tried to do the ace thing with a midseason trade for Johnny Cueto, and he ended up pitching like an ace in the World Series.
Other than that, we haven’t seen a team go full bullpen and win yet.
Those ‘14 Giants had one good starter, sure, but they also somehow used their closer for two-thirds of an inning over an entire seven-game World Series. If you think that’s happening again, you’re a strange bird. We’re in the new era, now, but there are still some things we’re taking for granted.
An ace or two is what separated the Dodgers from the Brewers. It’s also what would have separated the Brewers from the Red Sox (or Astros). It’s part of the reason why the Braves, Rockies, and A’s didn’t escape the early rounds. It’s entirely cool and fun when a stellar tag-team bullpen gobbles up six or seven innings, but it’s far more normal and viable for a starter to roll into the seventh inning and let his teammates take over. It’s what just about every World Series winner has needed since Abner Cartwright-Doubleday invented the game on a dare.
The 2018 World Series winner will have an ace making scores of millions. That’s just how it is. They were built in the olden times, before the bullpenning, but they have no regrets. The Brewers don’t necessarily need an ace making as much as Chris Sale or Clayton Kershaw next year. They can’t really afford that. But anyone who watched the Brewers’ weird, wild ride to within a game of the World Series will agree that they could have used something like it. Every team can.
It’s a strange, new era of baseball, but at least we know there are a few constants. It’s better to have a Clayton Kershaw than not. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but just a few hours ago, we were thinking the Brewers were going to the World Series without anyone who could crack the Dodgers’ postseason rotation. It was a very real scenario. Their bullpen was mightier.
The Brewers could have used an ace, though. They sure could have used at least one ace. They wouldn’t argue the point with you. And we should probably applaud them for getting this far without one.