Let’s start with a disclaimer. There’s a big difference between glancing ahead to see what might come in the playoffs and actively attempting to manipulate how the standings end up shaking out. There’s no issue with the former when you’re as good as the Brewers have been; it’s a privilege you earn with a great regular season. The latter, however, is risky.
The reality of the playoffs is that every team is good. Attempting to lose games to end up with a “better match-up” rarely ends as well as it might seem. You play to win, and you carry that winning attitude all the way through into the playoffs. The last thing you want is to lose it right before the games really start to matter.
With that, let’s get to the looking ahead. The playoffs are almost here, and there are three observations we can make about the Brewers and their future path through the NL bracket.
1. The NL Central Race is Over
Don’t knock on wood. It’s not necessary. After Dan Vogelbach’s walk-off grand slam, the Brewers hold an 11 game advantage over the Reds and a 13.5 game edge over the Cardinals.
That means Milwaukee has a magic number of just 14 with Cincinnati and 13 with St Louis, who has somehow managed to play three less games than their division counterparts so far. The magic number is the combined total of Brewers wins and Reds/Cardinals losses needed to clinch the division. So, to put it a different way – the Brewers finishing 9-15 would require the Reds to go 20-4 and the Cardinals to go 24-3 just to create a tie. It’s not happening.
As division champs, the Brewers would get one of the top three playoff seeds. With the NL East leading Braves currently fighting Cincinnati and St Louis for record positioning, it’s really down to one of the top two seeds. As we’ll see next, there not be much to complain about if you finish second in this year’s NL.
2. The One Seed Isn’t a Huge Prize
The playoff bracket is set up to benefit the one seed. They get to play the wild card team in the first round instead of another division champ. The issue, of course, is that the wild card team isn’t always worse than the third best divisional champion. This isn’t a problem exclusive to the MLB (it happens all the time in the NFL with a very poor four seed), but it is one that – by virtue of the bracket layout – can’t be fixed by reseeding.
It’s an especially big problem this year because the NL East winner is on pace for a record of about 85-77, while either the Dodgers or Giants will end up as a wild card team with (likely) 100+ wins. Again, there is great risk in trying to determine your own playoff matchups, but there’s obviously a pretty significant gap there. You’d much rather play the Braves and then the Giants/Dodgers instead of likely having to play both of those NL West teams.
Now, part of the advantage of being the one seed is that you could very well see the Reds, Cardinals, Phillies, Padres, etc. pull off a one-game masterpiece against one of the west’s juggernauts. That’s the reality of a one-game playoff series in a sport that has far more per-game variability than most. Then you get an even weaker first round opponent before taking on whoever comes out of the 2/3 match-up. That’s why continuing to play to win and possibly ending up with the one seed is far from the end of the world.
This is not meant to be a call for the Brewers to pack it in and play it safe. What it does mean is that there are various paths to the World Series, and
they depend on things outside of Milwaukee’s control. There’s nothing wrong with landing the one seed, but – and this is the key point – there’s also nothing wrong with walking away with the two seed, which is the only path guaranteed to hold just one of the Dodgers or Giants.
3. We Should Learn A Lot More About the NL East Soon
The Brewers are three-to-four games back of the top of the NL, and that’s been the case for a while now. That means that the two seed is the most likely scenario regardless of preference. With that in mind, it’s not a bad idea to start scoping out the NL East.
The good news in that regard is that we host both the Phillies (Mon-Wed) and Mets (Sept. 24-26) before the end of the season. With both teams looming behind the Braves, those series will give us a chance to preview two potential playoff opponents.
Unfortunately, the Braves aren’t on the schedule after six spring/summer games between Atlanta and Milwaukee were split. What we should learn over the next few weeks, however, is which version of the team will enter the fall. From July 27 to August 22, the Braves went 18-5. Since then, they’re just 4-8 after some tough run-ins with the Yankees and Dodgers and, if they finish today’s game off, a 2-2 split with the Rockies. Like the Mets and Phillies, the Braves have been up, down, and all over the place this year. All three could be a threatening playoff opponent, and all three could also easily be swept aside. The next month should be helpful in telling us what the Brewers might get in the first round.
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