For all the talk about the Brewers’ bullpen this month, Milwaukee’s starters—or initial out-getters, or whatever manager Craig Counsell wants to call them now—have been the biggest reason the team is as close to a World Series appearance as it has been since 1982. Through seven playoff games, Milwaukee’s four game-openers—Wade Miley, Jhoulys Chacín, Gio González, and, for one bullpenning afternoon, Brandon Woodruff—have combined for a 0.68 ERA in 26 2/3 innings, and in splitting the first four games against the Dodgers in the NLCS, it has surprisingly been the rotation, not the bullpen, that has given Milwaukee the largest advantage.
Or, put another way: Wade Miley is starting on short rest on Wednesday, in a pivotal Game 5 opposite Clayton Kershaw, and despite the incredible imbalance that matchup should yield, it might not be so dire for Milwaukee.
That assessment is partly a reflection of Kershaw’s October struggles, but it’s more an acknowledgement of Miley’s postseason performance thus far: 10 1/3 innings and zero runs allowed. Of that aforementioned quartet of starters, Woodruff is a typical reliever and González, despite being the most decorated member, had pitched the fewest and least-effective innings before exiting early on Tuesday with an ankle injury. The Brewers’ starting success, then, is mostly a result of Miley and Jhoulys Chacín, who make Milwaukee only the second team ever (along with the 1991 Braves) for which multiple pitchers made multiple scoreless postseason starts.
Miley is the more surprising of the two, after he was so consistently abysmal in the seasons leading up to 2018 that he could find only a minor league contract offer over the winter. That offer came from the Brewers, though, and by early May—after recovering from an injury of his own—he had found a spot in their injury-depleted rotation. He proceeded to post a sterling 2.57 ERA in 80 2/3 regular-season innings, ranking him 10th among starting pitchers who threw at least 80 innings. The four closest players on either side of him were Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler, and Kershaw.
His reinvention began with a new pitch. Miley had never thrown a cutter before 2015 and then scarcely threw it for a few years, but he used it as his most frequent pitch this season. CC Sabathia—perhaps the contemporary archetype of the crafty veteran southpaw role that Miley has assumed in Milwaukee—was the only starter to throw his cutter more frequently in 2018, and Miley has proved a consistent challenge for opposing hitters to square up. By FanGraphs’ pitch weights, Miley’s cutter was one of the most valuable in the majors this year, and more traditional metrics bear the same result: He allowed a .190 batting average against the cutter, while every other pitch he threw this year yielded a batting average of .278.
Miley’s cutter acts more like Sabathia’s than other famous contemporary cutters. Kenley Jansen wields his cut fastball as a strikeout weapon, while Miley’s is geared to produce weak contact rather than whiffs. Out of 144 starters with at least 80 innings pitched this season, Miley ranked 138th in strikeout rate, and his K rate relative to league average was the worst of his eight-year career. He hasn’t deviated from that data point in the playoffs, either; with just five strikeouts through two starts, his postseason strikeout frequency is lower than his already-minuscule regular-season rate.
But Miley appeared at the opposite end of a different leaderboard, and that pattern has continued, too: Out of those 144 starters, Miley ranked first in home run rate, allowing just 0.33 homers per nine innings. In the playoffs, of course, he hasn’t allowed a single ball to clear the fence. Normally, such a low long-ball rate would suggest luck as a prime factor, and it undoubtedly has played some role in Miley’s homer prevention; in 2016 and 2017, when he posted ERAs north of 5 each year, he allowed homers at four times the rate he did with the Brewers this year. But this 2018 luck is also a residue of Miley’s design, as he has allowed scant opportunities for homers. Reduce the chance for a home run, and the actual home runs will reduce, too.
In the regular season, he ran a top-10 ground ball rate, and when the ball did go in the air, it didn’t go very far: Out of 350 different pitchers this season who allowed at least 30 fly balls, Miley allowed the third-lowest exit velocity on those flies. Only 24 percent of the flies against Miley were hit with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher—the typical threshold needed for positive outcomes for a hitter—which also placed Miley third out of 350 pitchers.
“It’s hard to get the ball in the air” against Miley, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told reporters Tuesday. “I know our intent wasn’t to put the ball on the ground and create soft contact, but for him, he’s done a good job against us. So when we do see him, obviously we’ve got to make an adjustment.”
That next sighting will come Wednesday, when Miley will start on just three days’ rest in Milwaukee’s flexible pitching scheme. In the last two postseasons, the only pitchers to make a start after throwing at least five innings four days earlier are the notoriously rubber-armed Trevor Bauer and Cy Young winners Kershaw and Corey Kluber. Wade Miley isn’t the kind of pitcher who typically gets this call.
At least for now, he’s pitching well enough that, perhaps, he can maintain his success through another crucial start—even if he isn’t used to getting this kind of call, either. In his MLB career, he’s never made two starts in a four-day span, and when asked Tuesday whether he had started on short rest earlier in life, Miley laughed. “I guess it’s a new experience,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes. Looking forward to it.”
He doesn’t have far to look for inspiration, at least—rotation mate Chacín proved just as effective on short rest only two weeks ago. In many respects already, Chacín has acted as the right-handed, exaggerated version of Miley this season. In February, Milwaukee signed the 30-year-old to an actual major league contract, worth $15.5 million over two years, and like Miley, who finished third in 2012’s NL Rookie of the Year voting, Chacín had been a more potent contributor earlier in his career. From 2010 through 2013, Chacín was worth 14.4 WAR, 16th among pitchers in the majors in that span, but playing for the Rockies in Coors Field masked that value with less-impressive surface statistics, and injuries sapped his career’s momentum. After the Rockies released him in March 2015, he pitched for five different organizations without experiencing extended success in any one.
Yet Milwaukee signed Chacín rather than the more proven Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb type whom analysts dreamed could fill a hole in the team’s rotation, and the Brewers have reaped the benefits. Like Miley, Chacín (3.50 regular-season ERA) pitched well all season, not just in October, though he has elevated his performance this month. He started by collecting the win in the one-game division tiebreaker against the Cubs, then shut out the Rockies for five innings on short rest in Game 2 of the NLDS. On Monday, he stymied Dodgers bats for 5 1/3 more shutout innings as Milwaukee took a 2-1 series lead.
“He’s just been a very stabilizing presence for us,” Counsell said this week. “He’s taken the ball every fifth day, so to speak, and delivered good results. During the course of 162 games, you need that. You need guys that are going to take the ball every fifth day. You need that consistency, that durability.”
That praise is for the value Chacín brings in the regular season, though; in the playoffs, particularly for an underdog like the Brewers, a high ceiling is more important than a stable floor. Milwaukee’s entire innovating pitching plan is predicated on this notion, as Counsell is more concerned with finding pitchers who can combine for nine top-tier innings than pitchers who can, by themselves, eat a handful of frames.
The strange and noteworthy part about Chacín’s playoff run is that he has managed to prove himself as one of those top-tier throwers, too. Time and again, he has overcome seeming disadvantages, from facing a favored Cubs lineup in the tiebreaker to throwing on short rest against Colorado. Heading into Game 3 against the Dodgers, he looked vulnerable because among qualified starters this year, he had the third-harshest platoon split, with a difference of 253 points between the OPS he allowed to same-handed hitters (.528) and the OPS he allowed to lefties (.781). In other words, Chacín made right-handed hitters all look like Chris Davis at the plate, while lefties hit him just fine.
But the Dodgers’ four lefty bats on Monday—Joc Pederson, Max Muncy, Cody Bellinger, and switch-hitter Yasmani Grandal—managed just one hit and four strikeouts in 10 at-bats against Chacín, and even that hit was a bloop double that registered as the team’s softest contact all night. Chacín’s slider, which rated as one of the majors’ most effective pitches this year, went up against a Dodgers lineup that mashed right-handed sliders all year, and the immovable object won: In 12 at-bats that ended with sliders, Chacín allowed just two hits while striking out five, including Muncy twice and Pederson once.
“I’ve been ready for this for almost 10 years, and just really grateful that I had a chance to pitch in the playoffs,” Chacín said after his Game 3 win. “In ’14 I got a back, shoulder injury, and didn’t know if I was going to come back and pitch a game. And thank God that I got a chance, I got better. And now just enjoy this part of my career, enjoy pitching in the playoffs, and with a really good team. And hopefully I got a chance to be in the World Series.”
He might soon earn that chance, if the team’s lineup and reliever stars can begin producing at their expected level or if he and Miley can extend their shutout streaks. The only pitcher in MLB history to start his playoff career with three consecutive scoreless starts is Christy Mathewson, a member of baseball’s inaugural Hall of Fame class, who hurled three complete-game World Series shutouts for the 1905 Giants. The sport has changed immensely since then—the very concept of a complete-game shutout is gone from the modern postseason—but both Chacín and Miley have the chance to match the scoreless-start feat.
“I don’t want to give away all my secrets,” Miley deadpanned when asked about his approach against an L.A. lineup that tied for the MLB lead in park-adjusted hitting this year. He was joking, but the Brewers’ two surprising aces don’t have secrets to conceal. It’s obvious what they’re doing—have faith in their best pitch, induce weak contact, and keep the Dodgers sufficiently unsteady in the batter’s box until their five or so shutout innings are up, and it’s the much-renowned bullpen’s time to close the game.
Milwaukee might have won the winter with its same-week additions of MVP candidates Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, but its two unheralded pitcher signings are the reasons the Brewers are winning the fall. They’ll need Miley again on Wednesday after a 13-inning, bullpen-depleting loss late Tuesday night. The work, as ever in October, continues, and the best players must maintain their pace.