October 6, 2010
NLDS Preview: Giants vs. Braves
Those of you who root for chaos and the eventual heat death of the universe were no doubt disappointed that the season did not end with a series of one-game playoffs. To the Braves and the Giants, however, the outcomes of Sunday’s games were more than welcome. Their starters will receive an additional day of rest each, and they won’t entirely foreclose the possibility of pitching their Game One starters on short rest in Game Four. The condensed schedule of this series (potentially five games in seven days, rather than the eight allotted to the other NLDS) means Bobby Cox and Bruce Bochy will have tough decisions to make should the series go to four or five games.
From a broader perspective, perhaps both the Braves and the Giants should consider themselves lucky to have made the playoffs. The Braves played .500 ball in September and had to win on the last day of the season to avoid the double shame of being swept by the Phillies twice in two weeks and losing a playoff berth. Key injuries to Martin Prado and Chipper Jones certainly didn’t help the cause, but of course those guys won’t be on the roster in the playoffs either. Meanwhile, the Giants—having been given the remarkable gift of a late-summer 10-game swoon by the division-leading Padres—had to fend off the last gasp of the Friars as a result of an inspired bit of scheduling.
Just as easily, it was possible to view the Giants and Braves as playoff-bound teams as early as late April. The Giants surprised everyone by scoring runs like crazy to start the year (they averaged over six per game through their first nine games) and never fully pulled back on the throttle. They spent one day 7 ½ games back, four days more than six games back, and most of the rest of the season nipping at the Padres' heels. For everyone surprised at the Padres' success, the Giants represented the open arms of inevitability. The Braves, on the other hand, took the division lead on May 31 and didn’t look like they would surrender it until, well, they did. Luckily for both the Braves and the Giants, there were good reasons they looked good while they were winning, and each team has reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming series.
If necessity is the mother of invention, the National League has driven the explosive growth in erasable pen technology over the last several decades. Both the Giants and the Braves had lineups that remained in flux through most of 2010 because of a combination of platoon advantages, roster changes, and injuries. The batting orders listed above reflect probable lineups against right-handed starters. What is remarkable about these lineups is that, by TAv, there are only two batters below league average (Nate McLouth and Rick Ankiel) and only three batters above .300 (Jason Heyward, Aubrey Huff, and Buster Posey). When the Giants throw Jonathan Sanchez or Madison Bumgarner, Bobby Cox can upgrade his lineup to include Matt Diaz instead of McLouth, which is no small gain. By and large, the offenses of these two teams operate in collective, rather than individual, fashion.
The surprising thing about the Giants this year was that they figured out how to score some runs. All joking aside, there was a real possibility they wouldn’t score significantly more than the 657 runs of last year. But despite the fact that the sole attraction at the 2009 Giants Offense Zoo—Pablo Sandoval—was bamboo-wise and leaf-foolish with the stick (.409 slugging!) in 2010, the Giants scored 40 more runs this year than last. Most of that gain came from retreads Huff, Pat Burrell, and Andres Torres, plus a healthy dose of Posey. That two of those players, Burrell and Posey, weren’t on the roster when the year began means that the Giants offense is as strong now as it has been all season. Bochy has not been reluctant to move around the batting order, particularly with his placement of Sandoval. There’s a strong argument for using the switch-hitter to break up the free-swinging righties at the bottom of the lineup, but Sandoval has batted much better in the sixth and eighth slots than he has in the seventh this year. That’s just the sort of noise that managers with a quick pen have been known to focus on.
Now decimated by injuries, the Braves' lineup is feast or famine. The top four have been relatively stable throughout October, at least since Prado went down with a hip injury. All-Star infielder Omar Infante’s .355 BABIP this season looks a little fluky until you realize his career mark is .313 and he has put up a .343 mark over the last three seasons. Derrek Lee has been very useful since joining the Braves—he’s got a .301 TAv with them. But that bottom half? Yikes. Brooks Conrad is a nice story with his eight home runs in 177 plate appearances, but this is a 30-year-old with 139 games played in the major leagues and a career minor league OBP of .344. Alex Gonzalez left behind the Rogers Centre home run pixie dust and is batting just .240/.291/.386 with the Braves. McLouth cost the Braves more runs on offense than any other player in 2010, but it wasn’t without competition from Ankiel and Melky Cabrera (despite the head start the former enjoyed), the other options in the outfield-go-round. Interestingly, the projected lineup above includes only three players who appeared in the Braves’ Opening Day lineup (Heyward, Brian McCann, McLouth).
One final point worth noting is the lefty/righty balance of the two lineups. Depending on who takes the mound for the opposing team, the lineups may differ, but opportunities for strategic LOOGY use ought to be relatively limited in this series. That isn’t to say there won’t be ample use of the benches, each of which sports some useful options.
That Giants bench is brutal. You’ve got one average player—Ross—who is more or less a classic fourth outfielder, maybe a little better in a good year. Then you’ve got a classic overrated scrappy middle infielder and two essentially interchangeable outfield caddies whose sole collective virtue is that they bat with different hands. Bochy may elect to put Travis Ishikawa on the roster instead of Rowand, who didn’t see much playing time in September, but the trouble there is that it’s hard to see the value of a soft-hitting lefty first baseman when your opponent has a fire-throwing southpaw closer. Why not take both outfielders
The Braves, on the other hand, have plenty of weapons. Let’s just talk about David Ross for a moment, because nobody ever talks about David Ross. I want you to guess what his combined triple-slash line has been since he joined the Braves before the 2009 season. Take a moment and think about it. Under the Obama administration, Ross is hitting a robust .281/.386/.494 in 296 PA, which is not at all bad for a 33-year-old backstop. Put it this way: I can’t say with confidence that David Ross isn’t a better hitter than every player on the Giants bench. Of course, Cox has some choosing to do, though all evidence suggests he will select Troy Glaus over rookie left-handed first baseman Freddie Freeman. Given the likely presence of sure-thing pennant champ Eric Hinske, a lefty, Glaus is the smart-money guess for a bench spot. Then again, maybe he leaves Cabrera behind and takes both hitters because it’s a little hard to justify having six outfielders unless you really need defensive replacements.
I do think both teams will go with a six-man bench for the added roster flexibility, considering the short nature of the series. Given the stronger options from both sides of the plate, though, the Braves have the advantage if it comes down to strategic deployment of the bench.
The Braves' top three are solid in relatively equal measure, as their nearly identical SIERA marks indicate. Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe are durable ground-ball pitchers who rely on good control and the defense behind them. The good news for the ground ball guys is that the Giants’ lineup, as a group, is an impressive collection of ground-ball artists. Sandoval, Uribe, Rowand, and Guillen all had the dubious honor of appearing in our top 30 Batter’s Double Play Report (Huff, Posey, and Torres were also well below average). With a solid collection of infield defenders in Lee, Infante, and Gonzalez, plus a more comfortable Conrad at second base, Braves starters should induce plenty of twin killings. Tommy Hanson, for his part, is more of a strikeout pitcher with fly-ball tendencies, though he too has fine control. It might be somewhat concerning that the Braves don’t have a legitimate left-handed starter to throw at the Giants, but the Giants don’t seem to have much in the way of lefty sluggers to punish the Braves for it, particularly with Sandoval and his punchless self. Brandon Beachy proved effective in two starts in the big leagues, as well as at two levels of the minor leagues. He makes a fine candidate to replace the still-rehabbing Jair Jurrjens, who is a long-shot to make the NLDS roster but may be back for the next round. Cox has said he won’t be afraid to send out Lowe on short rest, however, so Beachy may instead serve as another long-reliever.
The Giants, on the other hand, have a devastating top two in Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. Despite the former’s diminished velocity and the latter’s heightened SIERA, both have proved there is little cause for concern. After a mid-summer bump in the road from Lincecum, he has rounded into form in his last few starts (1.94 ERA and 52/8 K/BB in six September starts). Meanwhile, Cain has put up an ERA below his SIERA in each of the last four seasons, confounding even the smartest of runs-allowed postdictors. Despite the fact that Jonathan Sanchez led the National League in walks this season, he has figured out how to be effective despite his wildness. Bochy announced Tuesday that, should he need a fourth starter, he will give the nod to the young lefty Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner was surprisingly effective in his first season and is at this point a superior option to Barry Zito, who will now likely be left off the NLDS roster.
This series is set to feature some excellent pitching match-ups. Given the match-ups, either or both of the first two games could wrap up quickly, leaving television executives with some unexpected airtime to fill. The general expectation seems to be that the Giants have a big pitching advantage, but the edge Hanson has over Sanchez does mitigate that advantage in significant part.
These two teams sport two of the best bullpens in baseball. They are deep and stocked with an excellent mix of veteran and young arms. Brian Wilson has settled into become one of the game's best relievers. Santiago Casilla (nee Jairo Garcia) has electric stuff and has been throwing as hard as ever this year. Sergio Romo is a rare asset because he’s a soft-throwing righty who nevertheless can get out both right- and left-handed batters at roughly equal rates with his slider. Because Bochy announced he would use Bumgarner as the fourth starter should the team need one, it looks like Zito will be the odd man out. The result is a pen with only two lefties, which is justifiable given the Braves’ relatively balanced lineup. However, if Bochy wants another lefty option, he may tap Dan Runzler, who throws hard but has only recently made a comeback from a knee injury, in place of Mota.
Meanwhile, the Braves pen looks somewhat different than it did during the regular season. Takashi Saito looked bad enough in his Saturday return to action that he ought not to make the NLDS roster, leaving room for Kyle Farnsworth to make the staff. Eric O’Flaherty, excellent though he has been, has struggled with some blurred vision, which leaves room for another lefty: Mike Dunn. Cristhian Martinez will be the long man, a role in which he excelled at Triple-A Gwinnett this year (49/8 K/BB in 52
The Giants have the second-best PADE and the fourth-best Defensive Efficiency in baseball this year, which must be a surprise to plenty of Giants fans. Nevertheless, they’ve been excellent as a group at turning balls in play into outs, which is really the name of the game. All the various defensive statistics converge on the conclusion that the Giants have been an above-average unit. Led by Torres in center field, the Giants have been successful by avoiding below-average defense at any single position.
Meanwhile, Atlanta’s defense has been relatively middle of the pack, as it ranks 13th overall in PADE. They’ve been middle of the road thanks to strong arm and range of Heyward, the addition of Infante to the infield as a full-time player, and Gonzalez’s steady hand at short. However, many of their outfielders (McLouth and Diaz in particular) remain questionable defenders, and whether Conrad is a solid second baseman remains an open question.
Cox enters his last postseason after a mixed-bag regular season. His team suffered through a bevy of injuries to limp across the finish line, though the fact that they did so is in large part a testament to his ability to put useful talent on the field. His fluid lineup changes have effectively responded to the situations at hand, and he proved he is still open minded by moving Conrad—who committed two costly throwing errors at the hot corner over the weekend—to second base.
Bochy has similarly managed a roster that has seen a great deal of turnover with aplomb. He has fit the additions of Burrell and Guillen into the lineup effectively, and his use of defensive replacements—particularly in the outfield—has been spot on. That attention to detail should pay even bigger dividends under the postseason microscope.
Neither Bochy nor Cox are particularly aggressive on the base paths. They both prefer to call for the sacrifice than let their generally slower players run wild. They are also both of the old-school when it comes to intentional walks, historically ranking high in calling for the free pass. If any of these games come down to a high-leverage, late-inning situation with first base open, don’t be surprised by an intentional walk.
Given the caliber of the starting pitching talent, it’s unlikely that either team will sweep this series. Expect a four- or five-game series that turns on the ability of the third and fourth starters to shut down the opposing team’s lineup. The Braves’ ground-ball pitchers match up well against the Giants’ lineup. However, the Braves had a massive home-away split this season (56-25 at home, 35-46 away), suggesting that they may struggle in a series in which they do not enjoy home field advantage. I’ll go with the pair of aces in the Giants to win in five.