August 22, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL East
Playoff Matchups Shaping Up
There are not many playoff races of interest remaining this season. Despite a tight AL East race between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, both teams are almost a lock to make the playoffs according to Baseball Prospectus's Playoff Odds Report. A similar case has arisen in NL East, and indeed in the National League in general. Aside from the NL West race, the remaining three playoff spots are well in-hand given our expectations of the teams involved. The Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers have all but wrapped up their divisions with 100 and 95.5 percent odds of making it in according to their PECOTA projections. And while the Atlanta Braves may only hold a five-game edge on the San Francisco Giants for the Wild Card, they stand at an 87.8 percent chance to win the fourth playoff spot.
Presuming everyone plays as expected (and the “that's why the play the games” saying appears here as a warning that this does not always happen), the NL East teams have little to look forward to in the regular season; play out their games as expected and they should end up as two of the top contenders to represent the National League in the World Series. What sort of competition are they facing? Let us look ahead to the currently projected potential playoff matchups between the NL East division representatives and their likely opponents.
Philadelphia Phillies (100% PS Odds) vs. San Francisco Giants (67.7%) / Arizona Diamondbacks (33.0%)
Arizona appears to be no better than a .500 team going forward, and that will hardly do if they go against a powerful roster such as Philadelphia's. Justin Upton continues his ascent to stardom with another high-impact season (4.4 WARP) this year, but it would be difficult for him and his band of above average hitters to get by one of the most potent rotations in baseball. As for the Diamondbacks' own starters, a playoff rotation that begins with Daniel Hudson or Ian Kennedy is not necessarily a bad one, but one that boasts either Joe Saunders or Josh Collmenter next on the list cannot bode well. The Phillies hold the 11th best offense in baseball by TAv, and that number includes performances by Raul Ibanez (466 PA, .249 TAv), Michael Martinez (166 PA, .227 TAv), and Wilson Valdez (233 PA, .216 TAv).
As for the defending champions, their problems lie more on the offensive spectrum. The Giants have made strides to improve their anemic offense, acquiring Carlos Beltran from the New York Mets, taking away the best bat on this season’s trade market, only to see him bat .244/.261/.356 and land on the disabled list with a wrist injury. The team may have finally come around to starting Brandon Belt a bit more often—even if it is just to rest Aubrey Huff and not because Belt appears to be the superior hitter—but those plans may not be enough to boost an offense that is ranked dead last in TAv against a Philly rotation that ranks first in ERA, FIP, and any other statistical measure of choice, advanced or otherwise. The Giants may have been able to boast their rotational superiority last season when their starters carried the team past a heavily-favored Philadelphia crew and into the World Series, but this season the two rotations are much closer in comparison.
The matchup between the rotations this season looks even at best and in favor of Philadelphia if you have a strong belief in the changes made by Cole Hamels. With the lineup advantage heavily in the Phillies' favor, it is difficult to get excited about the Giants' chances of eking out runs versus a staff about as strong as their own.
Atlanta Braves (96.5%) vs. Milwaukee Brewers (98.3%)
The Braves have complained all season long of difficulties at the plate, what with Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla both slumping earlier in the season. Meanwhile, Milwaukee boasts Ryan Braun (.338 TAv) and Prince Fielder (.327 TAv), two of the elite hitters in baseball. Despite their comparative lack of star hitters, however, the Braves have reason to remain optimistic about their offensive chances. The team may have fewer outstanding batters, but their top three hitters in Freddie Freeman, Chipper Jones, and Brian McCann are no slouches either, and Jones and McCann are performing at or close to their projected PECOTA performances. The resurgence of Dan Uggla has also sparked some offensive life in the Braves' bats; during Uggla's 36-game hit streak (during which he batted .359/.417/.717), the Braves themselves hit a much improved .267/.326/.413, a slash line very similar to the Brewers' season mark (.261/.323/.417). Finally, the Braves have boasted newly-acquired center fielder Michael Bourn for just 80 PA, and his presence over former center fielders Nate McLouth and Jordan Schafer should be much appreciated.
While the Braves filled some of their offensive holes, the Brewers left themselves with two of their own in shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and third baseman Casey McGehee. Among major leaguers with at least 400 PA, McGehee's .223 TAv is fifth worst in baseball while Betancourt's .235 is 11th. The only other players among the ten worst TAv that are on playoff contenders are Orlando Cabrera in the hapless San Francisco lineup and the Braves' own shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Even expecting some regression in McGehee's numbers (Betancourt is a career .242 TAv hitter, so not much is expected for him), depending on Craig Counsell and Jerry Hairston as their primary backups may come back to haunt them.
The advantage for the Braves will be in their pitching staff, which boasts not only the third best ERA and FIP in baseball but also the best relief corps in the game according to ERA and FIP. That bullpen is headlined by the best 8th/9th inning combo in the game in Johnny Venters (1.13 ERA, 2.37 FIP) and Craig Kimbrel (1.75, 1.26). The Brewers are no slouches however, countering with former New York Met Francisco Rodriguez (3.32, 2.91) and John Axford (2.28, 2.36). Eighth and ninth innings appear as if they will be a difficult challenge for either offense, and neither team has a significant edge in terms of their rotation.
The difference between the two teams could easily come down to which offense gets hot at the right time during their first-round playoff matchup, as both clubs are close to evenly matched on the pitching side. Indeed, the Braves are projected to finish the season with a .561 winning percentage the rest of the way, putting their average record at almost 94 wins; the Brewers, on the other hand, are expected to win the rest of their games at a .553 clip, putting them too at about 94 wins. Of the three potential first-round matchups in the National League, this one is easily the closest and could very well be the more exciting series to watch.