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September 30, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

NLDS Preview: Phillies vs. Cardinals

by Ben Lindbergh

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Why the Phillies Will Win: The Phillies boast the best pitching staff in baseball and can throw three of the NL’s top 10 starters in four of five possible games. Should they fail to sweep, they’ll be forced to hold their nose, avert their eyes, and hand the ball to… Roy Oswalt. It’s good to be a Phillies fan.

Why the Cardinals Will Win: It’s a short series. In case you’ve forgotten exactly what might be possible in a short series, I offer the following refresher course, courtesy of a sweaty Celtic:

The Cardinals are 6-3 against the Phillies this season—making them one of only three teams to finish with a winning record in their season series with the Phils, alongside such luminaries as the Nationals and Mariners—so they’ve already proven that they’re capable of playing David to the senior circuit’s Goliath over a long enough stretch to advance to the NLCS. They also have the highest team TAv in the NL (.272), so they’re as well-equipped to handle the onslaught of aces as anyone (especially if Matt Holliday is able to contribute). The St. Louis faithful can also take some comfort in the fact that this Cardinals club is far superior to the 83-win edition that went all the way in 2006.

Most Glaring Contrast Between These Teams:
It’s not as if Halladay and company particularly needed the help, but unlike the Cardinals, the Phillies can catch the ball. Philadelphia ranks third in the NL in defensive efficiency, converting 70.3 percent of balls in play into outs, while St. Louis languishes in 12th place at 68.7 percent. However, as long as Raul Ibanez is installed in left, the Phillies still hold the distinction of having the worst glove on the field.

Game 1 Match-up: Roy Halladay vs. Kyle Lohse
Any match-up featuring Halladay is bound to be a mismatch, but game one looks especially lopsided because Chris Carpenter went the distance in the final game of the regular season, leaving Lohse—who had been slated to start a potential playoff game on Thursday—lined up to kick things off for the Cardinals. Lohse stepped up his game in the third leg of his current four-year deal, posting his best walk rate since 2003 with the Twins, but he’ll be hard-pressed to outpitch Halladay, who put together the best season in his Cooperstown-caliber career by incorporating more strikeouts into his usual low-walk, high-groundball approach.

Game 2 Match-up: Cliff Lee vs. Edwin Jackson
Lee’s walk rate nearly doubled last season but still would have led the league if not for Halladay’s heroics. The Phillies required fewer innings from their bullpen than any other NL team, which is what happens when your top two starters average well over seven innings per start. Jackson chopped close to half a run off his ERA after leaving the DH league at the trade deadline, but he also struck out fewer batters and allowed more fly balls

Game 3 Match-up: Cole Hamels vs. Chris Carpenter
It took a showdown between the Phillies’ third starter and the Cardinals’ ace to produce the first pitching match-up of the series that could be said to be something close to even, and even here the NL Easterners have a slight edge. Hamels was actually the most efficient member of the Phillies’ Big Three, delivering only 14.5 pitches per inning, the third-lowest figure in the majors. He handed out fewer walks and induced more grounders than ever before, resulting in his best season so far. Carpenter was also in fine form, giving the Cards at least one elite starter they could count on in Adam Wainwright’s absence.

Guess the Annoying Cliche the Announcers Will Harp On: “Good pitching beats good hitting.” It doesn’t, of course, any more than good hitting beats good pitching, but that probably won’t prevent this old warhorse from riding again if the Phillies’ four aces succeeding in shutting down Pujols, Berkman, a less-than-healthy Holliday, and the rest of the Cardinals’ league-leading offensive attack.

This Probably Won't Happen But Could: Albert Pujols and Brad Lidge could face off again at a crucial October moment. With Houston one out away from advancing to the World Series in game five of the 2005 NLCS, then-Astro Lidge allowed a crushing three-run homer to Pujols that many blamed for Lidge’s superficially poor 2006 season. (How exactly that home run caused Lidge’s BABIP to skyrocket while leaving his lofty strikeout rate unscathed was never sufficiently explained.) Overall, Pujols has hit .333/.406/.593 in 32 plate appearances against Lidge, which sounds like outright ownership until you remember that he’s hit even better against the rest of the league.

A National Audience Will Learn This About Baseball: That as great as it is to get on base, what you do once you get there also matters. The Cardinals and Phillies were the worst and third-worst baserunning teams in the majors, respectively, costing themselves a combined 21 runs, or roughly two wins, with their feet alone. Both teams were abysmal at advancing on ground balls, and the Cardinals not only stole the second-fewest bases in the majors (57) but did so at the sport’s lowest success rate (59.4 percent). At -9.4 BRR, Ryan Howard was the worst baserunner in baseball.

Series Prediction: Phillies in four, but a St. Louis loss is hardly set in stone. Remember, many pundits predicted that the Phillies would cruise to a title last season, but a funny thing happened on the way to the World Series—the Giants won the pennant, in the process proving that Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt could be beaten.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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