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October 9, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Preview

by R.J. Anderson

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With a thrilling Game 5 victory on Friday night, the Cardinals advanced to their first National League Championship Series since 2006, when they wound up winning the World Series. The square-off between Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay was so hyped up and oversaturated with storylines that it felt odd to realize the pair exceeded the high expectations put before them.

The former Blue Jays teammates combined to toss 17 of the 18 innings and allowed nine hits, a run, and a walk while striking out 10 batters. Devout DIPS theory followers will point out that Halladay pitched better, and he did, but Carpenter will be the one remembered and revered for his performance. It took 110 pitches for Carpenter to record his first postseason shutout, and he breezed through most of the game.

Carpenter faced 31 total batters and registered a three-ball count against four, with three coming in a single inning. Another telling stat is that Carpenter faced three Phillies while the club had a runner in scoring position and just one with a runner on third. He did his part in keeping the Phillies off base and off the board, and the Cardinals offense rewarded him with just enough run support.

Often the importance of the first run or getting off to a fast start is overstated, but you wouldn’t know that from watching Game 5. Rafael Furcal led off with a triple and stood watching as Skip Schumaker worked a nine-pitch at-bat before doubling to right on pitch 10. St. Louis took a 1-0 lead and never relented thanks to Carpenter and their defensive efforts. As a sign of gratitude, the Cardinals swarmed Carpenter after he finished the Phillies off and tore his jersey off his body while celebrating on the field. In all likelihood, the party raged on well after the cameras stopped rolling for the unlikeliest of first-round winners.

The livers had a day to clean, but business picks back up on this afternoon. The Cardinals will face a foe they are intimately familiar with in the Brewers. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs was back in the 1982 World Series. The Brewers were in the American League then and will look for their first NL pennant now.

Why the Cardinals Will Win: Any lineup with Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, and Matt Holliday is going to score runs. The Cardinals are no different, as they finished the season as the NL’s leader in True Average, eclipsing the Brewers .272 to .261. That advantage in TAv led to an additional 41 runs during the regular season, and the Cardinals showed off their brawn by averaging nearly four runs per game in the Divisional Series despite facing Halladay twice, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. The real wild card here is whether the baseball gods want Octavio Dotel’s toy squirrel to become a postseason sensation—if so, all bets are off.

Why the Brewers Will Win:  You have undoubtedly read about the Brewers’ celebratory act of choice that they call “Beast Mode” by now. Know that the Brewers tend to have reason to break it out more often in Miller Park, where the wild things play their home games. Not only did Milwaukee lead the league in home wins (57 in the regular season, with three more in the Divisional round), but they also posted the league’s best record in one-run games (30-18). Additionally, the Brewers hold the advantage in staff Fair Run Average.

Most Glaring Contrast Between These Teams: Believe it or not, Tony La Russa issued 44 intentional passes on the season, just slightly more than the league-average total, and yet still gave out nearly three times as many intentional walks as Ron Roenicke. These teams play in the same division, so this is not a situation where the environment breeds tactical philosophy; Roenicke is just stingy about giving up a free base.

Game 1 Match-up: Jaime Garcia vs. Zack Greinke
Both pitchers are in line to make their second career postseason start. The Brewers would rather not see Garcia this early in the series since they hit right-handed pitchers better during the regular season, and the St. Louis lefty has pitched well against them during his career (eight appearances and a 3.27 earned run average). Hypothetically speaking, these two could return for Game 4 on short-rest, if needed, or Game 5 on full rest.

What They Throw
Surprise, surprise, Garcia is a left-hander who relies on changing speeds. His primary pitch is a sinker with late-enough movement that batters cannot help but beat it into the ground. The sinker isn’t Garcia’s only fastball, as he also tosses a cutter that sits in the mid-to-upper 80s. Add in a slow-curve that hitters often cannot do anything besides take for a strike as well as a changeup, and it isn’t a surprise that Garcia has found success against batters of either hand.

Greinke has the sexier arsenal, with a four-seam fastball that can get into the mid-90s. He cuts it and throws a two-seamer as well. Like Garcia, Greinke can toss a slow curve at a batter too—and you will see him start a few at-bats that way—while also throwing a changeup and slider. Lefties hit Greinke better in 2011 but in a less pronounced manner than his career numbers would suggest.

Game 2 Match-up: Edwin Jackson vs. Shaun Marcum
Marcum has looked gassed since September and has given up five-plus runs in three of his last four starts. His first playoff start could not have gone worse, but Game 2 coincides nicely with a scheduled day off, so the Brewers can aggressively use the bullpen without banking on a deep outing from Gallardo.

What They Throw
Jackson is the uncontested hardest-throwing starter in the series and generally one of the harder throwers in baseball. His four-seam fastball sits 92-to-96 mph, and his secondary offering is a slider that he is willful in using against righties and lefties alike. Unexpectedly, Jackson’s groundball rate has taken a step back since joining the Cardinals.

If the game were decided by fastball velocity and nothing else, then the Brewers would lose this game in a blowout. Marcum’s fastball comes in well below average for a righty, but his changeup allows him to survive versus lefties. He also uses a curveball (only early in the count) and a cut-fastball that racks up swinging strikes.

Game 3 Match-up: Chris Carpenter vs. Yovani Gallardo
Carpenter is the best pitcher in the series per Fair Run Average and has already been tabbed as the Cards’ Game 7 starter, should things get that far. His match-up makes for a fun game of firsts. This will be Carpenter’s first home start and Gallardo’s first road start of postseason play. Your two likely narrative points: 1) Gallardo has pitched better at home throughout his career and 2) is 1-7 with a 5.66 career earned run average in 11 starts versus St. Louis.

What They Throw
True to form for a longtime Cardinals pitcher, Carpenter tosses a sinker that PITCHf/x data suggests generated nearly 60 percent groundballs when put into play. Carpenter also uses a cutter, curve, and the occasional changeup.

Gallardo’s fastball is more dynamic (sitting in the 91-95 mph range) and misses bats more often. He backs the four-seamer up with a pair of swing-and-miss secondary pitches (a curveball and slider) and a two-seam version.

 Game 4 Match-up:  Kyle Lohse vs. Randy Wolf
The Cardinals lineup holds no prejudice when it comes to the arm of the pitcher, as they hit righties and lefties evenly throughout 2011. That could spell trouble for Wolf and did more often than not during the regular season. Wolf faced the Cardinals five times, holding them to one-run twice and allowing five-plus runs in the other three outings. Depending on the state of the series, he could be on an even shorter leash than he deserves after his NLDS blow-up.

What They Throw
Lohse may not throw as hard as he used to, but he is still a fastball/slider pitcher for the most part, with a changeup coming into play against left-handed batters. His issues over the last several seasons have been with righties more so than lefties.

After throwing batter practice to the Diamondbacks in Game Four, Wolf hopes to get back to doing what he does best, and that is junkballing his way through lineups two or three times. His fastball sits in the high-80s, and his signature pitch is a slow yakker (with an average velocity under 70 mph). He also uses a slider and changeup.  

Guess the Annoying Cliché the Announcers Will Harp On:  You would hear about the potential for a comeback regardless, as it is an announcer’s tool to attempt and drum up drama, but the threat level is on red with the presence of the Cardinals. Also, do not be surprised if “experience” becomes a buzzword throughout the series.

Something That Probably Won’t Happen But Could: Tony La Russa complains (again) about Miller Park’s lighting and accuses the Brewers of cheating.

A National Audience Will Learn This About Baseball: That Ron Roenicke isn’t afraid to get creative. Roenicke is a practitioner of the squeeze playand loves to use it with Jonathan Lucroy at the plate—as observers of Game 2 know. In addition, Roenicke will employ some other tricks if the situation calls for it, like the five-man infield.

Series Prediction: Brewers in six. Milwaukee had the better first-, second-, and third-order records during the regular season and looks like the superior team on paper too. Add in the home-field advantage enjoyed by the Brewers, and the Cardinals will have to continue to play the role of naïve underdog if they hope to win their 18th pennant.

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

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