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October 1, 2002

Playoff Prospectus

Arizona Diamondbacks vs. St. Louis Cardinals

by Gary Huckabay

In any given year, at least one or two of the playoff spots wrap up early. Usually, writers from those markets start to madly flail for anything relevant to write about between the time their team clinches a playoff spot, and the time the postseason begins. There's a few stock categories for this type of piece, some of which we've already touched on (excessively), and the rest of which you're painfully familiar with. These topics include, but aren't limited to:

  • In the postseason, good pitching beats good hitting.
  • The Diamondbacks/Twins/Whoever are backing into the playoffs.
  • The A's/Cardinals/Yo' Mama are getting hot right at the right time.
  • Great defense is what makes the difference in the postseason.
  • Those late season injuries are going to destroy the D-Backs/Yankees/Pauly Shore
  • The postseason is where the manager makes the biggest difference.

I could continue, but there's a good chance you've already put your fist/head/sledgehammer through your monitor, and I think you get the idea. The truth is that no one really knows what makes a great postseason team. I've seen a ton of pieces from people who think they know, but there's not a study out there that does a definitive job of identifying particular ballclub traits that make a team more successful in the postseason than in the regular season. If you have one, I'd sure love to see it. At the end of the day, it pretty much comes down to two things:

  1. It's a really good idea to prevent your opponents from scoring more runs than you do, and
  2. These series are really short, and any team that can make the postseason can beat any other team that can make the postseason in a short series.

There are some obvious storylines specific to the Arizona/St. Louis matchup, as derived from the generic list above. Let's lay those out, and address them one by one:

  • The Diamondbacks would really prefer to have a healthy Luis Gonzalez.
  • The Diamondbacks are backing into the playoffs.
  • The Cardinals are peaking at exactly the right time.
  • The tragedies suffered by the Cardinals have unified the team.
  • The Diamondback defense couldn't prevent a bunt single by the desiccated remains of William Holden.
  • It sucks to face Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in three out of five games.

The Diamondbacks would really prefer to have a healthy Luis Gonzalez

Yes, the D-Backs would prefer to have a healthy Luis Gonzalez. But even without him, they're a pretty reasonable offensive squad. The D-Backs have very good depth, and they can move around some combination of Erubiel Durazo, Greg Colbrunn, and Mark Grace depending on whether they're facing a righty or lefty on any given day.

Gonzalez, before suffering a nasty shoulder injury, posted a very serviceable .288/.400/.496 for the season, with about a hundred-point OPS platoon split. The guys most likely to get his time at the plate:

Player               OPS   Platoon Split (OPS)
Greg Colbrunn      1.004   +246 vs. LHP
Mark Grace          .736   +190 vs. LHP (+14 vs. RHP 1999-2001)
Erubiel Durazo      .945   +491 vs. RHP
Quinton McCracken   .825   +71 vs. RHP

Depending on the health of Danny Bautista, he could see some time in this series, or you might see an offense/defense platoon with Mark Little. Yes, having Gonzalez would be nice, but primarily, what the Diamondbacks are losing is some tactical flexibility. Having players that mash pitching from one side of the plate is nice, but it does mean that during the late innings of games, you can end up painted into a corner in terms of your optimal in-game moves.

The Diamondbacks are Backing into the Playoffs

You heard this refrain quite a bit when Curt Schilling bookended a six-game losing streak at the end of the Snakes' final road trip. Of course, the Colorado Rockies then came to the BOB for a remarkable demonstration of self-immolation, failing only in their quest to allow their opponents to double their offensive output for every game of a four game series.

Every year, some juggernaut rolls through the regular season, then has some sort of lull towards the end of year, and desperate columnists fill 1200 words about it. To date, no one has demonstrated that a brief late-season decline has any predictive value when it comes to a short post-season series. D-Back fans, don't lose any sleep over it.

The Cardinals are Peaking at Exactly the Right Time

Well, for one, you can take a peek at the last paragraph. The Cards have finished strong, stomping on the collective tracheae of the already-gasping Astros. They did manage to beat Curt Schilling, and it's nice to know that such a feat is at least possible. But primary reasons why the Cards had such a nice last four weeks (compiling a tidy 21-4 run) are pretty simple:

  • They're a good team.
  • They had a pretty easy schedule.
  • Ups and downs happen.

The losing pitchers during September Cardinal Wins: Jimmy Haynes, Bruce Chen, Alan Benes, Antonio Alfonseca, Kerry Wood, Ben Diggins [twice], Wayne Franklin, Ben Sheets, Tom Gordon, Peter Munro [twice], Kent Mercker, Justin Speier, Jason Jennings, Kirk Saarloos, Rick Helling, Mike Fetters, Curt Schilling, Glendon Rusch, and Luis Vizcaino.

It's not that tough to peak when you face the Brewers seven times over a three week span. Just as the A's 20-game winning streak was chock-full-o-Tigers-'n-Royals, the Cardinals' schedule was a little soft. I'm not suggesting that the Cardinals were lucky or undeserving or something, but Cardinal fans shouldn't take much solace in the Cards' hot finish, other than the implication that everyone seems to be relatively healthy.

The Tragedies Suffered by the Cardinals Have Unified the Team

It was definitely a kick to the chest to lose Darryl Kile so abruptly and unfairly earlier this season. Thankfully, we don't have enough data to seriously examine and make a determination about whether or not this kind of tragedy does have some ancillary effects. The nature of teams is to become more unified over time and through continued success. With a few notable exceptions, teams that get this far tend to have a degree of cohesion and camaraderie. Darryl Kile's absence will be a cause for remembrance and dignified tribute, not improved fast-twitch muscle fibers.

The Diamondback Defense Couldn't Prevent a Bunt Single by the Desiccated Remains of William Holden

Since Gonzalez had that nasty shoulder injury the other night, there's been considerable talk about the defensive hit the Diamondbacks will take with Durazo roaming the outfield. Well, it's possible, but how serious of an issue is this, really? In a five-game series with three of the games started by Schilling or Johnson, no team is less dependent on its defense than the K-tastic D-Backs. Additionally, it's not as if Durazo can't catch the ball if it's hit near him, nor is it illegal to use something called a "Defensive Replacement."

There is a bigger concern than simply having Durazo in the outfield. One advance scout describes the D-Back defense as "very old. Even Steve Finley can't cover that much ground out there anymore. Matt Williams is a shadow of his former self, Tony Womack's a great athlete playing out of position, and there are no plus defenders on the field. Their outfielders get good velocity on the ball, but they take forever to release it, so their opponents can run wild."

The St. Louis defense, on the other hand, is much more highly regarded. "They're one of the best two or three infield defenses in either league," says an advance scout. "The addition of Scott Rolen next to Edgar Renteria makes the left side amazing, and everyone on the field has a head for the game. They'll steal at least one out on instinct during the LDS."

It Sucks to Face Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in Three Out of Five Games.

Um, yes. That's something like saying "David Caruso and Shelley Long might not be optimal career coaches." Johnson and Schilling are very high up on a short list of pitchers who can simply take control of a ballgame. The Cardinals have actually handled them fairly well this year, beating Schilling, and putting three runs on the board against Johnson back in April this year. (With Johnson, that counts as a moral victory at the very least.)

Let's look at the pitching matchups:

Games 1 & 4:

Pitcher      GS    IP    R  SNW  SNL  SNPct W  L   RA    APW  SNVA  SNWAR
Johnson, R    35  260.0  78 20.7  6.9  .751 24  5  2.70   6.3   6.7    9.0
Morris, M     32  210.3  86 13.8  9.7  .587 17  9  3.68   1.8   1.9    3.8

Game 2:

Pitcher      GS    IP    R  SNW  SNL  SNPct W  L   RA    APW  SNVA  SNWAR
Schilling, C  35  258.3  92 18.5  8.2  .691 23  7  3.21   4.8   4.9    7.1
Finley, C     32  190.7  97 12.1 10.2  .543 11 15  4.58   0.3   0.7    2.6

Game 3: 

Pitcher      GS    IP    R  SNW  SNL  SNPct W  L   RA    APW  SNVA  SNWAR
Batista, M    29  176.7  96  9.8 10.2  .490  8  9  4.89   0.2  -0.3    1.3
Williams, W   17  103.3  30  7.7  3.3  .700  9  4  2.61   2.1   2.0    3.0

It's possible that the D-Backs could run Rick Helling or John Patterson out for a potential Game 4, but you're just as likely to see Johnson vs. Morris again, should it come to that. Clearly, there's a huge advantage here, and it belongs to Arizona. St. Louis fans can hang their hat on two things. First, Curt Schilling may be suffering from fatigue or a minor injury. In September, Schilling has been downright mortal, posting a 5.87 ERA, and a K rate slightly below what it's been throughout the year at a "mere" 9.69 K/9, compared to the 10.94 he's posted for the entire season. Second, the one team that's beaten him up this season has been the Cardinals, against whom he's 0-2 with a 7.71 ERA.

Still, you have to like those matchups if you're a Snakes fan.

What About the Bats?

Let's take a look at the EqA Boards:

Name                         Team Lge Pos   Out  PA      EQA   EQR    RAR   RAP  RARP
Junior Spivey                  ARI NL  2B    379. 614.  0.295   89.3  41.2  24.9  42.0
Steve Finley                   ARI NL  CF    361. 568.  0.294   84.9  39.1  15.8  34.2
Erubiel Durazo                 ARI NL  1B    165. 273.  0.312   44.9  24.0   8.5  18.2
Damian Miller                  ARI NL  C     223. 338.  0.265   40.3  12.0   6.7  15.6
Greg Colbrunn                  ARI NL  1B    114. 183.  0.320   33.1  18.6   8.3  14.9
Quinton McCracken              ARI NL  RF    245. 383.  0.281   51.4  20.3   0.5  14.0
Tony Womack                    ARI NL  SS    438. 635.  0.242   63.3   7.7 -10.3   9.3
Matt Williams                  ARI NL  3B    157. 231.  0.270   29.8   9.9   1.3   8.9
Danny Bautista                 ARI NL  RF    106. 165.  0.291   24.2  10.8   2.0   7.9
Chad Moeller                   ARI NL  C      76. 118.  0.259   13.0   3.4   1.3   4.4
Mark Grace                     ARI NL  1B    220. 340.  0.261   38.4  10.5 -10.1   2.8
Rod Barajas                    ARI NL  C     118. 167.  0.225   14.2  -0.7  -3.6   1.2
Chris Donnels                  ARI NL  Oth    60.  89.  0.258   10.1   2.5  -2.2   1.1
Mark Little                    ARI NL  RF     14.  23.  0.268    2.6   0.8  -0.4   0.4
David Dellucci                 ARI NL  RF    177. 258.  0.249   27.3   4.8 -10.7  -0.6

Is there a Barry Bonds here? A Brian Giles? Even a Luis Gonzalez? No, but it's not a bad offense. Everyone in the lineup with the exception of Womack is someone that can be effective in fairly common situations. The St. Louis pitchers won't get much time to completely relax and blow through three or four easy outs, and there should be plenty of tactical movement to keep Brenly and LaRussa occupied. Arizona's offensive performance will largely depend on the comparative abilities of LaRussa and Brenly to control each plate appearance. Colbrunn's a nice bat to have against the likes of Steve Kline, but there will be a number of moves and countermoves that will have to shake out in each game.

And now, for the clear Cardinal advantage:

Name                         Team Lge Pos   Out  PA      EQA   EQR    RAR   RAP  RARP
Jim Edmonds                    STL NL  CF    331. 569.  0.330  103.6  61.6  40.4  57.2
Albert Pujols                  STL NL  LF    406. 667.  0.319  116.7  65.2  33.2  55.4
Edgar Renteria                 STL NL  SS    383. 593.  0.283   81.5  32.9  17.2  34.3
Eli Marrero                    STL NL  RF    291. 433.  0.275   57.6  20.7   1.8  16.7
Scott Rolen                    STL NL  3B    149. 225.  0.297   35.7  16.8   9.1  16.2
J.D. Drew                      STL NL  RF    319. 489.  0.275   63.1  22.6  -4.5  13.5
Fernando Vina                  STL NL  2B    461. 680.  0.244   67.6   9.1 -10.8  10.1
Tino Martinez                  STL NL  1B    379. 571.  0.269   71.4  23.3 -12.2  10.0
Placido Polanco                STL NL  3B    246. 358.  0.246   37.0   5.8  -6.4   5.2
Mike Matheny                   STL NL  C     239. 346.  0.227   29.3  -1.0  -7.2   2.5
Mike DiFelice                  STL NL  C     134. 192.  0.234   17.7   0.7  -3.6   2.1

These are just plain better hitters. LaRussa has some flexibility, and from the looks of these rosters, we're going to see games with a lot of relievers as both teams scramble for platoon advantages. The Diamondbacks can't answer a middle of the order that contains the likes of Jim Edmonds and Albert Pujols. The secondary performers, including an injured J.D. Drew, have comparable performance levels to the core performers for the D-Backs. This offense could beat the stuffing out of mediocre pitching, but right now, they're not scheduled to face any.

It's possible that this series could be disproportionately affected by the strike zone being called on any given night. If Woody Williams doesn't get the Jimmy Key plate, he may well be bashed around. The Cardinals are powerful enough that if they can squeeze Schilling a little, they might be able to catch up with his fastball, if, in fact, his velocity is down. "His velocity isn't down at all," says one advance scout, "but his command has been flaky, particularly up and away to right handed hitters. If they can lay off that pitch and make him bring the ball down, he can be hit and hit hard." Perhaps, but that sounds like a long shot.

The Call

D-Backs in a three-game sweep behind dominant starting pitching and an onslaught of sidearmers and submariners.

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

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