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October 2, 2002
San Francisco Giants vs. Atlanta Braves
Unstoppable force, immovable object, best hitter of all time versus... well, if not exactly the best, one of the game's best rotations. It all almost borders on a Xena: Warrior Princess plot line. Throw in Keith Lockhart or Vinny Castilla, and you've even got the lame sidekick or two. You've got two managers famous for in-season success and postseason failure, and Barry Bonds and his almost tediously similar legacy. For international flavor, you've got one Pacific Rim token and another one starting Game Four for the Braves, Julio Franco representing the AARP, David Bell representing people whose fathers played against Julio Franco, and Benito Santiago representing AARP graduates--the living dead. It makes for an interesting mix, obviously.
Thanks to their employing the best hitter in the game's history, cumulative totals will tell you that the Giants are the stronger lineup. However, these two teams make for an interesting study in contrasts as far as lineups go. The Giants have two great hitters and six useful mediocrities, the Braves four great hitters and four bad ones. Which one would you prefer over six months, and which one works out well over a short series? Thinking on it, there's reason to prefer the four over the two: four guys who can give you that Lloyd McClendon Little League World Series as opposed to only two makes it seem like you've got better odds, doesn't it? It's the great players who have those Derek Lilliquist career days regularly, that's why they're great. The odds that Lockhart or Castilla or any of the Giants' six mediocrities will have those kind of games are, of course, negligible, but then how many people have a Reggie day in October, anyways?
On the other hand, assuming Christy Mathewson's wisdom about coasting has any value in today's game--although frankly I doubt it--you could argue that the Braves' six through nine hitters are the ideal match-up to cruise through a half-inning every other inning. Normally, hitters this weak might get pinch-hit for by Tom Glavine in one of his better-swinging seasons, but unfortunately for the Braves, Glavine didn't hit so well this year. But those are three OBP sinkholes, and they're not guys prone to long at-bats. A command and control fiend like Kirk Rueter might actually finagle his way past the lot of them.
A lot will depend on what Cox does with Barry Bonds. The entire NL was willing to let Barry Bonds get only 85 at-bats with runners in scoring position, against 78 walks. On those 85 at-bats, Bonds drove in 65, so what can you say, the Bochy Plan doesn't seem like such a bad idea over the course of a season. However, as long as Baker insists on batting Kent third, Bonds is there to be walked and force the Giants to live and die on Reggie Sanders and Benito Santiago in high-leverage situations. Baker's lineup whimsy might play out well over the long haul of months of games, as single-game effects on a lineup wash out over slumps, streaks, and opponents of varying quality. Against a good team with a good pen, it looks like an exploitable weakness. And if Bonds ends up screwing the bat into sawdust hankering after an opportunity, any opportunity, because they've gotten that much more scarce because of his manager's design, you can count on the continued schadenfreude from commentators and fans, and a continued free pass for Dusty for making it so.
If it works, it works, but whatever advantages the Giants might have offensively, it's not because of a deep bench. They have Damon Minor, although Minor should probably be starting ahead of Snow at first, and they have Martinez, who would be a very nice fit for the Braves as their everyday second baseman, but they do not have a good high-OBP pinch-hitter. Worse yet, they don't have a big right-handed bat to go after the Braves' key lefty setup men. They've got Franco to sub for Franco, and that's about it.
The Braves' bench doesn't have anybody who will give a calculating manager the willies, even if it does feature two or three people who should be playing every day ahead of Lockhart and Castilla. The nice way to look at it is that Bobby Cox has the tactical option of making a double-switch after Lockhart or Castilla have ended an offensive inning, flipping the pitcher's spot up to get DeRosa or Giles or Helms an at-bat and minimizing the chances of having to pull an effective reliever out of offensive need. No, it isn't as good as having good hitters in the lineup, but the absence of good regulars should force Cox to be aggressive in pursuing tactical benefits wherever he can.
If the series was merely a matter of asset management, the Braves win, because they've got the big battalions right here. Fortunately for the disinterested and curious, the game, like any plan, is combustible, and in the short season, rarely survives the sterile absolutes of the season's spreadsheet. The Braves' rotation is obviously stronger, and that's obviously good for them. But it also forces Cox to avoid pinch-hitting to help a weak offense, and it sort of dictates that the Braves aim for low-scoring affairs. And for all of the press devoted to the postseason failures of a Bonds or a Clemens, the mixed track record of Greg Maddux in October should take some of the luster off of this otherwise obvious advantage.
The match-up I find particularly interesting is Millwood versus Schmidt. Back-to-back bad outings against the Marlins in September were the only real warts on what has been an outstanding second half for Millwood, but Schmidt has been similarly strong down the stretch. The Giants will obviously have to hope that Russ Ortiz can take advantage of his general tendency to do better in daylight and at home, but those are the sorts of things that are less important than having the offense get off to a good start against two of the better starting pitchers in the game.
A lot of ink has already been wasted on John Smoltz for MVP or Rolaids Boy or President of a Banana Republic to be named later or whatever, but the really interesting situation here is that the Giants' bullpen was "only" the third-best pen in the league behind the oft-noted Braves and the Cardinals. The extent of the Braves' overall lead doesn't really matter--both teams have quality pens, and although somebody's going to have to have a bad day at the office at least one day out of five, both teams are loaded with relief talent.
This shared strength actually matters more for the Giants. They can avoid having their starters see the Braves' core hitters more than two or at most three times in a game, assuming Dusty's sense of machismo doesn't get in the way. If the Giants go to the pen aggressively, they can compensate for a comparatively weaker rotation, and keep the Braves' lineup from putting together a game-ending crooked number in the sixth or seventh innings. But it's up to Dusty to play to his team's strengths.