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October 7, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

Cardinals-Nationals Division Series Preview

by R.J. Anderson

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Fresh off winning the first-ever National League wild card game, the Cardinals have the honors of hosting the top-seeded Nationals for a best-of-five series.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)

Cardinals
CF-L Jon Jay (.305/.373/.400/.286)
RF-S Carlos Beltran (.269/.346/.495/.298)
LF-R Matt Holliday (.295/.379/.497/.310)
1B-R Allen Craig (.307/.354/.522/.308)
C-R Yadier Molina (.315/.373/.501/.315)
3B-R David Freese (.293/.372/.467/.290)
2B-L Daniel Descalso (.227/.303/.324/.240)
SS-R Pete Kozma (.333/.383/.569/.326 in 82 plate appearances)

Nationals
RF-R Jayson Werth (.300/.387/.440/.303)
CF-L Bryce Harper (.270/.340/.477/.291)
3B-R Ryan Zimmerman (.282/.346/.478/.287)
1B-L Adam LaRoche (.271/.343/.510/.303)
LF-R Michael Morse (.291/.321/.470/.276)
SS-R Ian Desmond (.292/.335/.511/.290)
2B-S Danny Espinosa (.247/.315/.402/.255)
C-R Kurt Suzuki (.235/.276/.328/.225)

St. Louis again holds the offensive edge against their opponents, though the lead is slighter this time around. This is a tough lineup, even without Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal. Jay is close to being a prototypical leadoff hitter: he hits for average, gets on base, and is the team’s best stolen base threat, in terms of volume and efficiency. Following Jay is a slate of well-rounded hitters. From Beltran through Freese you have players capable of doing it all at the plate. The seven-through-nine spots are the closest thing an opposing pitcher has to a reprieve, especially if Kozma’s uncharacteristically good offensive production ceases. 

The Nationals strike out a lot, but make up for it by hitting for power. Their lineup features six players with 15 or more home runs, including four who hit 20-plus. Three of the Nationals starters stole more than 15 bases (Desmond, Espinosa, and Harper). Add in their ability to keep managers honest with a decent alternation of left-handed and right-handed batters, and this is a hard lineup to muzzle.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)

Cardinals
1B/3B-L Matt Carpenter (.294/.365/.463/.293)
2B/OF-L Skip Schumaker (.276/.339/.368/.255)
C-R Tony Cruz (.254/.267/.365/.222)
OF-L Adron Chambers (.222/.300/.296/.220 in 62 PA)
INF-R Ryan Jackson (.118/.167/.118/.073 in 18 PA)
OF-R Shane Robinson (.253/.309/.355/.248)

Nationals
C-R Jesus Flores (.213/.248/.329/.202)
IF/OF-S Steve Lombardozzi (.273/.317/.354/.249)
OF-L Roger Bernadina (.291/.372/.405/.284)
1B/3B-L Chad Tracy (.269/.343/.441/.282)
OF/1B-R Tyler Moore (.263/.327/.513/.278)
PR-R Eury Perez (.200/.200/.200/.164 in five PA)

Again, the Cardinals have the best pinch-hitting option available in Carpenter. Schumaker is no slouch, either. The rest of the bench contains specialty players that bring value in small ways: speed, defense, and so on. Each has utility, albeit in a limited capacity.

While St. Louis has the best pinch-hitting option, the Nationals might have the second, third, and fourth-best options in Bernadina, Tracy, and Moore. Lombardozzi brings defensive flexibility to the team. Perez can also play the outfield, though his value is mostly in his legs. 

Starting Pitchers (IP, ERA, FIP)

Cardinals
RHP Adam Wainwright (198.2, 3.94, 3.14)
RHP Chris Carpenter (17, 3.71, 4.14)
LHP Jaime Garcia (121.2, 3.92, 3.01)
RHP Kyle Lohse (211, 2.86, 3.55)

Nationals
LHP Gio Gonzalez (199.1, 2.89, 2.87)
RHP Jordan Zimmermann (195.2, 2.94, 3.55)
RHP Edwin Jackson (189.2, 4.03, 3.89)
LHP Ross Detwiler (164.1, 3.40, 4.09)

With Carpenter and without Stephen Strasburg, this becomes a toss-up. The Nationals seemingly have the advantage at the front, while the Cardinals are better suited for a longer series, given their quality at the back. Therein is a catch-22 for St. Louis, since their depth can only play up if the Nationals are in a position where they aren’t willing to rush back Gonzalez or Zimmermann to stay alive.

Here are short notes on each of the Cardinals starters:

Wainwright’s return from Tommy John surgery went well. He uses four pitches: a low-90s sinker, a mid-to-high-80s cutter, a mid-70s curveball, and a mid-80s changeup against lefties. The curveball is the best pitch of the group. Once Wainwright gets ahead on a batter, the hammer comes into play and ends at-bats—be it via strikeout or groundout.

Carpenter returned late in the season from an injury of his own. He throws three different fastballs, a curveball, and an occasional changeup to keep lefties guessing. Unlike Wainwright, Carpenter uses his curveball to get ahead rather than to win battles. He’ll use his cutter to finish off right-handers, and whatever feels right to put away lefties.

Garcia uses high-80s heat to set up a plethora of secondary pitches. He’ll use his slider mostly against lefties, though he will throw it versus righties late in counts, while his changeup is reserved for righties. Garcia also throws a curveball, and does not discriminate with its usage.  

Lohse is a strike-throwing sinkerballer who mixes in his slider and changeup well enough to keep batters off balance. Unlike the typical sinkerballer, Lohse is willing to pitch up in the zone.

And the Nationals starters:

Gonzalez features arguably the best left-handed curveball in the game to go along with a mid-90s fastball and changeup. The fastball is the key of the group. If he’s locating the heater, then the other offerings, which play off it, are almost impossible to handle.

Zimmermann primarily throws two pitches: his mid-90s fastball and mid-80s slider. He also has a curveball. The interesting thing about Zimmermann is that his usage patterns are consistent throughout, meaning he’ll throw just about anything on any count.

Jackson remains essentially a two-pitch pitcher. His mid-90s fastball and slider are the only weapons he needs on his good nights due to his ability to use the slider against hitters of both hands. He does throw a mid-80s changeup, but the pitch has always been the laggard in his arsenal.  

Detwiler is a lanky left-hander with a four-pitch mix: four- and two-seamers, a put-away curveball , and a changeup.

Bullpen (IP, ERA, FIP)

Cardinals
RHP Jason Motte (72, 2.75, 3.16)
RHP Mitchell Boggs (73.1, 2.21, 3.46)
LHP Marc Rzepczynski (46.2, 4.24, 4.76)
RHP Edward Mujica (65.1, 3.03, 3.69)
RHP Fernando Salas (58.2, 4.30, 3.63)
RHP Trevor Rosenthal (22.2, 2.78, 3.14)
LHP Samuel Freeman (20, 5.40, 4.29)
RHP Lance Lynn (176, 3.78, 3.53)

Nationals
RHP Drew Storen (30.1, 2.37, 2.44)
RHP Tyler Clippard (72.2, 3.72, 3.36)
LHP Sean Burnett (56.2, 2.38, 2.84)
RHP Ryan Mattheus (66.1, 2.85, 4.46)
RHP Craig Stammen (88.1, 2.34, 3.49)
LHP Michael Gonzalez (35.2, 3.03, 3.02)
RHP Christian Garcia (12.2, 2.13, 3.77)

The back-end of the Cardinals bullpen is strong, with Motte, Boggs, Rzepczynski, and Mujica. Otherwise, this is a team that had troubles throughout the season with middle relief. The Cardinals were able to avoid that portion of their bullpen in the play-in game, but will have to dip into it during a prolonged series.

The Nationals feature a more impressive bullpen overall. Storen, Clippard, Burnett, and Mattheus are on par with the Cardinals bunch, and the Nationals have intriguing middle relief options like Stammen to offer. Keep an eye on Garcia should he make the club, He barely pitched for the Nationals during the season, but comes at hitters with a mid-90s fastball and a curveball that has sudden and dramatic movement. The Nationals could go with an additional lefty, probably Tom Gorzelanny or Zach Duke, otherwise. 

Defense
The Cardinals could have the strongest defense up the middle of any National League playoff team. Jon Jay, Pete Kozma, Daniel Descalso, and Yadier Molina are all better-than-average defenders. Yet St. Louis ranks near the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency, raw and park-adjusted, because of their corners; namely Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday.

Again the Cardinals will have a weaker defense than their opponents, as Washington finished fifth and seventh in raw and park-adjusted defensive efficiency. Three-fourths of the Nationals starting infield carry strong defensive reputations, including Ryan Zimmerman. Ian Desmond, who has a knack for making highlight reel-quality plays, is the lone perceived negative defender. In the outfield, Morse is are questionable, and probably better suited for first base. Suzuki will catch; he brings a high-energy approach behind the plate.

Managers
Mike Matheny makes his postseason debut as a manager. Expect announcers to attach the suffix “not Tony La Russa” to Matheny’s name throughout the tournament. The allusions to the Cardinals’ old skipper will also surface whenever Matheny gets tactical, though those occurrences are seldom. Matheny does love using pinch hitters—only the Brewers and Mets used more this season—but that sums up the extent of his managerial greed. He will not call for many bunts, steals, hit-and-runs, or intentional walks, unless the October stage alters his strategic profile. You might see Matheny get into a squat to warm up his pitcher, however.

Davey Johnson ranked 11th in the NL in pinch-hitters used, but his pinch-hitters hit a league-best .288 when they did get a chance. Johnson doesn’t call for many hit-and-runs, stolen bases, or sacrifice bunts, either. The Nationals did pull off seven successful double steals on the season. Johnson is willing to try unconventional methods if he feels they give his team a better chance to win.

Prediction
Lately, St. Louis has taken to the underdog role by winning games and series they weren’t favored entering. The Cardinals will have to keep that trend going because the Nationals appear to have better pitching, defense, and a comparable lineup. The Nationals advance to their first NLCS by winning this series in five games.

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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