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October 7, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

NLDS Game One Preview: Nationals at Cardinals

by Daniel Rathman

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After eliminating the Braves for the second year in a row, the Cardinals return home to Busch Stadium to take on the Nationals. Here are the PECOTA odds and projected lineups for Game One:

Nationals (Gio Gonzalez) at Cardinals (Adam Wainwright) – 3:00 p.m. ET
PECOTA Odds of Winning: Cardinals 57.3 percent, Nationals 43.7 percent

Projected Starting Lineups:

Nationals vs. Wainwright (R)

Cardinals vs. Gonzalez (L)

Jayson Werth (R)

Jon Jay (L)

Bryce Harper (L)

Carlos Beltran (S)

Ryan Zimmerman (R)

Matt Holliday (R)

Adam LaRoche (L)

Allen Craig (R)

Michael Morse (R)

Yadier Molina (R)

Ian Desmond (R)

David Freese (R)

Danny Espinosa (S)

Daniel Descalso (L)

Kurt Suzuki (R)

Pete Kozma (R)

Gio Gonzalez (R)

Adam Wainwright (R)

The Nationals might be the senior circuit’s top seed, but the Cardinals underachieved during the regular season, and PECOTA is not taking them lightly.  With Wainwright slowly rounding into form after recovering from Tommy John surgery and initially being “an embarrassment to the team and the entire game of baseball,” the system expects St. Louis to take Game One.

Wainwright faced the Nationals twice during the regular season, both times within the past month and a half, with starkly different results. He was charged with six runs in 2 2/3 innings on Aug. 31, coughing up nine hits and issuing three walks in his worst outing since early April. But 10 days ago, Wainwright worked six solid frames, allowing a run on just five hits and one walk and paving the way for a St. Louis win.

So, what went wrong in the late-August dud?

The Brooks Baseball PITCHf/x plot above shows control woes both within and outside of the strike zone. Most notably, Wainwright was almost entirely unable to hit the bottom fourth of the zone, and the Nationals made him pay for mistakes up high and down the middle of the plate—a fatal combination with predictable results. Davey Johnson’s lineup is teeming with power threats, and Wainwright must be able to work the knees and hit the corners to avoid a similar fate in the series opener.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez enjoyed plenty of stellar outings on his way to a career-best 3.4 WARP campaign, and his most impressive effort may have come against Wainwright in that 10-0 rout on Aug. 31. Armed with a six-run cushion after three innings, Gonzalez cruised to his first career complete-game shutout, a five-hitter on 119 pitches, during which he walked three, fanned eight, and allowed only one extra-base knock (a Molina double).

So, what was the key to Gonzalez’s dominance that day? A filthy curveball, which he threw 30 times and which generated nine swings-and-misses, many of them on offerings in the dirt. He’ll need it again this afternoon, because the Cardinals were among the league’s best teams when facing left-handed starters, going 31-17 against southpaws compared to just 57-57 when facing righties.

That’s unsurprising, because Mike Matheny’s middle-of-the-order bats excel at hitting left-handed pitching. Holliday (1.021), Molina (1.021), and Craig (1.011) all logged better-than-1.000 OPSes off of southpaws during the regular season, and since they will be hitting sequentially behind Beltran, retiring the switch-hitting outfielder will be crucial for Gonzalez.

Thus, Beltran versus Gonzalez is the Matchup of the Game. Since Beltran has spent the majority of his career in the National League and Gonzalez was an American Leaguer until this year, they have locked horns on only two occasions; in that pair of games, Beltran went 0-for-6 with a walk and two strikeouts. Gonzalez’s recipe for retiring Beltran has, as you might expect, revolved around his curveball: He used it to set up a strikeout on June 22 of last season and threw it on three straight pitches to whiff Beltran earlier this year. The only time Beltran reached base—the aforementioned walk—Gonzalez fell behind in the count 3-1 and was forced to throw seven consecutive fastballs, as Beltran wore him down to earn the free pass.

If Gonzalez can maintain his success against Beltran and keep the bases empty when Holliday, Molina, and Craig come up, the Nationals should be able to overcome PECOTA’s odds in Game One. Otherwise, assuming the late-September Wainwright shows up instead of the late-August version, the Cardinals are likely to take a 1-0 series lead.

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

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