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October 12, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

NLDS Recap: Giants Defeat the Reds

by Sam Miller

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If you put enough gas in your spaceship and just keep flying, you’ll eventually get to a planet that looks just like this one. There’s a guy just like you and one just like me, and every letter the guy like you is reading was written exactly like the letters that I am actually writing. The only difference is that, on the other planet, Hideki Matsui was looking for a changeup, but Pedro Martinez threw him a fastball, and Matsui took it for a called strike three. The Red Sox kept their three-run lead. And it took eight years before Grady Little was ultimately scapegoated for a Boston loss and pushed out.

On Thursday, Bruce Bochy had a Grady Little situation. It wasn’t perfectly comparable, because Cain wasn’t throwing his 125th pitch or anything, but he was presiding over the quick destruction of a six-run lead. He had allowed two runs in the fifth, then a solo homer to lead off the sixth, then a single, then a walk. Before the walk, he got a visit from the dugout, and you’d have thought he was on a short leash, but Bochy left him in for one more batter after the walk. Cain fell behind 2-0, but on the eighth pitch to Ryan Hanigan...

For good measure, Dusty Baker had sent both runners, and just like that the Giants’ odds of winning the game went from around 73 percent to around 86 percent. Maybe this planet is the “other” planet, the alternative planet where Cain gets out of it instead of allowing a two-run double to Hanigan. Maybe Bochy’s process was wrong. Maybe he was nuts to put his season to the test on Matt Cain’s fastball. Cain had no command of the pitch in the inning; he had thrown 23 pitches in the inning, just nine of them fastballs, and by the time Hanigan came up he started the Reds’ catcher with five sliders and a curve. Strike three was, for that matter, not even in the strike zone.

But process only matters when we’re trying to predict the future. As far as it goes for Bochy, there is only one planet, we only play that inning out once, and he got it right.

The Giants won the series despite arguably none of their pitchers being sharp. Cain failed to register a quality start in either of his outings; Bumgarner didn’t make it through five; Zito was lousy. Vogelsong was fine, I suppose, but you don’t expect to win a postseason series without a single starter making it through six innings. On the other hand, you don’t expect to win a postseason series when your ace, your Game One starter, pitches only one-third of an inning. Ultimately, that’s the inevitable what-if for the Reds. Pre-game press conference: 

Q. Is there anybody you would rather have on the mound?
Dusty Baker: Well nobody, um, nobody present. You wish you had Johnny Cueto, but you don’t. Right now it’s Mat’s turn. And on his regular turn, unlike his last time out.

Bless Dusty Baker’s heart for answering that question honestly. You expect an immediate “no way, Mat’s my guy.” You expect something like “I wouldn’t take the regenerated arm of Sandy Koufax if I can have Mat Latos, Giant killer.” But that’s just not true. You do wish you had Johnny Cueto. Injuries happen, but they don’t even feel fair.

Still, it’s not like Mat Latos had to pitch to Buster Posey with the bases loaded. That’s just second-guessing, though. Second-guessing is so tempting when it’s Dusty Baker, who is now 3-9 in his career when he has had a chance to eliminate an opponent. That’s a meaningless statistic, except to the Reds and the Giants right now.

***

It is important to watch this foul ball knock Jeremy Affeldt down some stairs so that you will now forever be worried about a foul ball knocking a player down the stairs. The world is just a scary place.

***
It’s not like this means anything, but the 2010 Giants also benefited from an injury to their NLDS opponent’s best pitcher. Back then, it was Billy Wagner*, who pitched one-third of an inning before he was shelved for the series. It was Craig Kimbrel, then, who blew Game Three. Chipper Jones was out with an injury, too, and so was Martin Prado.

*You think a closer can’t be the Braves’ best pitcher? Maybe not. But Wagner that year, his last year before he retired, had a 1.48 ERA, struck out 13.5 batters per nine, and struck out 4.78 batters per walk, in 69 innings. Aroldis Chapman, the Reds’ closer, had a 1.51 ERA this year, struck out 15.3 batters per nine, and struck out 5.30 batters per walk. That was the year before Wagner retired.

***
The first thing you’ll notice about Buster Posey’s home run is Ryan Hanigan, who walks away like a pacifist who has been challenged to a fight. But is it just Hanigan being discouraged? Or is this some sort of choreographed routine? Watch Mat Latos walk off at the exact same angle:


And then watch Ryan Ludwick, also walking away at the same angle.

Perhaps some sort of collective protest, or a total misunderstanding of the rules.

Reviewing the longest home runs that Reds pitchers allowed this year, that response from Hanigan is a bit more exaggerated than you can normally expect. More often, he does one of these moves: The powered-down robot and the limp puppet.


***
Mat Latos’ pre-game interview is one of the more spectacularly unhelpful pre-game interviews a journalist could expect. For instance:

Q. Do you draw any comparisons between tomorrow and the last day of 2010?
A. 2010 was in 2010. 2012 is a little different. It's two years ago, so.

***
Buster Posey getting the cold shoulder from his teammates is funny, but it’s also strikingly beautiful, like something from a Terrence Malick movie.


***

So can the Giants win the NLCS? Obviously, the answer is yes, but this wasn't a real encouraging series for them. Before the series we thought they had a good offense and a high-upside rotation that could also be terrible. The high-upside rotation was, basically, kind of terrible. The Giants were outscored in the series. If you want to find a hero, well, I guess Gregor Blanco? They don't vote for MVPs in these series, but I wouldn't have been mad at all if the winner had been Brandon Phillips,

or Bronson Arroyo, or Ryan Ludwick, or Sean Marshall, all of whom probably played/pitched better than anybody on the Giants. It's a good team. It really is a very good team, just as the Reds were a very good team. But the most important factor in any game is the starting pitcher. Right now, the Giants just don't know what sort of starting pitcher they're going to send out each game.

As for the Reds, it's a good team that returns next year, and a healthy Johnny Cueto and a fully healthy Joey Votto might have been enough to win this series. They probably won't get 161 starts from their rotation next year, and Ryan Ludwick won't necessarily be back. But the Reds, disappointed I'm sure, have nothing to be ashamed of. 

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

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