October 14, 2012
NLCS Preview: Cardinals and Giants
The two most recent World Series champions face each other for the chance to throw a second parade. Considering the Phillies’ decline to an aging, expensive .500 team this year, one might argue that the Giants and Cardinals are the league’s two best organizations: The Cardinals have won 89 games per year (and a World Series) over the past four seasons, and the Giants have won 90 per year (and a World Series). In a postseason that has been dominated by pitching, expect these seven games to produce plenty of offense.
The Cardinals’ lineup produced the best TAv in the National League this year, though their potency is somewhat camouflaged by the famous first basemen (Pujols, Berkman) who are missing. What they do: get on base, via a satisfying mix of high-contact batting averages and better-than-average walk rates. Craig is playing full-time for the first time in his career at age 27, and came within a point of matching Matt Holliday’s OPS. Jay, too, is a bit of a late bloomer, but his .373 OBP puts him well ahead of the leaguewide .319 OBP in the top spot. Jay is also the most likely Cardinal to steal a base, but overall this is as far from the 1980s Cardinals as you can get. With Kozma, a career .236/.308/.344 hitter in the minors, torching the National League at the moment, the Cardinals can count on the offensive advantage—though not as big an advantage as you’d think.
The Giants’ lineup produced the second-best TAv in the National League this year, though their potency is somewhat camouflaged by brutal home-park statistics and the fewest home runs in the National League. What they do: avoid strikeouts, and hit plenty of gaps, with the most triples in the league and the second-most non-homer extra-base hits. Buster Posey finished with the second-highest OPS+ ever for a backstop and hit .385/.454/.646 in the second half, but the Giants struggled to put runners on for him in the NLDS. The top three batters had a combined .254 OBP, and the Giants' offense as a whole hit .194/.266/.339. Marco Scutaro’s outburst has been unusual, as the infielder walked just 13 times in a half-season as a Giant, after walking 90 times in a year not long ago. His 3-for-20 NLDS lowers his seasonal OBP to .342, just a tick better than his career .340, to put that batting average as a Giant into perspective. Brandon Belt is probably the third-best hitter in the lineup, but it can be frustrating to watch him refuse to compromise his vision of the strike zone with two strikes. Seems like he’s always a 1-for-13 away from losing Bruce Bochy’s confidence. /checks. Belt went 1-for-13 in the NLDS.
In an effort to give Carpenter the shine he deserves, let’s remember that he’s still the best pinch-hitter in the series. There aren’t too many players coming off benches that had as good of a season as Carpenter did. Maybe St. Louis can work him into the lineup next year, or maybe another team will spring him from a prime spent on the bench. Otherwise, this is a reserves unit mostly driven by specialization—be it positional or skill-based. If Kozma and Descalso stay hot, it’s hard to see many replacement opportunities, so these guys will be limited to swinging for the pitchers and, in the case of Chambers and Robinson, perhaps pinch-running.
Against Cincinnati, and knowing the reputation of the Reds’ bullpen, Bruce Bochy looked for early opportunities to pinch-hit. Nady pinch-hit in the sixth inning and stayed in the game; Arias entered with a fourth-inning double-switch and stayed in the game; Theriot pinch-hit in the seventh; and Huff pinch-hit in the fifth inning of one game and the sixth of another. Overall, and excepting his backup catcher, Bochy had used a total of 14 out of 21 possible substitutions. Bochy will ride the hot hand, especially in October, which means Arias will continue to get opportunities and could take starts from Brandon Crawford; similarly, if Belt doesn’t get a big hit or two, he could lose playing time to Nady against lefties, or Sanchez against righties.
Huff’s .631 OPS against lefties (and .671 in 2011) means St. Louis won’t even have to burn a LOOGY to get him out. By carrying 12 pitchers, the Giants probably won’t carry pinch-runner Justin Christian or Emmanuel Burris, giving Ryan Theriot an exclusive role for which he is not especially qualified.
An injury to Jaime Garcia means Lynn will start Game One. There’s probably a bit of a deficit there, but not so large as the drop-off from Johnny Cueto to Mike Leake that the Giants took advantage of in their previous series. Lynn started the year well, then struggled, then went to the bullpen, then started four games in September. In the four: 30 Ks, seven walks, 2.19 ERA, 25 innings. Still, Lynn might be on a short leash, following his ERA spike in the second half after allowing three homers in three innings during the NLDS.
Adam Wainwright, in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, was the chosen “ace” for the NLDS, starting a pair of games, but it’s not really clear he’s significantly better than Lynn in this. Same goes for Carpenter, mainly because his post-injury record is still so small. He’s still about one mile per hour short on his fastball.
Lohse has been the guy you’d go broke betting against, but it’s not as though his peripherals suggest he’s bad or anything. Yes, his strikeout rate is low, but he had the fifth-lowest walk rate in baseball this year and doesn’t seem to have the same lay-it-in-there-and-pray tendencies of, for instance, Joe Blanton, one of the four names ahead of him. Surprisingly, his ground-ball rate has now dropped four consecutive years, despite all but the most recent of those years having been spent under the tutelage of Dave Duncan.
The difference between the Giants’ 2012 rotation and their 2010 unit goes far beyond the swapping of Ryan Vogelsong for Jonathan Sanchez. Bumgarner is no longer the fourth starter; now he’s no. 2, but recently an unreliable no. 2. He stumbled into October with a 5.94 ERA and a startling walk rate in his previous seven starts, and Bruce Bochy was reportedly extending him an extremely short leash in his NLDS start. After a dominant first inning, Bumgarner lost his arm slot and, while he managed to stay in the strike zone, his command deserted him. However, Bochy has tabbed Bumgarner to take the Game One start.
Vogelsong was something of a surprise starter in Game Three, after a terrible month down the stretch. But even while putting up a 6.75 ERA in his final 10 starts, Vogelsong struck out 53 and walked 14 in 47 innings; his .402 BABIP in that time might put your faith to the test, but there’s plenty of reason to think he’s still a playoff-caliber starter. He had the best start by a Giants pitcher in the NLDS, though it took him 95 pitches (40 of them balls) to clear the fifth inning. He will take the ball in Game Two.
The story of Lincecum’s season was that he still had a swing-and-miss changeup but struggled to get strikes. He came out of the bullpen in the NLDS as an extreme strike-thrower with all of his pitches. It’s probably tempting for Bochy to keep him in the bullpen as a game-changing reliever, but it’s probably also tempting to put Barry Zito on an ice float and give it a firm push. So we’ll assume Lincecum starts.
And then there’s Matt Cain, the only starter without questions marks, though he wasn’t very good in either of his NLDS starts. The line between a successful fly-ball pitcher and a terrifying one can disappear quickly, and Cain allowed as many home runs in the series as he did in the final six weeks of the season. Not every home run comes on a bad pitch, but Cain has no excuses for at least two of these:
The St. Louis bullpen features a lot of firepower. Rosenthal and Kelly were zipping fastballs this way and that way throughout the NLDS. Motte and Boggs bring the heat, too, and then there’s Miller, who has not made an appearance but can sling the pill. This is a unit that struggled with middle relief during the regular season. That’s not the story so far in the postseason.
The Giants have three very effective lefty relievers, and probably Barry Zito. But the Cardinals, like the Reds before them, aren’t a particularly lefty-heavy offense. Javy Lopez, who has made his name mowing down Votto, and Howard, and Utley, and Ethier, will likely be limited to less-famous names this week: Descalso, and Schumaker, and Jay. Jeremy Affeldt will be freed to throw full innings (or more), which makes sense: He’s had a platoon split in only one of his four seasons as a Giant. Romo looked terribly shaky in the NLDS, with sliders backing up or simply hanging there, but the Reds never made him pay. With Chapman and Kimbrel bounced from the postseason, he’s the best reliever still going. With the Giants starters struggling to complete five innings, Kontos got plenty of work as a bridge-builder; he was so good, and has been so good, that Bochy will have to decide whether to bump him into higher leverage or keep him in his role. Barry Zito’s chances of pitching in this series will hinge on that. Casilla is a heart-attacker. And, as we write this, there’s still time for Bochy to dump Mota for a pinch-runner.
The same applies to the Giants' defense. San Francisco is also strong up the middle and lacks in the corners—or at least in right field, where Pence roams. This is matchup of arguably the two best catchers in baseball, so soak it up. Molina and Posey can hit and field, and it’s going to be a fun individual battle amidst a fun team matchup.
Bochy features the best mustache in the series, but he’ll probably go unnoticed beyond his lip sweater. During the regular season he did call for more bunts than most NL teams, and he’ll occasionally get in trouble by trusting his starter too much. Those things can add up, of course, but he’s unlikely to be the reason the Giants lose a game or a series.
Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @SamMillerBP