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October 17, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Game Three Preview: Giants at Cardinals

by Daniel Rathman

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After watching Madison Bumgarner get lit up by the Cardinals in Game One, the Giants returned the favor against Chris Carpenter and a shaky St. Louis defense to even the series on Monday night. Which team is likely to grab a 2-1 edge in Game Three? Here are the PECOTA odds and projected starting lineups for tonight’s contest:

Giants (Matt Cain) vs. Cardinals (Kyle Lohse) – 4:00 p.m. ET

PECOTA Odds of Winning: Giants 58.4 percent, Cardinals 41.6 percent

If Ryan Theriot replaces Scutaro at second base: Giants 57.8 percent, Cardinals 42.2 percent

Projected Starting Lineups:

Giants vs. Lohse (R)

Cardinals vs. Cain (R)

Angel Pagan, CF (S)

Jon Jay, CF (L)

Marco Scutaro, 2B (R)

Carlos Beltran, RF (S)

Pablo Sandoval, 3B (S)

Matt Holliday, LF (R)

Buster Posey, C (R)

Allen Craig, 1B (R)

Hunter Pence, RF (R)

Yadier Molina, C (R)

Brandon Belt, 1B (L)

David Freese, 3B (R)

Gregor Blanco, LF (L)

Daniel Descalso, 2B (L)

Brandon Crawford, SS (L)

Pete Kozma, SS (R)

Matt Cain, P (R)

Kyle Lohse, P (R)

PECOTA doesn’t like being fooled, and Lohse has developed a nasty habit of fooling it. So, in an attempt to exact revenge, the model gives the Giants a nearly 3-in-5 chance of winning a road game that, if recent results are any indication, would seem to favor the Cardinals.

More to the point, PECOTA viewed Lohse as a 0.6-WARP pitcher coming into this season, seeing a track record of middling peripherals and weighing that more heavily than his slowly growing résumé of outperforming them. That explains the surprising gap in its odds for Game Three, and—in tandem with Cain’s recent struggles—suggests that this afternoon’s tilt is at best a toss-up from the visitors’ perspective.

Another element worth pointing out, as noted in italics above, is the difference in San Francisco’s odds if Scutaro’s strained hip muscle forces him to sit out Game Three. PECOTA values the difference between Scutaro and his likely replacement, Theriot, at 0.6 percent—or, for the sake of comparison, roughly half the single-game gap it showed for the Yankees when they replaced Derek Jeter with either Eduardo Nunez or Jayson Nix. Scutaro flew with the Giants to St. Louis, and Bruce Bochy indicated that his second baseman has a “good chance” of being ready to play, but we won’t know for certain until the starting lineups are posted.

What we do know, on the other hand, is that Cain’s recent history against the Cardinals is cause for concern among Giants fans, and that his mistake-laden Division Series outings versus the Reds served to exacerbate those worries. Cain faced St. Louis twice during the regular season, and he allowed nine runs on 16 hits in 11 2/3 innings, including five in 5 2/3 frames at Busch Stadium on Aug. 6.

The pitch chart above illustrates why the 28-year-old righty proved vulnerable in that August outing. All those light-blue squares, belt-high and right down the pipe, represent pitches that badly missed their intended targets and that Mike Matheny’s power-packed lineup took full advantage of. Cain brought substandard control and command to the mound—the former shown by the number of green squares nowhere near the strike zone, the latter by the volume of pitches in the middle of it—and paid the price, matching his season-high total in runs allowed and needing 114 pitches to record 17 outs.

Unfortunately for the Giants, their regular-season ace hasn’t fared any better in his two playoff appearances, coughing up three runs in each trip and failing to complete the sixth inning both times. Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, and Ryan Ludwick took Cain deep over the course of the two outings, and Phillips’ and Ludwick’s shots came on glaring location mistakes.

The Cardinal with the most extensive history of cashing in on Cain’s slips also happens to be the hottest hitter in their lineup: Beltran, who is 11-for-25 with five doubles and three home runs in the postseason, including a 2-for-3 effort off of Ryan Vogelsong and company in Game Two. The 35-year-old switch hitter is working his way onto the list of the greatest playoff hitters of all-time—this fateful strikeout notwithstanding—so he’s a fitting choice for the Matchup of the Game

Beltran and Cain have squared off 20 times heading into this afternoon’s game, and the outfielder is 7-for-18 with two doubles, a triple, and this home run in the aforementioned meeting on Aug. 6. The culprit: a curveball that moved from the outer half to the heart of the plate—or, more saliently, from one of Beltran’s weak points as a left-handed hitter (where Posey set his glove) right into one of his happy zones.

It’s worth noting that the ill-advised, first-pitch curve was the only one Cain threw to Beltran in their past six showdowns, perhaps because Beltran ripped the bender for a triple on July 17, 2010. Thus, Beltran should expect to see a two- or three-pitch diet this afternoon, consisting largely of fastballs and changeups, with the occasional slider to keep him guessing. That’s the approach Cain has employed in the other five encounters between them over the past two years, and Beltran has gone 0-for-4 with a walk and two strikeouts in those meetings.

Lohse, meanwhile, will have the element of surprise working to his advantage, because the Giants have not seen him since April 10, 2011, when he tossed eight innings of one-run ball at AT&T Park. Bochy’s lineup that day featured only two (Sandoval and Belt) of the eight position players he will trot out this afternoon, so the Giants will rely on their advance scouts and video work to prepare for the 34-year-old’s arsenal.

As I wrote earlier in this preview, Lohse has vastly outperformed his peripherals during the past two seasons, and especially so this year, when he posted a 2.86 ERA compared to a 3.55 FIP over 33 starts. The northpaw’s best attribute is his pinpoint control, which led to the National League’s third-lowest walk rate (4.4 percent), bested only by Joe Blanton and Cliff Lee. But unlike Blanton, who ranks among the more hittable pitchers in the senior circuit, Lohse paired that control with a .262 BABIP—a mark that merits some skepticism even on the heels of a .269 effort in that department in 2011—and emerged as one of the National League’s most reliable starters, holding opponents to three runs or fewer in 27 of his 33 tries and helping the Cardinals to go 22-11 with him on the mound.

A heady pitcher, Lohse benefited from home-plate umpire Jim Joyce’s wide strike zone in Game Three of the Division Series, especially against right-handed batters. By pouring a slew of pitches over that generous outside corner, Lohse limited the Nationals’ righties to a collective 1-for-14 line, inducing plenty of weak contact to complete seven innings of two-hit ball on only 87 pitches. Tonight’s plate arbiter, Bill Miller, has shown a similar tendency to favor pitchers by padding the edges—a lesson Brett Lawrie learned the hard way back in May—and if Lohse is able to establish pitches three inches off the plate as strikes, his control will enable him to return to that location throughout the outing.

Finally, we have a second Matchup of the Game: baseball versus Mother Nature. The forecast calls for thunderstorms in St. Louis throughout the afternoon and early evening, so Game Three may not get underway until a few hours after the scheduled first-pitch time. A postponement until Thursday is not out of the question.

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

Related Content:  Giants,  Cardinals,  NLDS,  Playoff

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