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October 19, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Game Five Preview: Giants vs. Cardinals

by Daniel Rathman

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The prospect of a weekend without baseball is frightening, but that’s precisely what’s at stake this evening with the Yankees already gone and the Giants facing elimination. Can the Cardinals capture their second consecutive pennant? Or will the Giants bring the series back to San Francisco by forcing a sixth game? To answer those questions, here are the PECOTA odds and projected starting lineups for Game Five:

Giants (Barry Zito) vs. Cardinals (Lance Lynn) – 7:00 p.m. ET
PECOTA Odds of Winning: Cardinals 51.3 percent, Giants 48.7 percent
If Carlos Beltran returns: Cardinals 52.7 percent, Giants 47.3 percent
If the Giants play Hector Sanchez again: Cardinals 52.6 percent, Giants 47.4 percent

Projected Starting Lineups

Giants vs. Lynn (R)

Cardinals vs. Zito (L)

Angel Pagan, CF (S)

Jon Jay, CF (L)

Marco Scutaro, 2B (R)

Matt Carpenter, 1B (L)

Pablo Sandoval, 3B (S)

Matt Holliday, LF (R)

Buster Posey, C (R)

Allen Craig, RF (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)

Barry Zito, P (L)

Lance Lynn, P (R)

It’s another day and another toss-up in the National League Championship Series, but if PECOTA has its way, the best-of-seven affair will end tonight. The Cardinals are narrowly favored given the lineups shown above, which have Posey and Belt returning to their familiar positions for San Francisco, and Carpenter once again filling in for Beltran for St. Louis. If Bruce Bochy elects to use Sanchez as his catcher and Posey as his first baseman, as he did in Game Four, the Giants’ odds tick down 1.3 percent. Meanwhile, if Beltran’s strained knee is healthy enough for him to return, the Cardinals enjoy a 1.4 percent boost in win probability. Neither of those scenarios is particularly likely to be a game-changer, but in a razor-tight contest, there’s a chance that either could prove decisive.

The starting pitchers, on the other hand, figure to play a much greater role, just as they did last night. Wainwright and Lincecum, both wild cards with a wide range of outcomes, produced vastly different results. The former baffled the Giants with a sharp curveball reminiscent of his Game One outing in the Division Series, and put his Game Five struggles against the Nationals in the rearview mirror. The latter looked much more like the erstwhile ace that allowed 11 earned runs in 10 innings over his last two regular-season starts than the relief force that helped the Giants to stave off elimination in Cincinnati. Unsurprisingly, the Cardinals prevailed, 8-3, behooving Zito to show his Dr. Jekyll side, and giving Lynn a comparatively low-pressure opportunity to improve on his clunker in the series opener.

What went wrong for Lynn in Game One? The plot below implies a rather simple explanation for his plight in an outing that began with three hitless innings, but required a rescue effort from Joe Kelly before the end of the fourth.

Each of those green squares represents a four-seam fastball, and if you squint hard enough, you can count 70 of them, compared to just 15 blue, orange, pink, and yellow ones combined. In other words, Lynn—who was shuttled between the rotation and bullpen throughout the season, and pitched in the latter role during the Division Series—seemed to treat this as though it was a relief appearance, using his fastball early and often, and then using it some more. The first time through the order, the Giants were thoroughly browbeaten; but they learned soon enough that Lynn had morphed into a one-trick pony, and predictably teed off in their second trips to the plate.

Hence, the key for Lynn on Friday night will be establishing his secondary pitches—specifically a curveball and changeup that, although banal compared to Wainwright’s knee-buckling arsenal, are sufficiently effective to prevent the Giants from sitting dead red in every at-bat. Lynn’s reliance on the fastball, which he threw 70 percent of the time during the regular season, was one of the factors that initially cast doubt on his ability to stick in the rotation. But the 25-year-old righty quieted skeptics, including PECOTA, with a 2.4 WARP campaign by finding ways to keep hitters off-balance.

In his most impressive start of the season—a 7 1/3-inning, one-run, 12-strikeout effort against the White Sox—Lynn threw 76 fastballs and 32 off-speed pitches, in line with the aforementioned 70 percent rate. But he stymied Chicago’s offense by mixing in a steady dose of first-pitch curveballs and throwing 13 two-seam heaters to go with his 63 four-seamers, a notable difference from Sunday’s outing, when almost every fastball he employed was of the four-seam variety.

If Lynn is able to plant his breaking pitches in the Giants’ minds early on in Game Five, he should be able to stay effective much longer than he did in Game One. Conversely, if he falls in love with his fastball again or struggles to locate the change and curve, tonight’s game will turn into the Kelly, Shelby Miller, and Trevor Rosenthal show in short order. That’s not altogether bad news for the Cardinals, whose stable of young flamethrowers is the envy of the league, but Matheny would surely rather see his starter build confidence for a potential World Series assignment than hit the showers in the fourth inning again.

Bochy doesn’t have that luxury. He burned Lincecum, who bailed Zito out with 4 1/3 lockdown innings in Game Four of the Division Series, last night, and his right-handed long men, George Kontos and Guillermo Mota, then failed to prevent a 4-1 contest from getting out of hand. The mercurial lefty’s leash will still be short, with all hands on deck and the season on the line, but Game Five is the Zito show, the sort of high-pressure tilt the Giants envisioned him thriving in when the sides inked a $126 million contract six years ago.

Under the radar, the 34-year-old has helped the Giants to emerge victorious in each of his last 12 starts. “Helped” might be too generous a verb for half of the dozen outings, and “emerge victorious” is more appropriate than “win” given the twists and turns along the way, but Zito has pitched better than fans’ laments would have you believe. His FIP in 15 trips after the All-Star break was a respectable 3.80, the product of a significantly improved walk rate (22 in 85 2/3 innings, compared to 48 in 98 2/3 frames during the first half). And while Zito cast doubt on some of those improvements by issuing four free passes in 2 2/3 innings in Cincinnati, they are encouraging nonetheless.

Incidentally, that 12-game streak began on the very same mound Zito will climb this evening, when he held the Cardinals to two runs on eight hits in 6 2/3 innings on Aug. 7. Zito struck out four and did not walk a batter—one of only three occasions on which he departed with a zero in the “BB” column this season—and both of the runs charged to him were the result of solo shots by Craig.

Those big flies are the reason why Craig gets the nod in the Matchup of the Game. The Cardinals’ cleanup hitter is 4-for-10 lifetime against Zito, and all four of those hits have gone for extra bases: one double and three home runs.

Both of Craig’s homers in his most recent meeting with Zito came in at-bats where the lefty tried to pitch backward. In fact, Zito started each of Craig’s three plate appearances with a slider or curveball, and while he struck him out on a bender in the first inning, he fell behind in the count in the third and sixth. Each time, Craig barreled an outside corner sinker, taking this 2-1 offering to straightaway center in the third inning and this 2-2 pitch to right in the fifth. 

As those two drives show, Zito’s Reagan-era fastball is vulnerable to right-handed hitters with opposite-field power, even when he finds his target on the far edge of the zone. Thus, it’s not surprising that he tried to avoid using the “hard” stuff altogether, throwing Craig 10 breaking balls and only six fastballs/sinkers, including four in a row to start their last showdown of the night. Expect Zito to employ a similar approach against Craig in Game Five, especially if he is able to keep Jay, Carpenter/Beltran, and Holliday off the basepaths in front of him. 

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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