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October 21, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Game Six Preview: Cardinals at Giants

by Daniel Rathman

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Buoyed by an unexpectedly superb outing from Barry Zito, the Giants regained home-field advantage in the NLCS with a 5-0 win on Friday night. But Bruce Bochy’s team needs two more victories to clinch its second pennant in three years, while Mike Matheny’s team is just one victory away from its second pennant in a row. Will the Cardinals advance tonight, or will this series require a decisive Game Seven on Monday? To answer those questions, here are the PECOTA odds and projected starting lineups for Game Six:

Cardinals (Chris Carpenter) vs. Giants (Ryan Vogelsong) – 7:30 p.m. ET

PECOTA Odds of Winning: Cardinals 51.6 percent, Giants 48.4 percent

Update (6:52 p.m. ET) - Odds after Matt Holliday was scratched with back spasms: Giants 50.9 percent, Cardinals 49.1 percent

Projected Starting Lineups:

Cardinals vs. Vogelsong (R)

Giants vs. Carpenter (R)

Jon Jay, CF (L)

Angel Pagan, CF (S)

Matt Carpenter, 1B (L)

Marco Scutaro, 2B (R)

Carlos Beltran, RF (S)

Pablo Sandoval, 3B (S)

Allen Craig, LF (R)

Buster Posey, C (R)

Yadier Molina, C (R)

Hunter Pence, RF (R)

David Freese, 3B (R)

Brandon Belt, 1B (L)

Daniel Descalso, 2B (L)

Gregor Blanco, LF (L)

Pete Kozma, SS (R)

Brandon Crawford, SS (L)

Chris Carpenter (R)

Ryan Vogelsong (R)

PECOTA has viewed many of the contests in this series as toss-ups, and this one is no exception. The Cardinals are favored mainly because the model prefers Carpenter’s extensive track record to Vogelsong’s renaissance story, but the model is not omniscient. Recent results—chief among them San Francisco’s 7-1 victory when the right-handers squared off in Game Two—suggest that the arrow might as well be pointed toward the Giants.

Rewind six days to Monday night at AT&T Park, when Vogelsong held St. Louis to one run on four hits and two walks in seven inning of work, struck out four, and induced plenty of weak contact. It was the 35-year-old’s second strong postseason start, and the fifth consecutive outing in which he’d allowed no more than one run. Vogelsong looked much more like the starter who led the National League through early August than the one who suffered a month-long freefall immediately thereafter, largely because he rediscovered his fastball command.

The plot above shows Vogelsong’s pitch types and locations from Game Two, and one takeaway from it stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. Notice all of those light-blue squares on the left-hand side (from the catcher’s perspective) of the strike zone; they represent the two-seam fastballs that Vogelsong used to jam the Cardinals’ powerful right-handed bats, from Holliday to Freese. St. Louis’ three-through-six hitters combined to go 1-for-11 before Jeremy Affeldt and Sergio Romo took over in relief, enabling Vogelsong to strand Beltran—who delivered two doubles and drew a walk—each time he reached base. Expect Vogelsong, who limited opposing righties to a .230/.297/.322 triple slash during the regular season, to lean heavily on the two-seamer again tonight.

That brings us to the Matchup of the Game, featuring Beltran, who went 1-for-4 in his return to the lineup in Game Five. Matheny indicated that “everything is good” with his right fielder’s strained knee, and that means Beltran should be ready to tack on to his 13-for-34 (.382/.463/.794) effort in the playoffs to date.

The switch-hitting former Giant reached in all three of his plate appearances versus Vogelsong on Monday, bringing his career head-to-head line against him to 6-for-13 with four doubles, a home run, three walks, and two strikeouts. That’s good for a 1.563 OPS, Beltran’s third-highest mark among active pitchers he has faced at least 15 times, with only Vogelsong’s teammate Tim Lincecum (1.579) and fellow Redbird Kyle Lohse (1.673) having incurred more of his wrath.

Both of Beltran’s two-baggers in Game Two came on fastballs down the pipe, rare mistake pitches from Vogelsong in an outing where he, generally, was sharp. In the 12 plate appearances tracked by the Matchup Tool, Beltran went 5-for-10 with two free passes, maintaining his success despite Vogelsong’s evolving approach, which began with backward sequences last year, but has recently involved to feature more hard stuff toward the outside part of the plate.

Beltran’s success in Game Six could be critical for the Cardinals’ offense, given that Matheny’s middle-of-the-order hitters scuffled in Game Two, and that the visitors’ only run scored on a double by Carpenter—and that’s Chris, not Matt. Carpenter is a competent hitter, by pitcher standards, but if St. Louis finds itself relying on the number-nine man to pull double duty again tonight, the overall results probably won’t be much different from their defeat six days ago.

Carpenter will be more focused on his pitching assignment, coming off an outing where, by his own admission, “it was not there.” By “it,” he means his stuff, which has still not recovered its usual bite three months after shoulder surgery and probably won’t without an offseason of rest. The 37-year-old has sufficient feel and command to thrive with a substandard arsenal, as he demonstrated by holding the Nationals scoreless through 5 2/3 innings on Oct. 10, but his margin for error is considerably smaller, and the Giants eventually made him pay in Game Two.

The table above shows Carpenter’s pitch breakdown from his most recent start, when he was charged with six runs (two earned) on six hits and two walks, while managing only one strikeout in four frames. Apart from Pagan’s leadoff homer, the Giants didn’t exactly shell Carpenter, but his inability to miss bats put him at the mercy of a shaky defense, and that deadly combination led to his demise.

As I noted in the preview for Carpenter’s Division Series start, his fastball/sinker velocity is down about two ticks from its 93-mph average last year, when the righty was a postseason force. That’s a surmountable weakness if Carpenter is pounding the knees and painting the corners, but …

… he left a plethora of sinkers up around the belt in Game Two, including one that turned into Pagan’s big fly and two others that produced run-scoring singles. While in-zone command is always key to a pitcher’s success, it will be especially important for Carpenter if he hopes to avenge Monday’s defeat.

Finally, Vogelsong, Carpenter, and any relievers who enter the contest should be prepared for a significantly smaller strike zone than the ones called by Ted Barrett in Game Five and Chris Guccione in Game Two. Both of those arbiters were generous on pitches just below the knees and a hair off either corner. Jerry Layne, who is set to work the plate in Game Six, on the other hand, is typically stingier with the borders than his crewmates, a factor that could give disciplined hitters a material advantage tonight.

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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