October 8, 1998
Playoff Preview - Atlanta vs. San Diego
Our Appraisal of the American League Championship Series
Braves (Team EqA: 275, 3rd in the NL)
Padres (Team EqA: .272, 4th)
These are two good offensive teams with good power and that don't run much.
The Padres' lineup is a more solid unit from top-to-bottom than the Braves. It's generally better at getting on base than the Braves' offense, but the Braves' rotation isn't much on giving up big innings. Because the Pads can't run much, and they don't have a group of blazing baserunners in the first place, that can mean trouble as far as stranding the baserunners they do get. Facing the three great pitchers the Braves will run out to the mound, it will be interesting to see how much Bruce Bochy either gets frustrated or decides to take a few risks with plays like the hit and run against the Braves' mighty trifecta. The Padres best chances probably lie with working deep into the count as much as possible for as long as possible, and then taking their chances with the Braves' pen on the off chance Bobby Cox screws up and actually uses Dennis Martinez. If they can get into the Braves' pen early enough or frequently enough, the Padres have the ability to draw blood, but if they're dependent on set-piece lineup vs. Smoltz, Maddux, and Glavine, they'll struggle. Against Tom Glavine, they may have to worry about Tony Gwynn's pronounced skittishness against southpaws in postseason play. At this stage of the season, I'd junk starting Hernandez at all, and just plug Leyritz in full-time.
The Braves' offense is distinctly better at hitting for power, which can give them a distinct advantage in low-scoring games involving few baserunners or opportunities. Cox' team is also faster on the basepaths, which might be some small comfort when it comes to trying to stay out of deuce when they mash another Kevin Brown pitch into the ground for a two-hopper to short. But the advantage in power is critical, because that translates into the Braves' having a better chance of capitalizing on their baserunners. The Braves will finally get to face a left-handed starter in the postseason (Sterling Hitchcock), which will allow them to put Gerald Williams to good use, but the Braves aren't as susceptible to lefty-righty-lefty pitching switches, so if/once they chase Hitchcock, they can comfortably bring in Klesko or Lockhart off the bench.
This one isn't really close. The Braves get outstanding outfield defense from Andruw Jones and Michael Tucker, have two reliable middle infielders in Weiss and Lockhart, and two of the best gloves at the infield corners playing today in Big Cat and Chipper. The Lopez-Perez combo provides agile receivers behind the plate who also do a good job controlling the opposing running game. To ice this cake, Glavine and Maddux are two of the best-fielding pitchers in baseball. Yes, Klesko isn't a great fielder, but they have a pair of ex-centerfielders in Williams and Bautista to caddy for him and come in as defensive replacements once Cox decides he has a lead he doesn't want to risk on a long fly to the corner or the gap.
The Padres' defense isn't bad in itself, it just features several reliable veterans who aren't the great defensive players they used to be. Joyner, Caminiti, Gwynn, and Finley have all seen better days. The Gomez-Veras combo up the middle is serviceable, but the outfield corners feature two slow-and-getting slower veterans, and that should end up costing the Pads an extra base or two. Behind the plate, Carlos Hernandez is the best receiver they have, but given the Braves' general absence of any great base thieves, plugging in Leyritz may not hurt them too badly.
Does the Pads' rotation have the chance to pull off the upset that the Marlins' rotation did last year? It essentially depends on which Andy Ashby and which Sterling Hitchcock show up. I'm taking it for granted that Joey Hamilton will earn a quick trip to the showers, or if Bruce Bochy is smart, will be granted a quick hook before matters get out of hand. Hitchcock doesn't have the same knee-knocking changeup that froze and confused the Braves like Tony Saunders; he'll either have his hard stuff working, or he'll be gone. Although things would be considerably more interesting if Bochy had elected to put Brown on the mound in games 1, 4, and 7, that may well have endangered Brown's chances to win two games in the series, and the Pads would have to win three of the first six just to get to a seventh game in the first place. If Ashby pitches like he did earlier in the season... except that he wasn't sharp against the Astros. That bodes ill for the Pads. They're staring at a rough outing by Ashby in the first game, Hamilton in the fourth game, Ashby again in the fifth game... those are some pretty long odds to overcome.
It's widely reported that the Padres have the advantage here, but I don't see it. Hoffman looked bad against the Astros in two of his outings, blowing one game and almost blowing another. Danny Miceli's performance was far more critical, but the Astros lack the power from the left side of the plate that the Braves enjoy, and that significantly hampers Miceli's ability to contribute. Randy Myers is not a major asset in chasing or retiring left-handed batters, and Mark Langston is even more explosive than El Presidente. The Braves feature great gas from from Ligtenberg and Seanez, two good lefties in Rocker and Perez, and a very good long reliever in Millwood should a starter get injured. The Braves' unheralded and frequently maligned pen may keep its scoreless streak alive, while I'm not going to be shocked should the Pad pen blow a game wide open.
Both teams feature good benches, and neither manager is afraid to use them.
The Braves' bench is relatively straightforward: Williams, Bautista, and Graffanino will start against Joey Hamilton, Colbrunn will pinch-hit, Perez will catch Maddux, and Guillen and Malloy will be used if necessary. The Braves won't do much double-switching, and Cox will pinch-hit only if feels compelled.
The Padres have greater opportunities to take advantage of their bench. Both Leyritz and VanderWal have gotten due recognition as ace pinch-hitters, but in Sheets the Pads have a very good backup to plug in at second or short should they use Leyritz or VanderWal or Sweeney to pinch-hit for Gomez or Veras. Besides deciding whether or not to start Leyritz against Maddux or Smoltz, when Bochy elects to use his pinch-hitters is critical. If he waits too late into the game (say, the 7th or 8th innings), he'll be handing Cox the chance to respond with a reliever to reclaim the platoon advantage.
If the series goes to six or seven games, things obviously broke the Padres' way, as they survived the three games started by Ashby and Hamilton. With Brown and Hitchcock in the sixth and seventh games, they could win if the NLCS goes the distance. I don't see the Braves letting that happen. So much of the Padres' success is going to have to depend on Jim Leyritz making people forget Reggie Jackson or Mickey Mantle, or on a great Braves staff and pen just completely losing it once or twice. Things like that happen in short series all the time, but this may be the strongest Braves team yet. Braves in five.