October 6, 2013
NLDS Game Three Preview: Cardinals at Pirates
While the regular season series between the Cardinals and Pirates was a model of parity, neither of the first two games between the NL Central rivals this postseason have been close. The Cardinals, behind an outstanding performance from Adam Wainwright, routed the Pirates to the tune of a 9-1 score in Game One. The Pirates, behind an outstanding performance from Gerrit Cole, routed the Cardinals to the tune of a 7-1 score in Game Two.
If the trend of one dominant starter per game is to continue, you’d have to consider the Pirates, with their ace Francisco Liriano set to toe the mound, as the prohibitive favorites for Game Three.
The most prominent among Pittsburgh’s reclamation projects, Liriano has put disappointing 2011 and 2012 campaigns in the rearview mirror in 2013, generating the third most WARP of his career. The 29-year-old southpaw posted a 2.90 FIP, 9.11 K/9, and 3.52 BB/9 in 161 innings during the regular season. In the Pirates’ wild card faceoff with the Reds, Liriano pitched seven innings of one-run ball, striking out five and walking just one en route to a 6-2 Pirates victory.
Liriano has also been dominant in PNC Park this year, posting a 1.47 ERA in 11 starts. So what chance do the Cardinals stand against Pittsburgh’s best starting pitcher?
As a team, St. Louis was significantly worse against left-handed starters than righties this season. The Cardinals put up a .238/.301/.371 line against southpaws, compared to a pretty incredible .280/.343/.412 line against righties. Among projected starters, Matt Carpenter, MattAdams, Jon Jay, and Daniel Descalso are all confined to the left side of the plate.
Since Liriano is new to the National League, we don’t have a ton of data to go by in terms of batter-pitcher matchups. What we do know tells us is that most of the Cards have not faired well against Liriano, as evidenced by him allowing just three earned runs in 15 innings against St. Louis this year.
Beltran and Holliday hit him quite well, because they are Beltran and Holliday. But Carpenter, Molina and Freese hit him quite poorly. Jay has gone 1-for-3 against Liriano, while Adams and Descalso have yet to record a PA against him.
In terms of the Cardinals bench, Kozma has gone 0-for-9 with five strikeouts against Liriano, so don’t expect him to get the start at short. Shane Robinson has gone 0-for-6, but with two walks. For what it’s worth, Allen Craig had gone 0-for-10 against Liriano in his lifetime.
Aside from Beltran and Holliday, what can the Cardinals hope for against Liriano? Walks. The Cards finished 14th in the majors in free passes with 481, and while Liriano’s BB/9 of 3.52 isn’t disastrous, it’s a bit high from someone you’d generally label as a front-line pitcher.
However, Liriano walked four or more batters five times this year and all but one of those starts were quality starts, so Liriano has the “effectively wild” thing down, too.
As such, the Cardinals’ best hope for a victory today may actually come from Joe Kelly, who has received about one one-thousandth of the hype surrounding prospects like Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha, yet finds himself getting the ball for Game Three.
Kelly outperformed a 3.98 FIP to post a 2.69 ERA in 124 innings this season, with 15 of his 37 appearances coming as a starter. With a paltry 5.73 K/9 rate and average 3.19 BB/9, Kelly succeeds by keeping the ball on the ground (51.1 GB percent) and in the park (0.73 HR/9). Those numbers don’t scream excitement, but Kelly has shut down the Pirates in three starts this season, allowing just two earned runs in 18 innings pitched.
In terms of individual performance vs. Kelly, Cardinals hitters are a mixed bag. Alvarez has posted an OPS of .846 against Kelly in 16 PA, while McCutchen hasn’t hit for power but has reached base at a .467 clip. Martin has gone three-for-four with a walk in five PA facing Kelly, including a homerun. Marte and Byrd have seen some success against St. Louis’ righty as well.
So while claims that Kelly is “like having a Ferrari in the garage” might be a bit overblown, the 25-year-old could be akin to a reliable Volkswagen for the Cardinals. That being said, while everyone cites Kelly’s dominance in three starts against Pittsburgh, he also gave up four earned runs in 1.1 innings against the Pirates as a reliever this year. Do with that information what you will.
It should be all hands on deck in both bullpens in Game Three thanks to the day off on Saturday. The Cardinals used six relievers in Game Two but none pitched more than an inning, and the same is true for the three relievers used by Pittsburgh. Miller, who many assumed would be the Game Three starter before the postseason began, could be called upon for multiple innings should the need arise.
PECOTA likes the Pirates in this one, looking at Liriano’s history in PNC and his success against many of the Cardinals. And for once, PECOTA and I are on exactly the same page.
My Prediction: Kelly keeps it close for a while, but Liriano at home is too much for the Cardinals, even with good games from Beltran and Holliday. St. Louis finds itself down two games to one to the underdog Pirates, and will need to rely on rookie Michael Wacha to send the series back home.