September 30, 2003
Atlanta Braves vs. Chicago Cubs
so much depends upon
(With apologies to William Carlos Williams.)
SS-B Rafael Furcal (.294/.354/.445/.281)
CF-L Kenny Lofton (.296/.350/.450/.280)*
* combined season totals. Any resemblance to the Pittsburgh Pirates, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Even as we enter October, it's strange to think of the Braves as a club that's led by their offense. Then again, I'm one of those people that was still writing "2002" on his checks until just a couple of weeks ago.
But there's little doubt that Atlanta is a deep, superior offensive club. All eight Braves regulars have EqAs better than the league average (Fick and Castilla making it just under the wire). Nitpick away if you like: Lopez, as horribly as PECOTA mangled his projection, was almost certainly playing over his head a little bit. Fick had a an awful second half and has been flipped with Lopez in the batting order. Vinny Castilla is still Vinny Castilla. It doesn't matter: the Braves simply mash the ball (235 home runs), a skill that holds up perfectly well in high- and low- scoring games, against soft-tossers and power arms. Hell, even their pitchers can hit a little bit.
What could matter more is that the Braves are overwhelmingly right-handed, and will be facing an overwhelmingly right-handed pitching staff. Too much can be made of the platoon advantage; Sheffield, for example, has never had a huge split; and Giles actually hit righties better this year. But as a team, the Braves were about 25 points worth of OPS better against lefties this year, and we're at the stage where those little things can make a difference.
The Cubs' offense, to borrow the old line, runs a lot like CTA buses: nothing at all for a long time, and then a bunch all at once. Well, that's not quite right; the Cubs didn't exhibit any particularly unusual patterns in their run scoring. But theirs is an offense that has its holes, especially in the bottom four slots in the order.
There are also questions, for the first time in a long time, about Sammy Sosa. Sosa had plenty of excuses for his slow start to the season: a lingering toe injury, a nasty beaning, the self-induced psychological fallout from corked bat incident. By the time July had rolled around, a month in which Sosa hit 13 home runs, most people had written the slow start off as a fluke.
The most troubling signs, however, have come after the All-Star Break. Sosa's plate discipline has regressed--he drew just 22 walks against 64 strikeouts in the second half--managing an OBP of just .305 after the break. The decline is too significant to be written off to the sample size demons, especially given that he's 34: there's no rule that says that aging takes its toll only in the off-season. While Kenny Lofton and Mark Grudzielanek have done an admirable job of getting on base, the Cubs face an uphill climb if Sosa isn't hitting.
1B-R Julio Franco (.294/.372/.452/.285)
Karros or Simon
The Cubs have played the whole season a couple men short of a useful roster, a problem made more acute when--in their rush to gain any potential edge in the pennant drive--they went out and traded for Doug Glanville and Tony Womack at the deadline, moves that scored far higher on artistic impression than technical merit. Karros and Simon are both capable pinch hitters depending on which one isn't starting, and Martinez plays his role almost perfectly, but as for the rest of the bench--there isn't a Felipe Crespo among them.
Either Goodwin, O'Leary, or possibly Womack will need to be quarantined to get the roster down to 14 hitters. In a column earlier this year, Dayn Perry boiled down the false dichotomy between scouting and sabermetrics to a simple analogy--beer or tacos (both, you fool!). The proper parallel here is more like: root canal or enema?
As for the treatment of Hee Seop Choi--who could have provided a useful bat off the bench, but isn't eligible for the postseason since the Cubs got cold feet on him after the Simon acquisition--we'll have 300 words or so on him in next year's book.
The Braves have a more robust bench. Los Dos Francos, when combined in Voltron-like form, provide a nifty little platoonable pinch hitter, and DeRosa is right up there with Marinez and Tony Graffanino as among the game's best utility infielders. The team salvaged itself from having to carry Henry Blanco (as in Blank-o) by--finally--spending September getting Maddux more comfortable with Javy Lopez. The irony here is that the team with the better bench has far less need for it.
Rotation (SNVA, ERA, IP)
The belief in Wrigleyville has long been that, if the Cubs were able to reach the playoffs, they could match up with anyone on the strength of their starting pitching. Certainly, the "defense wins championships" credo is as hollow as it is overused, but in this case, there's a related and more salient point: Shawn Estes won't pitch. The Cubs went 12-16 in games that Estes started, 76-58 in all others; no team will benefit more from dropping its fifth starter.
Both Wood and Clement have a Jekyll/Hyde streak in them, in that when they're good they're very good, but other times, they're just awful. Wood runs into trouble with big innings, especially after early walks; Clement (who is on the Hyde side a bit more frequently) struggles when he can't locate his curveball. But given that the Cubs don't always score a whole lot of runs, that's actually a favorable pattern: they went 17-7 in games in which they scored exactly four times, and won 20 games when scoring three runs or fewer, more than any other team save the deadballing Dodgers.
Carlos Zambrano struggled in his last couple of outings; he has neither Prior's uncanny mechanics nor the workload history of Wood and Clement, so fatigue could be more of a factor. Zambrano doesn't have tremendous command and thrives by using his sinker to induce groundball outs and avoid the longball; if the pitch isn't working for him, he's vulnerable. As for Mark Prior--what more needs to be said? The politics of Cy Young aside, the only pitcher I'd rather have out there is Pedro Martinez.
Unlike the Cubs, who were in a pennant race until the next-to-last day of the season, the Braves had the leeway to set their rotation however they pleased. They chose to go with Russ Ortiz instead of Greg Maddux for the opener, while doing the lefty/righty/alternator/dance by sticking a revitalized Mike Hampton in between them. It was an odd decision, Ortiz over Maddux, the karmic value of a 21-win season apparently winning out over the karmic value of Veteran Savvy. More important, of course, is that Maddux was the better pitcher in the second half (3.00 ERA against 4.29), and is more capable of completely shutting down the opposition for eight innings at a time. He's the guy that should be pitching twice.
"We have guys that can go out there and match them pitch-for-pitch," Gary Sheffield has said of the Braves' pitching; and that seems about right. Atlanta won't win many games on the strength of its starting pitching alone, but it's good enough to give their superior offense a fighting chance.
Bullpen (ARP, ERA, IP)
RHP John Smoltz (22.7, 1.12, 64.1)
RHP Joe Borowski (14.5, 2.63, 68.1)
Michael Wolverton's ARP numbers posit that both the Cubs and the Braves had subpar bullpens, but that doesn't tell whole story. The Braves have upgraded their bullpen significantly with the acquisitions of Mercker and Cunnane, and to a lesser extent Wright, who--disastrous as his numbers were in San Diego--has pitched well under the tutelage of Leo Mazzone. Cunnane, in particular, is a guy that Bobby Cox must not hesitate to use on account of a lack of experience; he's one of the few non-Smoltz relievers who isn't walk-prone, which can be essential when there are lots of runners on base.
Speaking of Smoltz, yes, much does depend on his elbow. The one thing that you want out of your closer is lead-pipe certainty, and with Smoltz having pitched only 3.1 innings since returning from the DL, the Braves do not have it. That said, Smoltz is a smart enough pitcher to be successful even when he doesn't have his top stuff, and even at 80%, he's the best reliever on the roster. The one adjustment that Cox might make is not to put Smoltz in reflexively to start the ninth if a middle reliever like Cunnane or Mercker is throwing well and has kept his pitch count down.
Joe Borowski is a perfect Chicago name, and this one wears it well. There's nothing especially tricky about him, but he gets the job done though consistency and through not beating himself. Nothing in his statistical record or his scouting report suggests a sudden collapse is likely. Beyond that, however, the Cubs have problems, which is part of the reason that Baker has been inclined to stretch his starters too late into games. Kyle Farnsworth has easily the best stuff on the staff, but had a rough second half and can be maddeningly inconsistent, which makes him tough to use with a lead. Alfonseca can hardly be used at all. Dave Veres, on the other hand, is a better pitcher than his ERA indicates, and might be the superior setup option when the team faces risk-averse situations.
The one easy decision is Juan Cruz over Shawn Estes in the mopup role. Think about it: if you're down 5-1 in the third--not an unlikely scenario with someone like Matt Clement on the mound--would you rather have the pitcher (Cruz) who might twirl four scoreless innings, but might get shelled, or the pitcher (Estes) who will labor through and almost certainly give up a couple of additional runs?
The Braves are the better defensive club, with a significant edge in their Defensive Efficiency Rating. There are lots of indications that Andruw Jones is no longer an A+ defensive player, but even at A-, he's still an asset. Furcal and Giles, whose defense is much improved, form a very good double play tandem.
But it also bears minding that the Cubs, with their uncanny strikeout rate, are less reliant on defense than any other teams in the bigs. That makes the failings of someone like Kenny Lofton, who has lost a step or three, or Aramis Ramirez, who makes the tough plays but sometimes muffs the easy ones, more tolerable. For what it's worth, Sammy Sosa's defense has looked better to me this year; it's almost as though it runs in inverse proportion to his success at the plate.
Much will be made of Dusty Baker's strengths and shortcomings, but a lot of them--giving his bench regular playing time, for example--have less bearing in a short series. We can save the Dusty talk for later.
But the one scenario that will have everyone's attention is how Baker handles Prior, Wood, and Zambrano, who are already on the line for a couple dozen extra innings, in marginal situations. If Wood is pitching well but with a pitch count in the high 120s, and Farnsworth looks shaky in the bullpen, does Baker send Kid K out there to start the eighth? To use a crude analogy, if the girl/guy of your dreams (we cater to all things fantasy at BP, baby) demands to sleep with you, but only on the condition that you do not use any form of protection, do you do it? Sure, it's risky--but isn't that what you've been waiting for the whole time anyway?
Even if you think that Bobby Cox is an idiot (and I don't), the Braves' roster is fairly idiot-proof; put your starting eight on the field, pinch-hit with whichever one of the Francos has the platoon advantage, trust Leo's judgment on the Smoltz situation, and you'll do fine. Cox does need to be cognizant of the opposing starter: don't throw away outs against Clement and Wood, who are capable of beating themselves. Against Mark Prior, different story.
It's easy to look over the pitching probables and give the series to the Cubs almost on fiat, but that's neglecting the fact that the Braves have the sort of offense that can make great pitchers look average, and average pitchers look foolish. Whatever the respective strengths and weaknesses of the teams, the Braves' formula combined to provide them with 101 wins, and the Cubs', just 88.
But there's also little doubt that the postseason format provides the Cubs with a significant advantage. Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano accounted for about 44 percent of the Cubs' innings during the regular season, but could easily combine for two-thirds of them in the playoffs. Hmm... how to make this work. Braves win two blowouts--let's say Games One and Four--and the Cubs win three squeakers. Cubs in five. And Smoltz turns out to be completely irrelevant.