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September 30, 2003

Playoff Prospectus

San Francisco Giants vs. Florida Marlins

by Jonah Keri

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Barry Bonds, best player of his generation and maybe ever, vs. Jeff Conine, as average a player as you'll find. Peter Magowan, hands-on owner, vs. Jeffrey Loria, carpetbagger extraordinaire. Pac Bell Park, jewel of the Bay Area, vs. Pro Player Stadium, football stadium of the turnpike.

The Giants and Marlins look like a mismatch in all these areas. But delve a little deeper and you'll find an intriguing first-round matchup that could yield its share of surprises.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/Equivalent Average (EqA))

San Francisco Giants

2B-B Ray Durham (.284/.364/.439/.284)
CF-R Marquis Grissom (.300/.322/.468/.276)
SS-R Rich Aurilia (.277/.325/.410/.260)
LF-L Barry Bonds (.339/.528/.747/.420)
3B-R Edgardo Alfonzo (.258/.333/.385/.262)
C-R Benito Santiago (.279/.329/.424/.275)
1B-R Andres Galarraga (.301/.352/.489/.287)/1B-L J.T. Snow (.272/.388/.419/.290)
RF Jose Cruz, Jr. (.250/.366/.414/.279)

Florida Marlins

CF-L Juan Pierre (.305/.361/.373/.272)
2B-B Luis Castillo (.314/.381/.397/.275)
C-R Ivan Rodriguez (.297/.369/.474/.293)
1B-R Derrek Lee (.271/.380/.509/.307)
RF-R Juan Encarnacion (.270/.314/.447/.264)
LF-R Jeff Conine (.283/.337/.460/.276)*
3B-R Miguel Cabrera (.268/.326/.470/.270)
SS-R Alex Gonzalez (.255/.314/.438/.260)
*combined teams

We've ranted about Bonds batting in the #4 slot before, but we'll say it again: minimizing the number of times Bonds bats can only hurt the Giants. (Seriously, the .420 figure beside Bonds' name looks more like a winning percentage the Devil Rays would aspire toward than an EqA.)

That aside, the lineup above is the Giants' formation against lefty starters. Against righties, Felipe Alou's expected to go with Snow batting second, Grissom moved down to fifth and Alfonso seventh. Though the two lineups only differ by one player, the switches are a nod toward some huge platoon splits. Despite comparably excellent OBPs vs. lefties (.390) and righties (.387), Snow slugged a decent .450 vs. righties and a microscopic .222 vs. lefties (in a tiny sample of 59 plate appearances, granted). Snow's patient approach behind Durham and ahead of Bonds makes him an ideal number-two hitter vs. righties. Meanwhile Grissom and Galarraga gain 349 and 157 OPS points vs. lefties compared to righties. Put another way, Grissom hits like Carlos Delgado with a southpaw on the mound, and like Brian Schneider against northpaws; Galarraga's platoon split reads like the difference between Jason Giambi and Jose Cruz. (Speaking of Cruz: 923 OPS vs. LH, 733 vs. RH)

As a team, the Giants hit 257/.330/.401 vs. righties this season, .284/.363/.500 vs. lefties. With two of the Marlins' four series starters being lefties, the Giants gain a huge edge.

The Marlins don't bring anyone approaching Bonds' stature to the table--not that that's a realistic standard to which any team should be held. What they do serve up is a balanced lineup of average or above-average players: their worst player, regression-to-the-mean poster boy Alex Gonzalez, brings a .260 EqA to the table, which still beats the average EqA by a major league shortstop this season, .254. Of course the Giants' worst regular, SS counterpart Rich Aurilia, also sports a .260 EqA.

So where can the Marlins gain an edge? On the basepaths. Despite the art of basestealing fading into fuzzy Rickey Henderson/Tim Raines memories, the Fish did some damage on the bases this year, swiping a major league-leading 149 bases. Of course with 74 caught stealings, the team's stolen base percentage of 66.8% meant the Marlins' steal attempts hurt more than they helped.

Still, there's an advantage to be gained here, if done right. Opposing runners swiped 44 of 54 bases against Benito Santiago (including pitcher pickoffs). Santiago's rate of 18.5% caught stealing ranks among the worst in the majors. Moreover Game 1 starter Jason Schmidt allowed 17 of 17 runners to steal successfully off him, while Game 2 starter Sidney Ponson yielded 12 steals in 16 attempts. If you're Jack McKeon, you pick your spots. Juan Pierre (64 of 84, 76.1%) leads off Game 1 with a bunt single? Give him the green light and make Santiago throw one of his rainbow tosses to second to get him. Luis Castillo (21 of 40, 52.5% and out of sync all year on the basepaths) starts an inning with a walk? Let Pudge Rodriguez and Derrek Lee swing for the gaps.

Just as the Giants' platoon edge is limited to two games, so is the Marlins' basestealing window: Game 3 starter Kirk Rueter holds runners on extremely well, and Game 4 starter and rookie Jerome Williams has an outstanding move to first.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA)

San Francisco Giants

IF-R Andres Galarraga (.301/.352/.489/.287)/1B-L J.T. Snow (.272/.388/.419/.290)
IF-B Neifi Perez (.256/.285/.348/.224)
IF-R Eric Young (.249/.335/.391/.259)*
IF-R Pedro Feliz (.240/.272/.489/.266)
OF-R Jeffrey Hammonds (.242/.331/.430/.266)*
C-R Yorvit Torrealba (.264/.313/.396.251)
OF-L Marvin Benard (.197/.237/.268/.178)
*combined teams

Florida Marlins

IF-R Mike Lowell (.277/.351/.531/.299)
OF-L Todd Hollandsworth (.253/.317/.422/.256)
PH-B Brian Banks (.236/.350/.385/.265)
C-R Mike Redmond (.246/.309/.320/.223)
IF-L Andy Fox (.196/.271/.262/.184)
IF-R Mike Mordecai (.209/.266/.326/.222)
PH-L Lenny Harris (.196/.275/.238/.180)*
*combined teams

Another potential ace in the hole for the Marlins. The latest on Lowell's broken left hand has the erstwhile starting third baseman swinging the bat in spurts, with the hand becoming fatigued after multiple reps. Still, Lowell's reporting no significant pain or discomfort, and the Marlins hope to have him back in the starting lineup in about a week's time--once he's shaken off the rust and regained his strength--either for a Game 5 vs. the Giants if necessary, or in time for the League Championship Series if the Marlins advance. Lowell in the lineup would fortify the starting eight and bump either Miguel Cabrera or Jeff Conine down to the bench, providing a power bat to supplement pop-gun hitters Mordecai, Fox, and Harris. (We've long since given up figuring out why any self-respecting manager would choose Harris for a roster spot over say, a potted plant, let alone a power bat like Ramon Castro). Hollandsworth and Banks offer decent options off the bench against Felix Rodriguez, Joe Nathan, and Tim Worrell in the late innings.

The Giants bench meanwhile features two more lefty-smashers in Hammonds and Young. Feliz is an OBP sieve whose homer per 15.5 AB rate also makes him a legitimate deep threat every time he steps to the plate. Torrealba's an adequate backup to Santiago. Perez is a nice glove to have off the bench, even while being one of baseball's worst hitters and a two-year, $4.25 million drain on Giants resources.

Rotations (Support-Neutral Value Added, IP, ERA)

San Francisco Giants

RHP Jason Schmidt (6.5, 207 2/3, 2.34)
RHP Sidney Ponson (3.6, 216, 3.75)*
LHP Kirk Rueter (1.4, 147, 4.53)
RHP Jerome Williams (2.7, 131, 3.30)
*combined teams

Florida Marlins

RHP Josh Beckett (2.6, 142, 3.04)
RHP Brad Penny (2.6, 196 1/3, 4.13)
LHP Mark Redman (2.9, 190 2/3, 3.59)
LHP Dontrelle Willis (3.7, 155 2/3, 3.41)

A Game 4 must-win game for one of the two teams featuring rookie sensations Williams and Willis could be the highlight of the four Division Series. While Willis and Arizona's Brandon Webb will garner more Rookie of the Year votes, Williams has given the Giants a huge shot in the arm since getting called up in early June to replace the injured (and subsequently traded) Kurt Ainsworth. Willis faltered for a few starts after looking unhittable out of the gate, but righted himself by season's end, tossing five innings of scoreless ball Sunday to cap an amazing rookie campaign.

Since we started at Game 4, let's move backwards: Rueter's 41 Ks vs. 47 walks and 170 hits allowed in 147 innings would suggest an astronomical ERA for any pitcher not named Kirk Rueter. Of course this is the guy who year in and year out pitches better with men on base than otherwise. While we'll save discussions of clutches to German roadsters, Rueter keeps baserunners close, keeps his home run rate fairly low (one per 10.5 innings this year, below his career numbers) and knows how to use Pac Bell's spacious right-center field triangle to his advantage. Alou's holding Rueter for Game 3 in Florida though, which negates that advantage.

His mound opponent Mark Redman meanwhile saw his ERA jump to 3.94 in the second half from a tidy 3.26 in the first half. Redman actually boosted his strikeout rate after the All-Star break and kept his walk rate fairly steady. The long ball--10 homers in 14 second-half starts vs. six in 15 first-half outings--caused much of the regression. Whether or not Redman's workload was a concern as the second half wore on, it has to be now: Redman ranked fourth in the majors in Pitcher Abuse Points. If the Marlins advance and the playoffs wear on, Redman could wear down, forcing Carl Pavano to soak up innings.

As noted earlier, while Schmidt and Ponson hold the statistical edge over Beckett and Penny, Florida could try and use the running game in Games 1 and 2 to level the playing field. They may not have much of a choice: the Marlins' strength is in their right-handed thumpers, and Ponson and Schmidt could neuter the likes of Rodriguez, Lee, Encarnacion, Conine and Cabrera if they're on their game.

On the plus side for the Marlins, Beckett and Penny are no pushovers either. Beckett's fought off nagging blister problems this year and emerged as the staff's hottest pitcher in the season's last six weeks, fulfilling some of the huge expectations that have buzzed around him since his days as a Texas high school phenom. Penny, like Pavano, has overcome injury concerns to become an effective workhorse for the Marlins who'll keep them in games.

Bullpens (Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP), IP, ERA)

San Francisco Giants

RHP Joe Nathan (15.3, 79, 2.96)
RHP Felix Rodriguez (6.8, 61, 3.10)
RHP Tim Worrell (-0.1, 78 1/3, 2.87)
LHP Scott Eyre (2.5, 57, 3,32)
RHP Jim Brower (6.2, 75 2/3, 3.93)**
RHP Matt Herges (14.0, 79, 2.62)*
*combined teams **as reliever only

Florida Marlins

RHP Ugueth Urbina (15.4, 77, 2.81)*
RHP Braden Looper (3.2, 79 2/3, 3.73)
RHP Carl Pavano (-0.1, 2, 4.50)**
RHP Chad Fox (1.6, 43 1/3, 3.12)*
LHP Miguel Tejera (0.2, 50, 4.32)**
RHP Rick Helling (7.8, 16 1/3, 0.55)*, **
*combined teams **as reliever only

Had this breakdown been written in late June instead of late September, the Giants would hold a huge edge in this department, with Nathan and Rodriguez anchoring a solid back of the pen despite Worrell's lukewarm season, Eyre providing effective lefty-smushing innings and the 2002 Expos arsonist combo of Herges and Brower now providing solid innings as middle men.

Three months later, the Marlins have cobbled together a solid gang o' six to backstop their young rotation. As Joe Sheehan noted a few weeks ago, glancing at a stat like team ARP without considering context can be misleading. Good teams weed out their bullpen dregs and replace them with more effective pitchers. So while Florida's team bullpen stats may look ugly, chucking poor performances from the likes of Vladimir Nunez and Blaine Neal for strong showings by newcomers Urbina, Fox, and Helling allows for a more accurate view. With Looper struggling through a second-half fade, Urbina has fared well in the closer's role. Fox has been so effective since bouncing from Boston's scrap heap to Miami that he's bounced Looper down to McKeon's third option late in the game. Even Helling, another recycled part known for his tateriffic ways, has picked it up, allowing just one homer in 16 1/3 innings, the homer doubling as the only run he's yielded as a Marlin.

Both teams can now call their bullpens a strength. Keep an eye on Nathan especially. Three years removed from shoulder surgery, he's become the Giants' best reliever and one of the best in baseball.

Defense

Advantage: Giants. San Francisco led the National League in Defensive Efficiency, converting 72.2% of balls in play into outs. Meanwhile the Marlins finished third-to-last in the league, with a 70.4% rate. In a recent Q&A, Giants Assistant General Manager Ned Colletti discussed the club's signings of Jose Cruz and others, noting that the Giants wanted to improve their athleticism last off-season. Cruz's defense in the vast expanse of right field at Pac Bell has been Gold Glove-worthy, with Cruz showing great range and a strong, accurate throwing arm and making himself a big part of the team's improvement on D. While Juan Pierre has been a good addition in center field, Luis Castillo is one of several Marlins who've had down years with the leather.

Managers

McKeon and Alou have 42,793 years of baseball experience between them. They've also kept their ships running smoothly.

McKeon didn't merely replace a fired manager in Jeff Torborg. He descended into the middle of a firestorm over, among other things, A.J. Burnett's shredded arm and concerns over the rest of the young pitching staff. McKeon struck the right balance between getting quality innings out of his starters and not running his bullpen into the ground. Bringing in fresh meat in Urbina, Fox, and Helling helped, of course.

Alou handled Bonds and his need to be with his dying father as well as could be expected. He stuck with Jerome Williams in the rotation despite a few bumps in the road, heaped more responsibility on Joe Nathan once he proved he could handle the load as a bullpen anchor, carved an effective platoon out of two beaten-down first baseman in J.T. Snow and Andres Galarraga, and kept the team pointed in the right direction through injuries to key players like Ray Durham. I voted McKeon-Alou 1-2 in the BP staff awards balloting (results coming soon)--both teams are in good hands.

The Call

While writing this preview, I felt a twinge of familiarity I couldn't quite place. Then it hit me. A year ago, previewing the Giants-Cardinals LCS with Chris Kahrl, I wrote:

I expect a big series out of at least one of Renteria and Drew, and continued success for Morris and Finley. But the loss of Rolen and the question marks surrounding Benes and Williams are too much to overcome.

Like those Cardinals, the Marlins must deal with the loss of their keynote third baseman, Mike Lowell, who looks like a pinch-hitter at best through most, if not all of this series. The same questions that arose from the back of St. Louis' rotation last year bother me about this year's Marlins. I can't shake the feeling that Mark Redman's going to get hammered the way he did in his last nine regular-season starts, when he allowed 35 runs in 53 1/3 innings. That the Giants eat lefties like Takeru Kobayashi devours Coney Island dogs only compounds the problem.

Pierre will get on and bother the Giants on the basepaths and Derrek Lee, one of the game's most underrated players, will make an impact on the big stage. But the Giants' far superior outfield--Bonds alone outshines the entire Marlins outfield combined--and overall offensive and defensive edges will be too much for the Marlins to handle. Giants in four.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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