October 6, 2004
Atlanta Braves vs. Houston Astros
Forget all the talk about momentum. There are plenty of reasons to believe that Houston is a much better ballclub now than they were at the start of the season. Exhibit A, of course, is Carlos Beltran, but the bullpen has sorted itself out in September and the team has responded well to Phil Garner. We don't normally put a lot of stock in that last point, but an ex-Jimy club is perhaps a worthy exception. As Will Carroll points out, the Astros also come in to the postseason relatively healthy, having survived the losses of Wade Miller and Andy Pettitte.
None of this is meant to slight the Braves, who pull off the amazing feat of being consistently awesome and consistently underrated, but this is Houston's series to lose.
LF-R Craig Biggio (.281/.337/.469/.272/30.2)
SS-B Rafael Furcal (.279/.344./.414/.269/38.5)
It sure looks a lot better with Beltran in there, don't it? The Astros elevated their run production from 4.5 runs per game in the first half to 5.5 after the All-Star break. That wasn't entirely Beltran's doing--Bagwell and Ensberg also picked up their pace notably in the second half--but having Beltran in the lineup provides the Astros with a robust middle of the order that ought to hold its own against any pitching staff and in any run environment.
You can identify the weak spots as well as I can. Biggio doesn't draw walks any more, though it isn't clear that there's a superior option in the leadoff spot. Ausmus isn't in there for his bat. Bagwell and Kent don't hit like they once did, and the 'Stros are sacrificing at least a few points of expectation by having Bags hit in front of Berkman and not the other way around. It isn't a great offense, but it's plenty good.
The Astros' ostensible weakness is that they are too heavily right-handed, something which could potentially be a problem since the Atlanta pitching staff leans that way, too. The concern is somewhat misplaced: right-handed hitters do not, by and large, suffer from the warped platoon lines that left-handers do. What's more, the team's two slugging switch-hitters (this does not mean you, Jose Vizcaino) have always mashed righties; Berkman in particular is around 200 points of OPS better against RHP for his career.
Atlanta's offense is every bit as good. It's also a testament to John Scheurholz's team-building ability. Every player in the starting eight is either a graduate of the Braves' prodigious farm system, or was picked up (Drew, Marrero, Estrada) at a time when his value was at a low-water mark. The master stroke, of course, was moving Chipper Jones back to third base, something that has to be considered one of the gutsiest decisions made by a contending team in recent memory.
The Braves will go with any number of lineup permutations depending on handedness of the opposing starter, the prevailing winds, and the direction of Bobby Cox's hair part, but this should be about the most common combination. The outstanding 1-8 depth is not quite enough to make up for the losses of Javy Lopez and Gary Sheffield, but this group comports itself very well, and is balanced enough to handle all major subspecies of pitchers, including the right-handed power arms that will throw most of the Astros' innings.
3B-L Mike Lamb (.288/.356/.511/.287/21.5)
1B-R Julio Franco (.309/.378/.441/.284/23.7)
Bobby Cox has announced that he will go with 11 pitchers, making room for six positional reserves. There isn't a lot to work with apart from the outstanding pinch-hitting combination of Franco and Thomas (or whomever Franco and Thomas displace in the starting lineup), but given how infrequently the last couple of roster spots come into play in the postseason, that should not be a major concern. The one potential trouble spot is that, owing to Mark DeRosa's ACL injury, there isn't an obvious defensive replacement for Chipper Jones late in the game. That could prove to be a more serious concern, of course, should Jones' hand injury not heal in time, forcing him out of the opening games of the series.
The Astros run about even in terms of depth: Lamb and Lane make an outstanding pinch-hitting duo, and Palmeiro has his merits, but otherwise the team runs out of useful players faster than they run out of roster spots. Indeed, though it is likely that the 'Stros will go with 11 pitchers and six position players, it isn't clear who the 25th man will be. The guess is that Phil Garner will go with fellow scrap-dogger Everett, though the shortstop has appeared in only one game, that as a pinch-runner, since breaking his wrist in August. Pinch-bunting, anyone?
The most important decision in the whole series is whether the Astros will decide to go with Clemens and Oswalt in Games Four and Five on short rest. Clemens' success this season has been brought about, at least in part, by his careful handling; Rocket has come out to pitch the eighth inning just twice all season. Oswalt has never started on three days' rest in his major-league career.
It seems plainly clear, however, that the Astros are giving up too much by failing to take their chances with the big guns. Backe turned in an inspired performance over the weekend, but he's a Devil Rays refugee with a propensity to give up home runs. Munro throws the ball toward the plate and prays for the best; that's not enough against a smart group of hitters like the Braves. Lefty Carlos Hernandez has also been talked about as an alt.option, but his nine starts this year provided no reason to believe that he's ready for prime time. Garner needs to do everything in his power to squeeze four starts out of Clemens and Oswalt, including pulling them early if the first two games become lopsided.
There was a discussion on the internal mailing list recently about whether Wright being the Braves' #1 starter heading into the playoffs is the most surprising development of the season. My answer was "no," if only because there's too much precedent on the side of Leo Mazzone. Wright still clocks in at 97 mph with movement. This year, under Mazzone's tutelage, he's stayed healthy, kept the ball down, and kept it reasonably close to the strike zone. That makes for a good pitcher.
Keeping the ball down is, in fact, the whole key to the Braves' approach. Team totals this season for Atlanta:
Trade some walks and base knocks for substantially fewer home runs: it's a sound approach, and a pitching staff with these characteristics might well have presented a problem for a team like the Cubs, which is overly dependent on the home run. The Astros offense, however, is reasonably well balanced, and should be better positioned to exploit that approach. In particular, Ortiz's wildness does not figure to match up well against Houston, which drew the fourth-most walks in the league.
Bullpens (IP, ERA)
RHP Brad Lidge (94.2, 1.90)
RHP John Smoltz (51.2, 2.76)
One huge advantage for Garner's Gang is that Lidge is both experienced at and effective when pitching more than one inning at a time. Lidge turned in two-inning stints 13 times this season, compiling a 1.73 ERA in those sessions. Yes, you are detecting a theme here: the more effectively that Garner is to leverage the innings that Lidge, Clemens, and Oswalt pitch, the greater the Astros' chances of reaching the NLCS for the first time since the Bill Doran years.
No offense intended to the rest of the Houston bullpen. There is no Octavio Dotel in the mix, but the group coalesced down the stretch run, with Miceli and Qualls pitching particularly well. The one temptation that Garner must resist is to get overly cute with LH/RH matchups; Gallo simply isn't an effective pitcher, and the Braves will have a capable right-handed pinch-hitter at their disposal anyway.
Smoltz is as effective as ever--it's not his fault that he ain't no Brad Lidge--but the Braves' superior bullpen depth is unlikely to have a lot of impact in a short series. The exception could be an extra-inning game, or a contest in which the Braves find themselves behind early. Bobby Cox ought to use pinch-hitters aggressively if the situation necessitates; Atlanta just isn't giving up that much by having Cruz or somebody similarly talented out there in the fifth inning, even if it means sacrificing the starter.
The Braves' defense, which ranked 11th in the NL in defensive efficiency, is no longer the stuff that finesse pitchers' dreams are made of. Chipper Jones isn't any less effective at the hot corner than he used to be, but that isn't saying very much. Estrada, who, true to Nichols' Law of Catcher Defense, had a fine defensive reputation before he learned how to hit, threw out a paltry 19% of would be base-stealers. (Beltran's stolen-base success rate against him is conservatively estimated at 146%.) Furcal has impressive range and instincts, but his propensity to throw the ball away could cost the Braves. Andruw Jones isn't enough to make up for all of that, especially since the Braves have a groundball-oriented pitching staff.
Houston's defense is decidedly inferior (13th in the league in DER), particularly with Everett out of the lineup; before Carlos Beltran came along it was downright awful. Nevertheless, it is relatively unlikely that a key defensive miscue will cost the Astros, if only because the Astro pitchers rely on a strategy of keeping the ball out of play entirely.
These are two-well balanced clubs, and this is not a series that figures to depend all that much on micromanaging. Bobby Cox has a checkered postseason record, but his roster this time around is relatively idiot-proof, with obvious and interchangeable pinch-hitting and bullpen options. We have already outlined the key issue that Phil Garner faces--leveraging his power arms as well as possible--and so long as he passes that test, there is no reason to think that he is a major liability, an extraneous sacrifice bunt here and there be damned.
It's apparent that the extra rest days that the postseason schedule provides lends a powerful advantage to a team with a top-heavy pitching staff. That's a description that fits the Astros perfectly. We're taking Clemens, Oswalt and Lidge in four. Hell, I like their chances in the NLCS, too. Houston, we've got a winner.