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October 5, 2005

Playoff Prospectus

Atlanta Braves vs. Houston Astros

by Joe Sheehan

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For the fourth time in nine years, the Braves and Astros meet in the Division Series. And just as it was back in the 1990s, we have one of the league's best rotations involved. The catch, of course, is that it's the Astros being led by a devastating top three, as opposed to having to try and beat one.

This series should be a beat writer's dream, with fast-paced, low-scoring games that end in plenty of time to file a story and get a good meal. There were just 1,302 runs scored in Astros' games this season, the lowest figure in baseball. That's because in addition to having great starting pitching, they can't hit. The Braves will do their part to keep things moving by running three good right-handed starters at the Astros, attacking their weak, righty-heavy lineup with tough righties who keep the ball down.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

Atlanta Braves

SS-B Rafael Furcal (.284/.348/.429/.275/50.1)
2B-R Marcus Giles (.291/.365/.461/.285/49.3)
3B-B Chipper Jones (.296/.412/.556/.323/48.9)
CF-R Andruw Jones (.263/.347/.575/.299/61.4)
1B-R Julio Franco (.275/.348/.451/.277/21.7)
RF-R Jeff Francoeur (.300/.336/.549/.289/14.5)
C-B Johnny Estrada (.261/.303/.367/.232/7.9)
LF-R Brian Jordan (.247/.295/.338/.223/-2.5)

Houston Astros

CF-R Willy Taveras (.291/.325/.341/.241/12.1)
2B-R Craig Biggio (.264/.325/.468/.271/37.4)
3B-R Morgan Ensberg (.283/.388/.557/.311/61.8)
LF-B Lance Berkman (.293/.411/.524/.317/55.3)
1B-L Mike Lamb (.236/.284/.419/.239/2.4)
RF-R Jason Lane (.267/.316/.499/.273/28.7)
SS-R Adam Everett (.248/.290/.364/.231/8.6)
C-R Brad Ausmus (.258/.351/.331/.247/12.1)

That's the likely Game One lineup for the Braves. Against right-handers, you'll see Adam LaRoche at first base and Ryan Langerhans in left field, most likely in those same lineup spots.

The Braves have a good, albeit top-heavy, lineup, and they finished fifth in the NL in Equivalent Average at .264. The players in their much-vaunted youth movement all had hot streaks at one time or another, but none played well consistently. Even the heralded Jeff Francoeur slumped badly towards the end of the season: .235/.271/.422 in September and October. The Braves will score when Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles reach base for the Jones boys, and any inning that opens with the #5 through #8 slots is a good time to make that sandwich.

Of course, the Astros would kill for even that much of a threat. They have OBP issues up and down the lineup, and with Mike Lamb not repeating 2004's career year, have one viable left-handed threat on the entire roster, that being Lance Berkman. Having six righties in the lineup against Tim Hudson and John Smoltz is going to be a problem; they'll need to hit some home runs--six of their starters had at least 11--with runners on base, because long innings will be nearly impossible to come by.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

Atlanta Braves

C-L Brian McCann (.278/.345/.400/.259/9.2)
1B-L Adam LaRoche (.259/.320/.455/.262/15.6)
INF-L Pete Orr (.300/.331/.387/.255/7.3)
INF-B Wilson Betemit (.305/.359/.435/.271/16.0)
OF-L Kelly Johnson (.241/.334/.397/.255/6.4)
OF-L Ryan Langerhans (.267/.348/.426/.266/12.9)

Houston Astros

C-R Raul Chavez (.172/.210/.263/.152/-6.5)
1B-R Jeff Bagwell (.250/.358/.380/.268/3.5)
IF-B Jose Vizcaino (.246/.299/.337/.226/0.4)
LF-R Chris Burke (.248/.309/.368/.238/-0.2)
OF-L Orlando Palmeiro (.284/.341/.431/.268/10.0)
OF-L Luke Scott (.188/.270/.288/.194/-4.4)
UT-R Eric Bruntlett (.220/.292/.413/.247/3.0)

Bobby Cox passed on carrying a third catcher in Brayan Pena in favor of keeping Brian Jordan around. I'm as shocked as you are. It's a terrific decision by Cox, who has hamstrung himself with an empty roster spot in the past. Even if Johnny Estrada's back becomes an issue, Brian McCann is a more than an adequate solution with value as both a starter and a lefty pinch-hitter. Cox can pinch-run with Pete Orr, Wilson Betemit and the outfielders, and none of these guys are zeroes as pinch-hitters off the bench. (Jordan is the weak spot, and even he is a nominal threat against Andy Pettitte and Mike Gallo.) It's the best Braves' postseason bench in their 1991-2005 run.

Phil Garner eschewed an 11th pitcher in favor of Luke Scott. There's something to be said for the idea that if you don't have three good outfielders, having six mediocre ones at least gives you a chance to leverage situations. That's what we see here. Chris Burke more or less platoons with Lamb, with Berkman sliding from first base to left field. Jeff Bagwell won't play the field; he is, however, a solid pinch-hitter who can be used to either start or finish an inning, and all those outfielders, plus Eric Bruntlett, free Garner to use Bagwell for anyone in the lineup. Bruntlett can pinch-run, something that could be important in a late-game situation against Kyle Farnsworth. It's a high-maintenance bench; no complete players, just some way to improve your percentages in some situations.

Rotations (ERA/IP/SNLVAR)

Atlanta Braves

RHP Tim Hudson (192.0, 3.52, 5.3)
RHP John Smoltz (229.2, 3.06, 6.9)
RHP Jorge Sosa (134.0, 2.55, 4.2)
LHP Horacio Ramirez (202.1, 4.63, 2.7)
RHP John Thomson (98.2, 4.47, 1.3)

Houston Astros

LHP Andy Pettitte (222.1, 2.39, 8.5)
RHP Roger Clemens (211.1, 1.89, 9.4)
RHP Roy Oswalt (241.2, 2.94, 7.6)
RHP Brandon Backe (149.1, 4.76, 2.6)

The Astros catch a sweet break, being forced to play through Game 162 to lock up a playoff spot, then getting the Wednesday opener that enables them to keep their big three on rotation and full rest. Whether Backe starts Game Four or Pettitte does on short rest depends on who leads at that point, and perhaps on how deep Pettitte goes Wednesday. Roger Clemens looked back on his game Saturday, the missed start having helped his leg issues. He can't be relied upon for more than six, maybe seven innings, but he should be solid while he's out there. The Astros' entire chance to advance rests on those three pitchers. Their offense can't cover bad starts; it has enough trouble covering good ones, as Clemens can attest.

This is a great matchup for the Braves' starters. Look again at that Astros lineup, then consider that Tim Hudson (.240/.291/.286), John Smoltz (.233/.268/.338) and Jorge Sosa (.235/.299/.318) all handcuff righties, and the first two have been doing it for years. Even with legitimate concerns about Smoltz' shoulder and no real good choice for Game Four--both Horacio Ramirez and John Thomson made the roster--the Braves aren't that far behind the Astros in expectation from their rotation in this series.

Bullpens (IP, ERA, WXRL)

Atlanta Braves

RHP Kyle Farnsworth (69.0, 2.22, 4.311)
RHP Chris Reitsma (73.1, 3.93, .716)
LHP John Foster (34.2, 4.15, -.050)
LHP Macay McBride (14.0, 5.79, 1.082)
RHP Jim Brower (60.1, 5.37, -.127)
RHP Joey Devine (5.0, 12.60, -.308)

Houston Astros

RHP Brad Lidge (70.2, 2.29, 4.634)
RHP Dan Wheeler (73.1, 2.21, 3.359)
LHP Mike Gallo (20.1, 2.66, .092)
RHP Chad Qualls (79.2, 3.28, 1.910)
RHP Russ Springer (59.0, 4.73, .770)
LHP Wandy Rodriguez (128.2, 5.53, 1.4 SNLVAR)

The Braves' bullpen went through a number of iterations in-season, with the playoff contingent built as much by injury and circumstance--Blaine Boyer is hurt, Danny Kolb was a disaster--as proactive decision-making. Kyle Farnsworth has been a big help at the back end, and Jim Brower's late-season hot streak earned him a spot. The lack of any long men is one justification for carrying both Ramirez and Thomson, although to be blunt, the chances of the Astros chasing someone in the first three games is slim. McBride may be unnecessary, given the Astros' lack of lefty bats. On the whole, this is an odd group, with three players--McBride, Brower and Joey Devine--whose qualifications are very slim.

The Astros will rely on getting games to Dan Wheeler and Brad Lidge. Remember that Phil Garner is more than willing to let Lidge get five or more outs when need be, so he could go to Wheeler as early as the sixth if a starter falters. Chad Qualls has been OK and could be a bridge pitcher on a day that Garner can't stretch his top two guys. Mike Gallo is a lefty specialist who doesn't get lefties out, but he'll likely force Chipper Jones to the right side or LaRoche and Langerhans to the bench, so that may not matter. Realistically, any and all important situations are going to be handled by the big two. It's basically a five-man staff, one better than last year's.

Defense

Defensive Efficiency pegs the Astros defense as the best in the league, and they have above-average gloves up the middle in Taveras, Everett and Ausmus. Their end-of-game outfield defense, with Orlando Palmeiro on the field, is excellent. That said, the high strikeout rates of the front end of the staff means that the Astros don't rely on their defense very much.

The Braves have a fantastic defensive outfield. Andruw Jones' reputation has been an issue in the MVP arguments, but he's not the glove man he was in his early 20s. To a certain extent, he's getting belated credit for that this year. For the first year in a while, though, the Braves have excellent defenders on the outfield corners. When Francoeur and Langerhans flank Jones, the Braves can cover some real ground. The infield can be spectacular and erratic, sometimes in the same inning. Only Chipper Jones is below average, however. The DER figure doesn't seem to match the observational evidence or the reputations.

The Braves do control the running game reasonably well, save for Farnsworth very late. The Astros can run, but since their threats don't find themselves on base much, it's less an issue than you'd think.

Managers

Cox has been a fixture in our autumns for more than a decade, but in going without a third catcher and with a pitcher whose MLB experience consists of five innings (Devine), he's showing a willingness to try new tricks. This is not a push-button Braves team; with a number of platoons and a bullpen that includes few reliable multi-inning options, Cox will have opportunities to put his stamp on the series.

Garner, of course, was impressive last season in his handling of the bullpen, and how he does so this year is one of the more interesting subplots this October. Like Cox, he has to work hard to manage his offense, larded as it is with half-players and less. With his seven-man bench and Cox's six short relievers, any game the Braves leave to the pen is going to become a chess match. There's a slight edge to Cox here, largely because he has a terrific right-hand man in Leo Mazzone.

Prediction

Pain.

This series is a coin flip, pitting the best rotation in baseball against a more complete roster with some good starters of their own. Even if the Astros get top-notch performances from their starters, they could well lose a series of 1-0 and 2-1 decisions. With runs likely to be at a premium, the games will be decided not by the sacred "manufacturing runs," but by who's able to catch lightning in a bat a time or two. I'll go with a very weak Astros in five, because Lidge and Wheeler are better than Farnsworth and Reitsma. The only thing that would surprise me is a sweep.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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