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October 11, 2007

Playoff Prospectus

Diamondbacks versus Rockies

by Joe Sheehan

It may not play well on the Upper East Side, on Newbury Street, or the Main Line, but this National League Championship Series has the makings of a great series. The Rockies and Diamondbacks are evenly matched teams with comparable strengths and weaknesses, and each has a number of young stars or stars-in-waiting well worth watching. Both swept more experienced opponents in the first round, striking a blow against the notion that experience is a determinant of postseason fate. This is simply a terrific series ahead of us, one that despite the locations-both teams' home parks are among the better hitters' parks in the game-could feature more low-scoring games than its AL counterpart.

Lineups


Rockies                 AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
CF-R Willy Taveras     .320/.367/.382   .260
2B-S Kazuo Matsui      .288/.342/.405   .258   16.9
LF-R Matt Holliday     .340/.405/.607   .318   75.0
1B-L Todd Helton       .320/.434/.494   .308   51.9
3B-R Garrett Atkins    .301/.367/.486   .278   34.8
RF-L Brad Hawpe        .291/.387/.539   .297   37.4
SS-R Troy Tulowitzki   .291/.359/.479   .269   37.8
C-R  Yorvit Torrealba  .255/.323/.376   .235    4.6

Diamondbacks            AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
CF-R Chris Young       .237/.295/.467   .259   15.5
SS-L Stephen Drew      .238/.313/.370   .243    2.8
LF-R Eric Byrnes       .286/.353/.460   .284   35.2
1B-R Conor Jackson     .284/.368/.467   .284   20.5
3B-R Mark Reynolds     .279/.349/.495   .282   19.2
C-R  Chris Snyder      .252/.342/.433   .266   14.1
RF-R Justin Upton      .221/.283/.364   .225   -5.3
2B-S Augie Ojeda       .274/.354/.354   .256    2.1

Clint Hurdle used the same eight-man lineup in five straight games, and also in seven of the last nine. For the NLCS, however, the Rockies have activated center fielder and leadoff man Willy Taveras. As Taveras' strained quad goes, so goes his playing time, so we may still see Ryan Spilborghs and Cory Sullivan as the series progresses, with Troy Tulowitzki bumping up to the two hole and Kazuo Matsui leading off. Bob Melvin is a bit more flexible, working Tony Clark in for Conor Jackson and Jeff Salazar in for Justin Upton against many right-handers. Miguel Montero catches when Livan Hernandez takes the mound. The D'backs miss Orlando Hudson, who was their #3 hitter for much of the season, the team leader in OBP and a switch-hitter providing balance in the lineup. He was the most important .278 EqA hitter in the game.

The run-friendly home parks each team plays in give generous boosts to each offense. When you strip away the park factors, you get two generally unimpressive lineups. The Rockies were second in the NL in runs, just sixth in EqA; the D'backs couldn't score even with a boost for Chase Field: 14th in the NL in runs, thanks to dead last ranks in BA and OBP, and a 15th-place finish in EqA. The difference between these two teams may not be quite that large-you can give the young D'backs hitters some credit for in-season improvement, as they did have their best month in September, with a nice jump in plate discipline and OBP-but the Rockies will have a clear edge with bats in hand. Both teams like to get in their hacks, so you won't see a lot of take-and-rake or nine-pitch PAs in this series. The Diamondbacks are up against it a bit more; they have a short-sequence offense thanks to their low OBP, and need to hit home runs, and hit some of them with runners on base, to score.

Both teams have good lefty/righty balance-Melvin platoons to get his-and neither team shows a big platoon split or a lineup vulnerability in the late innings. You can give a slight edge to the Diamondbacks because of this, as Hurdle will burn through a lot of relievers if you let him. Melvin's use of Clark, Salazar, and Montero to break up his righties will afford Hurdle opportunities to make mistakes.

Benches


Rockies                 AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
CF-R Ryan Spilborghs   .299/.363/.485   .283   16.5
CF-L Cory Sullivan     .286/.336/.386   .246    2.9
C-R  Chris Iannetta    .218/.330/.350   .234    0.2
INF-R Jamey Carroll    .225/.317/.300   .218   -7.6 @2B
4C-R Jeff Baker        .222/.296/.347   .216   -5.1 @PH
OF-L Seth Smith*       .270/.333/.445   .267    NA
* translated minor league stats

Diamondbacks            AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
1B-S Tony Clark        .249/.310/.511   .271    7.3
OF-L Jeff Salazar      .277/.340/.394   .258    1.2 @RF
C-L  Miguel Montero    .224/.292/.397   .240    0.5
3B-R Jeff Cirillo      .200/.273/.300   .198   -2.4 @PH
INF-S Alberto Callaspo .215/.265/.271   .185  -10.8 @3B
C/UT-R Robby Hammock   .244/.306/.289   .210   -1.7 @PH

The Rockies get away from the execrable 12-man pitching staff by activating Taveras, which pushes the center field platoon to the bench and gives them a much-needed sixth hitter. Chris Iannetta won't play unless something happens to Torrealba. Jamey Carroll occasionally serves as an early-inning pinch-hitter, but more often surfaces as Garrett Atkins' defensive replacement in the late innings. Jeff Baker and Seth Smith are pinch-hitters and won't see much time on defense; Baker's pinch-hit single in the eighth inning of NLDS Game Three broke a 1-1 tie and helped the Rockies sweep. Expect to see that clip every time he bats in this series. If Taveras is on the bench because he can't run well enough to play, he's not an asset; speed, defense, and singles are what he brings to the table.

As mentioned, the Rockies platoon at two spots and use Montero as a personal catcher, so you'll see more of these guys early in games. Jeff Cirillo serves as the veteran pinch-hitter; his line above doesn't include his decent work with the Twins earlier this year. Alberto Callaspo will pinch-run and come in after someone has pinch-hit for Augie Ojeda, while Robby Hammock could show up as a pinch-hitter for pitchers, pinch-runner for a catcher or first baseman, or a patch should a long game or an injury force Melvin into an awkward situation.

Perhaps it's too many years of watching Yankee benches, but I see both of these reserve corps as assets. There are no stars here, but there are early- and late-inning pinch-hitters, defensive replacements for the problems in the starting lineup, some speed, and in the cases of Baker and Clark, guys who can tie a game late with one swing. Hurdle helps himself a lot by getting Taveras back, as long as Taveras can play at least part of the time. Anyone is more useful than Mark Redman.

Rotations


Rockies                  IP    ERA   SNLVAR  QERA
LHP Jeff Francis       215.1  4.22    5.4    3.90
RHP Ubaldo Jimenez      82.0  4.28    1.8    4.24
RHP Josh Fogg          165.2  4.94    2.3    4.97
LHP Franklin Morales    39.1  3.43    1.3    4.12

Diamondbacks             IP    ERA   SNLVAR  QERA
RHP Brandon Webb       236.1  3.01    7.1    3.33
LHP Doug Davis         192.2  4.25    4.0    4.78
RHP Livan Hernandez    204.1  4.93    3.1    5.66
RHP Micah Owings       152.2  4.30    2.9    4.61

I'll reiterate my objection to Bob Melvin's rotation: he's getting his second-best starter just one start in the series, and not using him until Game Four. Micah Owings is a much better pitcher than Livan Hernandez is at this point, and arguably better than Doug Davis. Allowing salaries or experience or other factors to obscure that point reduces the D'backs' chances of winning this series. Even facing a Rockies' rotation decimated by injuries-and no, Aaron Cook didn't make the roster-the D'backs are at small or big loss in all games not started by Brandon Webb.

One thing to note is that the modified LCS schedule, which inserts an off day between Games Four and Five in the service of the television partners, changes the strategy of starter usage. As the series progresses, both Melvin and Hurdle will have the option to slide their best starter up to start Game Four on short rest, setting up a Game Seven start on full rest for both Webb and Francis. Neither is likely to do so, but given the gap between the aces and everyone else on both these teams, the team trailing the series at the end of Game Three is going to face a day full of questions about taking this approach.

Outside of the Webb/Francis matchup, which should be highly entertaining and feature a slight edge for the Diamondbacks, the rotations aren't likely to be a factor in this series. They're there to soak up innings in front of the deep bullpens. Any quality start thrown by one of the other six guys will be something of a bonus.

Bullpens


Rockies                  IP    ERA    WXRL   QERA
RHP Manny Corpas        78.0  2.08   4.158   3.35
LHP Brian Fuentes       61.1  3.08   0.392   3.98
RHP LaTroy Hawkins      59.0  3.42   0.271   4.12
LHP Jeremy Affeldt      55.1  3.51  -0.647   4.64
RHP Matt Herges         48.2  2.96   1.927   4.37
RHP Ryan Speier         18.0  4.00   0.252   4.62
RHP Taylor Buchholz     93.2  4.23   0.828   3.99

Diamondbacks             IP    ERA    WXRL   QERA
RHP Jose Valverde       64.1  2.66   4.269   3.31
RHP Brandon Lyon        74.0  2.68   4.357   4.83
RHP Juan Cruz           61.0  3.10   0.712   3.26
RHP Tony Pena           85.1  3.27   4.103   4.37
LHP Doug Slaten         36.1  2.72   0.097   4.46
RHP Edgar Gonzalez     102.0  5.03   0.782   4.53
RHP Dustin Nippert      45.1  5.56   0.652   ----

Early and often. That's when we're going to see the pitchers above. Both teams have advanced this far thanks to deep, effective bullpens that have been vastly superior to each team's starting staff. While the Diamondbacks' pen gets most of the stathead attention-it's a factor, perhaps an overstated one (guilty), in the team's gap between its record and run differential-the Rockies' more matchup-oriented crew has been very good as well. The gap between the two teams' rank in WXRL-second in MLB for the Snakes, 21st for the Rockies-overstates the true difference.

Both managers use a traditional closer. Hurdle is slightly more willing to stretch Corpas out than Melvin is with Valverde. Given the latter's history of health problems, that's not an unreasonable position. Melvin having three solid right-handed set-up men makes it easier to hold back his closer as well. Generally, Juan Cruz is the first man out there in the sixth, Tony Pena gets the seventh inning and Brandon Lyon the eighth. Melvin, in fact, has become increasingly rigid about this pattern late in the season, arguably wasting an asset-his relievers' ability to throw multiple innings. This could be a problem if Valverde blows a game, as the dropoff to the back end of the bullpen is steep, and you'd rather not have Edgar Gonzalez pitching in a tie game in the tenth. Melvin doesn't play matchups all that often, preferring a Mike Scioscia approach, but working in Doug Slaten against Brad Hawpe and Todd Helton will be a necessity at times.

Hurdle, on the other hand, will play matchups to death. The Rockies used 10 pitchers to win a game twice this year, on September 7 (in nine innings) and the one-game playoff on October 1. Jeremy Affeldt and Ryan Speier will be used to get a batter or two, while Matt Herges, Brian Fuentes and LaTroy Hawkins tend to be left in for full innings. How heavily Hurdle gets involved will be dictated by how much room Bob Melvin gives him. There's a dropoff in quality from Corpas and Fuentes to the rest of the group, so the Diamondbacks will have opportunities in the sixth and seventh innings. The other thing to monitor is Corpas, who was worked very hard down the stretch and in the Division Series. Any kind of deterioration in his performance could be devastating for the Rockies.

Defense

There are two primary reasons that the Rockies are here: they played the best defense in franchise history, and they allowed the fewest walks in franchise history. Given the Diamondbacks' problems hitting for average and getting on base, this is a bad matchup for them. The Rockies had an above-average DER this year, which is amazing given the challenges presented by playing 81 games in thin air in a park with a massive outfield. Statistically, the Diamondbacks were right behind them, but allowing for the difference between their home parks, the Rockies play better defense. Both teams have been missing a critical element due to injury; Taveras' return fills that hole for the Rockies, and even at 75 percent, he'll be an asset on defense.

Both teams like to steal bases and were very effective at doing so this season. Snyder does a much better job than Torrealba does of controlling the running game, despite the latter's better defensive reputation. Thieves were 52-for-81 (64%) this year against Snyder, 61-for-76 (80%) against Torrealba. That's a slight edge for the D'backs, though not enough to make up for the Rockies' edge in range.

Managers

Clint Hurdle has made a number of odd decisions over the last couple of weeks, generally involving substitution patterns with his pitchers. He's twice left his starter in to hit only to take him out immediately or almost immediately. He hasn't been burnt by it yet, and perhaps giving him an extra bench player will help, but it stands out. Hurdle's aggressiveness in playing matchups in the middle innings is also notable, because it creates the possibility that he'll land on, to use the cliché, "the one who doesn't have it that day." Melvin's rigid use of his set-up men, as noted above, is unnecessary and potentially problematic.

To their credit, neither of these guys gets too crazy with the one-run strategies. When they steal, they do so smartly. When they bunt, it's because the pitcher is up or the situation warrants it. Each is aware that their teams rely on power to score runs, quick strikes rather than stringing together events, and they stay out of the way most of the time.

Prediction

As with the first two series, only a sweep or five-gamer will surprise me. These are evenly-matched squads, not that that really matters over the course of a week. The Diamondbacks have the best pitcher in the series, the Rockies the best player, and as you go down the rosters, you see small edges in various spots, but no big ones. The 1.5 percent edge yielded by the home-field advantage actually looms large here. Throw in the edge in the two Brandon Webb starts and a sense that Melvin has an edge on Hurdle, and I'll go with Pythagoras' darlings. Diamondbacks in seven.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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