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October 7, 2009

Playoff Prospectus

Dodgers versus Cardinals LDS

by Jay Jaffe

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Were it not for a 2-8 swoon over the Cardinals' final 10 games, the NL Division Series matchup between the Dodgers and the Cards could lay claim to pitting the team with the hottest first-half record (the blue team) against the one with the hottest second-half record (the red team). As it is, St. Louis still won the Central by the largest margin of any NL division champion (7½ games), turning what was once a crowded four-team race into a laugher thanks to some timely in-season upgrades, most notably the July 24 trade which brought Matt Holliday from Oakland-a point after which the Cards did have the league's best record (39-25).

Of course, the Dodgers know a bit about late-season swoons, having lost a season-high five straight games in between clinching a spot in the playoffs on September 26 and wrapping up the NL West flag and home-field advantage throughout the first two rounds on October 3. The arc of their season follows former Yankee manager Ralph Houk's sage advice-"Get thirty games over .500 and you can break even the rest of the way"-almost to a T. They were 61-34 at the time of the Holliday trade, but a lethargic 34-33 afterwards, though they held sole possession of first place from April 19 onward, survived Manny Ramirez's suspension for violating MLB's drug policy unscathed, and spent most of the season atop the Prospectus Hit List thanks to the majors' best run differential (+169).

The series has the distinction of pitting two of the top five managers of all time in terms of wins in Tony La Russa and Joe Torre (more on that below) and the two most successful franchises in National League history. Despite their success, the two teams have met just two other times in the playoffs, both of which saw the Cardinals beat the Dodgers en route to winning the pennant. The first and most famous one was in 1985, when Tommy Lasorda fatally chose to pitch to Jack Clark with a base open in the ninth inning of Game Six of the League Championship Series; Clark clubbed a three-run homer and sent the Cardinals to the second of three World Series they would reach on Herzog's watch. The second time they met was in 2004, when La Russa's club trampled Jim Tracy's squad in a four-game Division Series whose most notable highlight might have been providing the Dodgers' first post-season victory since the 1988 World Series clincher.

In terms of more recent history, the Cardinals took the season series 5-2, beating the Dodgers three out of four times in LA just after the Holliday acquisition in late July, and then taking two of three in St. Louis in mid-August.

Lineups


Dodgers                 AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
SS-S Rafael Furcal     .269/.335/.375   .257   18.4
CF-R Matt Kemp         .297/.352/.490   .298   49.6
RF-L Andre Ethier      .272/.361/.508   .300   38.4
LF-R Manny Ramirez     .290/.418/.531   .327   38.5
1B-L James Loney       .281/.357/.399   .272    9.7
3B-R Casey Blake       .280/.363/.468   .293   31.6
2B-R Ronnie Belliard*  .277/.325/.451   .274   11.2
C-R  Russell Martin    .250/.352/.329   .251    7.5

Cardinals               AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
2B-R Julio Lugo*       .280/.352/.405   .278   14.7
SS-R Brendan Ryan      .292/.340/.400   .266   17.5
1B-R Albert Pujols     .327/.443/.658   .365   98.1
LF-R Matt Holliday     .313/.394/.515   .317   59.1*
RF-R Ryan Ludwick      .265/.329/.447   .273   14.0
3B-R Mark DeRosa*      .250/.319/.433   .265   12.4
C-R  Yadier Molina     .293/.366/.383   .274   24.6
CF-L Colby Rasmus      .251/.307/.407   .252    7.5
*: Full-season stats

The Dodgers offense finished the season ranked fourth in the NL in scoring (4.8 runs per game), second in EqA (.272), and tops in both both batting average (.270) and OBP (.346). While power wasn't entirely in short supply-particularly among their outfielders, who posted the highest slugging percentage this side of Philadelphia-they finished just seventh in slugging percentage overall (.412) and 11th in homers. Even so, Ethier and Kemp became the first Dodgers since 2005 to top 20 homers.

On paper, there simply doesn't look to be an easy out in the lineup, as even amid their respective sup-bar seasons Furcal, Loney, and Martin all managed to get on base at respectable clips. Having said that, it's important to note that much of the Dodgers' success was against lefties, a significant problem in this series, given that the Cardinals are slated to go with an all-righty rotation. Ethier (.302/.390/.571 against righties) is the only Dodger regular who offers any kind of power from the left side, and while Ramirez holds his own against righties, Blake (.270/.340/.442) and Kemp (.278/.329/.453) both give up significant ground. At the very least, it's a bit curious to see the latter batting second, given not only that performance but also a September/October slump (.224/.266/.371). Speaking of slumps, it's mildly surprising to find Orlando Hudson (.227/.354/.364 in September/October) on the bench in favor of Belliard. This year's answer to Marlon Anderson, Belliard's versatility and torrid September (.351/.398/.636 with five homers and a .350 EqA since arriving from Washington) have made him Torre's favorite new toy at the expense of a player who was such a key to the Dodgers' hot start that he earned All-Star honors.

As with last year's postseason run, much here depends on which versions of Furcal and Ramirez show up. If the leadoff man's overall OBP isn't impressive, it's worth noting that his September/October performance (.330/.400/.491) suggests he may be closer to the near-MVP form he showed in 2006 and early 2008, rather than the offensive millstone of 2007 and the first five months of this year. As for Ramirez, his season was cleaved by that 50-game suspension for PED usage, prior to which he hit a searing .348/.492/.641, and after which a more pedestrian (for him, at least) .269/.389/.492. The real turning point may have been the 95 mph Homer Bailey fastball which hit his left wrist on July 21; even including his pinch-grand slam the following night, he hit just .255/.380/.448 the rest of the way, his strikeout rate increased from 15 percent of plate appearances to 21 percent, and his BABIP dropped from .369 to .302, suggesting that either injury or mechanical changes may be to blame for his funk. Even at something less than his best, he's still crucial to the Dodger offense, which averaged 5.1 runs per game with him in the lineup, 4.4 without him. As for other issues, Loney's power outage is the product of an extremely counterintuitive home/road split (.251/.324/.316 with one homer in Chavez Ravine, .309/.387/.475 with 11 homers away), which could be key, particularly once the series shifts to St. Louis. Blake is still dealing with a hamstring injury which limited him to just 12 games in September, though he started all three games in the final weekend series against Colorado; any further trouble would likely shift Belliard back to third base and restore Hudson to the keystone.

Along with their ability to get on base, the Dodgers present a threat on the basepaths, albeit not an entirely productive one; they finished third in the league in steals (116) but second in caught stealing (48); the price of that 71 percent success rate was 8.4 runs, ranking them a paltry 28th in the majors in EqSBR. Without Juan Pierre in the lineup and with Molina behind the plate for St. Louis, the stolen-base threat is rather mooted beyond Kemp (34 for 42) and Furcal, who tallied six of his full-season career-low 12 stolen bases in the season's final three weeks, again suggesting he's got his groove back.

As for the Cardinals, their offense ranked just seventh in scoring (4.5 runs per game), a number depressed by the fact that Busch Stadium III plays as a pitcher's park. They ranked a more respectable fourth in EqA (.266), but their low walk rate-Pujols and Lugo aside, they lack a single regular who walks once for every 10 plate appearances-held them to just ninth in OBP (.332). Even so, their October lineup differs significantly from the one that opened the season thanks to the arrivals of Holliday, DeRosa, and Lugo, all of whom came aboard in the latter half of July. Holliday set the world ablaze upon arriving (.353/.419/.604 with 13 homers and a .344 EqA as a Cardinal), somewhat ameliorating the offense's "Albert and the Seven Dwarves" feel. DeRosa arrived from Cleveland in late June to patch up a third-base situation unsettled by the absence of Troy Glaus, but he struggled at the plate (.228/.291/.405 with 10 homers and a .246 EqA as a Cardinal) due to a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist.

Lugo (.277/.351/.432 with a .288 EqA since arriving from Boston) provided La Russa with key flexibility in the middle infield, spotting at shortstop while settling into the short half of a platoon with Skip Schumaker, who makes for an excellent leadoff man against righties (.322/.384/.428), but hits like Willy Taveras in leg irons against lefties (.220/.278/.240 in 109 PA). Indeed, whereas the Dodgers might struggle against an all-righty rotation, the Cardinals' vulnerability is against lefties. As a team they hit just .233/.312/.362 versus southpaws (.228/.302/.342 aside from Pujols), and it's southpaws they'll face in Games One and Two in Randy Wolf and Clayton Kershaw, with Wolf returning for a potential Game Five. While Pujols simply maims lefties (.338/.465/.696), as his 13/36 K/BB ratio against them attests, he's likely to be pitched around whenever possible, which will put Holliday's odd performance against southpaws (.289/.405/.401 overall, but a more robust .481 SLG as a Cardinal) under scrutiny.

The Cardinals don't run very often; they ranked 11th in the league in steals (75) and 12th in time caught stealing (31) for a success rate virtually identical to the Dodgers', and at a cost of six runs, ranking them 19th in the majors in that category. Pujols (16-for-20) and Ryan (14-for-21) were the only players with more than 12 attempts. Molina (a surprising 9-for-12) ran with great success, not to mention blazing speed for a Molina, but he's been dogged by a knee issue lately. Lugo was successful in all nine stolen-base attempts this year, six of them with St. Louis; he'll likely be the most-watched Cardinal on the basepaths.

Benches


Dodgers                  AVG/OBP/SLG     EqA   VORP
OF-L Juan Pierre       .308/.365/.392   .277   16.4 @ LF
2B-S Orlando Hudson    .283/.357/.417   .280   27.4
PH-L Jim Thome*        .249/.366/.481   .287   23.5 @ DH
INF-R Mark Loretta     .232/.309/.276   .211   -7.6 @ 3B
MI-R Juan Castro       .277/.311/.339   .232    0.2 @ SS
C-R  Brad Ausmus       .295/.343/.368   .260    3.1

Cardinals                AVG/OBP/SLG     EqA   VORP
2B-L Skip Schumaker    .303/.364/.393   .273   22.8
INF-L Joe Thurston     .225/.316/.330   .233   -3.9 @ 3B
CF-L Rick Ankiel       .231/.285/.387   .235   -4.1
C-R Jason La Rue       .240/.288/.327   .219   -1.5
3B-R Troy Glaus        .172/.250/.241   .160   -2.4
*: Full-season stats

By the low, low standards set by Torre's later years in New York, that's actually not a horrible bench for the Dodgers, at least not when you stick to the first three players listed. The much-maligned Pierre did an admirable job not only filling in during Ramirez's suspension but also coming off the pine, hitting .326/.396/.419 in 51 pinch-hit at-bats. While he was just 30-for-42 stealing bases, his ability to beat out an infield hit and steal his way into scoring position shouldn't be underestimated if the Dodgers find themselves needing a run. Furthermore, he's the obvious choice to pinch-run for or replace Ramirez defensively, particularly with the latter still nursing hamstring issues.

As noted above, Hudson appears to have lost his job to Belliard, though it's worth noting that Torre's the kind of skipper who might overreact to the fact that the O-Dog is just 2-for-19 in his career versus Carpenter and Wainwright. Along those small sample lines, he's 13-for-39 with 22 total bases against Game Three starter Joel Pineiro and potential Game Four starters John Smoltz and Kyle Lohse; he's also hit Ryan Franklin hard (.412/.444/.706 in 18 PA), so it may just be a matter of Torre picking his spots for a struggling player.

Thome went just 4-for-17 after being acquired from the White Sox, but he remains a tantalizing bench threat because of his power as the Dodgers' belated answer to Matt Stairs, the pinch-hitting power source who knocked them out of October last year; not many other pinch-hit specialists can claim 564 career home runs on their resumes. That said, plantar fasciitis may be sapping his power. The remainder of the bench-particularly Ausmus and Castro-is largely ornamental. Loretta's fallen out of favor by going just 7-for-50 in the pinch following a 7-for-10 start; with the lack of a lefty starter on the Cardinals, he's unlikely to be a factor in this series.

The Cardinals' bench isn't as impressive as in years past-where have you gone, Scott Spiezio?-and it's being shortened by La Russa's questionable decision to carry a dozen pitchers. Still, it provides them with a bit of tactical flexibility. While Schumaker's woes against lefties will keep him out of the lineup early in the series, expect him to find his way into games once those southpaws depart, and to start against righties. La Russa isn't afraid to call upon Schumaker's past as an outfielder, shifting him to a corner to accommodate a double-switch or other maneuver.

Ankiel struggled for most of the year, such that his contributions against righties were fairly low-grade (.230/.291/.417), though he did pop two homers and a double in 26 PA as a pinch-hitter, the third-highest total on the team. Sloppy Joe Thurston is La Russa's most called-upon pinch-hitter, though his .222/.300/.306 performance in 40 opportunities leaves plenty to be desired. The wild card is Glaus, who missed the first five months of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, then dealt with back and oblique issues shortly after his September action, limiting him to just 32 PA. He went 0-for-6 in the pinch, and while he does have 304 home runs to his name, whether he can muster that power remains an open question. LaRue is just along for the ride, given that Molina has started every post-season game the Cardinals have played since the 2004 World Series clincher.

Rotations


Dodgers                  IP     ERA  SNLVAR  SNWP
LHP Randy Wolf         214.1   3.23   6.0   .564
LHP Clayton Kershaw    171.0   2.79   6.5   .600
RHP Vicente Padilla*   147.1   4.46   3.1   .508
RHP Chad Billingsley   196.1   4.03   3.8   .502

Cardinals               IP     ERA  SNLVAR  SNWP
RHP Chris Carpenter    192.2   2.24   8.0   .673
RHP Adam Wainwright    233.0   2.63   8.5   .630
RHP Joel Pineiro       214.0   3.49   4.6   .532
RHP John Smoltz*        78.0   6.35   0.5   .414
RHP Kyle Lohse         117.2   4.74   1.1   .436
*: Full-season stats.

Though the Dodger and Cardinal rotations finished tied for third in the National League in SNLVAR (23.2) and among the top four in ERA-LA's 3.58 was second, and St. Louis' 3.66 fourth-the two teams differ greatly in how they got there. The Cardinal starters absorbed a league-high 69.7 percent of their team's workload, an average of 6.20 innings per start. They did so by being efficient, posting the league's lowest walk and homer rates (2.4 per nine and 0.7 per nine, respectively) to counteract having just the 11th-best strikeout rate. Dodger starters, by contrast, shouldered the fourth-lightest workload among NL starters at 62.5 percent, though that owes something playing an MLB-high 21 extra-inning games. Their 5.68 innings per start was the sixth-lowest rate in the league, a byproduct of a high strikeout clip (7.5 per nine, third in the league) and an equally high rate of allowing walks (3.5 per nine, fourth). Unquestionably, it's the Dodgers who enter the postseason with the greater number of concerns about their rotation, as their top four starters all missed time down the stretch.

Despite a paltry total of 11 wins-a figure sure to be remarked upon by the mainstream media-Wolf enjoyed something of a career year, as he set personal bests for starts (34), innings pitched, and ERA+ (129). Thanks in no small part to a league-low .254 BABIP, he finished a strong 11th in SNLVAR and tied for fourth in Quality Starts (24), a ranking which reflects his sheer consistency. In the second half, he delivered at least six innings in 17 straight starts; though he skipped a turn due to elbow soreness amid that stretch in early September, it doesn't appear to be a lingering issue. There's considerably greater concern for Kershaw, who made just two starts after September 4 after separating his glove-side shoulder shagging balls in the outfield, an injury which nonetheless kept the 21-year-old from blowing too far past last year's combined minor and major league innings total. The kid misses bats; his 9.7 K/9 ranked fifth among NL ERA qualifiers, and his hit rate (6.3 per nine) was by far the league's lowest. He matches up well with these Cardinals, who have collected nothing more harmful than three doubles off him in 100 PA over his short career.

After losing Hiroki Kuroda for the series and perhaps the remainder of the year due to a herniated cervical disc, Torre has settled on Padilla to start Game Three. The former Ranger pitched well (3.20 ERA, .553 SNWP and 8.7 K/9) after being picked up on waivers in early August, owing much to the easier league and the friendlier park. More interesting is that his start is guaranteed, while that of Billingsley, who entered the year as the staff ace, is not. Though Billingsley led the Dodgers in wins (12) and finished just six strikeouts behind Kershaw for the team lead there as well, he struggled the second half, with a 5.20 ERA and six quality starts out of 13. His woes may owe something to a hyper-extended knee suffered early in August, or simply a lack of stamina; he gave up 16 runs in the nine sixth innings he pitched during that stretch, including six against the Cards on July 28 after shutting them out in the previous five frames, a showing that almost certainly entered into Torre's decision.

The Cardinals go into this series with two of the league's top three pitchers in terms of Support-Neutral Winning Percentage in Carpenter and Wainwright. The two placed first and fourth respectively in ERA as well. Carpenter's comeback from two seasons in the weeds (four starts in 2007-08) due to elbow miseries has been so complete that it's easy to forget what a question mark he was coming into the year. His stellar performance may culminate in a second Cy Young Award, and is the main reason the Cards outdid their PECOTA projection by eight games. While he doesn't strike out as many hitters as he used to, his walk rate is microscopic (1.8 per nine, third lowest in the league), and his NL-best home-run rate even more so (0.3 per nine). If Carpenter doesn't win the Cy, Wainwright might; he led the league in wins (19) and innings while significantly boosting his strikeout rate thanks to improved command of his curveball, which enabled him to smother righties (.217/.255/.290), representing a real problem for the Dodgers.

Pineiro will start Game Three, and he enjoyed a strong rebound of his own this year thanks to the league's fourth-best homer rate (0.5) and best walk rate (1.1 per nine); twice, he reeled off four-start stretches without walking a single hitter, and he hasn't walked more than two in a start since April 15. As for the choice for the Game Four assignment, Smoltz pitched much better upon being picked up by the Cardinals (4.26 ERA, .508 SNWP, 9.5 K/9) than he did in Boston, though his final start was a dud. As the all-time leader in post-season wins (15), he's likely to have the inside track on Lohse, who has posted a 5.40 ERA and 1.6 HR/9 since his forearm troubles emerged in late May, but neither pitcher is likely to have a very long leash.

Bullpens


Dodgers                  IP     ERA   WXRL     FRA
RHP Jonathan Broxton    76.0   2.61   4.89    2.63
LHP George Sherrill     69.0   1.70   4.30    1.83
RHP Ramon Troncoso      82.2   2.72   3.50    2.79
RHP Ronald Belisario    70.2   2.04   0.19    2.99
LHP Hong-Chih Kuo       30.0   3.00   1.10    2.32
RHP Jeff Weaver         79.0   3.65   1.75**  4.02
RHP Jon Garland*       204.0   4.01   3.50*** 4.71

Cardinals                IP     ERA  WXRL    FRA
RHP Ryan Franklin       61.0   1.92   3.75   1.59
RHP Kyle McClellan      66.2   3.38   1.36   3.69
RHP Jason Motte         56.2   4.76   0.54   4.27
LHP Trever Miller       43.2   2.06   1.67   2.58
LHP Dennys Reyes        41.0   3.29   0.95   4.23
RHP Blake Hawksworth    40.0   2.03   1.43   2.45
RHP Mitchell Boggs      58.0   4.19   0.68** 5.97
*: Full-season stats
**: SNLVAR
***: SNLVAR + WXRL

The Dodgers bullpen shouldered a heavier burden (37.5 percent of the innings) than any of the NL's other post-season teams, but they wore it well, leading the league with 13.2 WXRL. Closer Jonathan Broxton led NL relievers in WXRL, and led all relievers in strikeouts (114) and strikeout rate (13.5 per nine). Ahead of him, the Dodgers provided enough depth to prevent Torre from totally burning out his set-up corps, thanks particularly to deadline acquisition Sherrill, who did stellar work (0.70 FRA) in a high-leverage role after being acquired from Baltimore; he held lefties to a .128/.188/.154 performance overall. Troncoso finished eighth in the league in WXRL, but at one point earlier this week, Torre was considering leaving him off of the roster, owing either to one sour outing against the Cardinals or, more plausibly, to a 4.87 ERA and 5.3 BB/9 over the past two months. Belisario, a free-talent find, was another one of Torre's workhorses; like Troncoso, he generates ground balls by the bushel while steering clear of the long ball. Despite a few high-leverage hiccups and a month lost to elbow woes, he was sheer hell on righties (.157/.234/.252). Kuo missed nearly half of the year due to his own elbow troubles, but his second-half return to form (2.19 ERA, 28/9 K/BB ratio in 24 2/3 IP) gives Torre another weapon to stifle hitters on either side of the plate. As for the rest of the gang, Garland and Weaver made the post-season roster over both Guillermo Mota and James McDonald. The veteran duo has the kind of post-season experience Torre craves, Garland with the 2005 White Sox, and Weaver with the 2006 Cardinals (let's forget his 2003 World Series misadventures, shall we?). Garland will serve as the long man, while Weaver, who resurrected his career this year by alternating mop-up duty with spot starts, will work in a situational role.

In his infinite genius-or maybe just the kind of belt-and-suspenders moment than afflicts those over 65-La Russa has decided to carry 12 pitchers, a puzzler given that the Cardinals have already announced that both Lohse (middle) and Smoltz (late) will be available out of the bullpen in Game One. By the time this series is over we'll probably see Noodles, Seesaw, Oopsie, Flopsweat, and Hoohaw climbing out of the bullpen's clown car as well.

In any event, the Cardinals' bullpen ranked just eighth in the league in WXRL, and is a shakier proposition than that of the Dodgers. Ryan Franklin finished fifth in the league in WXRL, but after blowing just two save opportunities in his first 39, he's blown three of his last four, and in his final 9 1/3 innings, he surrendered 25 baserunners and allowed seven runs, more than half of his 2009 total. McClellan is his top righty set-up man, though he's got an odd reverse platoon split that makes him tougher on lefties (.198/.309/.245) than righties (.252/.338/.367). Motte's a fireballer who can light up the radar gun, but he's homer-prone and has been hit particularly hard (.286/.353/.549) in the second half; with a platoon split of 301 points of OPS, it's no wonder he's averaged less than an inning per appearance. Lefty specialist Miller's platoon split is nearly 600 points of OPS; he's hell on lefties (.135/.200/.198) to say the least, and the better bet for the key strikeout than Reyes. Bet on La Russa to save him to face Ethier in the late innings.

Beyond that, the Cardinals round out their dirty dozen with a pair of rookies, Hawksworth and Boggs, who get the nod over veterans Todd Wellemeyer and Brad Thompson. Hawskworth is a short reliever who pitched well down the stretch, mostly in low-leverage roles; his three shutout innings against the Dodgers in a 15-inning win on July 29 certainly didn't hurt his case for a spot here. Boggs spent time in the rotation during the team's injuries there, but spent September in the bullpen; tattooed by lefties, he handled righties adequately enough to earn situational consideration. Presumably, the loser of the Smoltz/Lohse Game Four choice will work as the long man; bet on Lohse for that job, if betting's necessary.

Defense

The Dodgers topped the majors in Defensive Efficiency (.714) and finished second in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (2.55), a vast improvement over 2008 owing to Furcal's return to regular duty, the upgrade from Jeff Kent to Hudson at the keystone, and a surprisingly strong season at the hot corner from Casey Blake. Despite Hudson's sterling reputation afield, he actually rates a bit below average and a few runs behind Belliard according to UZR and FRAA (though not Plus/Minus). The consensus of those three metrics shows Kemp as rating above average in center field, Ramirez as below average (but not drastically so), and Ethier all over the map, ranging from -14.1 runs (UZR) to +10 (FRAA). Behind the plate, Martin does a good job of keeping the running game in check, cutting down 30.8 percent of would-be base thieves, and while his bat has suffered plenty, he remains nimble afield.

The Cardinals placed fifth in the league in Defensive Efficiency (.694) but just eighth in PADE (-0.2). Schumaker's conversion to the keystone didn't get rave reviews from either FRAA (-7), UZR (-8.0), or Plus/Minus (-11), and Lugo scored below average as well, but Ryan's work at shortstop was extremely well regarded by all three systems (+19 FRAA, +12.4 UZR, +24 Plus/Minus), as was that of Pujols (is there anything he can't do?). Out in center field, Rasmus scored well above average on both FRAA and UZR if not Plus/Minus. Molina not only wiped out 40.7 percent of all stolen-base attempts, his imposing presence behind the plate limited opponents to just 0.4 stolen-base attempts per game. Alas, his mobility behind the plate has been somewhat compromised by a foul ball off of his knee a couple of weeks back, though the Cardinals believe the situation will have improved with four days of rest.

Managers

The Torre/La Russa duo can lay claim to a combined 4,798 regular-season victories, 28 playoff appearances (including Torre's 14th in a row and 15th overall (the first a record, and the second tying Bobby Cox's), 11 pennants, and six World Championships. Though the two venerable skippers have never faced each other in the postseason, they do have a sort of history: Torre was La Russa's predecessor in St. Louis, having managed the team from mid-1990 (taking over from interim skipper Red Schoendienst after Whitey Herzog's departure) to mid-1995 before being replaced, first by interim manager Mike Jorgensen, and then by La Russa the following season. Torre's roots in St. Louis run even deeper, as he played six seasons there (1969-1974), making four All-Star appearances and winning the 1971 MVP award.

His success as the Dodgers' manager owes more to his tenure in New York than his time in St. Louis. The trademark unflappability which enabled him to survive 12 years under George Steinbrenner might be read as complacency by some, but the results-a team that didn't crumble in the face of losing Ramirez after a hot start, and didn't panic as its rotation frayed-speak for themselves. Derided for bringing an 84-win team to the playoffs last year, he returns to the postseason with a stronger club this time around, and one that plays to his strengths, with few decisions to make regarding the lineup (though there's variety to be had in the batting order) and a bullpen deepened by his ability to trust rookies Troncoso and Belisario to help cover up the shortcomings of his starters. He holds the record for post-season games managed (131) and his knowledge of how to run a bullpen in October-utilizing his pen to shorten games, and unafraid to call upon his closer before the ninth if the situation merits-has carried over from the Bronx and remains a signature skill.

As for La Russa, he returns to the postseason for the first time since the Cardinals' 2006 triumph, and given the way he piloted that rickety 83-win team to World Series glory, he deserves the benefit of the doubt (with a nod to pitching coach Dave Duncan's mastery of the mysteries of pitching as well). Again he's got a stars-and-scrubs team, one where the talent level drops off considerably after the frontline players; as Joe Sheehan reminded us yesterday, that's less of a handicap in the postseason than it is in the regular season. His choice of a 13/12 split is easy to ridicule, but perhaps he's trying to lull us to sleep with a third mid-inning pitching change, and simply win by attrition.

Prediction

The Carpenter-Wainwright tandem is a daunting hurdle for any team to surmount, and the Dodgers' mediocrity from the left side of the plate plays into the Cardinals' hands. Nonetheless, the Dodgers have the edges regarding lineup (particularly given the Cards' trouble handling lefties), bench, defense and bullpen, the latter two factors by considerable margins. When in doubt, it's always good to call upon the lessons of the Secret Sauce, which this year show the Dodgers ranked number two behind only the Yankees, with the Cardinals ranking 16th, well behind the Dodgers in all three metrics (FRAA, EqSO9, and closer WXRL). It says here that will be just enough to get by. Dodgers in five.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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