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October 15, 2010
NLCS Preview: Phillies vs. Giants
So, let's see, for an initial checklist for maximum LCS entertainment potential, is there anything missing? Record-wise, the two best teams in National League? Check, even if we allow for the fact that the Giants weren't one of the top two teams in Clay Davenport's adjusted standings. The two best rotations in baseball? Check. Heck, it even features two of the three best defensive units in the league (via PADE), with only the already-vanquished Reds separating the Giants and Phillies. And the offenses are... well, OK, this whole clash of the titans thing only goes so far, because they're not both among the best in the league. The Phillies are, tying for third in the league in team-level True Average, but the Giants finished back in ninth place, even with Brian Sabean's ticky-tack trades to accrue incremental improvements.
Still, as matchups go this is about as exciting a series as you could ask for as a dispassionate observer or the most ecumenical fans of the game itself. Seeing the Phillies' big three square off against the Giants, who boast the best strikeout staff in baseball, is perhaps perfectly expressed in Game One's highly anticipated duel between Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum. It was already going to be a marquee event, with the two-time defending NY Cy Young Award winner going up against the man expected to unseat him this season, as Doc adds his own second Cy to the trophy case. But now, after each man delivered a first-game masterpiece in the LDS round, expectations are amped up beyond the unreasonable.
And even after that initial contest gets played out, that's just one win or loss, with the remainder of a post-season series to play and both teams armed with more than enough stuff to feel they could rally.
This is one of those areas where in the big counting using full-season data, the conclusions are obvious: in the broad strokes, the Giants just aren't close as an offensive ballclub. The Giants are one of the least-walkingest teams around, rating 15th in the league with a 7.1 percent unintentional walk rate, where the Phillies rate fifth at 7.8 percent, not a huge advantage, but one of many. In the Retrosheet Era, they rank just short of being the best in almost 60 years when it comes to creating the pitcher's best friend. As far as baserunning, the Phillies may not live up to past standards, but it's an obvious advantage over the Giants. Frisco steals badly and infrequently, and advances poorly when it comes to dancing around the pond. If Bruce Bochy ends up favoring one-run strategies in the matchups against Halladay and Roy Oswalt in particular, you'll understand why.
But for all that, the Giants' team ISO is .151, to the Phillies' .153, which considering the Phillies' home park, suggests that the Giants might have at least as much power as the Phillies, if not more. In a series featuring so much pitching and some very slender advantages, that's worth noting, and in a series where the expectation is that pitching is going to rule the roost, that's worth noting. However, both teams finished with Guillen Numbers around 35 percent, not quite in the top 10 when it comes to scoring their runs on homers, and certainly far behind the Jays' MLB-leading 53 percent clip.
Dial down from the broad strokes, and the problem for the Giants can be best expressed by their struggles in what exposure they've gotten against Halladay; nobody in this lineup has ever homered against him, and their collective line when they're in the good Doctor's clinic is just .258/.293/.280. That's with an acknowledgement that Buster Posey has never faced him, which is perhaps just as well—if it turns out the kid can own him, that's a huge, happy development for a Giants lineup struggling to find joy. Unfortunately, matters don't get that much better against the first of the non-Docs, since Oswalt's collective line against the likely Giants lineup isn't much worse than Halladay's. However, against Cole Hamels, the Giants lineup listed above has hit .297/.333/.622 collectively, fueled mostly by Cody Ross' four homers in 31 PAs against the Phillies' southpaw'd stalwart. If Pat the Bat is looking to avenge himself upon his original team, his hammering three career homers in 12 at-bats against Kentucky Joe Blanton could loom large in Game Four, but Charlie Manuel knows about that sort of thing, so don't be surprised if Burrell gets pitched around.
For the Phillies, as the much more patient lineup as well as the one armed with slightly better speed on the bases, they're the team with the best possible shot at scoring crooked numbers as a result. The question is whether they can convert those opportunities. Scheduled to see three lefties in seven games, your expectations might be low in light of the Phillies' left-handedness, but it's important to remember that in this sort of small-sample theater, this year's Phillies were fairly strong against lefties, ranking fourth in the league in team OPS against lefties. Ryan Howard's much better production against lefties contributes significantly on that score, as does Chase Utley's good work, but the basic point is that this isn't a team with as many problems on this score—in the broad strokes, but we'll talk a bit more about the specific matchup-related challenges in the rotation-related segment.
As far as specific lineup selections, there's a lot of reason to wonder how much or how often Pablo Sandoval might play at third base, but Mike Fontenot's track record doesn't really suggest he should be playing regularly against one of the two best rotations in baseball. Edgar Renteria is a bigger factor, as we'll get to when we move over to the two teams' benches, but much depends on his availability to both start and then hold up. If he can start against Oswalt and/or Hamels, Sandoval may be riding pine, with Juan Uribe moving over to third and the veteran shortstop stepping in at his career-long slot.
For the Phillies, there's the day-to-day drama over where Jimmy Rollins bats. Leading off or batting sixth seem to be the only options on the current decision tree, but having Raul Ibanez batting ahead of him is the long-anticipated switch that it appears Manuel won't go to. So the Phillies wind up with two of their three least-effective hitters in the top two slots, the sort of thing sabermetricians would be quick to suggest matters not at all. However, the advantage of being able to swap in a defensive replacement for Ibanez (and a pinch-hitter for the pitcher's slot) higher up in the order and earlier in the game as far as batting opportunities would make for a nice tactical improvement—it isn't like they want to come across scenarios when Rollins gets swapped out of a ballgame, where Ibanez's annually awful performance afield goes begging for an earlier excusal.
Both clubs have useful weapons, insofar as both benches are populated with specific kinds of players with specific uses. The Phillies' outfit is perhaps the most discrete, in that hitters like Greg Dobbs and Mike Sweeney are here specifically for pinch-hitting assignments; if either plays the field, it would make for a modest surprise. As is, Dobbs may get dropped for Domonic Brown, since Brown would provide the Phillies with a more specific pinch-running option, as well as a young hitter with the sort of talent who might just totally unload on a mistake in a broken ballgame or extra-inning affair. Ross Gload and Ben Francisco make for Manuel's best weapons for swapping in on double-switches or in case of injury, while Brian Schneider will have to settle for standing in for the odd bits of playing time should Manuel pinch-run for Chooch.
As for the Giants' bench, it's the crew more likely to provide their team with guys stepping into the starting lineup. As evidenced by Fontenot's starts at third base in the last two games against the Braves, Bochy isn't afraid to reach for a spot starter at any point in a series, but Fontenot's weak record against Oswalt and left-handedness might only make him a consideration for spot starts at the hot corner against Halladay. Even so, we're talking about a skipper who, before the Giants added Ross or Jose Guillen, was willing to put Aubrey Huff and Burrell in the same outfield to get Travis Ishikawa into the lineup at first base against right-handers instead of Aaron Rowand. Admittedly, that's an option that comes into play best when you're the best team in the league when it comes to striking people out, but here again, credit Bochy for a willingness to exploit his club's assets to try an squeeze out an extra run. For spot-starter options, Renteria's availability could prove to be a significant factor, in that he's hit particularly well against Oswalt (9-for-32, three walks, with a pair of homers and a pair of doubles). Beyond that, you can count on seeing Nate Schierholtz swapped in regularly for platoon-minded or defensive purposes.
In the abstract, Lincecum versus Halladay might rank with Mike Scott going up against Dwight Gooden in the first game of the 1986 NLCS, which wound up a 1-0 victory for Scott's Astros. So go ahead Pip, dial up those expectations from great to epic, right? Well, sure, but the great thing about baseball is to keep the flip side in mind: we could elevate a subsequent '86 World Series matchup to this plane of incomparable contests, except that Doc Gooden versus Roger Clemens, but the Rocket was gone before the fifth inning was done, while Gooden gave up six runs in five innings. Which is just my way of trying to remind folks to temper those expectations; yes, in the abstract, this is crazy-insane good as matchups go, but try to keep in mind that it borders on impossible for either of them to top their LDS performances. I've already noted the Giants haplessness against Halladay, but it's also worth noting that Lincecum's history against the Phillies extends back to his big-league debut, which didn't go well, but he got better each time out in his next two turns, then delivering game scores of 73, 75, 71, and 79 in his last four. Against a Phillies lineup that hasn't had a lot of turnover, it's safe to say that Lincecum knows this lineup and can beat it.
The second game is in some ways more interesting, in that Jonathan Sanchez's record against the Phillies' hitters is strong and getting stronger. That said, Shane Victorino's managed to touch him, and Utley owns the one homer Philadelphia has hit against him. If this ends up being a low-scoring game in which Utley plating Victorino winds up being the key factor a couple of times through the lineup, you shouldn't take it as surprising. The third matchup has great potential to be the game that turns into a knock-down, drag-out bloodbath. Hamels has been hit for power by several of the Giants' regulars, and Matt Cain's record against the Phillies has been generally terrible, when he hasn't been simply scheduled out of seeing them. Bochy's decision to slot his putative ace in the third game is sort of an acknowledgment of the issue while also being a recognition of Sanchez's advantages. If you wanted to peg a particular contest where the combined scores tip past 10 runs, pick the third and seventh games.
So, a series that has narrow balances as far as the first and second and fifth and sixth games, favoring the pitchers, and third and seventh games that lean more toward the hitters. What of that one contest between the team's fourth starters? Madison Bumgarner has yet to face the Phillies, which presumably puts him at an advantage, and even if the Phillies have shown improved performance against lefties this season, perhaps this would be an introduction that wouldn't do them any favors. Against that, Blanton has taken some poundings at the hands of the Giants, and that was before the addition of Ross, another hitter with some success against Kentucky Joe. Put all of that together, and even with the game in Telecommunications Monstrosity Metroplex in China Basin out west, let's chalk this up as a definite Giants advantage.
As far as cumulative data, this might seem like an area of clear, distinctive, uncomplicated advantage for the Giants. They have the higher WXRL tally (11.7 to 7.5), the better ARP total (65.7 to 14.2), and their relief-only FRA is a full run lower (3.27 to 4.27). Add in a win's worth of difference as far as inherited baserunner-runs prevented, and it looks like fairly straightforward. The question is how much that advantage will come into play with two strong rotations queued up to slot strength against strength from the start. The margins there are narrow enough that the differences will get played out in fairly compressed snippets of time.
As was evident in the last round, Bochy is more than willing to use Brian Wilson earlier in the game, which propels his various relief assets earlier in-game. On that score, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez, and Ramon Ramirez can be situational heroes handily enough, but the question is whether or not Sergio Romo will end up being counted among them as far as set-up assets, especially after a rough LDS. Combine that with a rotation that goes deep into its games, and you shouldn't be surprised if the last men like Guillermo Mota and Jeremy Affeldt go unused; indeed, the Giants may end up selecting Dan Runzler over either for strictly situational applications. (The expectation as we go to press is that both teams will be switching to seven relievers for their 25th man, with the Giants picking two from among Affeldt, Mota, and Runzler, while the Phillies lack for useful options beyond Kyle Kendrick's platoon utility and long-relief applications.)
Similarly, the Phillies' bullpen has the advantage of being baseball's least-utilized relief corps along with the relative stability in terms of their individual uses. Brad Lidge remains the combustible closer who seems to be dialed in on one of his good years, while Ryan Madson ranks among the very best set-up men in the game. Add in Jose Contreras as an effective seventh-inning asset, Kyle Durbin as a right-handed situational hero able to go multiple frames as needed, and you're only stuck with the question of whether they really have a really reliable southpaw, but the Giants' lineup doesn't have easily struck-down lefties in the lineup, just the virtue of turning around the switch-hitting Sandoval and Andres Torres.
As if matters weren't already difficult enough for teams as far as getting balls in play against the Giants, they rank first in the league in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. Much of their advantage comes from the lack of an obvious problem at any position. Players like Freddy Sanchez and Uribe aren't brilliant defenders, but they're competent, and the virtues of Ishikawa, Rowand, and Schierholtz afield late in the game make it easy to encourage Bochy to swap them in, move Torres into a corner as needed. Add in Posey's murderous clip of gunning down basestealers (37 percent), and you wind up with a unit that's good at avoiding mistakes and covering enough ground.
Balanced against that, the Phillies' defense remains a unit that balances obvious strengths with equally obvious weaknesses. The immobility of Howard and Ibanez in their respective corners hurt less when you have Utley handling most of the right side of the infield, or Victorino and Jayson Werth chewing through enough pasturage to keep Ibanez's responsibilities to a tolerable minimum. Carlos Ruiz throws well, but won't really have to all that often against a Giants team that doesn't run often or effectively. Where all of this might have an impact is in the tightest contests—of which there figure to be a few. If Howard and Placido Polanco or Huff and Sandoval end up being put on the spot defending bunts badly, it will have an outsized impact in this series more than any other.
Both skippers have considerable experience with the postseason, and both have their distinct virtues. Beyond the comfort of strapping in for responsibilities as a witness when Halladay pitches, Manuel hasn't been afraid to pull Oswalt early, not that that figures to be a major factor in the series. He also isn't afraid to order up an intentional pass from Hamels or Blanton, especially since both men have their own bête noirs to confront in their starts (Ross and Burrell, respectively). On offense, he lets the people who can run do so, and he almost entirely forgoes bunting with his lineup regulars—there are few skippers more willing to get out of the way and let the players do their thing at the plate. He's not even very aggressive with defensive replacements, although in Howard and Ibanez, you can see how he has players he might want to pull.
Against Manuel's stolidity and do-no-harm charm, Bochy has got his own, similar credentials as a skipper, having won a pennant with the Padres in '98. As far as in-game tactics, he's much more aggressive in the employment of his pen, but part of that is a sensible acceptance of every reliever's virtues and limitations. On offense, he's somewhat static, but he'll bunt with Freddy Sanchez to avoid the double play; given his lineup's pre-fab GIDP tendencies, that's understandable. Whether he wants to run or not is beside the point—outside of Torres, he doesn't have the players to do so. He'll bring in Schierholtz and Ishikawa for defensive replacement chores, generally to get Burrell and Huff off the field, but the trick is to avoid doing it too soon, something that might prove especially difficult in a series that figures to feature several low-scoring games.
In writing these sorts of series previews over the years, there's a problem-solving joy in the best cases, where you can try to puzzle through the reasons why one team might win, or the other. The most fun are the ones where you don't really have an expectation one way or another as far as how the series might play out, the ones where research suggests an answer, or at least a more likely scenario. Against that, there are the more probable outcomes, the ones where you sort of know what to expect, sort of like how the Reds/Phillies LDS played out. Sure, you can overthink the problem and generously posit a lone win for the underdog, but basically, to posit an upset you get into theoreticals so stretched you end up looking like Lou Holtz, politely and publicly fretting over what that tough Navy team might do against Notre Dame to the general incredulity of all observers.
Happily, this was one of those exercises you could go into without too many unavoidable expectations, because this is a tighter matchup than it might appear to be at first glance. The narrow divide between the individual matchups in the matched pairs of Games One through Three and Five through Seven, set against the Giants' advantage in Game Four suggests a possible narrative: a low-scoring split in the first two games, followed by a higher-scoring melee in Game Three that the Phillies win. The Giants even things up with Bumgarner, putting the series on a best-of-three reset. Another split in the fifth and sixth games will put everything on Cain and Hamels, together again, but this time in Philadelphia. Expect the Phillies to go Old Testament and bust matters open in the last game, providing some measure of satisfaction for Cain's stathead doubters, and producing an outcome of Phillies in seven in a series sure to be considered a classic by fans of both ballclubs.