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October 17, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

Sunday NLCS Pitching Matchup

by Matt Swartz

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Jonathan Sanchez: 3.07 ERA, 3.70 SIERA
Sanchez’s modus operandi has been that he strikes many batters out, but walks many as well. When faced with the Braves in Game Three of the NLDS, Sanchez only followed the first part of that plan—he walked just one hitter while striking out 11 of the 25 batters he faced. Sanchez does not mess around with left-handed batters, so he should be able to attack and have some success against some of the Phillies’ bigger bats. However, the myth often relayed about the Phillies’ lineup is that they do worse against lefties. The numbers simply do not bear this out, as they have hit slightly better as a team against southpaws for several consecutive years. The reason is that outside of sluggers like Howard, Utley, and Ibanez, the rest of the team is right-handed or switch-hitters who do better from the right side. Sanchez will need to use his nasty slider to get past the Phillies’ lefties, but must also keep from allowing the righties and switch-hitters to reach base if he is going to give the Giants a win in Game Two.

From his NLDS start: Sanchez’s ERA has been all over the place the last three years, but his SIERA has stayed in the same range, gradually falling from 3.92 in 2008 to 3.80 in 2009, and now to 3.70 in 2010. His walk and strikeout numbers are both extremely high, while his batted-ball rates are pretty average across the board. Sanchez has struck out 25 percent of hitters he has faced in each of the last two seasons, while walking 12 percent, making him a pitcher who is bound to aggregate large pitch counts quickly. In fact, Sanchez has averaged 4.0 pitches per hitter in each of the last two years and thus only 5.8 innings per start in 2010 and 5.4 in 2009. The key for the Braves will be to drive his pitch count up, because he is tough to hit otherwise. Sanchez has been the beneficiary of lucky BABIP this year of just .255 overall, thanks to a .114 on outfield fly balls, well below the .179 league average, and he also has just a .667 BABIP on line drives, below the league average of .716. These have enabled him to accumulate more innings this season than last. As his luck normalizes, he can be chased after closer to five innings than six on average, and if the Braves are patient, they will have another chance to tally some runs against the Giants’ bullpen.

Roy Oswalt: 2.76 ERA, 3.33 SIERA
Oswalt was not at his best in his Game Two performance of the NLDS last Friday, but the Phillies’ bats and bullpen bailed him out. Oswalt was up in the zone at times and hit pretty hard, though he maintained control of the strike zone, which helped him limit the damage—he placed no crooked numbers on the scoreboard to bury his team. Oswalt even struck out five and walked just one, but a couple of bombs to Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce contributed to his early exit. Even still, Oswalt is among the best pitchers in the league and his ability to strike hitters out and walk few was the reason the Phillies stayed in Game Two of the NLDS and the reason that SIERA gives him the advantage in Game Two of the NLCS.

 From his NLDS start: Oswalt joined the Phillies in late July and posted a 1.74 ERA in 12 starts and an inning of relief. The Phillies won 10 of his 12 starts, but his SIERA of 3.33 was a dead ringer for his 3.31 SIERA in his 20 starts with the Astros. Oswalt’s .227 BABIP with the Phillies was due to very few ground balls finding holes and outfield flies staying catchable more often than can be expected in the future. However, both his 2010 SIERA in Philadelphia and in Houston were far better than his recent years’ SIERAs of 3.89, 3.63, and 3.86 from 2007-09. The reason is that Oswalt struck out more hitters than he had since his 2001 rookie year, raising his strikeout rate from 18.2 percent in 2009 to 23.1 percent in 2010. Oswalt began using his changeup more in 2010 with the Astros early on, and began using it even more after working with Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee. Thus, Oswalt has the sixth-best SIERA among all starters in the playoffs and 13th overall, after finishing only 33rd in the majors in 2009.  

Matt Swartz is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matt's other articles. You can contact Matt by clicking here

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