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October 18, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Game Four Preview: Giants at Cardinals

by Daniel Rathman

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The Cardinals lost their best postseason hitter to a knee injury early in Game Three, but still came out on top, because his replacement socked a game-winning two-run homer in his first trip to the plate. Now, the Giants must win to avoid facing three consecutive elimination games for the second straight series. Here are the PECOTA odds and projected starting lineups for Game Four:

Giants (Tim Lincecum) vs. Cardinals (Adam Wainwright) – 8:00 p.m. ET

PECOTA Odds of Winning: Cardinals 51.5 percent, Giants 48.5 percent

Projected Starting Lineups:

Giants vs. Wainwright (R)

Cardinals vs. Lincecum (R)

Angel Pagan, CF (S)

Jon Jay, CF (L)

Marco Scutaro, 2B (R)

Matt Carpenter, 1B (L)

Buster Posey, C (R)

Matt Holliday, LF (R)

Pablo Sandoval, 3B (S)

Allen Craig, RF (R)

Hector Sanchez, C (S)

Yadier Molina, C (R)

Hunter Pence, RF (R)

David Freese, 3B (R)

Gregor Blanco, LF (L)

Daniel Descalso, 2B (L)

Brandon Crawford, SS (L)

Pete Kozma, SS (R)

Tim Lincecum (L)

Adam Wainwright, P (R)

Buckle up, folks: this one has nail-biter written all over it. Unlike Wednesday’s Game Three, which featured two relatively predictable starters—PECOTA’s disdain for Kyle Lohse notwithstanding—and lineups that were known well in advance, tonight’s contest stars two right-handers who are as likely to dominate as they are to self-destruct, along with significant questions about the fielders each manager will play behind them.

Mike Matheny and his medical staff must gauge the health of Beltran’s strained left knee, the same knee that has dogged him intermittently in recent years. The 35-year-old outfielder is currently considered day-to-day, but St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Bernie Miklasz felt a “pessimistic” outlook from within the organization, sensing fears that the ailment could sideline Beltran on Thursday and beyond. Carpenter, who supplanted Beltran ably on Wednesday, figures to take over his role, both in the field and in the two-hole of Matheny’s lineup. That downgrade, according to PECOTA, would cost the Cardinals 1.4 percentage points, potentially enough to make the Giants slight favorites tonight.

Bruce Bochy, meanwhile, must decide whether Lincecum’s preference for pitching to Sanchez merits losing Belt’s slick glove at first base and superior on-base skills in the batter’s box. Lincecum’s reliance on breaking balls in the dirt and distaste for Posey’s pitch calling caused a minor tiff between the batterymates, a situation that the team downplayed, but one that nonetheless factored into Bochy’s decision making during the regular season and could drive his lineup choice again in Game Four. The Sanchez-for-Belt swap would pare the Giants’ win probability by 1.1 percentage points, a seemingly immaterial change—perhaps even overstated, because Belt is likely to enter in a defense-minded double switch when Lincecum’s outing is finished—but one that, like the Carpenter-for-Beltran switch, could be magnified in an otherwise too-close-to-call game.

What’s most intriguing about this evening’s contest, though, is that while the odds portend a tightly contested battle, there is a considerable chance that it will rapidly devolve into a rout. Lincecum has not pitched as a starter since the end of the regular season, when his dismal performance relegated him to the bullpen to begin the playoffs, and Wainwright’s most recent outing in Game Five of the Division Series has only been forgotten because of the miraculous rally the Cardinals produced to overcome it. Bochy and Matheny can only cross their fingers and hope for the best.

Let’s look first at Wainwright and compare his clunker at Nationals Park to his Aug. 9 win over the Giants at Busch Stadium. Here’s the pitch chart from the former, which began with Washington going double-triple-homer and mercifully ended after 2 1/3 innings, six runs, and three round-trippers: 

It doesn't take much to discern the source of Wainwright’s plight: a plethora of elevated sinkers and hanging curveballs that the Nationals predictably crushed, but that any major-league lineup is capable of shelling without complementary offerings to keep its hitters off-balance. Wainwright had little command of his cutter and missed the strike zone on both of his changeups, restricting himself to two pitches, neither of which had its usual bite.

Contrast that with his pitch chart from two months earlier, when he held the Giants to one run on five hits and three walks in seven innings of work:

Wainwright hung his fair share of benders and found the middle of the zone more often than he might have wanted, but there are two notable differences between this plot and the one immediately above it. The first is that he was able to rely on his cutter to neutralize left-handed batters, pounding the inner third of the zone with a pitch that darts in the opposite direction from his sinker—an element that bolsters the effectiveness of each offering when the other is working. The second is that he planted the changeup in the Giants’ minds early in the game, and though he used it sparingly, the threat of an alternative in two-strike counts enabled him to get away with some of those poorly placed curves.

Which Wainwright will show up tonight is anyone’s guess, but the saving grace for Matheny and the Cardinals is that they have a stable of piggyback options ready to take over when he falters. Flame-throwing first-years Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal (who needed only six pitches to extinguish a two-on, two-out jam in the top of the sixth inning yesterday afternoon) can bridge the gap between Wainwright and St. Louis’ setup crew with aplomb.

One thing that bears watching is the approach that Wainwright and company take against Posey, whom Kyle Lohse walked twice in Game Three. Pence, who will bat immediately behind the MVP candidate barring an unexpected lineup change, is just 1-for-11 in the series and 5-for-31 in the playoffs, with no extra-base hits or RBI. The right fielder has played Winston Churchill in the Giants’ dugout before games, but he has morphed into a cowardly soldier wielding a limp toothpick at the plate, and called himself out as “the goat” responsible for Wednesday’s 3-1 defeat.

Pence gets a chance for redemption this afternoon, taking on a familiar foe from his National League Central days with the Astros, and his effect on Posey’s opportunities makes him worthy of the Matchup of the Game. The 29-year-old is 11-for-38 lifetime versus Wainwright, with three doubles, one home run, and 11 strikeouts—but, true to his hack-happy ways, Pence has not drawn a single walk.

Streakiness has ruled the day in their 31 most recent head-to-head showdowns, the slate tracked by the Matchup Tool linked above. Pence went 0-for-8 in his first eight at-bats against Wainwright, improved to 6-for-9 in the ensuing batch, and has since tailed off to the tune of a 2-for-14 skid that dates back to Aug. 25, 2009, including a pair of strikeouts in the aforementioned August game.

Though the curveball is Wainwright’s bread-and-butter offering, he has actually earned his last three strikeouts against Pence on sinkers, which came in deep counts and were instead set up by the curve. The righty has also shown a penchant for mixing his first pitches, throwing three sinkers, two cutters, and two curves to start Pence’s seven most recent at-bats against him.  How Pence fares in his first at-bat on Thursday could dictate whether the Cardinals pitch to the Giants’ best hitter, Posey, later in the game, putting inordinate weight on what might otherwise be an inconsequential moment in Game Four.

And the Giants would do well to push across an early run or two, because Lincecum, as I wrote earlier, is a wild card. On the heels of a dismal regular season, which ended with 12 runs (11 earned) crossing the plate in 10 innings over his last two starts, the 28-year-old has pitched 8 1/3 innings of one-run ball out of the bullpen in the playoffs, scattering three hits, walking only one batter, and recording nine strikeouts.

Lincecum’s fastball didn’t enjoy the velocity bump that often comes in shorter stints, sitting in its usual 89-92 mph range during those three appearances. But Lincecum flashed crisper command of the heater and his array of specialty pitches, an encouraging sign if he can maintain it in his return to the rotation. Expect Bochy to keep his starter on a short leash—similar to Barry Zito in Game Four of the Division Series, when Lincecum pitched 4 1/3 innings in relief—and to ask George Kontos and Jeremy Affeldt for multiple frames if the score is tight when he departs.

Update (7:21 p.m. ET): The lineups are now updated to reflect the actual ones posted.  The changes, combined, resulted in a 1.4 percent increase in the Cardinals' win probability, bringing it to 51.5 percent from 50.1 percent.

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

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