October 3, 2013
NLDS Preview: Pirates at Cardinals
Once the Cardinals clinched home-field advantage in the National League, we knew we'd see a NL Central tussle in the Division Series. What we didn't know, not until Tuesday night, was whether it would be the Reds or Pirates opposing the Cardinals. Now we know it's the Pirates, who put the Reds down easy behind Francisco Liriano and a multi-homer game from Russell Martin.
LF-R Starling Marte (.280/.343/.441/.285)
The Cardinals finished 11th in True Average, yet third in runs scored thanks to incredible hitting with runners in scoring position. Whether that continues or not is to be seen (the smart money is on no), but their overall numbers overstate how good this offense is since Allen Craig is out. Of course, it's not a huge overstatement: Matt Adams has almost matched Craig's production. Add it all up and this is a team that probably shouldn't be expected to continue scoring runs as well as it did in the regular season.
How quickly can reputations change? Consider how we viewed Burnett before his last postseason start back in 2011, as opposed to how we view him now. In theory, this could be his final big-league start. Expect him to throw his fastball or curveball almost 100 percent of the time; that's the combination he used to get here, and it'll be the combination that nets him another start.
Cole will be making his postseason debut, along with most of his teammates. He'll ride his mid-90s fastball, but he has an assortment of secondary pitches, too. Liriano, recently covered in depth by Doug Thorburn, is unavailable until Game 3 after starting the Wild Card game. Morton—complete with a heavy sinker—has taken his Roy Halladay impersonation so far that he's now the better pitcher.
Wainwright put together his best regular season in years, setting new career highs in innings pitched and strikeout-to-walk ratio. The big righty uses a low-90s sinker, upper-80s cutter, and mid-70s curveball to do his bidding. The curveball is a monster pitch, and one he'll turn to in any count. Wainwright, like many good pitchers, throws strikes and keeps the ball on the ground.
Lynn, in his first full season as a starter, topped the 200-inning mark. His fastball sits in the 91-94 range and he mixes in an upper-80s cutter and a curveball. He'll ride his fastball, even in two-strike counts. Miller and Wacha are rookies, though Miller already has postseason experience from last year. Miller has an explosive fastball and a power breaking ball. Wacha, on the other hand, gets more groundballs, though his fastball isn't as hot.
Bullpen (IP, ERA, FIP)
RHP Jason Grilli (50, 2.70, 1.94)
Pittsburgh's back end is as good as any in the postseason. The rest of their depth will challenge casual fans, since the idea of Mazzaro or Gomez pitching in a playoff game seemed absurd 12 months ago.
RHP Trevor Rosenthal (75.1, 2.63, 1.88)
Even with Mujica's recent struggles, the Cardinals have a deep assortment of relievers, including a pair of shutdown lefties. Kelly could switch spots with Wacha.
The Pirates hold a distinct advantage when it comes to defensive ability. While Pittsburgh ranked fourth in the majors in defensive efficiency, the Cardinals finished 26th. The Pirates love to shift, and have done a great job turning line drives into outs this season. One bittersweet thought for the Cardinals: their defense should be improved without Allen Craig at first base.
As Ben Lindbergh wrote before the Wild Card Game, "[Clint] Hurdle’s best attribute might be his willingness to welcome the input of Pittsburgh’s front office. While another manager might have bridled at the thought of having his players’ strings pulled by statheads, Hurdle was an enthusiastic partner in implementing the front office’s beliefs about defensive positioning. He was also aggressive when it came to relief usage. The Pirates were the only team in baseball whose starters had an average pitch count below 90, so he was quite willing to go to his bullpen early. That quality should serve him well in the Wild Card game, since with swollen relief corps it would be a mistake to let Liriano face the top of Cincy’s order more than once or twice."
Mike Matheny is fortunate: two seasons as manager, two postseason appearances. Matheny lets his team's talent do most of the work, and rarely calls for a hit-and-run, steal, or bunt attempt. Being a former catcher himself, he's not opposed to visiting the mound in spots usually reserved for pitching coaches. Likewise, Matheny lets his pitchers work deep into ballgames, as he finished third in 120-plus pitch appearances, behind Jim Leyland and Mike Scioscia. Matheny has a talented roster, so letting that talent dictate the game isn't a bad idea.
As great as it would be to see the Pirates head to the NLCS, it's hard to bet against the Cardinals. St. Louis in five.