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October 3, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

NLDS Preview: Pirates at Cardinals

by R.J. Anderson

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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.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)

Pirates

LF-R Starling Marte (.280/.343/.441/.285)
2B-S Neil Walker (.251/.339/.418/.275)
CF-R Andrew McCutchen (.317/.404/.508/.326)
1B-L Justin Morneau (.259/.323/.411/.263)
RF-R Marlon Byrd (.291/.336/.511/.302)
3B-L Pedro Alvarez (.233/.295/.474/.272)
C-R Russell Martin (.226/.327/.377/.257)
SS-R Jordy Mercer (.280/.331/.416/.265)

The Pirates offense is tough to gauge from a macro perspective, as they added Morneau and Byrd to their lineup late in the season. At worst, the lineup features seven batters who posted above-average True Averages, and another, in Martin, who was good for his position. One thing to watch for with the Pirates is strikeouts; they aren't quite the Braves, but they can rack up the Ks.

Cardinals
2B-L Matt Carpenter (.318/.392/.481/.310)
CF-L Jon Jay (.276/.351/.370/.261)
RF-S Carlos Beltran (.296/.339/.491/.288)
LF-R Matt Holliday (.300/.389/.490/.297)
1B-L Matt Adams (.284/.335/.503/.289)
C-R Yadier Molina (.319/.359/.477/.296)
3B-R David Freese (.262/.340/.381/.250)
SS-L Daniel Descalso (.238/.290/.366/.240)

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.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)

Pirates
INF-R Clint Barmes (.211/.249/.309/.207)
1B/OF-L Garrett Jones (.233/.289/.414/.256)
OF-L Travis Snider (.215/.281/.333/.227)
C-R Tony Sanchez (.237/.292/.407/.274)
1B-R Gaby Sanchez (.255/.362/.403/.291)
OF-R Jose Tabata (.279/.339/.426/.275)

Pittsburgh has more pinch-hit pop available than the Cardinals. Jones and Gaby Sanchez can leave the yard or find a gap. Meanwhile, Tabata adds some speed to the equation.

Cardinals
C-R Tony Cruz (.203/.240/.293/.175)
INF-R Pete Kozma (.217/.275/.273/.201)
INF-R Ryan Jackson (.000/.000/.000/.008 in seven PA)
OF-L Adron Chambers (.154/.241/.192/.185 in 29 PA)
OF-R Shane Robinson (.250/.345/.319/.257)

Allen Craig's injury forces the Cardinals to start Matt Adams, which compromises their offensive depth. If St. Louis needs a pinch-hitter they'll go to Robinson; otherwise things get nasty.

Starting Pitchers (IP, ERA, FIP)

Pirates
RHP A.J. Burnett (191, 3.30, 2.77)
RHP Gerrit Cole (117.1, 3.22, 2.88)
LHP Francisco Liriano (161, 3.02, 2.90)
RHP Charlie Morton (116, 3.26, 3.57)

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.

Cardinals

RHP Adam Wainwright (241.2, 2.94, 2.52)
RHP Lance Lynn (201.2, 3.97, 3.25)
RHP Shelby Miller (173.1, 3.06, 3.64)
RHP Michael Wacha (64.2, 2.78, 2.90)

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)

Pirates

RHP Jason Grilli (50, 2.70, 1.94)
RHP Mark Melancon (71, 1.39, 1.61)
LHP Tony Watson (71.7, 2.39, 3.17)
LHP Justin Wilson (73.7, 2.08, 3.39)
RHP Jeanmar Gomez (79.7, 3.16, 3.80)
RHP Vin Mazzaro (73.7, 2.81, 3.28)
RHP Bryan Morris (65, 3.46, 4.87)

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.

Cardinals

RHP Trevor Rosenthal (75.1, 2.63, 1.88)
RHP John Axford (65, 4.02, 4.31)
RHP Edward Mujica (64.2, 2.78, 3.69)
RHP Seth Maness (62, 2.32, 3.41)
LHP Randy Choate (35.1, 2.29, 2.54)
LHP Kevin Siegrist (39.2, 0.45, 2.26)
RHP Carlos Martinez (28.1, 5.08, 3.06)
RHP Joe Kelly (124, 2.69, 3.98)

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.

Defense

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.

Managers

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.

Prediction

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.

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

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