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October 3, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

NLDS Game One Preview: Pirates vs. Cardinals

by Ben Carsley

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Pirates (A.J. Burnett) vs. Cardinals (Adam Wainwright) – 5:00 p.m. EST
PECOTA Odds of Winning: Cardinals 62.1%. Pittsburgh 37.9%

Pirates vs. Wainwright (R)

Cardinals vs. Burnett (R)

Starling Marte, LF (R)

Matt Carpenter, 2B (L)

Neil Walker, 2B (S)

Jon Jay, CF (L)

Andrew McCutchen, CF (R)

Carlos Beltran, RF (S)

Justin Morneau, 1B (L)

Matt Holliday, LF (R)

Marlon Byrd, RF (R)

Matt Adams, 1B (L)

Pedro Alvarez, 3B (L)

Yadier Molina, C (R)

Russell Martin, C (R)

David Freese, 3B (R)

Clint Barmes, SS (R)

Daniel Descalso, SS (L)

A.J. Burnett, P (R)

Adam Wainwright, P (R)

Three games.

That’s all that separated the Cardinals and Pirates in the standings this season. In their 19-game season series, Pittsburgh won 10 times and St. Louis nine. These are two evenly matched teams with good bullpens, good rotations, and a great first pitching matchup in Cy Young contender Adam Wainwright and the resurgent A.J. Burnett.

The offenses of the Pirates and Cardinals create a convenient dichotomy for this piece in that we can expect the former to improve slightly compared to its season-long performance, while the latter is likely to see a modest dip in production.

Pittsburgh’s offense was average in 2013, finishing 13th in the league in homers, 15thin TAv, 17th in OPS, and 20th in runs. They’ve received a boost as of late, though, thanks to the additions of Morneau and Byrd, who is inexplicably having the best season of his career after generating negative WARP in 2012. This lineup is pretty well established, with Jordy Mercer rather than Barmes the only other possibility worth mentioning.

Despite the improved depth in Pittsburgh’s lineup, they face a significant challenge in Wainwright, who’s been nothing short of dominant this year. With a 2.94 ERA, 8.1 K/9 and an outstanding 1.30 BB/9 in 241 2/3 innings, Wainwright does pretty much everything you could ask for in an ace. Wainwright also keeps the ball on the ground, and his curveball classifies as baseball porn. He finished second on our ballot for NL Cy Young, behind only Clayton Kershaw.

McCutchen, BP’s NL MVP pick, has fared well against Wainwright in the past, hitting .429/.452/.750 off the righty in 31 at-bats. Martin has also hit the Cardinals ace well, as have Walker, Barmes, and Garrett Jones. Byrd has hit poorly against Wainwright in the past, meaning we could see Jones hit for him late in the game should Wainwright still be on the mound. And considering Wainwright worked at least seven innings in 26 of his 34 innings, that’s a likely scenario.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, rode an incredible ability to hit with runners in scoring position to the third-most runs in baseball. Considering they finished 10th in OPS, 11th in TAv and 27th in homers, that’s pretty remarkable. Unfortunately, one of the chief agents of that success, Allen Craig, isn’t playing, making it even more difficult than usual to predict whether St. Louis will be able to sustain such RISP success.

Still, St. Louis’ lineup is filled with good players and good stories. Carpenter is currently serving as the Random Cardinals Breakout Star of the year, finishing fourth on BP’s collective NL MVP ballot. Jay hit just .250 in the first half before climbing back with a .311 mark in the second half, working his way back up the lineup. Adams has made the most of his second shot in the majors, and has served well in Craig’s absence. Beltran and Holliday are Beltran and Holliday: consistent, above average offensive threats.

Pirates starter A.J. Burnett will face a challenge right away as the first three hitters in St. Louis’ lineup possess the ability to hit left-handed, as do Adams and Descalso. That’s significant as Burnett posted a FIP of 3.47 against southpaws this year, as opposed to a 2.26 mark against righties. As you can glean from those numbers, though, Burnett has had a very strong year overall, posting a 3.30 ERA, 9.85 K/9 and 3.16 BB/9 in 191 innings. He’s done a better job of keeping the ball in the park than in any season since 2004.

Beltran has experienced significant success vs. Burnett in his career, putting up a .317/.348/.500 line in 46 PA. Jay has also fared well, as has Carpenter, who’s reached base at a .520 clip against Burnett. Molina, Adams and Freese have struggled, while Descalso and Holliday have been so-so. Pete Kozma, of all people, has two hits off of Burnett in five at-bats, so… that’s something.

As R.J. Anderson highlighted in the NLDS Series Preview, the Cardinals are not poised to get much from their bench. Shane Robinson will likely get first duties as a pinch hitter, and it’s interesting that St. Louis is apparently adding Kolten Wong to the roster. But overall, they’ll need to rely on their starting lineup and pitching to get the job done.

No matter who reaches base for either team, don’t expect speed to be a significant factor Thursday night or for the series. Pittsburgh finished 13th in the league in steals, but Marte and McCutchen are the only real threats in the lineup with Jose Tabata the only real threat on the bench. Whether Clint Hurdle lets them run against Yadier Molina will worth watching. Meanwhile, the Cardinals finished with just 45 steals all season, good for 29th place behind only the Detroit Tigers.

One more note of interest: The Cardinals have elected to send Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha to the bullpen for this game, with Joe Kelly poised to start Game Three and whichever rookie doesn’t pitch slated to start Game Four. Should the unexpected happen and should Wainwright exit the game early, it could impact St. Louis’ plans the rest of the way.

While I don’t think PECOTA gives the Pirates a fair enough shot here, it’s hard to argue against the Cardinals being favored with Wainwright on the mound. But if Burnett can keep it close, it will be interesting to see how Hurdle uses his bench options against Mike Matheny’s plethora of young flamethrowers in the bullpen.

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

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