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Has a dynasty started to crumble? The Braves couldn’t win 90 games this
year, although their Pythagorean projections and their 19-24 record in
one-run games pretty much say that they should have. Even so, the Braves did
win their seventh straight division title. The Astros made a full rebound
from last year’s collapse, but the fixation on their September struggles
masks the fact that unlike the Braves, they won more games (93) than
expected (89).

So who’s the underdog? With the Astros’ pitching staff in tatters and the
Braves’ lineup deeply sunk in senescence, does the label even matter? Both
teams have fought doggedly to get here, and the backstory of each is
compelling in its own way. Limping down the stretch, the Astros fended off a
desperate challenge from the Cardinals, while the Braves came from behind to
overtake the Phillies’ and their big early-season lead. Sadly, somebody’s
going to have to lose this series, which means that either the Braves or the
Astros will continue to be labeled postseason losers despite the
accomplishment of getting there.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/Equivalent Average)

Atlanta Braves

2B Marcus Giles (.262/.338/.430/.261)
1B Julio Franco (.300/.376/.444/.286)
3B Chipper Jones (.330/.427/.605/.338)
RF Brian Jordan (.295/.334/.496/.281)
LF B.J. Surhoff (.271/.321/.405/.255)
CF Andruw Jones (.251/.312/.461/.264)
SS Rey Sanchez .(281/.300/.336/.230)
C Paul Bako (.212/.312/.343/.236)

Houston Astros

2B Craig Biggio (.292/.382/.455/.283)
SS Julio Lugo (.263/.326/.372/.237)
1B Jeff Bagwell (.288/.397/.568/.314)
LF Lance Berkman (.331/.430/.620/.333)
RF Moises Alou (.331/.396/.554/.312)
3B Vinny Castilla (.260/.308/.467/.254)
CF Richard Hidalgo (.275/.356/.455/.271)
C Brad Ausmus (.232/.284/.341/.213)

We’ve been hammering the Braves for their offensive shortcomings all season,
and for good reason. Hitters’ positions like first base and left field
essentially went unmanned for almost the entire year. Worse yet, Javy
Lopez
is out for at least this series, if not the entire postseason. The
Braves don’t walk, they didn’t hit for much power, and with Rafael
Furcal
and Quilvio Veras both long gone, they don’t even run
especially well. With a litany like that, it sounds like a miracle that they
finished ahead of five other National League offenses, right? Chipper
Jones
is one of the best hitters in the game, but will he get any kind
of offensive support from John Schuerholz’s collection of gamey geezers?

There’s reason for some optimism on a couple of levels. First, the two young
players in the Braves’ lineup have the talent to do some damage. Merv
Rettenmund might have wrecked Andruw Jones for most of the year, but
at the end of the day, Jones is still… well, Andruw Jones. Mark
McGwire
‘s 1991 looks pretty ugly, but it wasn’t the end of his career or
of his growth as a hitter. Great talent can overcome stridently bad
coaching. Marcus Giles is as miscast as a top of the order hitter as
Gregg Jefferies was in 1988, but he has power, and in Enron that puts
him in scoring position as soon as he steps into the box.

Second, Julio Franco might be baseball’s ultimate myrmidon, and while
he might dissolve into a few dusty dragon’s teeth at any moment, he might
also keep pasting pitches past his 50th birthday.

The best you can say for B.J. Surhoff, Rey Sanchez, and
Paul Bako as hitters is that they offer Bobby Cox plenty of
opportunities to go to his bench as creatively and as frequently as he
cares.

Finally, it’s worth noting that wherever you put Brian Jordan on the
overrated scale, he had a very good season by his own lights. However, his
usual preference for left-handed pitching (he slugged .575 against lefties
this year, .477 against right-handers) won’t mean much this series against
the Astros’ four right-handed starting pitchers.

The Astros’ lineup looks balanced, in the sense it has a player as good as
Baseball Prospectus 2001 cover guy Richard Hidalgo in the
seventh slot. The murderer’s row of Jeff Bagwell, Lance
Berkman
, and Moises Alou is probably the best heart of the order
on a postseason team.

Craig Biggio‘s return has been heralded as a great success, but it’s
notable that he didn’t run much this year after coming back from last year’s
knee injury. There were a couple of blemishes; Biggio didn’t hit well
outside of Enron Field (.269/.356/.399), and–frustrating Strat-O-Matic
managers everywhere–he caught Jeff Bagwell’s occasional allergy to
left-handed pitching (.222/.331/.407).

Nevertheless, there are weak points in the Astros’ lineup. The worst
offensive regular in either lineup isn’t a Brave, and Julio Lugo
joins Brad Ausmus as easy outs just as exploitable as Sanchez and
Bako. Lugo can be mixed and matched with Jose Vizcaino while creating
the opportunity for a few high-leverage at-bats for the Astros’ excellent
group of pinch-hitters, while Larry Dierker should just take advantage of
the fact that the Braves can’t run much to get Tony Eusebio into the
lineup at Ausmus’s expense.

The media focus will be on Bagwell and Biggio and their failures in
postseasons past, but the key offensive player is Lance Berkman, and on a
similar level, Chipper Jones. How well each team’s predominantly
right-handed starting pitching controls the opponent’s switch-hitting star
will set the tone for the series.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA)

Atlanta Braves

OF Dave Martinez (.287/.347/.384/.256)
OF Bernard Gilkey (.274/.339/.387/.256)
3B Ken Caminiti (.222/.306/.380/.239)
IF Mark DeRosa (.287/.350/.390/.263)
2B Keith Lockhart (.219/.289/.303/.213)
C Eddie Perez (.300/.300/.600/.212; injured almost all season)
C Steve Torrealba (translated EqA from Double-A Greenville: .200)

Houston Astros

OF Orlando Merced (.263/.333/.453/.265)
OF Daryle Ward (.263/.323/.460/.259)
IF Jose Vizcaino (.277/.322/.344/.228)
PR Glen Barker (translated EqA from Triple-A New Orleans: .210)
3B Chris Truby (.206/.276/.441/.233)
C Tony Eusebio (.253/.339/.403/.251)

Either catcher Scott Servais or shortstop Adam Everett will be
the last man on the bench in an epic choice between a third catcher and a
third shortstop. If either one gets a Craig Counsell postseason
moment, remember to pick your beer up before it stains the carpet and
unnecessarily angers your spouse.

One of the interesting developments is that both the Braves and Astros seem
to appreciate that they don’t automatically have to carry 11-man pitching
staffs in the postseason (12-man, if you’re as goofy as only Don Baylor can
be), especially for a five-game series. If both teams go into the series
with full seven-man benches, that’s to the credit of GMs John Schuerholz and
Gerry Hunsicker as well as managers Bobby Cox and Larry Dierker. More
importantly, it creates a rich menu of tactical options on the offensive
side of the game. Even though the weak catching situations of both teams
mean they’ll both go into the series with three catchers, doing so gives
Dierker and Cox the opportunities to double-switch, pinch-hit, and pinch-run
for their catchers, which if nothing else will smudge a few scorecards.

Because the Astros don’t have a left-handed starter for this series, the
Braves won’t have to use Ken Caminiti in the platoon role he was
sharing with Surhoff (Chipper Jones was shuttling between third base and
left field). Caminiti will take his place behind a decent pair of
outfielders, Dave Martinez and Bernard Gilkey.

Beyond them, you can have fun interpreting what this year’s data might mean.
Is Keith Lockhart worthless? Should Mark DeRosa be in the
lineup? Keep in mind that DeRosa’s final tally looks strong on the basis of
a very few at-bats against lefties; against right-handed pitching he hit
.250/.319/.313, which nevertheless still looks pretty good compared to Rey
Sanchez.

Pinch-hitting stats are notoriously streaky, but Lockhart hit .326/.426/.478
as a pinch-hitter this year, which only means he’s familiar with the role
and can be useful in it (by comparison, Caminiti was 1-16 as a pinch-hitter,
and openly complained about having to try). The Astros’ pen has several
right-handed relievers with problems against left-handed hitters, and no
mid-inning lefty that Dierker can rely on, so Lockhart and Martinez will
have their opportunities as long as Cox is aggressive about getting them
into the game long before Billy Wagner makes them mere spectators.

But if the Braves have a couple of nice matchups that they might score, the
Astros have it just a wee bit better. Larry Dierker has spread playing time
around well enough to keep his top bench players relatively fresh. Jose
Vizcaino played regularly as Lugo’s caddy at short. Daryle Ward
struggled as a pinch-hitter (.216/.333/.351), but he’s miscast in the role
and capable of much better than he hit this year. Orlando Merced has
been the Astros’ real pinch-hitting ace all season, slugging over .550.
After slugging .618 against southpaws, Chris Truby gives Dierker
similar punch against left-handed relievers, or in this series, against
Mike Remlinger.

For late-inning defense in center field and pinch-running duties, Dierker
can call on Glen Barker. Barker usually enters as part of a
double-switch, pinch-running and then remaining in the game in center,
usually with Richard Hidalgo shifting over to right and Moises Alou taking a
seat.

Rotations (Support-Neutral Value Added, ERA, IP)

Atlanta Braves

Greg Maddux (2.8, 233, 3.05)
Tom Glavine (2.3, 219 1/3, 3.57)
John Burkett (2.6, 219 1/3, 3.04)
Kevin Millwood (-0.5, 121, 4.31)

Houston Astros

Wade Miller (2.7, 212, 3.40)
Dave Mlicki (-3.0, 167 2/3, 6.17)
Shane Reynolds (1.0, 182 2/3, 4.34)
Roy Oswalt (2.8, 141 2/3, 2.73)

I’m still struggling with suspension of disbelief issues, because here we
are in October, and Dave Mlicki is starting the second game of a
postseason series. The nice way of looking at this predicament is that the
Braves rely pretty heavily on their right-handed hitters, and Mlicki is
usually better against right-handed hitters. But when all left-handed
hitters paste you, you’re reminded that the Surhoffs and the Lockharts have
to get their hits off of somebody, and somebody is usually a guy like
Mlicki.

The disasters that have befallen the Astros’ staff are twofold. They could
not afford to lose Pedro Astacio, even before Roy Oswalt‘s
groin pull reduced them to the sorry predicament of starting Mlicki. Long
before his injury, the Astros weren’t in a position to make any real
judgments about Oswalt. He hasn’t had a quality start against a worthwhile
opponent since July, happily beating up on teams like the Brewers, Reds,
Pirates, and Expos in the meantime. Even if he is healthy–a huge if–can he
beat a near-adequate lineup like the Braves? Wade Miller is starting
on three days’ rest in the opener, but he will be working with the perceived
advantage of not having faced the Braves this year. Shane Reynolds’
durability is questionable, but he’s keeping the ball on the ground.

With Reynolds, Mlicki, and Oswalt, it’s enough to make me think the Astros
would be better off keeping an 11th pitcher rather than a third catcher or
shortstop, because if they have to use Octavio Dotel or Billy Wagner
in a lost cause because of a shortage of bodies, the Astros will be hurting
their chances in the subsequent game.

The Braves come into the postseason with the usual doubts about Greg
Maddux
and his ability to win in October, but Maddux pitched well enough
in September to beat the Phillies twice, as well as the Cubs when they were
still relevant. Tom Glavine will be facing a traditionally
right-handed-heavy Astros lineup, but he’s also matched up against Dave
Mlicki in Enron Field, which ought to mean he’ll be pitching with a lead
pretty early in the game. John Burkett‘s performance in Game Three
will be the fulcrum for the series. If Burkett resembles the pitcher he was
in the first half, the Astros will have a hard time making it to Game Five.
If he’s the pitcher he was in the second half, useful but not outstanding,
then the third and fourth games will be heavily dependent on in-game
managerial decisions. Kevin Millwood is coming off of a lousy year,
but he’s facing an overwhelmingly right-handed Astros lineup after posting a
big platoon split in 2001 (806 OPS vs. LHB, 694 vs. RHB).

Bullpens (Adjusted Runs Prevented, ERA, IP)

Atlanta Braves

John Smoltz (13.0, 59, 3.36)
Steve Karsay (17.6, 88, 2.35)
Mike Remlinger (10.8, 75, 2.76)
Steve Reed (10.7, 58 1/3, 3.55)
Kerry Ligtenberg (9.7, 59 2/3, 3.02)
Rudy Seanez (2.5, 36, 2.75)

Houston Astros

Billy Wagner (15.1, 62 2/3, 2.73)
Octavio Dotel (24.2, 105, 2.66)
Mike Williams (6.6, 64, 3.80)
Mike Jackson (4.2, 69, 4.70)
Nelson Cruz (2.6, 82 1/3, 4.15)
Ron Villone (2.0, 114 2/3, 5.89)

This looks like a mismatch, but keep in mind that the above totals don’t
reflect the relatively untold story of Kerry Ligtenberg‘s second-half
comeback. John Smoltz has been well-nigh unhittable as a reliever,
but Cox has to decide whether he can push Smoltz for longer outings,
propelling Ligtenberg and Steve Karsay into the game earlier. Both
are effective for an inning or two, and Steve Reed is perhaps the
premier situational right-hander in baseball today, retiring right-handed
batters at a .149/.192/.220 clip (while getting hammered by lefties at an
equally amazing .519/.629/.904). Reed’s value is heavily dependent on how
Cox uses him, and the Astros are an ideal matchup. Do you think Larry
Dierker is going to bring in Orlando Merced or Daryle Ward for Jeff Bagwell
or Moises Alou to face Reed? If he isn’t being called on to face the Astros’
star right-handed hitters, Reed will be less dangerous, because barring a
mistake by Dierker (or a big Astros lead), he won’t get to face someone like
Vinny Castilla or Brad Ausmus.

A key component of the Braves’ ability to stay in games late will be Mike
Remlinger’s health. He has a good history against the Astros, and if he
keeps Ward and Merced anchored to the bench with men on base, he’ll have
significantly impacted Dierker’s tactical choices.

The Astros’ pen is superficially outstanding, but it’s overwhelmingly
dependent on two key men. Octavio Dotel‘s brilliant pitching down the
stretch was a critical factor in getting the Astros past the Cubs in August,
while Billy Wagner is this semi-famous closer kind of guy. Beyond that, they
have three superficially similar relievers. Mike Williams, Mike
Jackson
, and Nelson Cruz each have problems with left-handed
hitters, and Jackson has been awful down the stretch.

The problem the Astros may have to address is whether they’re addicted to
job titles. Bringing in Wagner to face the Joneses or Brian Jordan with the
game on the line is a roll of the dice that Bobby Cox wouldn’t mind,
considering their performance against lefties in recent years. Mixing and
matching by situation makes more sense than lockstep adherence to the narrow
definitions of the closer’s role. More important than that is Dotel and how
ambitious Dierker is in using him. If Dotel can handle a multi-inning
assignment in Game Two and a couple of days later in Game Three or Game
Four, the Astros might be able to compensate for their problems with
starting pitching in a five-game series.

Defense

Even with two great fielders at the two most important defensive positions,
generally speaking, defense is not one of the Braves’ hallmarks nowadays.
With Andruw Jones in center field and Rey Sanchez at shortstop, they might
have the best gloves at their positions in either league, and Brian Jordan
has good range and a better arm in right field. Marcus Giles is arguably a
bit better than expected at second base, but Chipper Jones’s sporadic
malaise at third base doesn’t help. The Braves might miss Javy
Lopez
‘s bat, but Paul Bako’s glovework is reliable enough. Maddux and
Glavine have "fifth infielder" reputations.

The Astros are probably best described as nondescript. Neither Lugo nor
Vizcaino is an inspiring shortstop, which helps give noted glovemeister Adam
Everett some sort of claim on postseason value. Craig Biggio’s range has not
come back as well as his bat has since his knee injury. The Astros’ infield
seems stronger on the corners. Vinny Castilla seems to have gotten better
since escaping Tampa Bay, while Jeff Bagwell has his moments.

In the outfield, Lance Berkman has been significantly better than expected,
but not being Ryan Klesko doesn’t necessarily make him Jim
Edmonds
. Richard Hidalgo handles center well enough, while Moises Alou’s
declining range in right will cause trouble for Astros’ pitchers already
struggling to fend off even the Braves’ lighter-hitting lefties. Brad
Ausmus’s great gun behind the plate might be valuable if the Astros were
facing the 1985 Cardinals, but they aren’t.

Managers

Bobby Cox is on the threshold of a Hall of Fame career as a manager, but
some postseason success wouldn’t hurt him any. Larry Dierker has never been
able to shrug off his critics on the team, to the point that not even four
division titles in five years seems to cut him any slack.

So essentially, both managers have something to prove, and as highlighted in
the areas above, both have lineup problems that will need addressing,
bullpens that lack a lot of platoon matchup options, and a wasted roster
spot apiece on a third catcher. Both managers have opportunities to
influence the outcome through their use of the bullpen, Cox through the
ripple effect he could create by bringing Smoltz into eighth innings, and
Dierker by bringing in Octavio Dotel as soon and for as long as possible.

While heightened media coverage seems to have encouraged contemporary
managers to avoid doing anything that might open themselves up to criticism,
the similar collection of options and the leveling effect of the Astros’
weak pitching depth wrestling against the Braves’ low-powered offense should
put both men on the spot. Cox can be outmaneuvered tactically, and Dierker
has the pinch-hitters to do it. Cox is sensible enough to play for platoon
advantages, and will be facing an Astros pen that makes guys like Lockhart
and Martinez more dangerous than they ought to be.

The Call

I’ve been studiously ambivalent through most of this piece for a reason,
that being I don’t have a lot of confidence in the Astros’ ability to pull
it off. For as mostly harmless as B.J. Surhoff or Paul Bako might be, when
they’re hitting off of Dave Mlicki or Nelson Cruz or Mike Jackson, we’re not
talking Clash of the Titans. The Astros might have five pitchers that don’t
make you cringe when they’re on the mound. Might. As a result, this is going
to be a tight series, but with the relative strength of their bench, Wade
Miller, Lance Berkman, and some aggressive use of Octavio Dotel, the Astros
will win the first postseason series in franchise history. Astros in five.

Chris Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
clicking here.