Thanks to the Milwaukee Brewers’ second-half collapse, the playoff picture was pretty clear in the National League in the last few weeks, the only question being whether the Pirates could steal the division from the Cardinals with a late push. The Cardinals held on, so for the second year in a row the Pirates will host the NL Wild Card game at PNC Park, this time against the San Francisco Giants.
Lineups (BA/OBP/SLG/TAv, WARP)
3B-R Josh Harrison (.315/.347/.490/.308, 5.1)
SS-R Jordy Mercer (.255/.305/.387/.259, 3.8)
CF-R Andrew McCutchen (.314/.410/.542/.354, 7.1)
C-R Russell Martin (.290/.402/.430/.312, 5.2)
LF-R Starling Marte (.291/.356/.453/.315, 3.7)
2B-S Neil Walker (.271/.342/.467/.297, 3.5)
1B-R Gaby Sanchez (.229/.293/.385/.257, 0.6)
RF-L Travis Snider (.264/.338/.438/.284, 1.6)
P-R Edinson Volquez (.038/.089/.038/.080, -0.3)
Last year, the Pirates entered the playoffs with the worst TAv among all playoff teams. This year, they enter with the third best TAv (.274) in the majors, behind the Angels and the Dodgers. Even though the Pirates didn’t make any significant deadline additions on offense, the emergence of Harrison along with Martin’s banner season turned what was a potential weakness for Pittsburgh entering this year into a strength. Sanchez and Snider could be a weak link at the bottom of the order for manager Clint Hurdle, but Ike Davis isn’t a viable alternative against lefties and it is likely that Hurdle opts to stick with Snider’s hot bat instead of sticking Jose Tabata in to face the left-hander.
Oddly enough, despite the Pirates’ strong numbers overall, they were only 21st in the majors in OPS against left-handed pitching. The righty-stacked lineup certainly won’t hurt against Madison Bumgarner, but do not simply assume that stacking the lineup against the lefty will automatically work to Pittsburgh’s advantage.
CF-L Gregor Blanco (.260/.333/.374/.272, 2.2)
2B-L Joe Panik (.305/.343/.368//259, 0.5)
C-R Buster Posey (.311/.364/.490/.316. 5.9)
3B-S Pablo Sandoval (.279/.324/.415/.284, 3.1)
RF-R Hunter Pence (.277/.332/.445/.289, 3.9)
1B-L Brandon Belt (.243/.306/.449/.278, 1.6)
SS-L Brandon Crawford (.246/.324/.389/.269. 3.9)
LF-L Travis Ishikawa (.274/.333/.397/.273, 0.4)
P-R Madison Bumgarner (.258/.286/.470/.296, 1.0)
The Giants have one of those offenses where the whole accomplishes what the individuals seem incapable of. Except for Posey, no one stands out, but the lineup has a nice balance from top to bottom. This is a station-to-station offense. The Giants stole 57 bases as a team in 2014; only the Orioles stole fewer. The absence of Angel Pagan certainly contributed to this, but on the whole the Giants formula was to rely on quality at-bats and hope the talent led to positive results. The team was ninth in TAv, but much closer to the Pirates using runs scored (12th in the majors, while the Pirates were 10th overall). Eight of the nine hitters in the Giants lineup—including Bumgarner—had a TAv of .272 or higher. In contrast, the Pirates’ 2013 Wild Card opponent—the Cincinnati Reds—had only three hitters above this mark.
For some teams moving from the home venue to PNC Park could prove daunting, but this shouldn’t be a factor for the Giants, as Pac Bell is no friendlier for hitters than PNC is.
If you’re looking for something fun to watch for, Bumgarner looks to become the first pitcher since Joe Blanton in 2008 to homer in a postseason game. Bumgarner is the first pitcher since Carlos Zambrano in 2008 to hit four or more home runs in the regular season and make it to the postseason
Benches (BA/OBP/SLG/TAv, WARP)
Ike Davis (.235/.343/.378/.266, 0.3)
Chris Stewart (.294/.362/.331/.263, 0.8)
Clint Barmes (.245/.328/.294/.242, 0.1)
Gregory Polanco (.235/.307/.343/.247, 1.4)
Jose Tabata (.282/.314/.333/.228, -0.5)
Andrew Lambo (.256/.256/.359/.208, -0.1)
Brent Morel (.179/.220/.231/.178, -0.2)
Tony Sanchez (.267/.300/.360/.248, 0.1)
One of the presumed advantages of roster construction for a one-game playoff is that you can stack your bench with extra bats. The Pirates are thin in this regard, with only Davis and possibly Stewart providing any kind of oomph off of the bench. With Martin’s recent injury struggles, carrying three catchers isn’t a terrible idea for the Pirates. Polanco and Tabata are the most likely pinch-running candidates in a late-inning situation where getting from first to home on a double is vital.
Andrew Susac (.273/.326/.466/.291, 0.8)
Juan Perez (.170/.224/.270/.186, -0.5)
Joaquin Arias (.254/.281/.301/.217, 0.1)
Guillermo Quiroz (.000/.000/.000/-.007, -0.01)
Matt Duffy (.267/.302/.300/.242, 0.2)
Gary Brown (.429/.429/.429/.325, 0.1)
Adam Duvall (.192/.234/.342/.222, -0.3)
The Giants bench has a good deal of defensive utility but not much else. With Michael Morse ruled out for at least the Wild Card game, the Giants bench looks even thinner.
Edinson Volquez (192.7, 3.14, 4.12)
In 2014, Volquez joined the ever-growing list of Ray Searage success stories, posting the lowest ERA of his entire career, even better than in his All-Star season with the Reds way back in 2008. Searage focused on two things: keeping Volquez under control during his delivery to the plate and keeping his release point consistent. The result hasn’t been an uptick in velocity but rather more consistent command, allowing Volquez to keep men off base via the walk.
Some attention was called to the decision to start Gerrit Cole on Sunday instead of keeping him in reserve for the wild card game, while others thought that starting Francisco Liriano here on three days rest should have been the play. However, Cole hasn’t been demonstrably better than Volquez from a WARP perspective, while Liriano (on full rest) and Volquez have been comparable. Volquez has been particularly hard to hit at home, allowing only five home runs in 106 innings at PNC this season, for what that split is worth.
Madison Bumgarner (217.3, 2.98, 3.02)
Not having to play for something on Sunday could turn into a blessing in disguise for the Giants, as the decision of whether or not to start Bumgarner on Sunday was taken out of their hands by the standings. Tim Lincecum’s demise and Matt Cain’s injury have elevated Bumgarner to the status of Giants ace, although his performance has certainly had a hand in this as well. If you’re looking for a crack in the armor, Bumgarner had a 3.74 ERA versus playoff teams as opposed to a 2.57 ERA versus non-playoff squads. His lone start against the Pirates this year was arguably his worst start of the season, ending after four innings and five earned runs.
Pirates (IP, ERA, FIP)
Marc Melancon (71.0, 1.90, 2.06)
Tony Watson (77.3, 1.63, 2.87)
Jared Hughes (64.3, 1.96, 3.96)
Jared Holdzkom (9.0, 2.00, 2.10)
Justin Wilson (60.0, 4.20, 3.59)
Bobby LaFromboise (3.7, 2.45, 4.47)
Vance Worley (110.7, 2.87, 3.41)
Jeff Locke (131.3, 3.91, 4.34)
Melancon gets most of the attention, but the Pirates bullpen has been sneaky good this year. Worley is probably “in case of emergency break glass” replacement for Volquez, while Locke is more likely to serve as an emergency reliever later in the game.
San Francisco Giants (IP, ERA, FIP)
Santiago Casilla (58.3/1.70/3.15)
Sergio Romo (58.0/3.72/4.50)
Jean Machi (66.3/2.58/3.40)
Jeremy Affeldt (55.3/2.28/2.83)
Javier Lopez (37.7/3.11/4.30)
Yusmerio Petit (117.0/3.69/2.65)
Tim Lincecum (155.7/4.74/5.09)
Hunter Strickland (7.0/0.00/0.53)
Jake Peavy (202.7/3.73/4.12)
Carrying four starters seems like overkill, but both Lincecum and Petit have relief experience, and Lincecum was terrific out of the pen for the Giants during their 2012 World Series run. Casilla has been quietly effective in the ninth inning after supplanting Romo. The rest of the bullpen hasn’t received much attention, but manager Bruce Bochy has adroitly mixed and matched the rest of thie supporting cast throughout the regular season. ERA isn’t the most useful way to measure a bullpen’s value, but the Giants 3.01 reliever ERA (fifth best in baseball) cannot be taken lightly.
The Pirates ranked 11th in defensive efficiency, but it was a tale of extremes based on Fielding Runs Above Average. Jordy Mercer (8.0), Josh Harrison (5.3), and Gaby Sanchez (3.7) make for a strong infield defense, while Andrew McCutchen (-8.0), Starling Marte (-8.2), and Travis Snider (-3.1) form a poor outfield defensively, at least by the numbers. McCutchen looks much better based on the eye test, but it might not matter with Volquez’s elevated groundball rate anyway; of the Pirates starters, only Liriano is more extreme with the wormburners.
The Giants are more solid across the board defensively and this year they have taken great strides to try to match the Pirates in shift frequency. Brandon Crawford is arguably the best defensive player on either side of the ball in this series.
Both managers get more raves than pans in smart baseball circles, at least now. Two World Series titles for Bruce Bochy have something to do with that, but there’s more to Bochy’s reputation than his shiny rings. Bochy seems to maximize the contributions from his veterans and does an excellent job juggling his lineup when it is called for. Bochy is hardly a number cruncher, but he also avoids the tendency to overmanage in key situations. He seems to have found that impossible balance between pulling the plug on a player too soon and waiting too long for a player to fail. The Romo/Casilla closer decision is a prime example of this, but Bochy’s roster management in general is a definite strength.
As Ben Lindbergh mentioned in last year’s Wild Card preview, Clint Hurdle’s biggest strength is his ability to work well with a numbers-oriented front office and implement their suggestions. Winning seems much more important than ego with Hurdle, and this is clear not only with tactical decisions but with the way the Pirates carry themselves on the field as well. If Hurdle has a weakness, it is his occasional reliance on traditional bullpen matchups rather than going with the best pitcher in the most optimal situation. This hurt the Pirates a couple of times during the stretch run. It might not make a difference in a one-game series, but on the other hand it could also wind up being entirely crucial.
The Pirates and Giants finished 2014 with identical records and an identical run differential. These are two evenly matched teams, and it would seem that the Pirates home field advantage should give them the edge. However, in a one-game series, Bumgarner’s advantage over Volquez is impossible to ignore. Predicting who will one game is a fool or a coin’s errand, but if forced to make a prediction we’ll say the Giants will eke out a narrow victory that will allow them to advance to the National League Division Series and the unenviable task of taking on the Washington Nationals.