Thursday, October 4, 2012

National League Playoff Preview

October may be my favorite month of the year.  It is certainly the best on the sports calendar, with every sport doing something (barring labor disputes).  Midnight Madness is in October.  The NBA and NHL are in their preseasons.  Various soccer leagues are going on.  Both college football and the NFL are in full swing.  And then there is the baseball postseason, still my favorite of all the professional leagues.
I love the tension of October baseball, even in a down year.  And I can recall the exact circumstances of pretty much every major playoff moment that I have watched.  I can recall skipping half of my classes during the 2004 ALCS when Boston made their comeback from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees.  I remember agonizing through every inning of the Mets' five-game loss to the Yankees in 2000 while sitting on the floor of a darkened House A common room at Woodberry, hoping not to attract the attention of any supervisory faculty as the games dragged past midnight (House A dorm master Mr. Parker, a baseball coach and fan, was very understanding).  I even watched Josh Beckett's dominant Game 6 on a tiny television broadcasting in Spanish in Buenos Aires, probably one of about three people in the whole city who cared about the World Series.

This year, of course, baseball has added another wild-card team, with the two wild cards meeting in a one-game playoff for the right to play the league's best team.  This year there was very little drama in the National League, with all three division winners (Nationals, Reds, and Giants) plus the Braves clinching playoff spots before a single American League team had done so, allowing them to get their ducks in a row with plenty of time left before the end of the season.  The fifth NL team, the Cardinals, were never truly threatened for that final spot.  Since they get to travel to Atlanta for the one-game showdown, let's look at that game first.

PROBABLE LINEUPS
Cardinals
CF   Jon Jay
RF   Carlos Beltran
LF   Matt Holliday
1B   Allen Craig
C     Yadier Molina
3B   David Freese
2B   Skip Schumaker
SS   Pete Kozma
P     Kyle Lohse (followed by Lance Lynn, Chris Carpenter, and Adam Wainwright)

Braves
CF   Michael Bourn
LF   Martin Prado
RF   Jason Heyward
3B   Chipper Jones
1B   Freddie Freeman
2B   Dan Uggla
C     Brian McCann
SS   Andrelton Simmons
P     Kris Medlen (followed by Tim Hudson, Mike Minor, and Tommy Hanson/Paul Maholm)

First off, my omission of Yadier Molina in last week's awards column was fairly egregious.  Given his immense defensive value (catcher defense is hard to statistically quantify, but I would say he's pretty clearly the best there is), the fact that he has turned himself into an elite hitter makes him every bit as deserving as Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, or Ryan Braun for MVP honors.  Regardless, the point here is who is more likely to win this game.  And given his performance since joining the Braves' rotation at the end of July, I would say that Medlen gives Atlanta an advantage in a winner-take-all setup.  Did you know that the Braves are undefeated in his eleven starts (23 dating back to last year), or that he has given up a whopping nine earned runs across 72 2/3 innings in those starts, for a 1.11 ERA and a microscopic 0.80 WHIP?  Yikes.  He's also been remarkably efficient, topping 100 pitches only four times despite pitching into the seventh inning or later eight times.  Lohse is no slouch either, with a 2.77 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP across a full season, but he has not been as good as Medlen of late.  The Braves lineup that Lohse will face is carrying at least one offensive weakness in McCann (.297 OBP on the year, a shocking drop-off, although he still has power).  Still, this game will be in Atlanta, so the Braves should prevail, meaning their next opponent will be the...

Nationals
RF   Jayson Werth (R)
CF   Bryce Harper (L)
3B   Ryan Zimmerman (R)
1B   Adam LaRoche (L)
LF   Michael Morse (R)
SS   Ian Desmond (R)
2B   Danny Espinosa (S)
C     Kurt Suzuki (R)
P     Gio Gonzalez (followed by Jordan Zimmerman, Ross Detwiler, and Edwin Jackson)

Since Suzuki came over from Oakland and started giving the Nats something positive with the bat (5 home runs in 38 games after only 2 in Oakland) from the eighth spot, there are really no easy outs in this lineup (although Espinosa has whiffed a league-leading 182 times).  Even the pitchers (except Detwiler) can hit, although they will be deprived of Stephen Strasburg's .759 OPS.  Everyone from Harper through Espinosa is a legitimate power threat, and there are solid bench options in Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, and Steve Lombardozzi.  The Braves have one fewer power hitter in their regular lineup, and their bench beyond backup catcher David Ross is uninspiring at the plate.  Defensively, the Nats have plus defenders everywhere except left (Morse), and Bernadina will undoubtedly see some late-inning work as his replacement.  The Braves have elite defenders in Bourn and Simmons, and good ones in Prado and Heyward.  And both pitching staffs are very strong, with the Braves enjoying a bullpen advantage thanks to the lights-out Craig Kimbrel (a 0.66 WHIP and an insane 16.56 K/9).  But Washington won the season series 10-8 (and the division), and if they can take one of the first two in Atlanta (and avoid having to face Kimbrel with a lead), I think that they will take it in five.

Giants
CF   Angel Pagan
2B   Marco Scutaro
3B   Pablo Sandoval
C     Buster Posey
RF   Hunter Pence
1B   Brandon Belt
LF   Gregor Blanco
SS   Brandon Crawford
P     Matt Cain (followed by Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, and Barry Zito/Ryan Vogelsong)

Reds
2B   Brandon Phillips
CF   Drew Stubbs
1B   Joey Votto
LF   Ryan Ludwick
RF   Jay Bruce
3B   Scott Rolen
C     Ryan Hanigan
SS   Zack Cozart
P     Johnny Cueto (followed by Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, and Homer Bailey)

Both the Giants and the Reds clinched their divisions what seems like eons ago, and have had plenty of time to set up their rotations for the playoffs.  And both of them have good ones.  Cain and Bumgarner have been terrific all year for the Giants, and even if Lincecum is no longer the same guy who owned the National League for two and a half years, he's still a strong third option.  As for the Reds, Cueto is on the short list for NL Cy Young, Latos has adjusted well in going from the league's best pitcher's park to one of its worst, and Bailey just threw a no-hitter last week.  As for each team's lineup, well...it's more hit or miss, so to speak.  The Giants have Buster Posey raking in the cleanup spot, but they made the mystifying decision not to bring Melky Cabrera back after his 50-game suspension runs out, which would make more sense if it didn't mean that many more plate appearances for either Pence (.229/.295/.400 since arriving via trade) or Blanco (.243/.329/.343).  Ironically enough, that decision will more than likely come back to bite them in their own home park, which strongly favors pitchers.  Cueto and his companions will thus get three pretty easy outs most games (Crawford is hitting .248/.304/.350), but then again, so will the Giants staff against Stubbs (.213/.278/.335), Rolen (.243/.319/.387), and Cozart (.241/.291/.405).  Much has been made about the Reds' healthy lineup (both Votto and Rolen have missed significant time this year) leaving Rookie of the Year contender and Sinatra crooner Todd Frazier on the bench, and they're right.  Although Frazier is a bad-ball hitter whose tendencies might not be sustainable, he has been worth more than twice as much in WAR (2.1) than Stubbs, Rolen, and Cozart combined (1.0).  And since both teams have strong rotations and lineups full of question marks, this series may well come down to the bullpens, and here the advantage lies with the Reds.  San Francisco has a strong bullpen top to bottom, but the Reds have depth too, and they also have Aroldis Chapman at the back of it, he of the 121 strikeouts in just 70 2/3 innings pitched.  The Reds rested him recently with arm fatigue, but he's now back and throwing gas in the triple digits again.  I like the Reds to prevail in a series that should be close, although perhaps not quite as entertaining as either Nationals-Braves or Nationals-Cardinals.

Coming up next: An AL playoff look.