National League Wild Card Preview: Which Pitcher Will Show Up?

Madison Bumgarner and the Giants start their campaign for their third World Series in five years tonight in Pittsburgh. Can they win?

The National League playoffs start tonight with the wild card game between San Francisco (88-74) and Pittsburgh (88-74). The Pirates won the season series 4-2, giving them the home-field advantage in the single-elimination playoff.

The matchup between these two ancient teams is only the second time the franchises have crossed paths in the playoffs. The other time came way back in 1971 when the Pirates ran away with a 3-1 series win. That was when Roberto Clemente roamed the outfield against the likes of Willie McCovey and Bobby Bonds, so it’s not like there’s a lot to go off of in recent history or any rivalry.

Entering the playoffs, our numbers have Pittsburgh at a 4.9% chance at winning the whole thing, with the Giants very close at 4.4%. The Pirates also have the upper hand in nERD, at 0.55 versus the Giants 0.48. Andrew McCutchen has the best nERD in the league at 4.07, and Buster Posey has the next best between the two teams, 29th in the league at 2.15.

Now let’s try and figure out who has what it takes take the win-or-go-home contest.

How the Giants Got Here

Despite continued underperformance by Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong's down year, the Giants comfortably made it to the wild card game. San Francisco also had to move past the fact that Matt Cain was out for the year, and did so by trading for an awesome replacement, Jake Peavy.

The difference between 2014 Boston Peavy and 2014 San Francisco Peavy has been night and day. He came to the Bay Area with a 4.72 ERA and a single win in 20 starts. Since he put on the black and orange, he’s won six games and posted a 2.17 ERA over 12 starts. The righty has proven to be a very nice addition to the rotation and arrived at the opportune time.

Posey and Hunter Pence have been the two most important players in the offense. Posey leads the team in most of the offensive categories, including home runs, runs batted in and average, while Pence is second in home runs, RBI and doubles. The right fielder has hit at a solid .277 clip, too, but several guys have hit for a better average.

Posey and Pence have been the mainstays in the offense that has worked past the injuries of Brandon Belt and Angel Pagan.

How the Pirates Got Here

It looked as though Pittsburgh was going to be the first one out in the three team arms race in the NL Central, with the Brewers leading the division all season long and the Cardinals being the Cardinals. Then the Brewers had a Red Sox 2011-esque collapse, and the Pirates kept on chugging, coming just shy of tying St. Louis for the NL Central crown.

The starting rotation has been very steady in Pittsburgh, with none of their starters having an ERA above 3.95 or WHIP greater than 1.30. Mark Melancon and Tony Watson have been one of the better setup-closer combos in the game, both posting ERAs below 2.00, FIPs in the 2.00 to 2.99 range and WHIPs at 1.00.

The outfield of McCutchen, Josh Harrison and Starling Marte has been huge on offense, as well as defense. Harrison has provided a nice option at third base, too, being a huge upgrade from Pedro Alvarez defensively.

Neil Walker really burst on the scene with 23 dingers and smacking 25 doubles, even with missing 25 games on the year. Adding all of that with a respectable .271 average, has to put him up there as one of the best second basemen in 2014.

Keys to Victory for San Francisco

The playoffs often boil down to pitching. In this one-game format, the importance of pitching is amplified even more.

Madison Bumgarner has been up and down in his playoff career, pitching really well in the World Series, but has scuffled in another one. He's been the better pitcher in tonight’s matchup through 2014, with a 3.05 FIP and a 2.98 ERA.

Over his career, Bumgarner’s ERA is a 6.53 before the World Series, to go with a 1.60 WHIP, as well. It goes without saying that Bumgarner’s role in this outing is huge, and he needs to be the ace most know him as if the team is expected to win.

Bumgarner has been an All-Star the past two seasons, earning the billing of the ace (at least with Cain out). He has the stuff and numbers to be among the best in the league, but he needs to display that he can do it consistently in the playoffs. Tonight is a big chance for Bumgarner to show why he’s among the best aces in the league, and he needs to seize that opportunity if the Giants are going to win. The Giants are 3-7 when Bumgarner has let up four or more earned runs in a game, whereas they are 17-6 when he’s let up three or fewer.

Posey is without a doubt the fearless leader of the Giants. The 2012 MVP has good numbers in the playoffs, but his success has been off-and-on per series. A great sign for San Francisco is that Posey did well against the Pirates this year, batting .400 over 20 at-bats. There’s no reason that Posey shouldn’t do well in this game, especially given that he’s done well against starter Edinson Volquez, hitting .556 in nine career at-bats against him.

Pablo Sandoval has had success against Volquez over the 13 times he’s faced him as well, lacing three doubles with a .462 average. He’s been on a bit of a dry spell as of late, hitting .200 over his last 10 games of the season, not hitting a home run since early September. The number for Giants fans to look at is .363; that’s what the Kung-Fu Panda hit during his last postseason, also hitting .500 in the World Series. Sandoval lives for the playoffs and going to give the Pirates problems.

Pence has struggled mightily against Volquez in his career, batting only .194 over 36 at-bats. What he has done is display a bit of power, hitting three out of the park against him. Pence has 20 homers this season, marking seven straight seasons with 20 or more. Pence needs to catch some barrel against Volquez, otherwise he will be a huge hole in their lineup.

Keys to Victory for Pittsburgh

Volquez hasn’t done well against the Giants in his career, with a 5.72 ERA and a .288 batting average against. The righty has walked 26 in 56.2 innings for a 4.16 BB/9. Needless to say, that’s not good and he needs can’t let that carry into this game. The easiest way that the Pirates lose this game is if Volquez walks the ballpark. This year has been his best in terms of walks per nine, which is a great sign going into the contest.

Thankfully for the Pirates, Volquez hasn’t faced the Giants this year, which could play to his advantage. He's done well against Brandon Crawford (.150 average in 20 at-bats), which could prove to be helpful especially if he’s hitting in the eight spot before Bumgarner. His track record against the Giants’ shortstop is huge because Volquez has struggled immensely against the 7 and 8 slots in his career, which is where Crawford hit almost every night.

McCutchen hasn’t done well against Bumgarner in his limited chances over their careers. However, Cutch did well against San Fran this year, hitting .308, with two doubles, a triple, while knocking in a pair over 26 at-bats. The reigning NL MVP will have a strong night, continuing his hot streak that’s he’s been on over his last 10 games. His line of 429/.595/.786 over this span remarkable, in addition to his two long balls and eight RBI.

Josh Harrison has been a pleasant surprise this year. He’s continued to play everywhere under the sun and had great offensive numbers throughout. Although Harrison hasn’t hit a home run since August, he has hit eight doubles in September and hit a comfortable .327. Harrison has proven he’s reliable bat for Clint Hurdle this year and he won’t do anything differently tonight.

Russell Martin was the big hero in the last wild card game in Pittsburgh with his two bombs that catapulted them into the Division Series. However, when they faced the Cardinals in that series, Martin hit .154 without a single extra-base hit. The catcher had hasn’t been great in the playoffs, batting .212 in 132 career at-bats. Also, Martin only has two additional home runs in his playoff games, so don’t expect him to deliver any long balls off of Bumgarner, especially since he’s never hit one off him. None of this matters if his hamstring doesn’t allow him to play, but we all know Martin wants to be out there more than most and will do his best to power through the pain; hopefully we see him.

Which Pitcher Shows Up?

It will come down to who shows up between Volquez and Bumgarner. The lefty ranks 10th amongst pitchers in nERD (2.01), while Volquez is 55th at 1.70. In every essence, Bumgarner has been a better pitcher the Volquez through 2014.

This is the chance for Bumgarner to cement himself as a top-flight pitcher in the league and is the chance for Volquez to continue his redemption campaign. It will be interesting to see which one comes out on top.