NLCS Preview: Can the Cardinals Break the Giants' Even-Year Run?
Y'all knew this would happen, right? That the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals would inevitably pull off the upset and end up in the National League Championship Series again?
Cool, because I had no freaking idea.
Entering the Divisional round, the Cardinals had only a 37.43 percent chance of advancing. The Giants only had a 50.33 percent chance of making it out of the Wild Card play-in and a 43.82 percent chance of beating the Nationals. Favorites, algorithms, logic be damned! It's October, and October hates your insistence on sensibility.
Let's take a look at the series and break this puppy down to see if we can't decipher what will transpire over the next few games. Given how the playoffs have gone so far, expect every word beneath here to be proven wrong within a few plate appearances.
How the Cardinals Got Here
Entering the playoffs, the Los Angeles Dodgers led numberFire's Power Rankings. The Cardinals were 13th. So of course St. Louis won.
Any time you face Clayton Kershaw twice in a best-of-five series, the odds are not in your favor. But the Cardinals blasted their way through the round by displaying power they hadn't shown the entire season.
In the regular season, the Cardinals hit 105 home runs in 6,086 plate appearances, a 57.96 plate-appearance-per-home-run rate. In the Divisional Series, the Cards bombed seven homers in 138 plate appearances, a rate of 19.71 plate-appearances-per-home-run. Obviously the biggest catalyst of this turn-around was Matt Carpenter.
Carpenter is a very good baseball player. His .375 on-base percentage is something any team should search for in their lead-off guy. He just doesn't have a ton of pop, usually. His .103 isolated power rating this year ranked 22nd of 24 qualified third basemen, ahead of only CJ1B and Singles McGehee.
Prior to Game 1, Carpenter had only one home run since August 17th. To take both Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu in the same series while homering in three consecutive games is unfathomable. It wasn't Trout, Yasiel Puig or Miguel Cabrera that became "that guy" and carried their team to the second round; it was Carpenter. Just like we all thought.
But he didn't do it alone, obviously. The pitching staff picked up Adam Wainwright after a tough Game 1 and allowed only six total runs in the final three. The bullpen allowed only 1 of those 6 runs over their 7.1 innings pitched, with that run being the Matt Kemp winner in Game 2. The relievers, combined with the new-found ability to mash, put the Cards where they are now.
How the Giants Got Here
It's a bit less surprising to see the Giants here than the Cardinals. They entered post-season play as the seventh-ranked team in our power rankings, and the Pittsburgh Pirates were fifth with the Washington Nationals fourth. The Giants were slight favorites to make it past the Wild Card round (largely because of Madison Bumgarner) and had a 43.82 percent chance of beating the Nats.
Obviously MadBum was dominant in the Wild Card game with his four-hit shutout, but then there was the throwing error in the Divisional Series. It still wasn't a bad game by Bumgarner as he allowed three runs (two earned) over seven innings, but Doug Fister was just too good. That's encouraging that the Giants were still able to pull out the series without that guaranteed 'W' when Bumgarner started.
A big part of the reason they were able to come out on top still is that the other starters were silly. Even though they didn't necessarily pitch deep into ballgames, none of the other three starters allowed multiple runs. Over 18.2 innings pitched, Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong had a combined 0.96 ERA.
Offensively, the Giants did not follow the model of the Cardinals. They only had one home run in the Divisional Series, and it was a solo shot. Of course there was the obviously minor game-breaking grand slam by Brandon Crawford against the Pirates, but after that, there wasn't a whole lot of pop. In fact, they only had six extra-base hits in the proceeding four games. But they were able to hit just enough to pull out three one-run victories.
Keys to Victory for the Cardinals
If the Cardinals want to take this series, they need to get to the San Francisco bullpen as soon as possible. Although the Giants' relievers had only a 3.01 ERA during the regular season, they had the third-lowest Wins Above Replacement (WAR) on Fangraphs for the season. They didn't strike out a lot of guys, and opposing batters had an unsustainably-low .256 batting average on balls in play (BABIP).
That over-performance finally regressed in the NLDS.
The Giants' pen allowed at least a run in every game except for one; of course, that was the 18-inning affair where they allowed two hits in 10.2 innings. You could say that was an okay performance, I guess. But the other games have to make you worry at least a little bit.
Over their other 8.2 innings, the bullpen had a 4.15 ERA. This is a small sample size, but it's one that's backed up by what the numbers said would happen during the regular season. The Cards need to get the starters out of the game as soon as possible. The best way to do so is by accomplishing the second key.
What the Cardinals need to do to get past the Giants is just flood the basepaths. This is something they did well during the regular season, finishing fifth in the N.L. in on-base percentage. It's hard to count on the power onslaught the Cards experienced against the Dodgers, so getting as many guys on as possible is the best way to counteract that.
Once they do, let those with high slugging percentages like Jhonny Peralta, Matt Holliday and Matt Adams drive them home. They were the only 3 players with slugging percentages above .400, but each of them was north of .440. They just need someone to bring home. That all starts with just getting on base, making those starters throw an excess of pitches, and forcing Bruce Bochy to go the questionable bullpen.
Keys to Victory for the Giants
The Giants' keys may be a bit more complex and scientific than "get to the bullpen" and "flood the basepaths." They need to clone Buster Posey. Anything short of that exhibits a total lack of effort.
Posey picked up where he left off at the end of the regular season. He has hit .391 with a .440 on-base percentage so far in the playoffs. This is not a shock, considering he was back in MVP form the last two months of the year. But now they need two Buster Poseys hitting in front of him to set the table.
The sum of the on-base percentages of the two guys ahead of Posey, Gregor Blanco and Joe Panik, was just .450 - barely larger than Posey's .440 mark. Blanco had a .333 on-base percentage in the regular season, and Panik was at .343. They will need to be around those marks to give Posey chances to drive in some runners. And they are going to need those runs.
With the Giants, the rotation scares me a bit. The aforementioned Peavy, Hudson and Vogelsong, who pitched so well in the Divisional Series, are a combined 109 years old. This would be largely irrelevant if it weren't for the struggles these three guys have had once they get past the fifth inning.
Tim Hudson allowed 15 earned runs in his 20.2 innings he has thrown in the 6th this year for an ERA of 6.53. Vogelsong has a 7.40 ERA in the same number of innings. Peavy has a 3.21 ERA in the 6th, but that follows a 5th inning in which he has a 5.17 ERA and precedes the 7th where his ERA spikes to 7.62.
With the bullpen issues I talked about earlier, that would scare me if I were a Giants fan once it got past Bumgarner. The Giants, even with their bullpen struggles, need to be quick on the trigger. If that means bringing in Yusmeiro Petit in the fifth, great. I'd much rather see a fresh version of him out there than a gassed Voggy.
With all things taken into account, numberFire's projections give the Giants a 55.07 percent chance of taking the series. Assuming the top of the order gets in order to set the table for Posey and Hunter Pence, then this is the way that I would lean as well.
At the same time, this does leave 44.93 percent odds that the Cardinals will pull off the improbable again. There is a 31.29 percent chance that the game goes seven games, which is one cause which we can all get behind.