Sunday, October 14, 2012

2012 NLCS Preview: Cardinals vs. Giants

The National League Championship Series matches up the last two World Series winners, both of whom were surprise winners at the time. In 2010, the Giants managed to get past the loaded Philadelphia Phillies and went on to knock off a superior Texas Rangers team for the World Series. The Cards also upset the Phillies on their path to the championship, where they too upended the Rangers last year.

Now the two will duke it out for another NL pennant. It's a very tight matchup, closer than I expected before looking at the numbers. The Cardinals are clearly a very deep offensive team, even having lost Albert Pujols they actually scored a few more runs this year (765) than last (762). Carlos Beltran bats 2nd in their lineup and currently has the best career postseason numbers (.375/.488/.817 AVG/OBP/SLG) of any player in history, Babe Ruth et al included. With their middle infielders Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma showing plenty of offensive ability in toppling the Washington Nationals, there really isn't a weak spot in the whole lineup from top to bottom.

It should come as no surprise that the Cardinals led the league in OPS+, an all-encompassing offensive statistic that adjusts for a team's home ballpark. It should come as a big surprise that the Giants actually tied them for the league lead with the same 107 OPS+ (meaning their team as a whole was 7 percent better than the league average). This Giants team can score, it just so happens that they play in a ballpark where the dimensions and chilly Bay Area weather make it hard to hit the ball very far.

Of all the teams in major league baseball, the Giants both hit and allowed the fewest homeruns in their own ballpark this year. Away from home, the Giants were the highest-scoring team in the National League by a wide margin. Problem is they don't have one of their best hitters, Melky Cabrera, who led the league in batting average and was a mainstay in the number three spot in their surprisingly potent lineup. He was suspended for a failed drug test and not added to the postseason roster (a self-destructive attempt to teach him a lesson or save face with the league though it looks strange since they regularly use Guillermo Mota, twice suspended for steroids, out of the bullpen).

The Giants struggled to score in the first few games of their series against the Reds before erupting for 14 runs in their final two games. I do think they'll be able to keep up with the high-scoring Cardinals offense in what should be a series with plenty of runs put up on the board.

Based on reputations and regular season numbers, the Giants would be considered to have the superior starting pitching staff but they scuffled throughout the first round of the playoffs. The Cards' starters also had trouble getting deep into games for the most part and so it's quite possible most of the games in this series will come down to the bullpens.

That's the only point where I can see a clear advantage. The Giants rode a deep bullpen to their 2010 World Championship but now they're without closer Brian Wilson, leaving manager Bruce Bochy to rely on mixing and matching in the late innings. He does have a nice collection of arms at his disposal, especially the thick-bearded frisbee-spinning righty Sergio Romo, and the pen came up huge in their series victory against the Reds. Based on what we've seen the Cardinals do these last two years, though, you can bet they'll present a tougher late-inning challenge than the Reds did.

And if the Cardinal hitters can get a lead late in the game, their bullpen is built for the kill. It is loaded with a massive troop of large, heavily-bearded behemoths who all throw extremely hard with great strikeout numbers and surprisingly few walks.

Neither team is anything special fielding-wise, they're both middle of the pack by most numbers. For the Cardinals, catcher Yadier Molina is among the very best at his position and centerfielder Jon Jay will make a lot of exciting plays. The Giants also boast a superstar catcher behind the plate along with a slick-fielding shortstop in Brandon Crawford.

In every way this is a very close matchup, one I'm very excited about watching, much more so than the AL series. With their ability to come back from pretty much any deficit, the Cardinals should be the favorite but I'm going to pick the Giants based on a nebulous gut feeling. I can't imagine their star pitchers will continue to get knocked around, even by a tough Cardinals lineup. One of Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, or Tim Lincecum will inevitably have a huge game that makes a difference in the series. Other than that, it should be lots of back-and-forth with edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting contests. I'll say Giants in seven but without much confidence.

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