Thursday, October 3, 2013

Tight matches on deck for NL playoffs

The divisional round of playoffs in the National League stands to be among the most even ever. One pits two easy division winners against each other, and the other will decide, once for all, which National League Central club can claim the best outcome.

Hanley Ramirez was the key hitter for the Dodgers during their surge to the National League West championship (Keith Allison/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Generic 2.0 license).

Big Leagues in Los Angeles

The divisional round of playoffs in the National League stands to be as even as any such round that we have seen since expanded playoffs began in 1995, and that is kind of a mouthful, considering that each divisional series in the NL went the maximum five games just last year.

The difference is that such parity was unexpected last year. For instance, form pegged the Washington Nationals, who finished 2012 with the league's best record, to bounce the St. Louis Cardinals, who entered as the second wildcard and finished the regular season ten games worse. It didn't work out that way. The Cardinals know how to win in October, and they took it in five.

This time, the Cardinals are the top entrant, and they get to face the wildcard survivor. Vis-à-vis the Cardinals, however, the wildcard Pittsburgh Pirates aren't merely survivors. They are living, formidable adversaries who went to the final week of the regular season challenging the Cardinals for the National League Central title. Now, they meet in an extension and dénouement of the best divisional race across Major League Baseball this season.

And that's not even the better divisional series. The Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers will meet in a clash of divisional champions who prevailed easily and have waited on this moment for nearly a month. While the Pirates and Cardinals have fired their guns for the last three weeks, the Braves and Dodgers have cleaned and polished theirs. The Braves and Dodgers are fortunate to face each other instead of opponents conditioned by tense playoff races.

The difference between the Braves and Dodgers right now is the sense in which we know each club. The Braves, we know rather well. The Dodgers, as always this season, are mysterious.

The Braves will pitch, they will hit home runs, they will walk and they will strike out. They led the National League this season in ERA (3.18) and home runs (181), tied for the NL lead in striking out (1,384, with the New York Mets) and finished second in walks (542, behind 585 by the Cincinnati Reds). They're the team Earl Weaver would have loved: pitching, defense and three-run homers.

Defense? By the numbers, the Braves were third in NL defensive efficiency (.700) and second in zone fielding runs above average (63). Shortstop Andrelton Simmons led the NL in defensive WAR at 5.4 (per, while outfielders Jason Heyward (1.4) and B.J. Upton (0.3), and catcher Brian McCann (0.3) also were plus players defensively, according to WAR.

With Upton batting so poorly this year (.557 OPS), Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez switched up the lineup, moving Justin Upton from left field to right, moving Heyward from right to center and putting Evan Gattis and his 21 homers in left. The Braves also are going without second baseman Dan Uggla, who struggled all year and is left off the postseason roster.

Third baseman Chris Johnson (.321) and first baseman Freddie Freeman (.319) finished second and third in NL batting average. Freeman is the big bopper in this lineup with 109 RBI and an .897 OPS.

The Braves went to this season with Tim Hudson as their ace, but he is injured now. Regardless, the Braves are strong at the top of their rotation and in the back of their bullpen. The top starting pitchers are Kris Medlen (15-12, 3.11 ERA), Mike Minor (13-9, 3.21) and Julio Teheran (14-8, 3.20). Closer Craig Kimbrel led the NL in saves for the third straight year, hitting a career high of 50 saves.

Gonzalez did a skillful job with the Braves, dealing with the tanking of Uggla and B.J. Upton, along with season-ending injuries to Hudson and relievers Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters. He made all the right moves with the lineup. Once he fills out the lineup card, he lets them play. Only three NL clubs tried fewer steals than the Braves at 95 (they made 64), and he bunts an average amount.

However, Gonzalez may be mistaken for leaving left-handed pitchers Paul Maholm and Scott Downs off the roster for this series. Even when the Dodgers were on their 42-8 run, a left-hander as good as Maholm or Downs could cut them down. Especially with Matt Kemp off their roster, the Dodgers are vulnerable to left-handers. Among the key Dodgers hitters, Carl Crawford (.210 against left-handers), A.J. Ellis (.193), Andre Ethier (.221), Juan Uribe (.237), Jerry Hairston (.179) and Michael Young (.257) all are 30 points or more worse against left-handed pitching, and only rookie Yasiel Puig, among the key batters, is significantly better against lefties.

The Dodgers were 30-42 through June 21, then they hit that 42-8 streak, then they were 20-20 the rest of the way. It is true that most winning teams have two or three good runs of six weeks that account for how many more they win than lose during the course of the season, but 42-8 is a freak occurrence. We haven't seen it in more than 70 years. So, it is hard to go into the playoffs thinking the Dodgers are that 42-8 team.

And it is especially hard considering that Puig, one of the key figures during 42-8, hasn't been such a phenomenon since then. During the Dodgers' 20-20 finish, Puig batted .235 (31 for 132). With Kemp out for the postseason and Ethier probably limited to a pinch-hitting role during this round of games, the Dodgers are a $220 million payroll that's putting Skip Schumaker in center field and a .235 hitter who might do something silly in right field.

Before, during and after 42-8, the engine of this Dodgers team was the front three in their starting rotation: Clayton Kershaw (16-9, 1.83), Zack Greinke (15-4, 2.63) and Hyun-jin Ryu (14-8, 3.00). If these fellows make their pitches, no one is beating them. They'll strike out a dozen hitters in every game and win the series easily. Dodgers pitchers were second in the NL in strikeouts (1,292), so they match up well against Braves batters who struck out as much as any in the league. But if Dodgers pitchers are just a little off, the Braves hitters will make them pay, and the Braves have enough pitching to make that stand up.

For all of their star power offensively, the Dodgers didn't add up to the sum of their parts. Among NL teams, they were third in batting average (.264), third in on-base percentage (.326) and fourth in OPS (.722), but only seventh in runs (649). Of all the offensive players the Dodgers picked up during their celebrated shopping spree last summer, the only real star right now is shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who is every bit the hitter he was when he was as an MVP candidate in 2009. Ramirez batted .345 this year with a 1.040 OPS, and he was just as good with pitches coming from either side.

But Ramirez is long from being a Gold Glover at short. In fact, the whole left side of the Dodgers defense has never been good this season, and it stands to be a serious problem in a postseason context. The Dodgers will not beat any good teams in any games that depend on them playing balls hit towards left field. Fortunately for the Dodgers, most of Atlanta's key hitters -- particularly McCann, Freeman and Heyward -- are left-handed bats not known for staying inside the ball and hitting the other way.

The Dodgers will go as far in this series as their starting pitchers take them. The Braves are the better pick here, because they are stronger all around. But if your pitching  is better, the rest doesn't matter, and the Dodgers have the better chance of having better pitching.

Over in the NL Central series, the Pirates are the sentimental favorite and the Cardinals are the team that has had it too good for too long, which makes the Cardinals rather a prohibitive favorite. The Cardinals have won five rounds of playoffs in the last two years. They know what they are doing here. They also won the struggle with the Pirates and Reds for the NL Central title this year.

Even with Allen Craig likely to miss the entire postseason with a foot injury, the Cardinals have the deepest batting order of all the teams remaining across the major leagues. Almost everyone on this team hits. Sadly, almost no one on this team catches the ball. Consider that catcher Yadier Molina (2.1 defensive WAR), shortstop Pete Kozma (1.3) and second baseman Matt Carpenter (0.3) all are plus performers on defense by that metric. Yet, the Cardinals added up to -5.3 defensive WAR.

If the Pirates can pitch and not hit the ball too much up the middle, they will have a puncher's chance. And they do have a certain magic. Many commentators at PNC Park for the Pirates' wildcard win against the Reds say the crowd had an unmistakable effect. A lot of juice runs through that club right now. The Pirates just finished their first winning season in 21 years and Pittsburgh's NFL team is in the tank, so the baseball club is taking on a lot of good will.

We also know that the Pirates can pitch, finishing third in the NL with a 3.27 staff ERA. And their center fielder, Andrew McCutchen, is the best player still standing across the major leagues with his 8.2 WAR in 2013. While we're looking for reasons to like the Pirates, consider that they're not really the same offensive team that finished eighth in NL OPS (.709) or ninth in runs (634) since they added Marlon Byrd in August.

At least they shouldn't be that same club. Here's what's funny about the addition of Byrd, who replaced a succession of weaker bats in right field. After the Pirates picked him up, he batted .318 and an .843 OPS in 30 games. And the Pirates still batted only .238 in September, and they had the same .709 OPS in September that they had for the whole season. So, where would the Pirates be without him? And is there a chance that additional games in the postseason will give the Pittsburgh offense time to register growth?

Against the Cardinals, maybe not. Turns out that two frequent right fielders for the Pirates pre-Byrd -- Garrett Jones and Jose Tabata -- hit pretty well this year against St. Louis. Tabata batted .378 (17 for 45) with a 1.005 OPS, while Jones batted .321 (17 for 53) with three homers and a .995 OPS. Against the Cardinals this year, Byrd batted .333 (11 for 33) with three homers and a 1.088 OPS. We shouldn't be too surprised if Jones often gets the nod over newly acquired Justin Morneau at first base in this series. Putting Tabata's bat into these lineups will be more difficult.

The Cardinals did not jack up Pittsburgh pitching this year, batting .248 with a .658 OPS and only five homers in 19 games. In fact, half of their batting order was pretty weak against the Pirates in 2013. David Freese batted .154 (eight for 52) with a .555 OPS, Yadier Molina batted .173 (nine for 52) with a .496 OPS, Matt Adams batted .133 (four for 33) with a .345 OPS and Kozma batted .175 (10 for 57) with a .482 OPS.

But the Pirates should beware of Jon Jay, who batted .400 (24 for 60) with a .964 OPS against them this season. Other Pirate killers in the St. Louis lineup this year were Carlos Beltran, who bashed them for .297 (19 for 64) with an .836 OPS, and Matt Holliday, who hit Pittsburgh for .342 (26 for 76) and an .813 OPS.

Individual St. Louis pitchers also were decidedly mixed in their results this year against the Pirates. Adam Wainwright made three starts and covered 21 innings with a 3.00 ERA. Joe Kelly pitched 21 1/3 innings with a 2.53 ERA against the Pirates. But Jake Westbrook, Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn all appeared in at least three games this year against Pittsburgh, and all of them resulted in ERA readings above 5.00.

The Cardinals led the NL in scoring (783 runs) despite eschewing two of the best known techniques for scoring -- the home run and the stolen base. Among NL clubs, the Cardinals were 13th in homers (125), and they stole the fewest bases (45) in the fewest stolen base attempts (67). The secret, of course, is that they keep the line moving. The Cardinals led the NL in on-base percentage (.342) and they had the second fewest strikeouts (14).

And there is this indisputable point that is somehow controversial: The Cardinals hit like no one else with runners in scoring position and two out (two-out RISP). The controversy, of course, bears on whether clutch hitting, like hitting homers or reaching base or stealing bases or not striking out, is a repeatable skill. Research suggests that it isn't.

And if it isn't, then it's fair to expect that the Cardinals won't keep doing it as they have all season, that their clutch hitting is fundamentally lucky and their luck could run out an any time. With a week left in the regular season, we wondered aloud if their luck were about to expire.

But it certainly didn't expire during that final week, when, with two-out RISP, the Cardinals raised their batting average .301 to .305, raised their OPS from .813 to .821 and scored 17 runs in six games.

It is the nature of the question, though, that it remains. And the answer stands to have much influence on who advances from their series with the Pirates.

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