NLDS Series Preview: It’s…Braves Inside?
Coming down from the high of the events that unfolded over the weekend is no small task, but I’m going to do my best here. With Game 1 against a formidable Atlanta Braves team fast approaching, it’s time we did some much needed roster speculation, as well as size up our competition.
Before I go on though, it should be noted that across the board, the experts have picked the Giants to take this series, and quite frankly, this terrifies me. As a baseball fan, it’s hard not to be superstitious. Back in 2003, the Giants played some team from south Florida with a tiny payroll and Todd Hollandsworth manning left field. Next thing we knew, J.T. Snow was thrown out trying to score from second on a single and the team that had one the West wire-to-wire was sent home with their heads hanging low.
Using the past as a cautionary tale and this season’s torture as a reference point, it’s hard not to be highly suspicious that this series will come down to a very stressful 5th game. The Giants will cruise through two 1-0 wins at home, and then lose two mind-bendingly painful games in Atlanta, sending the series back home for a nerve-wracking final game. Believe what you want, but if you tell yourself anything less, you’ll know in your heart of hearts that you suffer from a serious case of denial.
So how do these two teams measure up? Let’s observe.
The obvious newspaper fodder for this series is going to be the Buster Posey vs. Jason Heyward debate. To be fair, there is a certain amount of poetic justice in the two perennial Rookie of the Year candidates squaring off in the first round of the postseason. Putting that aside though, there are other factors to be taken into consideration. First and foremost, this series is going to come down to which team’s offense sucks the least.
Neither the Braves nor the Giants are strong hitting teams with above average pitchers, and as such it’s reasonable to say there will be a fair amount of weak grounders to the pull field, strikeouts on sliders in the dirt, and double plays by Jose Guillen in key situations. So who has the edge? It’s tempting to give it to the Braves just because they don’t have a manager determined to pencil Jose Guillen into the lineup every day. Even so though, the Giants’ propensity for the long ball puts them a step ahead of a Braves squad who past Jason Heyward and Brian McCann, don’t have a whole lot weapons at the plate.
At first glance, the Giants defense would seem to be, for lack of a better term, slow. Amongst the group of Pat Burrell, Jose Guillen, Pablo Sandoval, and Juan Uribe, to the naked eye, we have a group of clank-mitts manning the diamond on a daily basis. Popular defensive metrics as researched by Joe Lemire of Sports Illustrated tell a different story:
The Giants had the majors’ second-best defense, according to Baseball Prospectus’ Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, while the Braves were No. 13. San Francisco has no defensive weakness, only varying degrees of glove grandeur, from the slightly above-average (Juan Uribe’s 0.8 Ultimate Zone Rating at shortstop) to the exceptional: first baseman Aubrey Huff, left fielder Pat Burrell, second baseman Freddy Sanchez, right fielder Nate Schierholtz and Andres Torres at all three outfield positions have an UZR of at least 5.1.
If you’re jaw’s on the floor right now, take solace in the fact that most other fans who watch this team on a daily basis are probably right there with you. The defensive brilliance of Freddy Sanchez, Andres Torres, and Nate Schierholtz doesn’t come as any big surprise to anyone. But Pat Burrell, the man who’s frequently double-switched out by the 6th inning, has apparently been a more than adequate left fielder this season. All this being so leads one to believe that the Giants have an enormous advantage when it comes to catching the ball, typically something that is complemented well by a lights-out pitching staff.
If there’s one place where the Braves are dangerously close to the Giants’ skill level, it’s within its pitching staff. It should be no surprise that a team that featured the Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz rotation in the playoffs for so many years is once again home to a stable of high quality arms.
So now that I’ve got you scared of the next coming of possibly the most fearsome pitching trio in the modern era, it’s time to quell these fears I’ve instilled with one simple fact: their arms are tired. Both Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson had their highest innings-pitched totals in September (44 IP and 7 games each), with Hudson having gone on 3 days rest in the last series of the season against the Phillies.
With two of their three best pitchers beginning to hit their ceiling in innings, the Braves don’t have a whole lot to offer in terms of a fourth starter. Between Jair Jurrjens, who rumor has it will be left off of the NLDS roster, and Mike Minor (.314/.353/.527 opponents’ slash line), there isn’t a whole lot of relief to be found for an overworked starting staff.
The Giants are a bit of a different story. None of their “big 3″ (Lincecum/Cain/Sanchez) threw a season high innings-pitched number in September, but all have been accumulated a lot of pitches throughout the course of the season. Cain and Lincecum are storied workhorses who have consistently shouldered high pitch-counts with little to adverse effect, discounting Lincecum’s god-awful August. Sanchez has shown a propensity for getting tired, but showed no evidence in his six September/October starts.
Which leaves the big question of the Giants’ fourth man. Much has been discussed of the Barry Zito vs. Madison Bumgarner debate, but when it comes down to it, the facts show us that Bumgarner has simply been the better pitcher by far. After Zito’s uninspiring performance in his final start against the Padres, he might be relegated to long-relief duty, or the most expensive guy left off of a playoff roster in recent memory.
If after this season you found yourself sick to your stomach of the Padres endless supply of slider-throwing bullpen aces, that queasiness is not likely to settle during this series. In terms of bullpen ERA in the NL this season, the Padres were first, the Giants were second, and the Braves were a close third. They possess that rare ability to shorten a game by three innings with a slew of relievers who can come in and make opposing hitters look silly.
The silver-lining to all this is that two key members of the Braves relief corps, Takashi Saito (11.5 K/9, 1.07 WHIP, 4.06 K/BB) and Eric O’Flaherty (7.4 K/9, 1.25 WHIP, 2.00 K/BB), are both injured and will not be on Atlanta’s NLDS roster. Compare this to a very healthy and very potent Giants bullpen, as well as the fact that Brian Wilson has proven he has the ability to get the 5-out save, and suddenly things swing slightly in the Giants favor. Our fearsome bearded relief force will be a key in getting the Giants through this series still intact.
Winning a postseason series is never easy. In 2002, the Giants beat the Braves in 5 games without home field advantage, and there’s no reason to think the Braves can’t do something similar to us now that we’re playing three of five at the Phone Booth. If there’s one thing that’s just a little comforting though, it’s the fact that the Braves were pretty terrible on the road this season, sporting a 35-46 record away from Turner Field. On the other side of the coin, they were also the National League’s best home team (56-25), so go figure.
For the time being, ignore the analysts whispering sweet nothings about the Giants being the favorites in this series. If you’ve learned anything from the 2010 season, it’s that the Giants will never make it look easy. Thankfully, that’s accompanied with a fair amount of winning to complement the ulcers, so let’s hope that lovely balance lasts through the postseason.