By Andrew Perna
Less than 48 hours after the inaugural Wild Card playoff games set the final two divisional series matchups, the Nationals and Yankees will face off against the Cardinals and Orioles, respectively.
The quartet will join the party started by the Athletics-Tigers and Reds-Giants a day earlier, when Detroit and Cincinnati took early leads in the race towards the Fall Classic.
Nationals vs. Cardinals
The defending-champion Cardinals will have their hands full after dispatching of the Braves for the right to play the Nationals in this NLDS. Washington's precious pitching staff is still strong despite the shelving of Stephen Strasburg. They had the lowest ERA (3.33) of all playoff entrants in the regular season and were fourth in strikeouts with 8.17 per game.
If patient, the Nationals are inclined to walk a batter or two. They ranked tenth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.67), thanks to the highest walk of all playoff teams.
St. Louis may not have the arms that Washington does, but they have experience and a very good staff. They finished 2012 with the eighth-best ERA (3.71) despite finishing in the middle-of-the-pack in strikeouts and batting average against.
How you might ask? Only four teams issued fewer walks than the Cardinals, who averaged 2.79 K/BB – a rate higher than the flame-throwing Nationals. Both pitching staffs should benefit from the tightening of rotations in the playoffs and crossing home plate should be a rarity.
The Cardinals appear to be more comfortable than the Nationals in a high-scoring affair. They scored 4.72 runs per game to Washington's 4.51 over 162 games. Be it a blessing or a curse, the Nationals possess more power at the plate. They hit 36 more home runs in the regular season and had a slight edge in slugging (.428 to .421).
However, the Cardinals are built to rally with the highest on-base percentage (.338) in all of baseball under first-year manager Mike Matheny. The Nationals ranked twelfth (.322).
In the end, it may come down to who is more composed at the plate. The Nationals haven't been to the playoffs since they were the Expos, while the Cardinals are still the current champions. The contrast in experience will be a huge storyline throughout the series.
Bryce Harper may be only one player, but the 19-year-old wasn't intimidated by St. Louis during the regular season. He hit .429/.484/.750 with two home runs in 28 at-bats against the Cardinals.
Prediction: Nationals In Five
Yankees vs. Orioles
The new playoff format has yielded an inter-divisional matchup between an annual American League East power and a resurgent one. After battling over six months for the division title, the Yankees and Orioles will fight for the right to play in the ALCS against either the Tigers or Athletics.
New York scored 92 more runs than Baltimore, who managed to get into the postseason despite an unimpressive +7 run differential. Six teams that failed to qualify for the dance had a higher differential, not including the Phillies (+4), who were 17 games back of first place in the NL East. The Yankees (.265/.337/.453) were better than the Orioles (.247/.311/.417) across the board, but Buck Showalter's club has a knack for timely hitting and ranked second only to their rival in home runs.
The issue for Baltimore will be if their aggressive offensive approach yields a hot streak at the most important time. Only five teams struck out more in 2012 and they ranked sixteenth in walks drawn. The Yankees weren't above-average on the bases either, although they had Ichiro for just two months, but the Orioles finished the regular season with the fewest stolen bases (58) in the game. Both clubs ranked in the bottom half of the Major Leagues in sacrifices. This series will showcase American League baseball at its finest.
The winner of this series will be the one that sends the most balls into the bleachers.
In terms of pitching, the Yankees and Orioles were remarkably similar in several key statistics but New York has the edge in a growing trend. They featured similar ERAs (3.85 for Yankees, 3.90 for Orioles) and BAA (.253 to .252), but Joe Girardi's staff racked up 141 more strikeouts (nearly one per game) than Baltimore. As teams attack more at the plate, the ability to get batters to swing-and-miss has become more important.
As division rivals they have seen plenty of each other already this year, splitting 18 games as the Yankees used just a one-game advantage to grab the AL East and avoid playing the Rangers in the one-game Wild Card battle.
Conventional wisdom suggests the Yankees (equipped with Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte) are more prepared for October baseball than the likes of Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds, but the Orioles have been anything but predictable this season. The outcome of the series will hinge on whether Baltimore continues to defy statistics or if things that tend to regress, like late-game hitting and wins in close games, and move towards the mean.
Prediction: Yankees In Four
Washington Nationals, New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals