By Andrew Perna
In a battle of two of baseball’s most recently successful franchises, the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals will face off in the 2014 National League Championship Series. The Giants have won it all in each of the last two even-year seasons (2010, 2012), while the Cardinals have appeared in the NLCS in four consecutive years (winning it in the odd years).
If the ALCS between the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals is a battle of new blood, this San Francisco-St. Louis battle is between two blue bloods.
These two teams are very familiar with each other. They faced off seven times in six days that spanned May and June during the regular season (the Giants won four of them) and were opponents in the 2012 NLCS.
San Francisco beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Wild Card game just to get to the divisional round, but St. Louis bested them by just two wins over the course of the season. Statistically, the teams were about as close as you can get.
The Giants hit more home runs (132 to 105), but the Cardinals may have finally woken up offensively during the NLDS. St. Louis clubbed seven home runs in four games against the Los Angeles Dodgers. San Francisco also had the edge in OPS (.699 to .689), but St. Louis was better at getting on base (.320 to .311). The Giants scored 4.1 runs per game against 3.8 for the Cardinals.
In the limited sample size of this postseason, the Cardinals have been a much bigger offensive force. They’ve scored one more run in one fewer game (actually two fewer if you count the 18-inning battle the Giants had with the Washington Nationals) and had a far superior OPS (.746 to .507). Maybe the offense will continue to click as it has in October, as Mike Matheny preached all season long, but it’s more likely that both offenses will look more like they did all year long.
The pitching should be very good in this series with more experienced arms than we will see in the ALCS. The Giants and Cardinals both finished with 3.50 ERAs during the 162-game slate and were nearly identical in terms of batting average against (.241 for San Francisco, .242 for St. Louis) quality starts (91 to 86 in favor of the Cardinals) and strikeouts per nine innings (7.59 to 7.52, also in favor of the Cardinals).
San Francisco has enjoyed tremendous work from their staff in the postseason -- a 1.33 ERA, 49 strikeouts, just 13 walks and .157 BAA in 54 innings. St. Louis hasn’t pitched quite as well (3.86 ERA, 3.0 K/BB ratio and .285 BAA in 35 innings), but the sample size is small (once again).
It sounds incredibly cliché, but this series will be won by the club that gets the timely hit, the big shutdown outing from a starter and a key out from a reliever. The stage won’t be too bright for either team, they’ll both be well managed (edge to Bruce Bochy) and they matchup very evenly. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see either team advance and go on to win the World Series, but only one of them can.
The Cardinals haven’t missed a beat after trading Allen Craig, who occupied the middle of their lineup, and the added depth of John Lackey in the rotation has built them for postseason success. However, there is too much uncertainly surrounding Adam Wainwright’s health and Madison Bumgarner (and to a lesser extent Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy) has looked too good lately for the Giants not to win.
Prediction: Giants in 6
San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals
By Andrew Perna
If the weather allows, the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals will kick off the 2014 American League Championship Series on Friday night at Camden Yards. Neither team made the playoffs last season and both teams have endured lengthy championship droughts -- Kansas City last winning it all in 1985 and Baltimore in 1983.
Contrary to what we will see in the National League Championship Series, which pits the San Francisco Giants against the St. Louis Cardinals, the ALCS represents new blood in October.
The Royals and Orioles faced off seven times during the regular season with K.C. winning four of the head-to-head battles. Unfortunately for prognosticators, all of those games occurred before the middle of May.
Baltimore (96-66) was seven games better than Kansas City (89-73) over the course of 162 games, but as we’ve come to realize that doesn’t mean much this time of year. Both clubs are coming off a sweep in the divisional round with the Royals dominating the top-seeded Los Angeles Angels, who win 98 games but scored just six total runs over three playoff games.
Looking at each team statistically, the Orioles, as you might expect appear to come out on top. They rated higher in terms of OPS (.734 to .690) and home runs (211 to 95), but the Royals made better contact (.263 to .256 in batting average) and got on-base at a slightly higher rate (.314 to .311). Baltimore hopes to do damage once they get on base, by way of the stolen base. Buck Showalter is undoubtedly prepared for Kansas City’s speed attack, while Ned Yost will have to instruct his pitchers to avoid the favorite zones of Baltimore’s power hitters.
Power is where these two teams differ most. The Orioles led all of baseball in home runs. The Royals ranked dead last. Through the first round -- Kansas City played one extra game -- they each clubbed four long balls. Historically, relying on home runs hasn’t led to postseason success (see the recent playoff runs of the New York Yankees), but it’s also all about getting hot at the right time.
The Orioles had the better pitching staff in the regular season, topping the Royals in ERA (3.43 to 3.51) and opponent batting average (.244 to .250), but Kansas City was slightly better in strikeouts per nine innings (7.25 to 7.23) and got more length from their starters (95 quality starts to just 78).
It’s an obvious advantage when a starting pitcher goes deep into a game, especially in the postseason when bullpens get taxed easily, but Showalter isn’t afraid of playing matchups early and often. Both teams have very strong bullpen staffs, but Showalter has famously shown better decision-making during his tenure than Yost has to this point.
The 2014 postseason hasn’t gone according to script through the first week, so there is no reason to believe that it suddenly will fall in line, but the expectation is that the Royals will try to win with small ball and the Orioles with blasts into the seats. That is how each team got into the playoffs, even if Kansas City stole a page from Baltimore’s book in their sweep of Los Angeles.
One narrative surrounding this series is the inexperience and pluck of the young Royals, who hadn’t even been to the playoffs since long before most of their everyday players were born. That’s a very shallow angle. The Orioles haven’t been this far with their current core, they also lack a clear-cut ace (who is the best starter in the series – is it definitely James Shields?) and will be relying on some young players.
The Orioles are the deeper team, better one through nine, even with Chris Davis (five games left on his suspension) off the NLCS roster and Matt Wieters and Manny Machado sidelined for most of the season. They’ve weathered all three of those storms thanks to their depth and the leadership of Showalter.
Those factors will give Baltimore enough to advance to the World Series and end Kansas City’s mystical run.
Prediction: Orioles in 6
Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals
By Andrew Perna
The San Francisco Giants topped the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday night, setting the National League playoff field by winning the Wild Card game. The division series kick off on Friday with the Giants facing the Washington Nationals on the East Coast and St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers playing on the West Coast.
Giants vs. Nationals
The Nationals are hosting this series as the top seed in the NL, but the Giants clearly believe they are the favorites. It's hard to count San Francisco out, especially since they have won the World Series in each of the last two even-number years, but Tim Hudson's comments about Washington's … uh ... intestinal fortitude are unfounded.
Washington was eight wins better than San Francisco in the regular season and the NL East champs took five of the seven head-to-head matchups in 2014. The Nationals bested the Giants in several offensive categories -- OPS (.714 to .699), home runs (152 to 132) and runs per game (4.2 to 4.1).
That advantage extended to the mound, where Matt Williams had one of the best staffs in the Major Leagues. The Nationals had the lowest ERA (3.03) in baseball, while the Giants (3.50) ranked tenth. Williams also got incredible length from his starters. Only the Atlanta Braves recorded more quality starts than the Nationals (106). Washington edged San Francisco in strikeouts-per-nine (7.88 to 7.52) and has the deeper staff.
San Francisco needed Madison Bumgarner to beat the Pirates, so we won't see him until Game 3. That tilts the early momentum towards the Nationals, who will trot out (in order) Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister. Strasburg has been incredible in the second half, Zimmermann is coming off a no-hitter and Fister posted the best season of his career (16-6, 2.41 ERA and 1.08 WHIP).
Bruce Bochy will counter with Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson and Bumgarner. The trio is more than capable of shutting down an offense in October, but they don't have the same firepower as Washington's trio of starters.
The two clubs have a combined seven players among the NL's top-40 in terms of WAR this season. Tops among those was Anthony Rendon (6.5), Washington's second baseman, who ranked second only to Jonathan Lucroy (6.7) among positional players.
San Francisco scored two or fewer runs in four of the seven games they played against Washington this season. They simply won't have the offensive firepower to win their third World Series title in five years.
Prediction: Nationals in 5
Cardinals vs. Dodgers
Clayton Kershaw really doesn't have anything to prove as he nears yet another Cy Young award, but his Game 1 matchup against Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals just might be the biggest start of his already storied career. The left-hander, who just completed one of the best statistical seasons ever for a pitcher, has a 4.23 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 1-3 record in 38.1 postseason innings.
Kershaw may be the central theme of the series, but in truth the Dodgers can advance to the NLCS even if they fall in one of his starts. That's because they have Zack Greinke coming in Game 2 (and potentially Game 5) and an offense that is significantly better than that of the Cardinals.
L.A's offense isn't just superior, it's also red-hot right now. The Dodgers edged the Cardinals in OPS (.738 to .689), home runs (134 to 105) and runs per game (4.4 to 3.8). Mike Matheny's troops will have to scrap more than a few runs against the likes of Kershaw and Greinke to win.
L.A.'s pitching staff is a bit top-heavy, but in a short series the cream of the crop will start four games. Kershaw (1.77) and Greinke (2.71) are tremendous, but overall the club had a 3.50 ERA. St. Louis wasn't far behind with a 3.40 ERA, but after Wainwright it'll be Lance Lynn, John Lackey and Shelby Miller. Only Lackey has a history of postseason success.
Most of us said the same thing less than a year ago, but it's hard to envision the Dodgers losing a series against this Cardinals team with Kershaw and Greinke fronting the rotation.
Prediction: Dodgers in 4
Follow @RealGMBaseball on Twitter and 'Like Us' on Facebook!
Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals
In his first playoff appearance, Mike Trout will help lead the Angels over the Royals. How will the Tigers-Orioles shake out?
In the final edition of our OPSERA rankings for the 2014 season, eight playoff teams fall in the top 10 with the Nationals, Dodgers and Orioles at the top.
Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Drew Hutchison, Anthony Gose and Kevin Pillar haven't guided the Blue Jays to the playoffs, but they have provided a light at the end of the tunnel in Toronto.
The Orioles took an $8 million gamble on Nelson Cruz and they've been rewarded with 39 home runs and the third spot in our rankings this week.
As the Athletics lose their grip on a playoff spot in the American League, the Mariners are moving up thanks to Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager.
New York spent $503 million this past offseason and Jacoby Ellsbury's $153 million deal seemed the most exorbitant. Almost a full season later, the Yankees would be lost without him.