By Andrew Perna
After a lengthy layoff between postseason games, baseball returns on Tuesday night as the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals open the World Series at Kauffman Stadium.
Throughout the playoffs both the Giants and Royals have looked like clubs of destiny, but the time has come to determine who will be remembered as the Major League's best team. Kansas City has won all eight of their postseason games, while San Francisco has been impressive as well in winning eight of their 10 contests.
I’m sure you’ve heard the popular narrative -- Kansas City and San Francisco were both Wild Card entrants and neither won 90 games. The Royals hadn’t even been to the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1985, but they look like seasoned veterans. The Giants, meanwhile, have appeared in the Fall Classic every other year dating back to 2010. Oh by the way, they won it all in 2010 and 2012.
The regular season seems like forever ago and we’ve learned that the team that performs best over 162 games isn’t always best prepared for the playoffs, but clubs rarely change drastically in terms of production. The Giants and Royals both employed middling offenses this year with San Francisco having edges in OPS (.699 to .690), home runs (132 to 95) and runs per game (4.1 to 4.0). As you might expect, Kansas City best San Francisco on the bases with nearly 100 more steals (153 to 56).
How have things changed in October?
The Royals have been the better offensive team in the playoffs with advantages in OPS (.721 to .638), home runs (8 to 5) and runs per game (5.25 to 4.1). It has been more a drastic change in production from Kansas City than any significant change from San Francisco. It's worth noting that the Giants have had to face better pitching in the LDS and LCS rounds. Still, it is impressive the Ned Yost’s club has been able to score 31.25% more runs in the playoffs than they did in the regular season.
Kansas City has swiped 13 bags in their eight playoff games, which is just two fewer than the other nine playoff entrants have totaled combined. Speed will be key in the World Series as Buster Posey and the San Francisco pitching staff will look to keep the Royals in check. Making smart decisions with the baseball and executing key defensive plays will be a top priority for Bruce Bochy and Co., especially after they had a front row seat as the St. Louis Cardinals fumbled multiple times in the NLCS.
It’s unlikely that Posey and his battery mate will keep the Royals entirely contained on the bases, but they have the discipline to keep Yost and his staff from stealing a championship solely with their feet.
The best starting pitcher in the series is Madison Bumgarner, which is a huge advantage for the Giants. James Shields, who carries the nickname “Big Game James” has a reputation that he hasn’t lived up to this month, will oppose Bumgarner in Game 1 and then perhaps again in Game 5 depending on how the first three games shake out.
Bumgarner, the MVP of the NLCS, has a 1.42 ERA, 0.76 WHIP and 28 strikeouts against just five walks in 31.2 playoff innings. If he’s able to dominate in his starts as he has so far, San Francisco will be in great position to win their third title in five years.
Shields, meanwhile, is coming off some mediocre pitching and a passed kidney stone. In 16 innings this postseason, the right-hander has a 5.63 ERA, 1.63 WHIP and 15 strikeouts against five walks. He’s given up more home runs and hits than Bumgarner, who has thrown nearly twice the innings.
The entirely of this World Series will pivot on Bumgarner and Shields. The Royals traded Wil Myers to the Tampa Bay Rays for Wade Davis and Shields, who was supposed to help push them over the edge. Both have helped do so -- Shields was very good and very reliable during the regular season and Davis has been a shutdown reliever -- but “over the edge” now becomes the Promised Land.
Shields doesn’t have to match Bumgarner frame-for-frame, especially with Kansas City’s bullpen lined up in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, but he’ll have to give Yost six quality innings and hope the offense is able to get to Bumgarner, who is averaging nearly eight innings per start in October.
If the Giants aren’t able to win with Bumgarner on the mound, it won’t be surprising if the Royals are able to win a short series. On the other hand, if Bumgarner dominates, San Francisco will be in great position to end Kansas City’s magical run. He’s essentially a 6-foot-5 seesaw.
After Bumgarner-Shields, we’ll see Jake Peavy/Yordano Ventura, Tim Hudson/Jeremy Guthrie and Ryan Vogelsong/Jason Vargas. Those three matchups are impossible to predict. The Giants might have a staff with more experience, but in terms of stuff and recent results the Royals are more than capable of winning on the shoulders of a 23-year-old with a raw shoulder (Ventura) or a 31-year-old with a 4.20 career ERA (Vargas).
The Royals clearly have the more reliable bullpen with the Kelvin Herrera-Davis-Greg Holland combination, but Bochy is a better game manager than Yost and the Royals can’t rely on Herrera-Davis-Holland to continue to dominate in historic ways. There will be at least one game in which Yost will have to decide whether to leave his starter in for the seven or even eighth inning or hand the ball over to the bullpen as he feels most comfortable.
That decision will loom as large as how Bumgarner-Shields shakes out in the first and fifth games. The Giants have a heart of the order -- Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence -- that famously feasts on fastballs.
Kansas City hasn’t lost a game since Sept. 27, but San Francisco has never lost a playoff series with Bochy and Posey. How will the Royals react if they lose a game? Will they panic if that loss comes in Game 1? Can the battle-tested Giants take a few punches from the Royals at an energized Kauffman Stadium and still stay on their feet?
Ultimately, the Giants have Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey, the two best players in the series. Having the best player isn’t the be-all and end-all in playoff baseball (look at how the Royals bested Mike Trout’s Angels and the Orioles topped Miguel Cabrera’s Tigers), but when the two best are comprised of one team’s battery that’s a difference-marker
Prediction: Giants in 6
San Francisco Giants, Kansas City Royals
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
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
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Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals
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.
The Giants made the biggest leap this week, jumping to seventh in our rankings after occupying the 13th spot eight days ago. The Nationals, A's, Dodgers, Angels and Orioles top the list.
The Athletics still have the best record in baseball and top spot on our rankings, followed by the Nationals, Dodgers, Angels and Tigers.
The Angels and Tigers have swapped spots in our weekly Major League rankings as Los Angeles continues to chase Oakland for the best record in baseball.
The A's are first in our rankings for the eighth-straight week, but the Angels are threatening. Oakland leads the AL West by less than two games.
The Athletics continue to dominate, but the Dodgers and Nationals have made up ground in this week's rankings.