Saturday, October 11, 2014

NLCS: Cardinals over Giants

Managers Bruce Bochy & Mike Matheny meet again in NLCS
For the last four years, either the Saint Louis Cardinals (2011, 2013) or the San Francisco Giants (2010, 2012) have won the National League pennant.

The Giants in both their winning years, and the Cards in 2011, would ultimately also win the World series.

During these last four years in which the two franchise' have dominated the NL postseason, they met just once. The Giants edged out the Cardinals in 7 games in the 2012 NLCS, rallying after falling behind 3-1 in games.

The two clubs took different paths to this 2014 rematch. The Cards again won the NL Central Division crown for the 2nd straight season, and for the 8th time in the last 15 years. The Giants got in as an NL Wildcard team after finishing 6 games behind the LA Dodgers in the NL West race.

Despite their different methods of reaching the NLCS, both are here again, and that can likely be attributed to their previous recent playoff experience. Both of these teams, their managers, and many of the individual players are used to competing in the increased glare and under the added pressure of October baseball.

The teams met twice during the regular season. Back at the end of May, the Giants took 3 of 4 at Busch Stadium. Then at the very beginning of July, the Cards travelled to AT&T Park and took 2 of 3. So the GMen owned a 4-3 edge in the regular season series. It's my pick here that this series will be decided by that same margin, just as their 2012 NLCS. But this time, Saint Louis comes out on top.

The Cardinals finished as the 3rd best team in the National League, and at #9 overall, in the final Power Ranking back at the beginning of October. The Giants meanwhile finished just 17th overall in MLB. The belief here is that the holes causing San Fran to finish that low will ultimately prove the difference between these battled-tested squads.

Cards' ace Adam Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in baseball today

The difference makers between the teams are team pitching and defense. While the Cards were the 5th-ranked team in all of baseball in the Fangraphs WAR team defensive rankings, the GMen finished just 16th. Now especially missing injured outfielder Angel Pagan, the Giants lineup is even more challenged.

On the mound, the Cards staff rated out at #18, not an impressive finish at all. However, the Giants at #28 had some of MLB's worst-performing overall pitching. Saint Louis should be able to parlay those pitching and defensive edges to a victory in the series.

As for the offense, the Giants 6th-rated offense gives them the old "puncher's chance" against a Cardinals offensive group that finished as MLB's 11th-rated WAR group. But again, injuries have weakened San Fran on offense as well. Not just the loss of Pagan, but an oblique strain has made slugger Mike Morse' ability to contribute questionable at best, sapping the Giants of some clout.

Historically, these are two of the most storied, successful teams in all of Major League Baseball, and in the National League in particular. The Cardinals have won 19 NL Pennants and 11 World Series crowns, most in NL history and 2nd only to the Yankees overall. The Giants have won 22 NL Pennants, a league record, and 7 World Series crowns.

There is star power to be had here, with the Giants led by the hitting trio of Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, and Hunter Pence, and the Cardinals hitters by Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and Matt Carpenter.

"The Big Panda", Pablo Sandoval, is a proven postseason clutch performer

On the mound, the Giants rotation has a true young ace in lefty Madison Bumgarner, and they also rely on unflappable veterans Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson. Yusmeiro Petit has developed into a reliable option as well. For the Cards, it's righty Adam Wainwright as the ace, with Lance Lynn a solid #2, Carlos Martinez emerging as a strong 3rd option, and either John Lackey or Shelby Miller also likely to see work.

The bullpens of both clubs can be schizophrenic, with the Giants having changed from Sergio Romo to Santiago Casilla in the closer role, and with Cards closer Trevor Rosenthal alternating between dominant and erratic. The Cards have a tremendous arm in Pat Neshek in reserve. He may be the best reliever on either team. Both clubs have an assortment of options that run hot and cold.

The best chance for the Giants would be for Bumgarner, Peavy, and Hudson to all be at their best through the series, giving their veteran bats a chance to win it with clutch hits. For the Cards, it should be simply about playing to their full potential as an overall team.

Posey (L) and Molina (R) may be two best catchers in baseball today

Perhaps the biggest highlight of this series will be the showdown between two of the best all-around catchers in the game. Posey led the Giants to titles when he was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2010 and the NL MVP in 2012. Molina, widely considered the best defensive catcher in the game, is a 6-time Gold Glover and All-Star.

The Cardinals will have the home field advantage here. While I don't think that is necessarily a very big factor in the playoffs, I do think that in the end it will be those Saint Louis fans at Busch Stadium who are witnessing their team in a victorious pileup after a win in that ultimate Game 7 next weekend.

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