2014 League Championship Series Primer

NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

NLCS

 

San Francisco Giants

The Regular Season in a Nutshell

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Click to enlarge

 

There’s nothing funny to say about this 9 Game Increment function – those (almost) 3 weeks in the valley of hell were heartbreaking.

It is very hard to extrapolate definitive meaning from the totality of the Giants’ regular season. Heading into the season, 88 wins sounded about right, so I suppose the aggregate talent level ended up showing through rather well, but the swings of statistical correction  – both positive and negative – were positively ridiculous.

The team can hit a bit and do so with some power – that league average .138 ISO is fairly impressive given the home-run suppressing talents of Ms. AT&T Park. On the other side of the coin, however, the Giants’ pitching staff was penalized for only slightly above-average production despite the huge boost afforded it by its home digs. Further complicating matters is that both of these phases experienced significant ups and downs (rarely were they both up at the same time, but boy they were sure down at the same time mid-summer).

The team also battled injuries – their opening day 1B (Brandon Belt), LF (Michael Morse), and CF (Angel Pagan) all missed a great deal of time, and the team often struggled to muster adequate replacement value. Buster Posey managed to do his “screw it, I’m putting this team on my back” thing after the all-star break (again) and Joe Panik proved to be extremely useful while plugging up a black hole at second base – two of the biggest reasons that the Giants managed to back their way into the October tournament despite watching many of their players run out of gas in September.

To put this in succinct terms: the Giants are in the NLCS despite having thrown away an astounding 13.5 games in the standings over the final 99 games of the season (a 9.5 game division lead in early June, finished 4 games behind the now-at-home Los Angeles Dodgers).

The LDS Setup

The Giants were heavy underdogs entering their series against the Washington Nationals, and with good reason in a tangible sense: the Nationals are significantly more talented top-to-bottom than are the Giants in basically every facet of the game (especially these short-handed Giants). The Giants would remind us of two things, however: they have a very high team BAR (balls above replacement) and they have done this October thing before.

Game 1 saw the Giants wear down Stephen Strasburg with a paper-cut attack, then outlast several late comeback attempts by the home-team Nationals. Game 2 saw the Giants completely wrecked by Jordan Zimmerman over 8.2 innings, only to receive new life when Nationals manager Matt Williams inexplicably pulled Zimmerman after a 2-out walk to Panik. Well, inexplicable is the wrong word, as Williams would later explain that he was simply doing what he had done all year (WRONG!). The Giants tied the game within 3 pitches and sent the game to extras. You want an easy-to-grasp piece of evidence as to how well Bruce Bochy manages a postseason game? Did you notice that when the Giants took the lead in the 18th inning they had a choice of TWO pitchers to secure the final outs of that game? Sure, a lot of that had to do with Yusmeiro Petit turning in the finest 6 innings of his professional career, but the Nationals were completely out of pitchers despite having been given an 8.2 inning head start by their starter. The Nationals would force a Game 4 by convincingly beating the Giants in San Francisco in Game 3 – Bryce Harper sure seems to like this whole postseason thing. The Giants would then close out the Nationals in an insanely strange game in which they scored all their runs on balls that never left the infield (including a bases loaded walk and wild pitch) and had a runner being thrown out at the plate trying to score on a wild pitch on an intentional ball 4. The Giants won in large part because they survived long enough to allow the Nationals to kill themselves; this is a valuable thing.

 

The NLCS Takeaway

I don’t imagine the Giants will win many more games in the manner in which they beat Washington, though I would have a hard time imagining that they would continue to play that way, period. The offense should be able to make more noise against the Cardinals’ starters than those of the Nationals, and the Giants should be able to keep pitching competently (if not superbly). This team most certainly knows how to win in the postseason and is not afraid to do so in the ugliest of fashions. And, of course, they have very high BAR.

 

 St. Louis Cardinals

The Regular Season in a Nutshell

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

That 9 Game Increment looks like
A.) a mountain range
B.) stalactites
C.) a T-Rex smile
D.) so many Ws for “Winning
E.) a triangle waveform (look it up)
F.) the stretched-out seismograph for the Loma Prieta quake
G.) the output of a team that couldn’t make up its freaking mind

I’m not going to lie, trolls – this team underwhelmed the hell out of me heading into October. It should be said that a team does not HAVE to hit home runs to win – the Royals proved it just this season, and the 2012 iteration of the Cardinals’ NLCS opponent were also last in the MLB in home runs (though they did hit a few home runs on the road). The Cardinals just didn’t pitch especially well when one accounts for how relatively few runs they actually scored. Yes, they did take walks, and that cannot be undersold – baseball players getting on base and using up fewer outs means scoring more runs, after all. They did play very, very good defense, and that helped maximize the pitching production by converting a comparatively high number of balls in play into outs (thus the SP ERA that outperformed FIP and xFIP). The Cardinal bullpen, however, was a bit of a mess – not a Silly Tiggy mess, but hardly ship shape. Given that home runs and bullpen performance are hugely magnified in the postseason, the Cardinals seemed primed for a hasty exit in the NLDS – especially when matched against the superlative rotation and warming bats of the star-studded Los Angeles Dodgers.

 

The NLDS Setup

The Dodgers blew up Clayton Kershaw in Game 1, winning a high-scoring back and forth affair. After the Dodgers managed to even the series in Game 2 on the back of some Matt Kemp heroics, the Cardinals received a superb performance from the aged John Lackey to nail down a crucial win in Game 3. Kershaw returned to pitch Game 4, pitching extremely well until he blinked and allowed an extraordinarily unlikely and soul-crushing home run to Matt Adams. Matt Carpenter went absolutely bananas in the series, and the maligned Cardinal bullpen sufficiently rounded into form to pitch quality innings in winning efforts in Games 3 and 4. Like the Royals, the Cardinals threw out the formula that got them to the postseason in favor of one that would help them actually make noise in it.

 

The NLCS Takeaway

If the Cardinals keep playing the kind of ball they played in the NLDS – especially Games 3 and 4 – they will advance. If they go back to being who they were for 6 months, they will not. The spectrum of possibilities in between yield something of a coin-flip. It must be noted that ace Adam Wainwright is not at full-health-  a SECOND visit from a cranky Ulysses Coriander Lebeau seems to be inevitable, though Wainwright will try to pitch through the discomfort for now (Robb Nen thinks that’s probably a GOOD idea).

 

Bottom Line

This series features 34 players who have World Series experience. That is insane. Probably more widely-reported is that the Giants and Cardinals have accounted for the past 4 NL pennant winners (and obviously, will account for a 5th by default this year). These teams were two of baseball’s best on the road in 2014; they also know what they are doing in October. If there are two teams that exemplify – dare I say, even glorify – the merits of simply surviving the grind of the regular season in order to earn the right to play in the October crucible, these two be they. The Cardinals probably have the better talent top to bottom, but the Giants’ best players are probably better than are the Cardinals’ best players. Both teams’ pitching staffs have rounded into form at a fortuitous time (the Giants perhaps a little more so), while the Cardinals have picked the most opportune time possible to start hitting WTF homers. At the end of the day, the Cardinals will continue to play their postseason brand of ball and beat an undermanned Giants squad – avenging a devastating 2012 NLCS.

 

Cardinals in 7 Games

 

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One thought on “2014 League Championship Series Primer”

  1. Love the LDS. I had forgotten about that….

    Man, was that a tease. I read, studied graphs (all good stuff, by the way), eagerly anticipated the NLCS… and beheld the stay-tuned-for-the-next episode. Hope that comes out soon.

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