Previewing the Cardinals and Giants

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Here's a picture of a dude killing a Giant. I'm just saying. 
  • Here's a picture of a dude killing a Giant. I'm just saying. 
On Friday night, the Cardinals managed one of the greatest (if not the greatest), comeback in postseason baseball history, erasing a six run deficit en route to defeating the Washington Nationals. It was the largest deficit any team has ever overcome in the playoffs, and in typical Cardinal comeback fashion, the Redbirds went down to their very last strike before snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. 

Their reward for such an historic feat? A cross-country plane flight, from Washington D.C. to San Francisco, and a series against the NL West champs and their terrifying pitching staff. The Giants may not be the most complete team in the playoffs this year, but that doesn't mean they aren't perfectly capable of ending the Cards' season, historicalinexplicablemagical comebacks and all. 

Offense 

This one appearss to be a mismatch from the word go, to be honest. The Cardinals have one of the most imposing offenses in all of baseball, an American League styled attack that puts pressure on opposing pitchers through nearly the entire lineup. The Giants have, um, Buster Posey. They had Melky Cabrera and his inexplicable MVP-caliber performance for most of the season, but, well, you know how that worked out. 

As things stand now, the Cardinals have an enormous advantage in their offensive production. Of the eight starting position players the Cards are currently fielding, only Daniel Descalso has an OPS+ of less than 113. (That includes Pete Kozma's utterly bizarre .952 OPS and 157 OPS+.) They have six regulars with an OPS+ better than 125; Matt Carpenter gives them another player above that threshold off the bench. They scored the second-most runs in the National League in the regular season in spite of playing in Busch Stadium as their home ballpark. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: this is a remarkable offense. 

Against the Washington Nationals and their host of power arms, the Cards continued their offensive onslaught, scoring 32 runs in the series against the NL East representatives. They were held in check in a big way in games one and four, scoring just three runs total in those two contests, but the rest of the series looked a whole lot more like the Redbird attack we've seen for most of the season. The Giants' pitching staff is no less imposing than that of the Nationals; the Cards are going to have their work cut out for them if they're going to keep up that pace. 

The Giants, plain and simple, don't have the kind of offense that can compete with the Cards. The difference in runs scored in the regular season between the two teams wasn't huge; the Giants scored 47 fewer runs than the Redbirds, which is significant but not enormous. When you start looking at the overall makeup of the two teams' respective lineups, though, it becomes clear there's a sizable difference. 

For most of the season, the Giants had a pair of players posting better than a 150 OPS+: Buster Posey and Melky Cabrera. Posey is right there, hitting like a madman and not getting nearly enough consideration as the best player in the game right now, but Cabrera is not on the NLCS roster for the Giants. He's actually eligible for the series, but San Francisco has apparently decided that getting suspended for performance-enhancing drugs, disappearing for the past couple months, making virtually no contact with the club, and the whole making-a-fake-website-and-being-investigated-by-the-FBI is all just a little too much for them to swallow. So Melky isn't going to be there. 

Xavier Nady and and Gregor Blanco have stepped in to the void left by Cabrera's absence, and the combo have done a nice job filling in for him, but it just isn't the same. The Giants do have three other hitters above a 120 OPS+ (Brandon Belt, Angel Pagan, and Pablo Sandoval), giving them a fair amount of depth in the lineup. The inexplicable career renaissance of Marco Scutaro gives them a potential shot in the arm off the bench. 

Here's the bottom line: at the beginning of the season, I think most people thought the Giants would be a one-trick pony, winning games solely on the strength of their starting pitching, with an offense just sort of along for the ride. They're a better hitting club than that. The presence of Posey alone makes them a better hitting club than that. But this is an offense that isn't going to beat you on its own. That's why I say...

Advantage: Cardinals 

Starting Pitching 

Both of these teams have excellent starting pitching. The difference is, everyone knows how good the Giants' starters are. 

The Cardinals will send Lance Lynn to the mound tonight to take on Madison Bumgarner, which could well be seen as a bit of a mismatch. Not because Lance Lynn isn't a capable pitcher; he's obviously very talented, and was at one point early in the season the front-runner to start the All-Star Game. The issue is that Lynn has been in and out of the rotation, flipping from starting to relieving, and the workload of his first full season starting in the big leagues seemed to wear on him late in the year. Bumgarner, on the other hand, is the ultra-talented young lefty who was making big league starts before he was old enough to drink legally. 

Here's the problem with that narrative, though: it's bunk. Absolute, complete, utter, bunk. It's such bunk, in fact, that I had to resort to a word that hasn't been in vogue since the Depression to express how utterly bunktastic it really is. 

Bumgarner's ERA+ this season is 103, meaning he's been just barely better than league average. A big part of that has been a propensity for allowing the long ball this season; Bumgarner's home run rate this year is nearly twice what it was in 2011. That doesn't bode particularly well for a pitcher facing a lineup with the homer potential of the Redbirds. 

What is more concerning, at least for the Giants, is this: the Bumgarner situation is repeated all over their starting staff. Matt Cain was very, very good this year. There's really no denying it. But both Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong were right in the same neighborhood, just above league average in terms of ERA. Barry Zito won a ton of games in a row in the second half, but he's still Barry Zito, and not the 2002 version. And for all the hype and the freakish awesomeness of the past few years, Tim Lincecum was flat-out awful this year, with a 5.18 ERA that looks like a typo next to his name. 

The Cardinals, on the other hand, don't have the kind of name recognition in their rotation as the Giants, but they've gotten roughly comparable performances in 2012. Kyle Lohse was the ace of the staff, posting a 134 ERA+ that's 11 points better than Matt Cain. While the Giants have a couple of guys right above league average and two guys who really struggled, the Cards filled out the rest of their rotation with pitchers just at or below league average. Lance Lynn was a little above average; Adam Wainwright was a little below. Chris Carpenter is, well, Chris Carpenter. I expect him to continue being Chris Carpenter. 

The Giants have the kind of rotation capable of shutting an opponent down completely. Cain, Lincecum, and Bumgarner are all elite talents. With the exception of Cain, though (and even he wasn't as good as we all thought he was going to be based on his beginning to the year), the performances just didn't quite match up to the talent this season. The Cardinals, on the other hand, got a lot of solid performances from guys without big time track records, along with a career year from a guy heading into another contract. I'm calling this a wash, and I'm feeling pretty good about it. 

Advantage: Even 

Bullpen 

This one I'll give to the Giants, though not by an overwhelming margin. Looking at the numbers, it would seem San Francisco has a huge edge, with five of their primary relievers having ERA+ numbers above 123. Sergio Romo has been their relief ace, with an ERA+ of 190 (!) and a K/BB of 6.30. He's been really, really good, in other words. The Giant bullpen is not only good at the back end, it's very deep (what a dirty sounding sentence), capable of throwing high-quality arms at an opponent for the last three or four innings pretty much every night. 

The Cardinals, meanwhile...well, we've all seen the Cardinal bullpen this year. It's the biggest reason the team has a win/loss record so far south of their expected record; bullpen losses will tank your Pythagorean record in a big ass hurry. However, the Cards do have one thing working in their favor: the bullpen they're running out now is not the same one that did so much damage to the team's playoff chances the last six months. 

Jason Motte (ERA+ 140), and Mitchell Boggs (174), have both put up elite reliever kind of numbers this season. Watching Motte pitch can be a bit of white-knuckle affair, but when you take the performance as a whole, he's been really good. 

Even better, the bridge relievers are all much better now than they were for most of the season. Edward Mujica has been a revelation as the seventh-inning guy. Fernando Salas has been much better than he was, and Trevor Rosenthal has been...wow. Suffice to say, if I had to get one out right now with any reliever in the Cardinal bullpen, I would have a hard time not turning to Rosenthal and that 101 on the gun. Joe Kelly isn't exactly chopped liver, either, giving the Cards another pitcher capable of overpowering opposing hitters. 

The one real Achilles' Heel for the Cards' relief corps is the left side. Marc Rzepczynski was terrible this season, and while he had a nice run down the stretch, he's looked shaky at best in limited postseason chances. I'm not at all confident in the Redbirds' ability to get a lefty out in a key spot. At all. Aside from that, though, this bullpen actually reminds me quite a lot of last year's; a much-maligned unit transformed in the postseason, trotting out power arms the likes of which you don't often see. Right now, the Cardinals can throw a ton of strikeouts at the opposition, which bodes very, very well for their chances. 

For most of the season, the bullpen was the main bugaboo for this team, losing games late and close with depressing regularity. Right now, though, there isn't another bullpen I think I would give a significant edge to over the Redbirds. Even one as deep and talented as the Giants'. 

Advantage: Even 

Bottom Line 

I hope I'm not just looking at this season through Cardinal-red colored glasses, but I see the Redbirds as being a much stronger team overall. The perception of the teams' respective pitching staffs would seem to favor the Giants by a significant margin, but looking at the numbers I don't think there's much of an advantage there. The current group of relievers the Cards are fielding is an impressive collection of power arms, and the starting rotation has been very solid. While the Giants have a bit deeper bullpen and a rotation boasting better pure talent, I think any edge to San Francisco is extremely thin. The offenses, though, I see as significantly different, with the Cardinals having a fairly large advantage. 

These are both very, very good ballclubs. Neither team has a huge, glaring weakness to be exploited. Both are capable of winning ballgames in a variety of ways. But looking at the whole picture, I think the Redbirds are the more complete team. The one and only big concern I have is the Cards' tendency to struggle on the road this season, considering San Francisco has home field advantage, but I don't think that's enough of a swing to tip the scales. 

My prediction: the Cardinals are going back to the World Series. 

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