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NLDS Preview: Breaking Down Giants vs. Nationals and Cardinals vs. Dodgers

Cardinals-Dodgers and Giants-Nationals should be two of the tightest matchups of the 2014 MLB playoffs. They’re almost too close to call … but let’s try anyway!

The Dodgers are hoping to avenge last year’s NLCS loss to St. Louis, while the Cardinals are aiming to make another World Series run. The Giants, fresh off a decisive wild-card win, are trying to extend their even-year title streak to three, while the Nationals are working to give the good people of D.C. their first baseball championship in 90 years.

These should be two of the tightest matchups of the postseason. They’re almost too close to call … but let’s try anyway!

Click here for all of Grantland’s 2014 MLB playoff coverage. 

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

 

Clayton Kershaw

(Game 1: Friday at 6:37 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1)

Starting Rotations

Dodgers Projected NLDS Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K% BB%
1 LHP Clayton Kershaw 1.77 1.81 198.1 31.9 4.1
2 RHP Zack Greinke 2.71 2.97 202.1 25.2 5.2
3 LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu 3.38 2.62 152.0 22.0 4.6
4* RHP Dan Haren 4.02 4.09 186.0 18.7 4.6
Cardinals Projected NLDS Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K% BB%
1 RHP Adam Wainwright 2.38 2.88 227.0 19.9 5.6
2 RHP Lance Lynn 2.74 3.35 203.2 20.9 8.3
3 RHP John Lackey 3.82 3.78 198.0 19.7 5.6
4* RHP Shelby Miller 3.74 4.54 183.0 16.6 9.6

*If necessary

No matter the opponent, the Dodgers enter every series knowing they have one advantage: Clayton Kershaw. The lefty ace just won his fourth consecutive ERA title, is a lock for his third Cy Young Award in four years, and has a great case to win his first MVP. Kershaw last pitched on September 24, meaning he’ll be making his Game 1 start on more than a week’s rest, but while that would be a concern for many pitchers, it shouldn’t be an issue for Kershaw. Since 2009, he’s been brilliant even when he’s going on six or more days of rest:

Clayton Kershaw’s Rest Between Starts (Since 2009)
Stat 4 Days 5 Days 6+ Days
Starts 103 66 19
Win % .671 .679 .667
ERA 2.34 2.35 1.56
WHIP 1.03 1.00 1.07
K/9 9.7 9.5 8.8
IP/Start 6.8 6.8 6.4

The punch line is, the Dodgers can count on Kershaw. They face uncertainty at the back of the rotation, though. Hyun-Jin Ryu last pitched on September 12, when he got whacked for four runs in one inning before exiting with shoulder discomfort. That means he’ll be pitching on nearly a month’s rest when he takes the mound for Game 3. Assuming neither team sweeps, the Dodgers will then need to decide between using Kershaw on short rest for Game 4 or veteran right-hander Dan Haren. And if they go with Haren, they’ll need to hope they get the lights-out pitcher they saw over Haren’s final 10 starts (2.43 ERA, .527 opponents’ OPS) rather than the one who struggled in his prior 22 (4.76, .798).

The Cardinals, meanwhile, have relegated 2013 world-beater Michael Wacha to the bullpen. The hard-throwing righty was a playoff hero last season, allowing just one run over 21 innings in the first two rounds of the playoffs. But like Ryu, he’s dealt with shoulder issues this season, and the Cardinals feel more comfortable using him in relief.

The good news is that the rotation looks strong even beyond talented and incredibly consistent ace Adam Wainwright. Over his last two seasons, Lance Lynn posted defense-independent numbers that hinted at better impending results, and he finally got them this year, posting a career-best 2.74 ERA along with strikeout, walk, and home run rates that compared favorably to his previous solid totals. Trade deadline pickup John Lackey struggled at times with his new team, but his overall 2014 numbers indicate he’ll be a reliable no. 3 starter with the ability to pitch deep enough into games to allow St. Louis to use the best parts of its bullpen. And Shelby Miller fared better toward the end of the season, flashing a 1.69 ERA and 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate in his final six starts (albeit not against the most fierce offensive competition).

Lineups

yadier-molinda-cardinals-nlds-tri

Dodgers Projected NLDS Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 2B Dee Gordon L .289/.326/.378 101 650
2 CF Yasiel Puig R .296/.382/.480 147 640
3 1B Adrian Gonzalez L .276/.335/.482 128 660
4 RF Matt Kemp R .287/.346/.506 140 599
5 SS Hanley Ramirez R .283/.369/.448 135 512
6 LF Carl Crawford L .300/.339/.429 119 370
7 3B Juan Uribe R .311/.337/.440 120 404
8 C A.J. Ellis R .191/.323/.254 72 347
Cardinals Projected NLDS Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 3B Matt Carpenter L .272/.375/.375 117 709
2 CF Jon Jay L .303/.372/.378 115 468
3 LF Matt Holliday R .272/.370/.441 132 667
4 1B Matt Adams L .288/.321/.457 116 563
5 SS Jhonny Peralta R .263/.336/.443 120 628
6 C Yadier Molina R .282/.333/.386 102 445
7 RF Randal Grichuk R .245/.278/.400 90 116
8 2B Kolten Wong L .249/.292/.388 90 433

While these are all familiar faces for L.A., several have gone through serious fluctuations this season. The biggest Jekyll-and-Hyde acts came from Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, who seemed to switch bodies around the All-Star break. Puig hit .309/.393/.522 in the first half but a much more modest .274/.366/.414 in the second half, while Kemp batted .269/.330/.430 before the break and .309/.365/.606 after.

Though that might seem like a wash for the Dodgers, it’s actually potentially great news. Puig isn’t injured, and he has displayed enough greatness in the past for us to assume that he’s merely going through a rough patch. On the flip side, Kemp has played much better because he’s finally healthy, shaking off numerous injuries that had relegated him to part-time bench duty and finally hitting like the dominant Kemp of old again. If Puig can get rid of what looks like a random bit of rust and Kemp can keep his foot on the accelerator, L.A.’s offense could be even more formidable than it was during the regular season — which is really saying something, since this was the majors’ sixth-highest-scoring team in 2014. And facing an entirely right-handed Cardinals rotation won’t hurt, either: The Dodgers hit just .248/.329/.387 against lefties this year, but .271/.334/.412 against righties.

St. Louis has an edge of its own, however: Depending on the metric, the Cardinals have either the best (by Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved) or second-best (by Ultimate Zone Rating) defense in the majors. Catcher Yadier Molina can affect the game in countless ways, and might be the best defender in the game, regardless of position. The new double-play combination of Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong rates well by advanced metrics. Even the pitchers grade out better than any other team’s defensively, by DRS. 

The Cards will need that defense to remain airtight if their offense continues to struggle. Only five NL teams scored fewer runs than the Cardinals, and the reason is pretty clear: After batting .330 with runners in scoring position last year — the highest mark since Elias Sports Bureau began tracking that stat in 1961 — St. Louis’s numbers plummeted in those situations this year.

Cardinals With RISP Since 2013
Stat 2013 Regular Season Since 2013 Postseason MLB Rank Since 2013 Postseason
Batting Average .330 .254 13
Slugging % .463 .364 23
Chase Rate 27.7% 31.5% 24

One subplot to watch for with St. Louis: who plays center field. Jon Jay has flourished since the All-Star break, but he’s also a left-handed hitter, and the Dodgers could start three lefties in the first four games if they use Kershaw on short rest. Peter Bourjos, whom the Cardinals acquired for David Freese in an offseason trade, is a phenomenal defender and a right-handed batter, but he didn’t hit a lick this year. And while Bourjos actually has a small reverse split for his career, Jay doesn’t carry a heavy platoon gap, as he’s a .296/.361/.405 career hitter versus righties and a .288/.353/.365 hitter against lefties.

Bullpens/Benches

kenley-jansen-dodgers-nlds-tri

The bullpen is L.A.’s biggest weakness. While the Dodgers have an excellent closer in Kenley Jansen, they don’t have another reliever with both an above-average strikeout rate and a strikeout-to-walk rate better than 2-to-1. That could be particularly problematic in Ryu’s start, given his uncertain health and stamina. Fortunately for the Dodgers, the Cardinals don’t have any big bats on the bench, and that’ll be especially true if Jay starts over Bourjos.1


1.

The main problem I have with the seven- and eight-man bullpens teams now seem to consider mandatory: They leave no room for the Matt Stairs–style professional pinch hitter. Then again, even with an extra playoff roster spot, no postseason team looks likely to add that kind of player to its team, which might underscore a bigger problem plaguing baseball: a lack of Matt Stairses.

Meanwhile, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny has maintained a Tony La Russaesque bullpen, with power arms at the back in Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez, a righty befuddler in Pat Neshek, a lefty sidearm specialist in Randy Choate, and a ground-ball-generating machine in Seth Maness. In every bullpen inning before the ninth, the Cards will hold the upper hand.

The Call

I asked pal and occasional Grantland contributor Ed Feng to provide series predictions based on his cluster luck rankings, and based on those calculations, Feng gives the Dodgers a 73.3 percent chance of winning the series.

That calculus feels a bit generous, given both Ryu’s uncertain status (and the Cards’ possible ensuing edge in Game 3) and St. Louis’s bullpen advantage.

But with Kershaw and Zack Greinke likely starting four of the five games if this series goes the distance, it’s hard to feel too bad about the Dodgers’ chances. No team other than the Tigers (and, to a lesser extent, the Nationals) has such a luxury in the starting rotation.

So while I acknowledge the power of #CardinalsDevilMagic, I’m giving this one to L.A. Dodgers in four. 

San Francisco Giants vs. Washington Nationals

 

jake-peavy-giants-nlds-tri

(Game 1: Friday at 3:07 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)

Starting Rotations

Nationals Projected NLDS Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K% BB%
1 RHP Stephen Strasburg 3.14 2.94 215.0 27.9 5.0
2 RHP Jordan Zimmermann 2.66 2.68 199.2 22.8 3.6
3 RHP Doug Fister 2.41 3.93 164.0 14.8 3.6
4* LHP Gio Gonzalez 3.57 3.03 158.2 24.8 8.6
Giants Projected NLDS Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K% BB%
1 RHP Jake Peavy 3.73 4.11 202.2 18.5 7.4
2 RHP Tim Hudson 3.57 3.54 189.1 15.2 4.3
3 LHP Madison Bumgarner 2.98 3.05 217.1 25.1 4.9
4* RHP Yusmeiro Petit 3.69 2.78 117.0 28.9 4.8

Strasburg drew plenty of heat for his erratic early-season results, but was unhittable in his last six starts, putting up a 1.13 ERA with a 40-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And he’s not the only Nat who finished on a tear; the entire rotation sizzled in September, posting an MLB-best 2.25 ERA, with just 26 walks in 172 innings. Hell, Jordan Zimmermann threw a no-hitter in the final game!

While some of that success stemmed from facing flaccid offenses like the Braves and the Giancarlo Stanton–less Marlins, this is an inarguably deep and strong rotation. It’s so good, in fact, that it can’t even make room in the postseason for Tanner Roark, the fifth starter who pitched like a no. 2 all year, delivering a 2.85 ERA and just barely missing the 200-inning mark. Some fans might lodge a mild complaint about the inconsistent Gio Gonzalez beating out Roark for the fourth spot, but manager Matt Williams went with the more experienced pitcher, and Gonzalez did look better in September, striking out 31 batters and walking just five in the season’s final month.

The Giants, meanwhile, might have to keep ace Madison Bumgarner in the dry dock until Game 3, since he destroyed the Pirates on Wednesday night, then destroyed four beers at once after the game. That wait might not be a big deal if Jake Peavy can keep dominating the way he has since his July move to San Francisco, where he has fit right in to an even stingier rotation than Washington’s when it comes to walks, with the Giants’ front four posting a sub–5 percent walk rate.

Both Peavy and Yusmeiro Petit — the control-artist righty who pitched well enough to bump two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum out of the rotation — rank among the league’s most prolific fly ball pitchers. That’s a feature and not a drawback at AT&T Park and Nationals Park, however, as they were the two most homer-resistant stadiums in baseball this year, per ESPN’s park factors.

Lineups

anthony-rendon-nationals-nlds-tri

Nationals Projected NLDS Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 CF Denard Span L .302/.355/.416 117 668
2 3B Anthony Rendon R .287/.351/.473 130 683
3 LF Jayson Werth R .292/.394/.455 141 629
4 1B Adam LaRoche L .259/.362/.455 127 586
5 SS Ian Desmond R .255/.313/.430 108 648
6 RF Bryce Harper L .273/.344/.423 115 395
7 C Wilson Ramos R .267/.299/.399 93 361
8 2B Asdrubal Cabrera S .241/.307/.387 97 616
Giants Projected NLDS Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 CF Gregor Blanco L .260/.333/.374 107 444
2 2B Joe Panik L .305/.343/.368 107 287
3 C Buster Posey R .311/.364/.490 144 605
4 3B Pablo Sandoval S .279/.324/.415 111 638
5 RF Hunter Pence R .277/.332/.445 123 708
6 1B Brandon Belt L .243/.306/.449 116 235
7 SS Brandon Crawford L .246/.324/.389 102 564
8 LF Travis Ishikawa L .252/.311/.393 100 119

Going by rate stats, Anthony Rendon isn’t the best offensive player in the league, or even on his own team. But given his all-around contributions and his superior durability, he has emerged as a top-five MVP candidate, which is pretty impressive for a player in his first full big league season.

In a way, Rendon embodies the spirit of the Nats roster. Washington didn’t have a single 30-homer hitter this year, but still ranked fifth in the NL in slugging. Even though the Nats lack a Miguel Cabrera type of masher, there’s quality throughout the lineup, with six of the eight projected starters putting up offensive numbers 8 percent above average or better, and Wilson Ramos and Asdrubal Cabrera coming in around average after we adjust for the positions they play. While injuries have admittedly altered two-time Silver Slugger winner Ryan Zimmerman’s effectiveness, the fact that he has to ride the pine says a lot about how deep this lineup is.

Of course, if we’re touting the Nationals for lineup balance, we have to do the same for the Giants, since all eight of their projected starters were average or better offensively this year, by wRC+. Still, that metric might be a bit deceiving in this case, given Travis Ishikawa’s small sample size and the career showings for Gregor Blanco and Joe Panik.

I mentioned the fly ball tendencies for Peavy and Petit, but Nats pitchers are more fly ball–oriented overall, inducing flies more often than any other NL team save the Braves. That should make for an interesting battle against the Giants, who posted the third-highest team fly ball rate, according to ESPN research. Though again, these are lousy parks for putting it in the air. If chilly weather hits, that could lead to even more balls dying on the track.

One thing Giants hitters likely won’t have to worry about: shifts. Only the Rockies shifted fewer times this year than the Nats, who did so 201 times this season, according to BIS.2

Bullpen/Bench


2.

The Astros led the league with a mind-boggling 1,324 shifts; the Rays were second with 824.

bruce-bochy-giants-nlds-tri

The Nationals could be really tough to beat in these areas. The last time they were in the postseason was in 2012, when their bullpen blew up in the NLDS against the Cardinals, including in the decisive Game 5. This season, that same bullpen ranks among the league leaders, and looks even stronger now that Drew Storen has replaced Rafael Soriano as the team’s closer.

Nationals NL Bullpen Ranks in 2014
ERA 3.00 2
Opponent OPS .640 3
Walk Rate 7.2% 2
HR Allowed 26 T-Fewest

Washington’s bench looks strong, too, with Zimmerman in a reserve role, Danny Espinosa offering speed and infield versatility, and Tyler Moore bringing some good pop (assuming they elect to carry him). Thanks to the deep roster GM Mike Rizzo has assembled, the Nats have a chance to steal a game or three this October in the late innings.

Of course, the Giants bullpen is plenty capable in its own right, ranking ninth in the majors this year in park-adjusted ERA. Santiago Casilla got himself straightened out after a rough patch in August, and there’s depth with veterans like Jeremy Affeldt and Jean Machi. There’s also the hope that Sergio Romo can rediscover his slider of death and make an impact.

The bench looks considerably thinner after season-ending injuries to Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro, so don’t expect to see much maneuvering beyond left field, where Ishikawa will be on a short leash.

Williams is making his maiden voyage as a postseason manager, so we don’t yet know how he’ll handle the different rhythms of October baseball, where shrewd skippers play matchups like crazy, knowing that frequent days off and higher stakes make restraint pointless. We do know that Bruce Bochy is a master at all of that, having outfoxed his counterparts in 2010 and 2012 on the way to glory.

The Call

Feng gives the Nationals a 63 percent chance of taking this series, but once again, I think the gap might be smaller than that. If the Giants keep getting Cy Young–level Peavy as opposed to Boston Red Soxlevel Peavy, that’s a big deal. Bochy could also offer an edge. And if you believe that experience in high-pressure spots matters, toss a few more bonus points at the Giants, given how much October experience Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, & Co. have.

In the end, though, I’m going with the Nats, who can win with so many players and in so many ways. They have enough depth to bump Doug Fister to Game 3, negating most of the sizable advantage the Giants would seem to have in that contest by holding their ace back that long. They have Zimmerman, who’s a threat to lay a three-run bomb on an unsuspecting opponent in a late-inning pinch-hit appearance, potentially turning a series. And they have a legion of players who won’t win awards this year, but who still rank just a half-tier below the elite: Strasburg and Zimmermann, Rendon and Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth and (assuming he’s back to peak form) Bryce Harper. Get ready for another NLDS that goes the distance, only this time, it’ll be the Nationals in five.

ESPN Stats & Info provided research assistance for this article.

The Giants stats cited in the rotation and lineup tables are from the regular season only.