NL Wild-Card Preview: Giants vs. Pirates

Ben Margot/AP Photo

The Pirates are back in the playoffs for the second straight year following a two-decade drought, while the Giants are going for their third World Series in the last five seasons. Both teams have the horses to make a deep playoff run, but only one will survive tonight’s do-or-die NL wild-card game in Pittsburgh. Let’s break it down.

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Pittsburgh Pirates


Pirates’ Projected Wild-Card Game Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 3B Josh Harrison R .315/.347/.490 137 550
2 SS Jordy Mercer R .255/.305/.387 91 555
3 CF Andrew McCutchen R .314/.410/.542 168 648
4 C Russell Martin R .290/.402/.430 140 460
5 LF Starling Marte R .291/.356/.453 132 545
6 2B Neil Walker S .271/.342/.467 130 571
7 1B Gaby Sanchez R .229/.293/.385 93 290
8 RF Travis Snider L .264/.338/.438 121 359
9 P Edinson Volquez R .038/.089/.038 -66 64

The Pirates fared better against right-handed pitchers (.260/.332/.414) than left-handed pitchers (.258/.322/.370) this year, and their power in particular suffered against southpaws, with just 23 homers in 1,204 at-bats. That’s not great news considering whom they’re facing Wednesday night: Giants ace Madison Bumgarner, one of the best pitchers in the league this year, and a lefty to boot.

If the Buccos go with the projected lineup listed above, however, they could mitigate some of those concerns. Sanchez is a much better option than Ike Davis against lefties, which is why manager Clint Hurdle has wisely platooned the two first basemen this year. In the above lineup, seven of the eight starting position players are right-handed or switch hitters.

The lone lefty batter, Snider, only recently regained full control of the right-field job from rookie Gregory Polanco, but he’s been terrific since returning to a starting role, batting .288/.356/.524 since the All-Star break. Curiously, he’s hit much better against same-handed pitchers in 2014, batting .381/.435/.619 in 42 at-bats against lefties compared to .246/.324/.411 against in 280 at-bats against righties. That mark against southpaws might be a small sample size fluke, but it’s still worth noting.1

Bumgarner’s slider could be the key to this matchup. It’s easily his best and most frequently used secondary pitch, as he’s thrown it 35 percent of the time this season. The Pirates, meanwhile, have fared well against sliders this year, ranking eighth in baseball against that pitch by OPS, according to ESPN Stats & Info (compared to fifth overall against all pitches).

San Francisco Giants


Giants’ Projected Wild-Card Game 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
9 P Madison Bumgarner R .258/.286/.470 115 78

Even amid this surprisingly effective season, Volquez is a pitcher opponents can beat with patience. He posted the ninth-highest walk rate in the NL, and he led the senior circuit with 15 wild pitches. That would be great news for the Giants, except for one thing: They’re not a very patient team, ranking 21st in the majors walk rate in 2014.

Still, adjusting for AT&T Park’s pitcher-friendly confines, the Giants boast a top-10 offense, albeit one that’s seen a lot of turnover this season, with Mike Morse going from world-beating slugger to bench jockey, Belt losing lots of time to injuries, and Angel Pagan now out for the year. Keep an eye on Blanco and Panik at the top of the order. Both have been killers in the second half, with Blanco hitting .296/.365/.449 (135 wRC+) and Panik .327/.360/.396 (121 wRC+) since the break.

It’s tough to overstate how impressive it is that the Giants made the playoffs when Matt Cain missed half the year, Tim Lincecum and Sergio Romo lost their jobs, and all of those aforementioned hitters struggled, got hurt, or both. A lot of credit goes to Bruce Bochy, who, by the standards we can measure, might be the best skipper in the NL. If Blanco and Panik stay hot, this becomes an incredibly potent offense, with Posey and Pence, two of the best hitters in the league, ready and able to drive them in.

A final X factor for this game: As Giants broadcaster Dave Flemming noted during my 10-guest playoff mega-podcast, San Francisco has made a living in recent years by using superior defense to win games, especially in the playoffs. That was most notable during the 2012 World Series, which included all kinds of bad routes and grounder-kicking from the opposing Tigers. The Giants won’t be able to exploit that weakness when facing the Pirates, whose defense looks good by advanced stats thanks in large part to a dizzying array of shifts and overall smart thinking.

The Pick

Volquez posted a career-best 3.04 ERA this season, and he looked especially strong in his final seven starts, posting a 1.35 ERA and limiting opponents to a .210/.309/.296 line. Naturally, amid that uncharacteristic success, Pirates Twitter2 brought the knowledge:

The answer to Mr. Santelli’s quiz is that those are the team wRC+ ranks of Volquez’s last seven opponents, who were largely a bunch of pushovers.

The Bucs gambled by using their two best starters, Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole, over the weekend in a quest to wrest the division title from the Cardinals. Since the gambit failed, Pittsburgh has to roll with Volquez in a likely mismatch against Bumgarner. It’s only one game, and anything can happen in the playoffs; if a groundball hits a meteorite that’s descended from space onto the infield, it’ll be less weird than some of the things the baseball world has seen in win-or-go-home postseason action.

Still, the pitching matchup favors the Giants, and Bochy is as good of a technician as anyone when it comes to managing bullpens and carving out little advantages in the playoffs. Let’s call it Giants 4, Pirates 2.

Filed Under: 2014 MLB Playoffs, MLB, MLB Playoffs, National League, MLB Wild-Card, San Francisco Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates, Madison Bumgarner, Edinson Volquez, Clint Hurdle, Bruce Bochy, MLB Stats, Baseball, Jonah Keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri