Grantland logo

2014 NLCS Preview: Giants vs. Cardinals

The games have been played and bat flips tallied — and for the fifth year in a row, the St. Louis Cardinals or San Francisco Giants will represent the National League in the World Series. So who will it be?

The games have been played and bat flips tallied — and for the fifth year in a row, the St. Louis Cardinals or San Francisco Giants will represent the National League in the World Series.

So who will it be? We have some thoughts.

Starting Rotations

Madison-Baumgardner

Cardinals Projected NLCS 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
Giants Projected NLCS Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K% BB%
1 RHP Jake Peavy 3.73 4.11 202.2 18.5 7.4
2 LHP Madison Bumgarner 2.98 3.05 217.1 25.1 4.9
3 RHP Tim Hudson 3.57 3.54 189.1 15.2 4.3
4 RHP Ryan Vogelsong 4.00 3.85 184.2 19.4 7.4

Note: These tables feature regular-season stats only.

There’s still a chance Madison Bumgarner could start Game 1 for San Francisco, since he’d be on full rest by Saturday. But whatever rotation the Giants use, the biggest question will remain the same: Can their starters pitch better during the playoffs than their recent regular-season résumés might suggest? The issue for the Cardinals is Adam Wainwright’s elbow. As ace beat writer Derrick Goold wrote, that elbow injury caused Wainwright to miss a start in June and has lingered ever since. If Wainwright gets scratched at the last minute or comes up aching early, Lance Lynn would take his place. Lynn is an underrated pitcher1 who lives by the painfully simple Cardinals pitching credo: Keep the ball in the ballpark and good things will happen.


1.

Lynn ranks 16th among 60 qualified National League pitchers in Fielding Independent Pitching since 2012, his first full season in the big leagues. That’s a hair below Johnny Cueto and ahead of quality pitchers like Mat Latos and Jeff Samardzija.

Still, if Wainwright is unavailable or less than 100 percent, that could deal a huge blow. Given the 2-3-2 format, St. Louis wouldn’t be able to hide its fourth starter and would have to trot out either Michael Wacha (the 2013 playoff hero whose shoulder injury has relegated him to the bullpen) or erratic rookie Marco Gonzales. If that happens, John Lackey becomes a focal point of the series: His seven innings of one-run, eight-strikeout ball in Game 3 against the Dodgers were exactly what the Cards hoped for when they got him at the trade deadline.2


2.

Lackey didn’t exactly use trickery either. Fifty-nine of the 100 pitches he threw were your standard four-seam fastballs, with 42 of those 59 going for strikes.

Across the diamond, Bumgarner might be baseball’s most underrated elite pitcher. He broke into the majors at age 20 and has played a crucial role on two World Series winners and this year’s playoff squad, with no significant injuries over that half-decade. After he pitches, it’s anyone’s guess. Tim Hudson posted an 8.72 ERA in September while fighting a recurring hip problem and isn’t the dominant force he once was — not that you’d know it after 7.1 innings of one-run, eight-strikeout, no-walk ball against the Nationals. Jake Peavy has pitched like a man possessed since becoming a Giant, posting a 2.17 ERA in 12 regular-season starts3 and 5.2 innings of shutout ball against the Nats last week.


3.

Dave Righetti deserves credit for his wizardry with the Giants. The longest-tenured pitching coach in the majors, Righetti has proven particularly apt at helping his pitchers suppress home runs. Peavy surrendered 20 in 124 innings with the Red Sox this year, but just three in 84.1 innings with the Giants, counting his NLDS start.

As for Ryan Vogelsong? He’s a damn sorcerer. That he’s pitching in the big leagues at all is amazing given the five-year hiatus he took after the 2006 season — and despite so-so regular-season numbers, he’s been a terror in October. Vogelsong allowed just one run in 5.2 innings in the clincher against Washington, giving him five straight postseason starts in which he’s allowed one run or fewer, trailing only Curt Schilling for the most in baseball history. 

Lineups

Matt-Adams

Cardinals Projected NLCS 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
Giants Projected NLCS 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

The Cards ranked a mediocre 16th this year in park-adjusted offense and significantly worse in runs scored, tied for 23rd in the majors. The reasons? A massive drop in production with runners in scoring position and the lowest home run total in the National League. And yet, the Cards’ seven homers in the NLDS were the most ever by a team that had the fewest homers in its league during the regular season, and their lefties hit five homers off Dodgers lefties, the second most by lefties off lefties in a postseason series.

So is that just bonkers randomness? Or did the Cards underachieve in the regular season?

The two youngest members of the lineup could be the ones to tell us. Twenty-three-year-old rookie second baseman Kolten Wong batted a lousy .228/.282/.304 before hitting the disabled list with a shoulder injury in late June. Since his return, he’s struggled to get on base, but has cranked up the power, belting 11 homers in his final 60 starts of the season, and launching the game-winning blast in Game 3 of the NLDS. Meanwhile, 26-year-old Matt Adams hit .325 but with just three long balls in 52 games before hitting the DL with a calf injury at the end of May. After his June 13 return, Big City batted .267 but with 12 homers and 18 doubles in 333 at-bats, and he boasts the signature moment of the playoffs so far: a series-clinching three-run bomb off Clayton Kershaw. Normally we try not to make too much of selective endpoints like these. But in Wong you’ve got a rookie who might now just be coming into his own as he’s gained experience and recovered from a bum shoulder; Adams’s minor league and early major league résumés (and colossal size) suggest he’s more of a power threat than he showed for a good chunk of this season.

As for the Giants? Left field remains completely up in the air for San Francisco, only in this round, there’s an added twist: Mike Morse is back. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound behemoth got off to a huge start this year, then stopped hitting at all, leaving his team with one of the least-skilled defensive outfielders in the game and no offense to go with it. Then he got hurt. Now that he’s returned, San Francisco must figure out what to do with a player who led the Giants in Isolated Power but also has just two at-bats since the end of August to go along with that miserable (and very un-Giants-like) defense.

Speaking of defense, keep an eye on both teams’ catchers. We already know about Yadier Molina’s brilliance, both in his ability to do quantifiable things like throw out runners and the secret sauce stuff that his supporters claim make him one of the most — if not the most — valuable players in the National League. But don’t sleep on Buster Posey, who’s actually won an MVP award. While most of Posey’s accolades come from his robust offense as a catcher, he’s also one of the best pitch-framers in baseball. FanGraphs writer August Fagerstrom wrote a fascinating article Monday criticizing NLDS Game 2 plate umpire Vic Carapazza for his erratic strike zone. And while the since-ousted Nats probably have a legitimate beef with Carapazza, something else becomes evident as you flip through the article’s multiple instructive GIFs: Posey outshone his Washington catching counterpart, Wilson Ramos, at stealing strikes, which is a big part of the reason San Francisco’s still playing.

Benches/Bullpens

Mike-Matheney

The addition of Morse swings the bench advantage to the Giants, since the Cardinals don’t have anyone with that kind of pop.4 Meanwhile, both teams will run out bullpens that feature multiple quality options, albeit no one of the unhittable Dellin Betances/Craig Kimbrel ilk. Both managers can and will play the lefty-righty matchup game as the situation warrants.


4.

Oscar Taveras is a terrific prospect who could one day blossom into a 30–home run hitter, but he’s still learning how to hit in the majors.

Still, the overall edge here goes to the Giants, because of Bruce Bochy. Though both Bochy and Mike Matheny have navigated the rigors of playoff baseball before, Bochy has a knack for making the right decisions at the right time, and is less driven by The Book than Matheny can be, to the San Francisco skipper’s credit. Players almost always affect games far more than managers do, and teams can and do win games all the time in spite of suboptimal decision-making — just ask any Royals fan. But if one of these games comes down to The Other Guys, I’d favor the Giants.

The Call

Giants-Cardinals-2

It’s not an easy one. These teams share a lot of similarities, from contact hitting to lack of base stealers, all-world catchers to all-world playoff performances — and one of them is about to play in its third World Series in five years. Honestly, if Wainwright were 100 percent rather than the guy with a gimpy elbow coming off a six-run drubbing against the Dodgers, this would more or less come down to a coin flip.

But Wainwright’s questionable status tilts the series in San Francisco’s favor. In a battle between two of baseball’s model franchises, I’m saying Giants in six.

ESPN Stats & Info provided research assistance for this article.

This article has been updated to adjust the order of the Giants’ projected NLCS rotation and correct a reference to Madison Bumgarner’s Game 1 availability.