Thursday, October 7, 2010

Playoff Preview: Giants-Braves

The one playoff series that hasn’t yet begun will pit the San Francisco Giants against the Atlanta Braves. Both teams secured their playoff berths on the final day of the regular season, but this isn’t a case of two teams that are happy simply to be there. Now that October baseball is a reality, both clubs will be looking to extend their stays and make runs deep into the playoffs. Atlanta will see off legendary manager Bobby Cox, who in his 21st consecutive year as manager of the club has announced that he will hang up his cleats at the end of this season. After a six-year playoff drought, the Giants will hope to improve on their 2003 divisional series exit at the hands of the Wild Card Marlins. 

Both teams have displayed somewhat similar philosophies throughout the course of the season. Among playoff teams, the Giants are last in runs scored, with the Braves just ahead of them. Overall, the Giants are 17th in baseball, while the Braves are the 13th best run producing team in the game. Both teams rely on their pitching to keep games low-scoring, hoping their modest scoring ability is enough to eke out a win based on the strength of their run prevention. The Giants have allowed the second-least runs in baseball, behind only the Padres, but San Diego’s pitching staff won’t be a problem for anyone until next April. The Braves allowed the 4th-least runs during the regular season, and are second only to the Giants among playoff teams. 

However, the teams arrive at these numbers in somewhat different fashions. The Giants feature an excellent pitching staff, led by Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, which has put up an FIP of 3.74 this season, third best in baseball, and the team’s 8.20 K rate leads the league by a bunch.. They supplement that with a defense that has put up a UZR of 54.4 this year, second only to the Diamondbacks. This defense is led by Andres Torres (21.5 UZR this season), but has received surprisingly not-horrible contributions from Pat Burrell (5.4 UZR in left since he was acquired midseason), Aubrey Huff (5.1 at first, but more impressively 2.6 in 258 left field innings), and Juan Uribe (5.5 between second, short, and third). 

The Braves, however, rely on their league-best staff (3.65 FIP) to make up for a defense that has been nothing short of dismal. Their –34.4 UZR is fourth-worst in baseball. They’re the worst defensive team still remaining. However, the worst culprits are problems that have since been fixed, with much of the negative UZR coming from experiments with Nate McLouth and Melky Cabrera in center and Troy Glaus picking up most of the innings at first base before the acquisition of Derrek Lee. McLouth is still pretty awful in left. His –1.2 UZR in 52 innings may simply be an issue of small sample size, but after putting up –12.3 in 561 CF innings, I’m not inclined to believe the move to left will turn him into a Gold Glove candidate. However, Melky and Glaus are out of the lineup, with Rick Ankiel and the aforementioned Lee performing adequately in their stead. 

The teams will begin the series with Tim (“The Freak?” The Franchise?” “The Freaky Franchise?” “Big Time Timmy Jim?”) Lincecum toeing the rubber for the Giants. The back-to-back Cy Young winner is unlikely to defend his title in 2010, but his 3.15 FIP and NL-best 231 K’s represent a pretty damn good season for an “off year.” The Braves will counter with Derek Lowe, who after a moderately rocky start to the season has put up a September/October FIP of 1.90. They’ll play games one and two in San Francisco, with the second game of the series featuring Cain and his stellar 3.65 FIP squaring off against Tommy “Mmmmmbop” Hanson. Cain has taken the next step in his development, essentially becoming a second ace for San Francisco. His 4.0 WAR ties his career high, and his 223.1 IP (most in any season in his career) marks the 4th straight year he’s been over 200 innings. Hanson has put up a 3.31 FIP after last year’s 3.50 (though, unlike last year, he was not able to accrue a sub-3 ERA), He’s put up 4.3 WAR in his sophomore season, and has refined his pitching strategy. He’s dropped his K rate by half a strikeout per 9 (8.18 to 7.68), but also dropped his walk rate from last year’s 3.24 to 2.49 this season. 

Games 3 and 4 will take the series to Atlanta on Sunday and Monday, with Tim Hudson going up against Jonathan Sanchez in game 3. Madison Bumgarner and Brandon Beachy are scheduled for Game 4, there’s always the possibility either team chooses to move its ace up a day, pitching Lincecum or Lowe on short rest rather than putting the ball in the hands of one of the talented rookies for a potential clincher. This decision is made slightly easier by the knowledge that Bochy and Cox can turn to Cain or Hanson on full rest in a deciding fifth game should they decide to use their ace in Game 4. Game 5 will bring the series back to San Francisco on Wednesday, should these teams need to go the full distance. 

I’m going to take the Giants in this series. I believe defensive holes always rear their heads in the playoffs, more so than at any other point in the season. The Braves should have taken some advice from their neighbors to the west and heeded legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant’s words: “Offense wins games, defense wins championships.” The Giants take it in four, with rookie Madison Bumgarner taking the win in the clincher.

You didn't think I'd end this thing without mentioning what happened last night, did you? Congratulations to Roy Halladay on pitching the second no-hitter in postseason history in his first career playoff start. Last night, a dominant Doc showed America why he's the best pitcher in the game today. Period.

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