Friday, October 15, 2010

Playoff Preview: Giants-Phillies

This year’s NLCS will feature the Philadelphia Phillies and the San Francisco Giants. The Phillies, looking to establish themselves as a sort of NL mini-dynasty by representing the senior circuit in the World Series for the 3rd consecutive year, will look to use their “Big Three” of Halladay, Oswalt, and Hamels to keep the Giants in check while letting their powerful lineup go to work. The Giants, a definite underdog in this series, will counter with a strong staff of their own and some surprisingly opportunistic hitting from the middle of their lineup. 

The Phillies .328 wOBA is fourth in the NL, and they’re top 5 in the league in nearly every offensive category. Their defense is pretty average, as their –5.8 regular season UZR will attest. Their starters’ FIP of 3.95 is fairly pedestrian, but the playoffs will allow them to shrink their rotation to four starters, with three of them pitching twice should the series go to seven games. When your top three starters are three of the best in the league, as is the case for Philadelphia, that’s a pretty big deal.

The Giants are 9th in the league in wOBA, so their offense isn’t exactly the strongest facet of their game. However, these numbers can be deceptive, as the Giants’ lineup is very different from the toothless one we saw for most of the beginning of the year. Pat Burrell, a midseason acquisition, has been reborn in San Francisco and put up a huge year. Cody Ross has come in and contributed enormously. Andres Torres has discovered his form and become one of the best everyday centerfielders in the NL, and Juan Uribe has displaced Edgar Renteria at short, making use of many at-bats that were being wasted on the over-the-hill Renteria. The Giants’ 56.4 UZR is second-best in the NL, and along with their skilled collection of starters and strong pen, that could make them very dangerous to the Phils. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and Madison Bumgarner, the four Giants penned in to start games this series, have FIPs of 3.15, 3.65, 4.00, and 3.66 respectively. 

Game 1, at Citizen’s Bank Park, will line up a dream matchup, with two-time defending Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum going up against this year’s likely NL Cy Young, Roy Halladay. This game is almost certain to be a pitcher’s duel, as in their last starts, Halladay threw a no-hitter and Lincecum pitched a complete-game 2-hit 14-strikeout gem. This game will really come down to whichever team is able to scrape across a run or two, because I don’t think it’ll take much more than that.

For the second game, also in Philly, Bruce Bochy has announced that he’ll be pitching Jonathan Sanchez instead of Matt Cain, who would usually go after Lincecum. Bochy’s said that he wants to break up his righties by inserting the lefty Sanchez, which could be a good strategy considering the largely left-handed heart of the Phillies’ order. However, it’s also a huge vote of confidence for the young Sanchez, who has always frustrated Giants’ fans with his lack of control and composure. Sanchez has incredible stuff, but his location is the difference between a no-hitter (I attended his last season, and it was probably the most exciting baseball moment of my life) and one of his patented 7-walk starts where he gets 10 outs and is done by the 4th inning having thrown 90 pitches. However, Sanchez was fantastic in the last month of the season, and he’s earned the chance to work some playoff magic. Opposing Sanchez will be Roy Oswalt, acquired midseason from the Astros. Oswalt is as good a second starter as there is in the NL, so this game will likely be another relatively low-scoring one.

As the series moves back to San Francisco for game 3, the string of fantastic pitching matchups will continue, with Matt Cain taking on Cole Hamels. Cain has been something of a second ace for the Giants, putting up a 3.65 FIP and 3.14 ERA this season. He’s been very good at home, with a 3.42 FIP in San Francisco this year. Hamels has put up very similar numbers, with a 3.06 ERA and 3.67 FIP. Should be another great duel.

Game 4 will feature Madison Bumgarner and Joe Blanton. Blanton’s something of an odd man out for the Phillies, as he’s not nearly on the same level as the rest of the starters the Phillies will be sending out. Bumgarner, on the other hand, has been as good as anyone on the Giants’ staff since his late-June callup. He’s had a 3.00 ERA/ 3.66 FIP this year in 18 starts, and put up a 1.95 FIP in five September starts. Throw in his series-clinching start in Atlanta in which he gave up 2 runs in 6 innings in his first taste of playoff baseball, and he’s gotta be the favorite in this contest. After watching the kid through the Giants’ minor league system and in the majors, I can tell you there’s not question in my mind he’s going to be special, and really already is. 

After that, the rotations will turn over, setting up Cain vs. Hamels for a potential game 7. With all the mouthwatering pitching matchups, I can’t imagine this not being a great series to watch. The question will be in the teams’ ability to break through against these pitchers. I’m gonna guess that this series goes seven, with the Giants winning games 1, 3, and 4 and the Phillies taking Oswalt’s starts in games 2 and 6 and Halladay’s in game 5. Game 7 is gonna be a close one, but I’m going to say Matt Cain shuts down the Phillies to send the Giants to the World Series. Am I biased? Sure. But before you go with the pundits and call it for the Phillies in five, take a second. The Giants’ are a more dangerous team than most people realize, because pitching and defense are the key to winning in the playoffs.

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