Sunday, October 9, 2011

NLCS Preview: Milwaukee Brewers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

This year’s NLCS is a matchup of two NL Central squads that just plain don’t like each other. The Brewers and Cardinals have gotten into it on various occasions this season, and with a World Series berth on the line the tension only figures to increase.

The Cardinals’ 762 runs and wRC+ of 111 make them the best offensive team in the National League this season. The Redbirds bats are led by a trifecta of mashers in the heart of the order in Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman. This could be Pujols’ last year in St. Louis, as he’ll be a free agent after the season and there are several deep-pocketed sharks in the water who will look to lock up the Cards’ iconic first baseman. Pujols had his worst season as a pro, putting up “only” 5.1 WAR. Funny how being the 11th most productive position player in the NL can be considered a disappointment, but that’s the level of expectation that’s been set for the best hitter of the past decade. Holliday dealt with injuries this season, appearing in only 124 games, but mashed his way to a 154 wRC+ and 5 WAR when he was in the lineup. Since 2007, no outfielder has been more productive than Holliday, who has reached that plateau through ridiculous consistency; he’s produced between 144 and 156 wRC+ for each of the last five seasons. After two consecutive down years, Berkman put up 5 WAR in 2011 on the strength of a 159 wRC+. Berkman’s trademark power disappeared last season, and his 2010 ISO of .166 was his worst mark since his rookie campaign, but his .246 this year was right in line with his career average.

Opposing the Cardinals, the Brewers’ offense features Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Braun may be the frontrunner for the NL MVP after a huge season in which he led the NL with a 179 wRC+. As scary a thought as this is, Braun is continuing to improve as a hitter. For each of the last five seasons he’s had an increase in walk rate and a decrease in strikeout rate, with career bests in both categories this season. A more patient, more selective Ryan Braun isn’t exactly a welcome sight for opposing pitchers. Following Braun in the Brewers’ potent lineup is Prince Fielder, who like Pujols may be moving on after this season. Seeing Fielder in another team’s uniform will be a strange sight, as the remarkably consistent Fielder has missed only 13 games since his first full season in 2006, and only a single contest over the past three years. Fielder’s as prototypical as power hitters come, and his .267 ISO trailed only Mike Stanton among National Leaguers this season.

Both clubs are somewhat middle-of-the-road in terms of run prevention, as the Brewers’ 638 runs allowed places them sixth in the NL, while the Cardinals’ 692 is ninth in the league. It’s almost unbelievable that the Cardinals have made it this far, as they lost their best starter before the season even started. Adam Wainwright, who has finished in the top three in NL Cy Young voting in each of the last two seasons, lost his 2011 campaign to Tommy John surgery. Without Wainwright, the Cardinals’ staff is led by Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia. Carpenter has stepped up in Wainwright’s absence with a 3.35 SIERA and 5 WAR. In Game 5 of the NLDS, Carpenter outdueled Roy Halladay with a complete game 3-hit shutout, sending the Cardinals to the NLCS after a 1-0 victory. After a huge rookie year in 2010, Garcia has built on his success with another impressive campaign. Garcia’s 3.29 SIERA reflects his ability to do the two things that make pitchers successful; strike hitters out and induce groundballs. His 53.6% groundball rate is seventh in the NL, and he strikes out another 18.9% of batters, meaning less than 30% of at-bats against Garcia result in a ball in the air and the potential for serious damage.

With Fielder likely gone after the season, Brewers’ GM Doug Melvin tabbed 2011 as the team’s year to go all-in, cashing in some big time prospects to solidify his starting staff. First, Melvin sent Brett Lawrie to Toronto in exchange for Shaun Marcum in early December of last year. While Lawrie has impressed in his rookie season, Marcum has been a huge part of the Brew Crew’s retooled rotation. Marcum got roughed up in his first postseason start, but he’s been solid all year, and will likely match up against Edwin Jackson in Game 2 of the NLCS. Less than two weeks later, Melvin one-upped himself, sending a package of prospects and Alcides Escobar to the Royals for ace Zack Greinke. Greinke’s been a man on a mission since coming to Milwaukee, as he’s ridden a league-leading 28.1% strikeout rate to a 2.51 SIERA, also best in the league. His baseball card numbers don’t reflect the incredible year he’s having, largely due to some plain old bad luck, but when Game 1 begins it’ll be the Brewers ace on the mound. Greinke and Marcum complement the Brewers’ pre-existing ace, Yovani Gallardo. Having Greinke and Marcum in the rotation takes a ton of pressure off of Gallardo, and he’s responded with a career-best 3.07 SIERA. While the Cardinals’ bats were able to overcome the Phillies’ multiple aces, the Brewers arms’ may be an equally difficult test.

A big factor in this series will be the gloves behind these two impressive rotations. At –30.8 runs, UZR sees the Cardinals as the second worst defensive team in the NL this season. Meanwhile, the Brewers’ UZR of 10.2 makes them the fifth best defense on the Senior Circuit. If the Brewers’ gloves can help their starters out or the Cardinals’ defense becomes a handicap for their hurlers, that could be a deciding factor in which team will represent the NL in the World Series.

I’m going to take the Brewers to win in six games, with two wins coming from Greinke and one each from Marcum and Gallardo. With tensions running high, it’s almost impossible to tell what’ll happen, except that Chris Carpenter will probably talk smack and Nyjer “Tony Plush” Morgan will almost certainly do something completely ridiculous. I know I’ll be watching.

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