October 6, 2012
Giants-Reds Division Series Preview
It can be hard to see change, sometimes. If these two teams had met two years ago, it would have been a battle between the best offense in the National League and the best pitching-and-defense in the National League. Now, though, the teams have almost completely flipped: the Reds have the league’s best pitching, the Giants have the league’s second-best offense, and each team is pretty lopsided that way. Nonetheless, don’t be surprised if the mainstream narrative focuses on the Giants’ homegrown aces and the Reds’ powerful middle of the order. A better narrative would focus on the showdown between perhaps the two best hitters in the National League; or the ticking clock that the Giants face each game as the Reds’ bullpen anticipates the final three or four innings; or the unexpected second-act brilliance of Brian Sabean’s career.
The Giants’ lineup produced the second-best TAv in the National League this year, though they did give up 20 points of OPS against right-handers, which won’t help them against the Reds’ all-righty rotation. Marco Scutaro’s outburst has been unusual, as the infielder walked just 13 times in a half-season after walking 90 in a year not long ago. Buster Posey finished with the second-highest OPS+ ever for a backstop, and if momentum means anything, then his .385/.454/.646 second half means the Giants might have this postseason’s best hitter.
Or the Reds might. Like the Giants, they have a top-heavy lineup by virtue of having one of the league’s best hitters. Joey Votto missed two months and still tied for the league lead in walks, giving him the highest non-Bonds OBP of the past decade. The Giants might not be able to get him out, but they can be hopeful that the damage will be limited to one base at a time; after returning in early September from his knee injury, Votto didn’t homer in 25 games and slugged just .421. Ludwick and Bruce provide plenty of power behind him and make for a match-up nightmare in the late innings. Drew Stubbs might be replaced at home, but Dusty Baker will tolerate his collapsible bat to have his range in San Francisco’s spacious outfield meadows. The Reds crushed lefties and struggled against righties, so the complexion of the lineup changes a bit if Bruce Bochy ultimately decides to start Ryan Vogelsong instead of Barry Zito.
3B/OF-R Todd Frazier (.273/.331/.498/.284)
The lean of the Reds’ rotation means Nady will be chained to the bench, but Bochy’s faith in him in September (and a few big hits as a Giant) will make sure he gets a big at-bat or two against Chapman. Lucky guy. Sanchez’s main role was to give Posey a breather, but that won’t matter in October, so he becomes a pinch-hitter with a bit of power. Arias will replace Sandoval on defense when the Giants lead late. Huff’s .631 OPS against lefties (and .671 in 2011) mean Cincinnati won’t even have to burn a LOOGY to get him out. By carrying 12 pitchers, the Giants can't carry Justin Christian, who can’t do anything but run but would have been the only real speed on the bench.
Frazier gets to watch, thanks to the Red-hot Scott Rolen’s second-half surge. He’s easily the best hitter on either team’s bench, probably one of the half-dozen best hitters in either lineup. The sample is still small, but he’s a .309/.342/.547 hitter against lefties, and the Giants will likely have three lefties in the bullpen. Navarro is a solid backup, though the Reds’ decision to carry just two catchers might limit his ability to come off the bench. If Heisey gets starts in Cincinnati, Drew Stubbs would provide impact speed off the bench. Otherwise, the Reds’ bench hitters are spectacularly ironic: Miguel Cairo, the “power,” hit one homer in 150 PA. The Reds’ inability to add a better backup infielder at the trade deadline doomed them to Valdez’s .170/.196/.181 line after August 1st. (The Reds final playoff roster hadn't been announced by early Saturday morning.)
The difference between the Giants’ 2012 rotation and their 2010 unit goes far beyond the departure of Jonathan Sanchez. Bumgarner is now something very close to an ace, though he stumbles into October with a 5.94 ERA and a startling walk rate in his (arbitrarily) last seven starts. Tim Lincecum finished the season with the worst ERA among NL qualifiers. He still misses bats but lost his command when he got into trouble; with runners in scoring position, he allowed a .286/.400/.487 line and walked nearly as many as he struck out. His last great start (70+ Game Score) came way back on July 14, against the Astros no less. Barry Zito’s winning streak (the Giants won his last 11 starts) earned him the rotation slot, unlike 2010, when he was left off the playoff roster. But that record disguises the fact that he wasn’t all that good in those 11 starts: a 3.92 ERA, and a .293/.336/.443 opponents line. Thankfully for the Giants, the man who’ll start games 1 and 5 is unchanged, and Cain brings a career 0.00 postseason ERA (21 1/3 innings) into this matchup.
The Reds are playing this series largely because the four names listed above stayed healthy and productive all year; they and fifth starter Mike Leake started 161 of the Reds’ games. Cueto is a smart pitcher who does everything well: fields his position, holds on runners, gets the bunt down. A Cain/Cueto matchup won’t usually yield double-digit strikeout totals on either side, but is fun to watch for people who like pitchers who make adjustments and don’t make mistakes. After a slow start, Latos struck out 13 in a late June start and caught fire after that, with a 2.43 ERA . (He also has some history with the Giants.) Arroyo and Bailey both throw a lot of strikes and allow too many home runs; the Giants don’t hit many of the latter, so this could be a good matchup for both pitchers.
RHP Sergio Romo (55.1, 1.79, 2.74)
The Giants have three very effective lefty relievers, but they’re going up against a team with only two lefties in the lineup and one on the bench. So will Bruce Bochy let Javier Lopez cross the Ryan Ludwick bridge between Votto and Bruce, or go full La Russa on the Reds? Ludwick hit .263/.360./576 against lefties, if that matters; he has a reverse split in his career, if that matters. Sergio Romo is one of maybe two relievers in baseball who doesn’t give up a big edge to Aroldis Chapman. If he has a weakness, it’s that he gives up more homers than an elite reliever should, and 20 of the 35 runs he has allowed over the past three years came on the longball. Kontos, acquired for Chris Stewart last winter, has a hard slider he controls well and sterling peripherals. He finally earned high-leverage work in September. It's hard to imagine how the Giants will need 12 pitchers, but they're carrying Guillermo Mota anyway.
The Reds, though, have the decisive edge, with not only the best bullpen in the National League but perhaps the best in league history. It’s a bullpen with six sub-3.00 ERAs, a bullpen so good that Sean Marshall has been limited to LOOGY work for the second half. Dusty Baker has deployed his leveraged outings generously to all of those pitchers at some point in the season, but the trade for Jonathan Broxon, and Broxton’s subsequent revival (20 Ks, three walks), have made the eighth and ninth innings predictable. Broxton or Marshall will get outs 22 to 24, depending on batter handedness; Chapman will get the last three. Baker might shift that plan up earlier in the game and ask Chapman to get more than three outs (he had eight outings of four or more outs this year), but the September strain on Chapman’s shoulder and the depth of the Reds’ bullpen, probably rules that out in all but the most desperate situations.
The Reds are extremely strong up the middle, with Cozart and Phillips each grading out highly by most measures and Drew Stubbs covering as much ground as any NL center fielder. Hanigan handles the basics of catching as well as any non-Molina in baseball, allowing just three passed balls and 17 wild pitches while throwing out a league-leading 48 percent of baserunners. If he slows down Pagan’s running game, it’ll be interesting to see whether Bochy counters by giving away more outs with bunts. The Reds give up some of that defensive value on the corners, which is the place to give up defensive value if defensive value is to be given up. Neither team is strong in right field, a particularly important position in San Francisco.
Baker’s reputation as a player’s manager is a bit vague; perhaps it is best reflected in his willingness to let players stay in their roles. But he hasn’t been rigid this season, and his current lineup—Phillips at the top, Stubbs at the bottom, Ludwick hitting cleanup—has shown he’s willing to let the players find their own level. If he stays flexible this month, you could see Frazier and Heisey getting big hits as starters. A good bench has always been part of the Baker model, but his bench isn’t likely to help him much this year, taking away some of the incentive to get overly tactical. Both of these managers have shown they can win a postseason series, though Baker has helmed not one (2002) but two (2003) postseason collapses.