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NLDS Game One Preview: Atlanta

Much of the attention around Game One of this Giants-Braves series understandably will go to Bobby Cox‘s decision to have Derek Lowe start rather than Tommy Hanson. Cox did this in order to keep Hanson on regular rest, and given that Lowe isn’t as bad as some think to he is, it’s an understandable choice. The Giants’ top three starters — Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez — are excellent, but Lowe, Hanson, and Tim Hudson are no slouches, either. The Giants have one of the best pitchers in baseball going tomorrow night, but if Lowe can keep the ball on the ground like he usually does and his infielders do their part, the Braves are going to be hard to score on, too. Moreover, as Dave Cameron pointed out in our playoff preview podcast, the Braves have a excellent bullpen (even with Takashi Saito being out) that Bobby Cox should be willing to go to early and often.

The problem the Braves face going into Game One is not so much preventing runs, but scoring them. First, there’s the small issue of Tim Lincecum being really good, even though it has been a “down” year for him (“only” 5.1 WAR, 3.15 FIP). Even more problematic for the Braves is the state of their offense. Perhaps more than any other team, Atlanta’s offense illustrates why simply going off of current season stats when analyzing a matchup is a mistake. In 2010, the Braves’ offense was cumulatively the third most productive in the National league at 39.9 park-adjusted batting runs above average (the Giants were seventh at -14.6). Leaving aside the difference between observed performance and true talent, if we take a closer look, we see that Chipper Jones (+12) and Martin Prado (+17.4) were responsible for about 30 of those. Both Jones and Prado are out for the playoffs. Those injuries, coupled with a McLouthCabreraAnkiel mess so horrible that it makes one think “man, Eric Hinske should really get some starts,” could make things very ugly for Atlanta going up against Lincecum tonight.

The situation isn’t hopeless. Much attention will be given to probable NL Rookie of the Year Jason Heyward and “how he responds” to the pressure situation of being the playoffs. The Braves are obviously counting on a lot from Heyward, but he is not the Braves’ only good hitter. Brian McCann isn’t just a good hitter for a catcher, he’s a good hitter, period. CHONE‘s latest update sees McCann as a slightly better hitter (+17/150) than Heyward (+16/150). This means that San Francisco can’t simply save their best left-handed relief specialist for one or the other. Although Derek Lee has had a down season in 2010, his track record suggests he’s a much better hitter than his .340 wOBA in 2010 would indicate. These three players (perhaps including All-Star Omar Infante) don’t make the Braves’ offense a great one by any stretch. Still, Cox has wisely maximized his resources this season by hitting Heyward second (usually the most misused spot in the batting order) more than anyone else on the Braves. If Cox follows his practice from Sunday and slots the right-handed hitting Lee at #3 between Heyward and McCann, it will be much more difficult for the Giants to leverage left-handed relievers against the Braves in crucial situations.

The San Francisco’s offense is probably slightly better than Atlanta’s overall, although the Giants have some holes and questions marks as well. The Giants also have the advantage in starting pitching on Thursday. However, the gaps are smaller than they might seem, and between the Braves’ bullpen and a few good hitters in the key spots in the batting order, Atlanta has more than a sluggers chance. I look forward to the possibility of some interesting matchups between both bullpens and middles-of-the-orders tomorrow night.