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NLDS Preview: Phillies-Cardinals

The Cardinals steamrolled opponents in September en route to one of the biggest comebacks in baseball history. Trailing the Braves in the wild card standings by ten and a half games on August 24, they won 23 of 32 games, capturing a playoff berth on September 28, 2011: a date which will live in baseball insanity.

The Phillies, meanwhile, coasted through most of the regular season. Their 102-60 record marked a new franchise best, and that win total would have been even shinier if not for an eight-game losing streak directly after clinching in mid-September.

The regular season doesn’t matter anymore. Sure, the Phillies have home field advantage throughout the post-season — especially since the NL won the All Star Game — but playoff series are dramatic because anything can happen. The Phillies are a better team on paper, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Cardinals advance to the championship series. The last time a team as hot as the Redbirds made the playoffs, the 2007 Rockies won a one-game playoff against the Padres and subsequently swept the Phillies out of the division series. That Rockies team went to the World Series. Everything clicked at the end of the month and they were able to parlay that late success into playoff victories.

The Phillies lost the second game of that division series primarily because reliever Kyle Lohse served up a grand slam to Kaz Matsui. Lohse was recently named the series opening starter for the Cardinals, adding another parallel. Matt Holliday now plays for the Cardinals, adding even another parallel. But unlike that series, where the 2007 Phillies were successful almost solely due to offensive exploits, this version of the team is built much differently, and forms a much more formidable foe. Here are the major takeaways to get you ready for this potentially very entertaining division series.

Offense vs. Pitching
This series pits, quite literally, the best offense in the league against its best pitching. The Cardinals posted a .332 team wOBA that led the senior circuit. They also topped the league in hits (1,513), batting average (.273), on base percentage (.341), slugging percentage (.425, tied with Milwaukee) and wRC+ (111). They finished with the lowest strikeout rate in the league, at 15.7 percent, and ranked in the top five in baserunning, isolated power and home runs. Their defense was suspect — a -30.8 UZR was worse than every team aside from the Mets — but the offense was so forceful that the Cardinals still ended up leading the league in non-pitching WAR with 34.3.

On the other side of the ledger, the Phillies pitching staff produced 27.5 WAR, almost five full wins ahead of the second-place Giants. The staff posted an aggregate 3.02 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 3.41 xFIP, 3.21 SIERA and 1.17 WHIP. Realistically, nobody was that close to challenging them in these areas. Their K/9 ranked fourth at 7.9, but a league-leading 2.4 BB/9 resulted in a 3.2 K/BB ratio. Second on that list was the Brewers at 2.8. And that’s the staff as a collective unit. The main attraction of the Phillies is the starting rotation, which featured three of the top ten or twelve pitchers in the league, and two very capable starters at the back end.

The rotation put up the following league-leading stats: 7.9 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 4.2 K/BB, 1.11 WHIP, 77.6% LOB, 2.86 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 3.17 xFIP, 3.09 SIERA. The second place teams in each respective metric were much further distanced than when examining pitching staffs collectively. The rotation produced 25.8 WAR, over eight wins more than the second-place Giants, and exactly twelve more wins than the third-place Dodgers.

The Phillies hold a theoretical advantage here, as the gap between theirs and the Cardinals rotations is more substantial than the gap in offense. Since Chase Utley returned, the Phillies actually scored the second-most runs in the league, a fact that is often forgotten by those who anchored opinions to a mediocre Phillies offense in April. Given that Utley is a tremendous player and that Hunter Pence was added at the midway point, and that everyone finally seems to be healthy, there’s little reason to think that starting point is arbitrary or coincidental.

The Back of the Phillies Bullpen
Much has been made recently about the back of the Phillies bullpen. Aside from Ryan Madson, the team has shuffled through Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes and Brad Lidge for the seventh and eighth inning roles. Given the general lack of confidence in Lidge and the late-season struggles of both youngsters, it stood to reason that the Phillies were stumped as to who throws those frames. Well, the ideal solution is to have the starters throw those innings.

Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels all threw over 200 innings this year. They rarely left prior to the seventh inning, and often pitched much deeper than that. Perhaps it’s a simplistic view at the situation, but if the members of that trio can’t pitch into the seventh or eighth innings, the Phillies have more problems than choosing between Bastardo and Lidge as the bridge to Madson.

Look for the Phillies to actually take a more sabermetric approach in those innings if the starters are removed. Charlie Manuel might not know its an advanced analytic principle, but he has definitely utilized platoon advantages in playoff situations. In 2009, he brought Scott Eyre out to start the ninth inning against the Rockies, even though it was “Lidge’s inning” because lefties were due up. He might not operate in the same manner with a lights-out Madson, who is capable of retiring batters of any handedness, but there won’t be a specific eighth inning reliever. The hope is that the starters pitch the eighth, but if they can’t, the Phils will mix and match based on handedness and Manuel and Rich Dubee’s perception of the batters’ weaknesses.

La Russa’s Rotation
The Cardinals took a major, major hit when Adam Wainwright was lost for the season before it even began, but a mid-season trade and the steadiness of other veterans provided the team with a solid rotation. However, Tony La Russa is taking a very strange approach in dispatching those starters. Chris Carpenter pitched the final game of the season Wednesday night and therefore isn’t available until the third game of the series, which is fine, since he was needed to pitch in the last game of the season. Jaime Garcia is available earlier than that but actually won’t pitch until game four.

Instead of using his best starters as early as possible, La Russa is throwing Kyle Lohse and Edwin Jackson in the first two games, saving Garcia for a Game Four in St. Louis. At first glance the decision is marginally justifiable, as La Russa likely figures that they are at such a disadvantage on the road, that Jaime shouldn’t be wasted in such games, and that average-ish starters like Lohse and Jackson could potentially steal a game. Even if the decision was made under that reasoning, it serves as another example of managing for the future instead of managing to ensure the future will even exist.

By not throwing Garcia in the second game, La Russa is diminishing the odds that the Cardinals will even use their young lefty, because there might not be a Game Four. We shouldn’t expect anything less from La Russa, but this is a questionable decision that could cost them. Of course, given how these things work out, Jackson will toss a 2-hit shutout Sunday, and Garcia will surrender nine runs in a series-clinching game.

Allen Craig and John Mayberry
These two are the X-Factors in the series, especially if Matt Holliday can’t play, and if the Phillies finally decide that Raul Ibanez doesn’t deserve playing time regardless of pitcher handedness. They are similar players as well, as power-hitting outfielders with good eyes that broke out in their late-20s.

Craig hit an impressive .315/.362/.555, with 11 home runs and five stolen bases, in 219 plate appearances. He ran the bases well and played a decent outfield, en route to 2.6 WAR. Most of those PAs came against same-handed righties, as well. In 70 PAs against lefties, he hit .313/.343/.657 with half of his home runs.

Mayberry hit .273/.341/.513, with 15 home runs and eight stolen bases, in 296 plate appearances. Just like Craig, he posted solid fielding and baserunning numbers, en route to 2.5 WAR. Unlike Craig, however, most of Mayberry’s PAs came against lefties. With the platoon advantage, he hit .306/.358/.595 in 176 PAs. Against righties, he hit .250/.330/.455, still superior to Ibanez but clearly not as standoutish as his numbers against opposite-handed hurlers. While Craig will likely start games this series, Mayberry will be called upon to neutralize the Cardinals lefty relievers.