Tonight, for the first time since June 12, Cliff Lee will bat against live pitching. Tomorrow, when C.J. Wilson comes to the plate, it will be only the sixth time he has done so in his career. American League pitchers are often ill-prepared for the task ahead of them. For the great majority of the six-month season they take no batting practice. Only in the weeks leading up to interleague play do they pick up a bat and work on swinging and bunting. This lack of preparation gives National League teams an advantage when they’re at home in the World Series.
Bench composition also plays a role in this imbalance. National League teams, at least the good ones, often have a number of pinch-hitters on the bench. American League teams have no such need. The better offenses typically have seven or eight regulars, for whom the manager would rarely, if ever, pinch hit. This means they can get by without thumpers on the bench — often, too, the better bench players gravitate towards NL teams for this very reason. But when they play games in San Francisco, Texas will be well-armed.
Chances are that the Rangers won’t need more than one AB from a pinch hitter in Lee’s stead. He has worked deep into every postseason game so far. But in case he does slip a bit in Game 1, the Rangers will have a few bench weapons. Because Vladimir Guerrero will start Games 1 and 2, David Murphy will be left on the bench. He can come in and face Tim Lincecum or any of the Giants’ righty relievers. As mentioned in the Vlad article, he has a career .357 wOBA against right-handed pitching, so he immediately becomes the Rangers’ greatest pinch-hitting threat. He might be the best bench bat for any team in the series.
Should the Giants go to a lefty, the Rangers could counter with Jeff Francoeur. He has been part of the team’s outfield platoon, and will almost certainly start Games 3 and 4, when the Giants will throw Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner. While he hasn’t produced a wOBA north of .330 since 2007, he remains a threat against left-handed pitching. His .340 wOBA this year is about in line with his career mark. We can expect that he’ll enter the game should either Jeremy Affeldt or Javier Lopez be in the game, if for no other reason than goad Bruce Bochy into making a pitching change.
The Rangers also have perhaps the best pinch-running option in the series with Julio Borbon. His 6.1 Speed score rates better than any player in the series other than Andres Torres, who will start for the Giants. His best role will be as a pinch-runner and then defensive replacement for Guerrero, but he can also replace either of the team’s catchers should they reach base late in a game. He had a pretty bad season in terms of steals, just 15-of-22, but that doesn’t tell us exactly how he’ll do in the specific situations he’ll face in the late innings.
Some American League teams struggle with the bench aspect of the game. They’ll usually have their regular DH on the bench for the World Series, which helps, but National League teams typically construct their benches to the conventions of the no-DH game. That gives them an advantage when the AL team visits in the World Series. The Rangers, however, appear well prepared for the NL game. They have a capable lefty and capable righty on the bench, plus a speed threat.
The Giants, on the other hand, might not have the optimal build for the AL game. We’ll look at that when the series heads to Arlington.