Major League Baseball’s six divisions were won by one, two, three, four, eight, and nine games. The Giants finished eight games ahead of the Dodgers, and their lead reached double digits on September 20. The Reds finished nine games ahead of the Cardinals, and their lead reached double digits on September 11. Suffice to say, for both teams, it’s been a while since they played what felt like a legitimately important game. Saturday, the important games resume all of a sudden, as the Giants and Reds are squaring off in a National League Division Series.
Incidentally, one wonders about the effects. Some people argue that it’s better to have to play at full intensity all the way through to the end, while other people argue there are benefits to being able to relax. Both the Giants and the Reds have more or less been able to relax, their playoff spots long secure, and we’ll never know how much this mattered, if it ends up having mattered at all. If it does matter, maybe it’ll matter about the same for both, since they’ve both been in similar situations. Nothing’s getting settled in this paragraph so here comes the next one.
Before we get to anything else, here’s the obligatory paragraph that might well not need to be written. You’re all smart enough to know this, but just as an unnecessary reminder: this series will last between three and five baseball games. What ends up being important over three to five baseball games is basically unpredictable. Other people will make series predictions but those predictions have zero value to them, and as much as we can highlight certain potential keys, they might not end up factoring. In one Wild Card game on Friday, a good team defense fell apart and the umpires made a couple crucial and controversial calls. In the other Wild Card game on Friday, Joe Saunders and the Orioles beat Yu Darvish and the Rangers in Texas. Baseball is insane and it’s never insaner than it is in this month. Nobody knows how this short series or any short series is going to go.
But we do know when this short series is going to be played. The schedule:
The basics: the Reds finished 97-65, with a +81 run differential. The Giants finished 94-68, with a +69 run differential. The Reds managed a 93 wRC+ and an 83 ERA-, which is a sentence I’d love to read out loud to myself ten years ago. The Giants managed a 99 wRC+ and a 97 ERA-. Right there you might find something you didn’t expect. The casual fan, at least, or the relatively uneducated member of the national media, might find something he didn’t expect.
There still exists the idea that the Reds are a slugging team that struggles to get good pitching, while the Giants are a pitching team that struggles to get good slugging. Indeed, the Giants do struggle to get good slugging, as they were out-homered by the Reds this season 172 to 103. But park effects matter and park effects make a huge difference, and even if you ignore park effects entirely, the Reds posted the lower ERA of the two teams. The Reds are the pitching-and-defense team that the Giants used to be. The Giants have run production that measures up to their run prevention, and that’s even with Melky Cabrera sitting
on the sidelines in the press box alone at home? somewhere. Laugh all you want that the Giants managed just 31 homers at home; they hit 72 on the road.
Beyond some of the overall team numbers, what might be most important to know are the scheduled starting pitchers. Here’s what we’ve got as of this writing:
Bruce Bochy hasn’t announced who’s going to start out of Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito, and Tim Lincecum. One could argue it should be pretty simple; by FIP, one of those starters was pretty good, one of those starters was fine, and one of those starters was pretty bad. But, obviously, Lincecum has had some curious issues for much of the season. Vogelsong allowed 35 runs in a late-season seven-start stretch before settling down in his final three. The Giants haven’t lost a game started by Zito since August 2. I’d go with Lincecum and Vogelsong myself, on short leashes, but I can’t predict what Bochy will do, and perhaps Bochy doesn’t yet know what he’s going to do.
The Reds’ group of starters is just outstanding. Some weeks ago I considered a post looking at Cueto, who had started to struggle, but I couldn’t find anything and then he stopped struggling. Arroyo is almost certainly a lot better than you thought that he was. Latos and Bailey combined for 353 strikeouts and 104 unintentional walks, and while Bailey was far better on the road this season, and while Bailey is lined up to start in this series at home, there’s little reason to think that split is meaningful. Bailey didn’t show any such split in 2011, when he was a very similar pitcher.
There’s going to be a lot of good starting pitching in this series. At least, there are going to be a lot of good starting pitchers in this series, but we don’t know how well they’re going to pitch. Joe Saunders vs. the Rangers in Texas, remember.
When you get into the bullpens, the Reds, obviously, have the occasionally-untouchable relief ace in Aroldis Chapman. A late-season scare makes him something of a question mark, but he’ll be beginning the series rested. Sean Marshall has pitched exactly as well as he was supposed to pitch, Jonathan Broxton has racked up three walks and 20 strikeouts since coming over, and Dusty Baker can get more than one inning out of Sam LeCure if he wants. On the Giants’ side, it’s Sergio Romo who has the eye-popping numbers, and significantly, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, and Jose Mijares all throw from the left side. The Reds aren’t loaded with left-handed hitters, but “left-handed” does apply to both Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. There’s going to be some matching up. Bochy is going to be careful, because he’ll have that flexibility.
We should talk about Votto. Votto finished with incredible numbers, and his OBP over the final month of the season was .505. That is, he reached base more often than he made an out. However, he also underwent some midseason surgeries on his knee, and he admitted in an interview that he wouldn’t be 100 percent again until the offseason. To go with that .505 OBP over 76 plate appearances since returning from the DL, Votto slugged .421 and didn’t hit a single homer. Here’s his spray chart, from Texas Leaguers:
Maybe, in this short series, Votto gets his timing back, and he gets his swing back. But he hasn’t been driving the ball like he’s accustomed to driving the ball, and this is probably baseball’s best hitter when he’s going good. There’s reason to believe Joey Votto might not be Joey Votto, which is great news for the Giants, as the Reds’ order outside of Votto isn’t intimidating.
They do still have Bruce and Ryan Ludwick, both of whom slugged well over .500. Brandon Phillips isn’t bad, and Todd Frazier will be available off of the bench should the Reds need a jolt. But while it might not matter much, the Reds posted the National League’s lowest wRC+ in September/October, at 65. The Giants actually came in at 114. The Reds as a unit haven’t been producing, and while that could be noise or while that could be the result of playing low-leverage games, the Reds have been struggling and now they’ll get consecutive series-opening games in AT&T Park. This is a recipe for nervousness.
The Giants’ lineup should be fairly predictable, with the only rotation possibly involving Gregor Blanco and Xavier Nady. There won’t be a Todd Frazier on the bench, but there will be a Buster Posey in the middle, and however much you think Marco Scutaro might be overachieving, Hunter Pence has been similarly underachieving. Like the Reds, the Giants as a team have hit lefties better; unlike the Reds, the Giants won’t face a left-handed starting pitcher. The Giants have demonstrated that they can win lower-scoring games at home, and they’ve demonstrated that they can win higher-scoring games on the road. That September/October lineup they were using posted baseball’s second-lowest strikeout rate, and as an aggressive team already, they might not let the Reds’ starters get too far ahead of them in the counts.
One notes that the Giants have two important switch-hitters in Pablo Sandoval and Angel Pagan, while the Reds don’t have any switch-hitters of note. Both Sandoval and Pagan have been better from the left side of the plate, but both Chapman and Marshall are left-handed.
And that reminds me — this year, Giants hitters had the platoon advantage 68 percent of the time, which was the second-highest rate in baseball. Reds hitters had the platoon advantage 38 percent of the time, which was the lowest rate in baseball. This might be one of the reasons why, on talent, it seems like the Giants’ offense has overachieved while the Reds’ offense has underachieved.
As far as team defenses are concerned, the Reds and Giants were nearly identical in BABIP and UZR, but greatly dissimilar by DRS, where the Reds were given a considerable edge. With Brandon Phillips, Zack Cozart, and Drew Stubbs, the Reds are strong up the middle, and the Giants’ best defenders might be Brandon Crawford and Gregor Blanco. To whatever extent that base-stealing might come into play, Ryan Hanigan isn’t very kind, while Buster Posey is a little more forgiving. Hanigan has thrown out two out of every five would-be base-stealers in his career, and in 2012 he finished at 32 of 66. The Giants would love to add some extra bases — doing so, however, stands to be a challenge.
All that, and do you feel like anything’s figured out? These are two very good and very closely-matched teams, so neither team winning the series would come as a surprise. Even if they weren’t that closely matched, an upset still wouldn’t be so surprising. The Reds do have to wonder about Joey Votto’s power, and they do have to wonder about Aroldis Chapman’s power arm. Having ready access to a dominant Chapman would make this series a lot easier for Cincinnati. The Giants, meanwhile, have to figure out what they’re doing in the back of the rotation, and they have to score without going deep against an excellent collection of pitchers. The only thing I feel confident saying is that the first two games of this series will probably feel quite a bit different from however many games after that are remaining. They might not, but I’ll go out on that limb. I won’t go out on the prediction limb. There’s really never any point. It isn’t even fun!