Playoff Preview: Cardinals-Astros

TEAM                W      L     WIN%      RS      RA     ExW-L
St. Louis         100     62     .617     805     634    100-62
Houston            89     73     .549     693     609     91-71
OFFENSE            RS/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB      SO
Houston            4.28     .256     .322     .408     281     161     481    1037
St. Louis          4.97     .270     .339     .423     287     170     534     947   
DEFENSE            RA/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB      SO
Houston            3.76     .246     .308     .389     257     155     440    1164
St. Louis          3.91     .257     .318     .398     267     153     443     974

The 2005 NLCS is, of course, a rematch of the 2004 NLCS, but don’t expect the revival of any blood feuds. Unlike the Peloponnesian furies that animate the Yankees and Red Sox, the Cardinals-Astros rivalry is relatively mild, if not downright friendly. You’d think after all the head-butting between these two teams over the years (collectively they’ve won nine of the last 10 NL Central titles) they’d feel some animosity toward each other. Not so, says Cards hurler Cal Eldred:

It’s fun. With these two teams, I really think if you took all the fans away and put us in a back yard, like my kids play—like we used to play—I think you’d have baseball like this.

So there you have it—a league championship series that may as well be a dust-up in some kid’s back yard. This is not to say that the series will be flat or boring. We’ll have an encore of some of last year’s most famous battles—Roger Clemens vs. Albert Pujols, Phil Garner vs. Tony La Russa, Southern honor vs. Midwestern pride—not to mention some new plot twists, new characters, and possibly a new ending.

If history is any guide, however, we’ll have the same result as last year. See, this is the eighth year-to-year rematch in LCS history, and most of the time the victors remain victorious. Here are the previous contests:

1970: Baltimore/Minnesota
1974: Oakland/Baltimore
1977: New York/Kansas City
1978: Los Angeles/Philadelphia
1978: New York/Kansas City
1992: Atlanta/Pittsburgh
2001: New York/Seattle
2004: Boston/New York

Only one of those teams avenged their loss from the year before: the 2004 Red Sox. Before that the losers were 0-7 in the rematch. There are other historical trends at work too. For example, the Astros are only the sixth team since 1972 to send three aces to the mound in one postseason. (If you’re curious, my definition of an “ace” pitcher can be found here.) Here are their predecessors:

1977 Dodgers: Andy Messersmith, Don Sutton, Burt Hooton
1996 Braves: Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz
1997 Braves: Ditto
1999 Braves: Glavine, Maddux, Kevin Millwood
2002 A’s: Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito
2003 A’s: Ditto

How’d those teams do? Altogether they were only 6-6 in short series, suggesting you need more than a troika of great arms to get through the playoffs. But great arms help. The Astros, of course, live and die with their pitching. Their starters finished first in the league with a 3.45 ERA, but that number gets even better—skyrocketing all the way up to 2.73—if you weight it according to the potential starters in a seven-game series.

Unfortunately for Houston, while the team finished first in the league in terms of fewest runs allowed, they finished only 11th in the league in terms of most runs scored. It’s this very lack of punch that has caused critics to doubt the Astros’ chances. Or to sum up their problems compared to last season: no Carlos Beltran, no Jeff Kent, no Jeff Bagwell (not as a starter anyway).

Let’s see how the newcomers fare against their counterparts from last year. We’ll use Win Shares Percent—a rate stat adjusted for playing time, which allows us to compare apples to apples more easily—to size up the players:

2004                WSP     2005                WSP       +/-
Jeff Bagwell       .634     Jason Lane         .515     -.119
Jeff Kent          .711     Chris Burke        .303     -.408
Carlos Beltran     .847     Willy Taveras      .368     -.479
Pete Munro         .199     Andy Pettitte      .816     +.816
TOTAL             2.391     TOTAL             2.002     -.190

As you can see, Houston’s offense has been sapped considerably without Kent and Beltran. But they make up for it somewhat by starting Andy Pettitte for one and possibly two games rather than Pete Munro. (Yes, Pete Munro. That’s the name of the gentleman who started Games 2 and 6 of last year’s NLCS.)

Pettitte has been somewhat forgotten this year, overshadowed by splashier Cy Young candidates like Chris Carpenter, Dontrelle Willis and Clemens. But you could argue that he’s better than any of those guys, especially at this particular moment in time. (Those other three all faded at some point down the stretch, while Pettitte has a 1.56 ERA and no bad starts since June 15.)

What’s more, the cricket match that the Astros won on Sunday—which prevented a Game 5 in Atlanta—allows them to exploit Pettitte much more fully. Consider: even if Houston had won a hypothetical finale vs. the Braves, they would have had to pitch Roy Oswalt on three days’ rest to open the series against the Cards, then come back for Game 2 with either Brandon Backe, Wandy Rodriguez or Clemens (who threw 136 pitches over the weekend) on short rest. But by ending the series early, Houston can set up their rotation much more attractively, avoiding the hinky arrangement from last year with Backe and Munro starting the first two games in St. Louis. In all likelihood that was the difference in that series.

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While it seems like the Astros have made a number of changes from their 2004 roster, the Cardinals have shuffled the deck (pun absolutely intended) even more. Here are their new faces in the NLCS and a breakdown of how they stack up against last year’s counterparts (again, according to WSP):

2004                WSP     2005                WSP       +/-
Mike Matheny       .409     Yadier Molina      .592     +.183
Tony Womack        .554     Mark Grudzielanek  .578     +.024
Scott Rolen       1.156     Abraham Nunez      .482     -.674
Edgar Renteria     .468     David Eckstein     .713     +.245
Jeff Suppan        .376     Chris Carpenter    .791     +.415
Woody Williams     .448     Mark Mulder        .611     +.163
TOTAL             3.411     TOTAL             3.767     +.356

The Cardinals are almost a mirror image of the Astros. Where the Astros suffer a few losses from last year’s squad, they make up for it with one giant upgrade in the person of Pettitte. Conversely, the Cards must endure a giant downgrade from Rolen to Nunez at third, but otherwise their club is marked by incremental pickups at several spots around the diamond.

This points out a key difference between these two squads. While both teams have a nucleus of great players, the Cards have a much deeper supporting cast. In fact, I would liken the Astros to the 2003 or 2004 Cardinals—that is, they’re extremely dependent on their stars to come through. If those stars are on, they can be world-beaters. If not, their lopsided roster leaves them weaponless (much like the Cards were in the World Series against the Red Sox).

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

In other words, this series probably comes down to the obvious: if Pettitte, Oswalt, and Clemens are on, the Astros go to the next round. If not, I don’t see them making up for the Cardinals’ broad talent base.

A few other key matchups worth watching:

1) Brad Lidge vs. Jason Isringhausen

Last year’s NLCS went seven games, and four of the games were decided by the bullpens. In the regular season St. Louis and Houston finished 1-2 in the league in relief ERA (Cards 3.48, Astros 3.51), but I still think the bullpen is an edge for Houston.

Part of the difference is Dan Wheeler’s edge over Julian Tavarez, part is the fact that Al Reyes, the Cards’ top set-up man, is on the shelf; but most of it is due to the closers, Lidge vs. Isringhausen. Lidge has been a monster against the Cards—no runs allowed in 8.2 innings this year, and even more impressive in last year’s NLCS, when he blanked the Cards over 8 innings and struck out 14 (14!) Redbirds. That’s dominant.

Izzy, on the other hand, has faltered against Houston. He pitched poorly in last year’s playoffs, and he’s been particularly bad in Minute Maid Park. And as Larry Borowsky of Viva El Birdos points out, “When entering the game to protect a one-run lead, Izzy has converted just one save in five opportunities against the Astros over the last two years.” If starting pitching turns these games into tight 11 p.m. hand-wringers, the outcome may rest on the shoulders of this seeming mismatch.

2) Cards defense vs. Astros defense

The Cardinals cakewalked their way through the first round of the playoffs against the Padres (in fact, they never trailed once in the entire series). But as Rob Neyer points out, it wasn’t a rout on paper. The Padres actually outhit the Cards and matched them homer for homer.

The difference was defense—as in, the Cards played some and the Padres didn’t. St. Louis was able to squib a number of hits past San Diego’s statues at first and in left, while the Cardinals gobbled up seven ground balls and turned them into double plays.

So how does the Cards’ defense stack up against Houston? Well, let’s see … with the glove you’d take Yadier Molina over Brad Ausmus, Pujols over Lance Berkman, Mark Grudzielanek over Craig Biggio and Adam Everett over David Eckstein. The outfield is more of a wash, with neither team holding a decisive edge. In center, for example, Jim Edmonds and Willy Taveras are two of the better fly-catchers in the league—Edmonds with the better gun and better reads, and Taveras with better wheels.

All in all, you gotta go with St. Louis when it comes to glovework, but don’t expect the series to hinge on defense like the Cards/Padres series did. (And don’t expect as many double plays either. Everett, Tavares, and Lane are all expert at avoiding the DP, and only Ausmus is a serious clog on the basepaths.

3) Cards righty pitchers vs. Astros righty hitters

The Astros have an overwhelming right-handed lineup, and only Berkman and Mike Lamb are appreciably better against northpaws. The Cardinals, of course, have a heavily right-handed rotation. Mark Mulder is the only lefty, and in terms of opposition batting numbers, Carpenter was probably the best pitcher in baseball against right-handed hitters. What’s more, the team most likely won’t have to rely on more than one lefty out of the pen, which is a plus for the Cards given Ray King’s recent struggles.

There’s another upside for the Cardinals too. The Astros have on-base issues up and down the lineup, finishing 13th in the league in overall OBP. The Cardinals usually kill teams that put the ball in play. They were 36-15 this year against the five teams that finished at the bottom of the league in on-base percentage. In other words, don’t expect the Stros to score a ton of runs in this series. This isn’t exactly a newsflash, but if they win it’ll most likely be on the backs of their Big Three in the starting rotation.

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So who will win? Personally I hate making predictions, especially for such evenly matched teams. The only thing that would surprise me here is a four- or five-game series, but if I have to pick I’ll go with the Astros in seven. I don’t have a ton of confidence in Carpenter or the Cards’ bullpen, and I’m not sure if Pujols, Edmonds, et al will do enough to overcome the Stros’ pitching. Plus the Cards won the league last year, and given the Astros’ struggles in ’80, ’86, and ’04, perhaps they’re due a little karma.

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