As all of you ok some of you ok maybe a few ok there's probably one person who reads this blog that knows it, I also write over at Around the Majors. I just finished up a preview of the playoff series over there, and thought I'd repost the Braves one here, since most people coming by are probably pretty interested in the upcoming series. I will tell you up front that I don't see this series going well para los Bravos; if you're looking for unabashed homerism, this post isn't the place to get it.
Buuuuuuut if you ARE looking for unabashed homerism, I'll have a post up tomorrow that will contain all you can wrap your precious little eyeballs around. Because I got very annoyed while writing this preview and now have a bunch of anger toward the Giants. So it should be fun for everyone*!
*Inasmuch as reading my stuff is fun for anyone not named Mama McMahon.
Atlanta Braves (91-71) vs. San Francisco Giants (92-70)
Game 1: 10/7, 9:37 PM
You know how you love it when you're reading a playoff preview by a guy who's completely in the bag for one of the teams? Yeah, neither do I. So let's skip the pith, and get to talking about the Braves.
The Good: Traditionally, discussion of the Braves' playoff chances begins and ends with the pitching. 2010 is no different; in fact, it sort of sets the standard. The Braves boast the best pitching staff in the league by FIP; their 3.65 team FIP is a figure that would make for a quality second starter on just about any team. That's mainly attributable to the bullpen, as no fewer than five Braves relievers have a sub-3.00 FIP - and Craig Kimbrel clocks in at an eye-popping 1.53 mark. Now, FIP isn't necessarily a great measure of bullpen success, because just about all of what relievers do happens in small sample sizes, and FIP isn't meant to predict performance when the players experience such volatility as, say, the aforementioned Kimbrel coming in and giving up a bomb shot to surrender the lead. But consider also that six relievers on this team strike out over a batter per inning and that three of them - Jonny Venters, Mike Dunn, and Billy Wagner - are left-handed, and you start to get the picture: this team likely won't surrender a late lead.
The real question is if they can get to the late innings with a lead, and for this squad, almost all of that responsibility is going to fall on the starters. The Braves seem likely to roll with a rotation of Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson, with some Brandon Beachy thrown in if Jair Jurrjens' knee doesn't allow him to make an appearance. Hudson hasn't pitched as well as his sub-3.00 ERA would suggest -- his FIP is actually the worst among the potential Atlanta starters in this series -- but it's hard to imagine regression hitting him hard in the one or two starts he might make in this series. Derek Lowe has started relying less on his sinker and has improved because of it; he's still much-maligned among Braves fans, but has the potential - and the experience, if you buy into such things - to be capable of keeping his team in the game. Hanson is my personal favorite among the starters here; the youngster's fastball and slider combo are lethal, and while his control could use a little work, he's one of a huge crop of promising young pitchers that we're seeing in today's game. Speaking of youngsters, Jason Heyward, who spent most of the season being unable to legally drink, is the team's best hitter, with a phenomenal eye at the plate and more power than anyone who'll grab a bat for the Bravos except for maybe Brian McCann, the other legitimate threat on the squad. The nice thing about the lineup is that they have the highest walk rate in MLB; if they can continue to get walks in 10% of their PAs, they might be able to - I can't believe I'm about to say this like it's a good thing - grind out runs here and there.
The Bad: If I, a Braves fan, can go two paragraphs about what's "good" about this team and only mention two hitters, then you know the lineup is pretty bad. And it is; Omar Infante has benefited from good BABIP luck, Derrek Lee is likely too old to contribute meaningfully, Brooks Conrad is a bench guy who's pressed into duty by injuries to Martin Prado and Chipper Jones, Alex Gonzalez is primarily a glove man who's had a productive year based solely on a fluky home run spike in the first half, Matt Diaz is a platoon guy when he's at his best - and he's not been, this season, though that's partially attributable to a low BABIP -, Nate McLouth was so bad that even the offense-starved Braves demoted him at one point, Rick Ankiel is hitting in the .230s without much in the way of secondary skills to show off, and Melky Cabrera looks to have gotten really old, really fast. Eric Hinske might be useful in a Matt Stairs-esque role, where he provides some big-bodied thump off the bench, but the ineffectiveness of McLouth, Diaz and Cabrera have led to him seeing more ABs than he probably should.
The above paragraph, in brief: their lineup for Game 1 is going to look something like this: Infante - Heyward - McCann - Lee - Conrad - Gonzalez - McLouth - Ankiel - Pitcher. After the top three, that is simply not a playoff-caliber lineup.
To make matters worse, the Braves are also pretty bad afield; their team UZR puts them at a tidy 27th, and that's not really accounting for the defensive value lost when Prado and Jones got hurt. Brooks Conrad, as we've seen from his play of late, is not a reliable defender, and with the exception of Heyward, Lee and Gonzalez, the Braves simply do not have reliable glove men. Plus, neither Jair Jurrjens nor Brandon Beachy are likely to inspire a lot of hope in the fanbase if they have to go as the number four starter in either this series or the NLCS; it really is kind of odd that the team with the best FIP in baseball would have two or three question marks in their playoff rotation.
So, yeah, apparently I am to the Braves as a Pitchfork reviewer is to the newest Nickelback album. Hey, speaking of Pitchfork....I learned in Deadspin's Hater's Guide to the MLB Postseason that the Giants have a mascot named Crazy Crab whom they spawned* in 1984 as a satire of other teams using mascots. Yes, that means that, somehow, out of all the cities in America, it's San Francisco who has a hipster mascot. Wild, right?
*If anyone has suggestions about what verb to use for a team starting to use a mascot, I'm all ears. They all sound really creepy. 'Created?' 'Gave birth to?' 'Spawned?' 'Gave rise to out of the fiery hellfire below through ritualistic sacrifice of those deemed unholy by the all-seeing eye?' I don't know if there's really a good option.
The Good: Can I copy-paste the Braves' good here and change the names? Because these teams are very similar in that they will go only as far as their pitching will take them*. The Giants rank 3rd in team FIP, and boast MLB's highest strikeout rate per 9, coming in at nearly a K per inning. The conversation, of course, begins with Tim Lincecum, who, despite a significant drop in his velocity, has remained one of the best pitchers in the league by virtue of very good command of his excellent secondary stuff; he'll stack up favorably with anyone not named Roy Halladay. Matt Cain is also an ace-level pitcher, though he still loves pumping fastballs; unafraid to challenge hitters and very talented, he's been performing very well for years now. After those two it gets interesting; the Giants have three lefties that could fill out the last spot or two in Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner and Barry Zito. Sanchez is a strikeout machine who has struggled with his control this season and in years past; just as Milton Bradley is basically The Mercurial Milton Bradley by virtue of common parlance, Sanchez is The Enigmatic Jonathan Sanchez. Bumgarner, like Heyward, is in his age-20 season; despite that, he's posting a very solid 3.66 FIP and walking just two batters per 9. Further, the bullpen has been nothing short of outstanding; closer Brian Wilson is in the midst of the best season of his career, Sergio Romo is K'ing more than a batter per inning and hardly walking anyone, and Santiago Casilla is basically the poor man's Romo, what with his comparatively poor walk rate. And ohbytheway, this is one of the best defensive teams in MLB; TotalZone has them at #1 and UZR likes them at #2. Which is surprising, not the least reason for which being that the collective left side of their infield weighs enough to guest on Oprah before grabbing a slot on The Biggest Loser.
*Insight! You're welcome.
And also, just as with the Braves, it's not ONLY pitching that merits mention in the Good section; they have two capable hitters! The first is Aubrey Huff, who has found rejuvenation in the form of National League pitching, and has, through some sort of obscene magic, been one of the best hitters in the National League this year. The second is Buster Posey, the highly-touted catcher from Florida State who, in his own rookie year, has kept pace with Jason Heyward. The two figure to make this the most hotly-contested RoY race in quite some time, as both have been utterly outstanding this season. And, yeah, since this is the Good section, I'll mention that Andres Torres has had a really good year, and Pat Burrell has returned from the brink of irrelevance to be more productive than probably any of us - and particularly those of us who saw him with the Rays the past two years - would have expected.
The Bad: Despite the excellence of Huff and Posey this season, the offense remains pretty anemic. Their .318 team wOBA is the worst among playoff teams, and that's including Andres Torres' performance. I single him out because (a) he was probably putting up an unsustainable performance early this year and (b) had to miss two weeks in late September after receiving an emergency appendectomy; it remains to be seen how much he can be counted on in the postseason. The additions of Burrell and, to a lesser extent, Cody Ross have helped, but you're still looking at a team that's trying to surround three good hitters with a cast of guys who haven't been all that much better than replacement-level hitters this season. Beyond Huff, Burrell and Posey*, the next-best hitter in the lineup (non-Torres division) has been Freddy Sanchez, with a .327 wOBA. Scoring runs could be a struggle for this team, is the point; they can take solace in the fact that if they do score runs, their pitching will likely make it stand up. That is, unless the team makes the colossal mistake of putting Barry Zito in the playoff rotation in lieu of Sanchez or Bumgarner. Giants fans will have to hope that Zito's disastrous Game 161 start will discourage management from doing exactly that.
*Yes, part of the reason I'm discounting Torres so much is because I'm a Braves fan. But the guy is a 32-year old career minor leaguer, and, as I mentioned before, is coming off a fairly serious operation that robbed him of a significant amount of late-season playing time. Plus, he was already struggling in September, having undergone a 5-for-43 slump. I won't apologize for only talking about Huff, Burrell, and Posey as quality hitters - and Burrell only barely qualifies.
So what's the verdict here? We've got two teams built around run prevention, who hope they can scrape together enough runs to support a strong pitching staff and come away with a low-scoring win. And yet...everything about the Giants suggests that they're better at doing exactly that. Lincecum-Cain-Sanchez/Bumgarner is better than Hudson-Lowe-Hanson; Huff/Posey/Burrell is better than Heyward/McCann/Infante (inasmuch as Infante even counts as part of a troika of good hitters), and the Braves' defense doesn't have a prayer of matching up with the Giants' prowess in the field. Really, the one thing that the Braves have going for them is Bobby Cox's impending retirement; his players, of course, love him, and maybe-just-maybe that's the kind of intangible edge (a) that the Braves need and (b) that...well, that I don't really, as a matter of practice, believe in. If the Braves don't capitalize on the Bobby magic in the anything-goes 5 game format, this series looks like a mismatch.
My pick: Giants in 4.