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Diamond Mining: 2014 National League Championship Series – Giants vs Cardinals

Felipe Melecio breaks down the NLCS from an advanced stats perspective.

Adam Wainwright

Think about this one; the last time the National League was not represented in the World Series by the San Francisco Giants or Saint Louis Cardinals was back 2009. That year, the Philadelphia Phillies were defending their 2008 title against the New York Yankees. To take it one step further, the last time the Giants, Cardinals, or Philllies did not represent the NL in the World Series was back in 2007 when the Colorado Rockies, led by National League Championship Series MVP, and current Cardinal, Matt Holliday shocked the baseball world that season as “Rocktober” took the nation by storm (until it ran into the wall (“Green Monster” reference) known as the Boston Red Sox). In 2006, the Cards won the title, defeating the Detroit Tigers in five games.

NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES 

San Francisco Giants vs St. Louis Cardinals (Game 1 8:00 PM ET, on FOX)

As mentioned, both teams have been the class of the National League since the start of the current decade. The Cardinals have been a model of consistency for the last 15 years or so. Unlike the American League Championship Series, these two teams have not suffered much in terms of championship drought. The last time the Cards won a title was in 2011. For the Giants, they’ve won championships in 2010 and 2012. This pattern suggests that San Fran is due for another title. Of course, the Giants defeated the Cardinals in the 2012 NLCS so there’s a revenge factor there for St. Louis.

OFFENSE

OFFENSIVE PRODUCTION
Team AVG OBP SLG wOBA BsR BB:K
Giants 0.255 0.311 0.388 0.308 -2.2 0.34
Cardinals 0.253 0.320 0.369 0.308 -10.8 0.42

Lots of mixed results here as both teams don’t do anything particularly well on offense, though the Cardinals do a better job at keeping their strikeouts in check while the Giants have a much better slugging percentage. Both teams finished in the top 15 in batting average. The Giants were led by the Buster Posey in the traditional stat. Jon Jay led the Cards in that category.

BATTED BALLS

The Giants are a fly ball team, but did not rank high in Home Runs per Fly Ball. They also pop up a lot more than the Cardinals. Surprisingly, the Giants’ Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP–per fangraphs.com “measures how often a ball in play goes for a hit”) has stayed in the top 10 despite finishing in the top five in Fly Ball Rate.  On the other hand, the Cardinals hit for a lot more line drives and ground balls, which has helped them maintain a top 15 batting average and BABIP.

PLATE DISCIPLINE

As can be seen on their poor Walks:Strikeout, the Giants are an incredibly aggressive hitting club. They finished in the top five in Swing Percentage and are not shy about chasing balls outside the strike zone (finished second in O-Swing%). The Cardinals are a bit more patient at the plate and have done a great job maintaining a low Swinging Strike Percentage.

The extra swings by the Giants has not helped with their Contact Rate, ranking among the worst in this category. The Cardinals, conversely, finished among the league leaders in Contact Rate.

ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS

STARTING PITCHING

STARTING PITCHING
Team K% BB% WHIP FIP SIERA BABIP
Giants 20.4% 6.4% 1.22 3.65 3.65 0.294
Cardinals 19.5% 7.6% 1.24 3.67 3.89 0.286

The current rotation for the Giants looks like this:

  1. Madison Bumgarner
  2. Jake Peavy
  3. Tim Hudson
  4. Ryan Vogelsong

This rotation has a combined 29 starts in their collective playoff careers. And that’s not even including guys like Tim Lincecum (relegated to bullpen duty) and Matt Cain (elbow).

This is what the Cardinals rotation looks like currently:

  1. Adam Wainwright
  2. Lance Lynn
  3. John Lackey
  4. Shelby Miller

This rotation totals 34 career starts in the postseason and that’s not even including guys like Jaime Garcia (shoulder) and Michael Wacha (bullpen duty). Clearly, the experience and depth is there for both teams’ starters. There are no intangibles like nerves or inexperience at play here.

The Giants had one of the better rotations in the league this season. They do a great job yielding a high rate of strikeouts and limiting their walks. They will certainly be able to test the Cardinals’ hitters’ patient approach at the plate.

On the other hand, the Cardinals had to reinvent their pitching staff due to injuries. They have issues with walks, but finished with a respectable WHIP and Field Independent Pitching (FIP-Advanced ERA, basically measures a pitcher’s ability based on strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed).

BATTED BALLS

Surprisingly, the Giants have a lot of variance on their balls in play, profiling as a team that gives up plenty of line drives. It will be interesting to see if Vogelsong, ranked second in Line Drive Rate (LD%) among all qualified starting pitchers, can keep a line-drive happy Cardinals’ offense at bay (pun intended). The Giants’ rotation also doesn’t induce many pop ups and are vulnerable to the long ball.

But just like Vogelsong, Wainwright finished third in LD% and the Cards’ rotation also profiles as a line drive team. Yet, their BABIP was low enough to finish in the top 10 this year, probably because they force plenty of pop ups and are not as susceptible to the long ball as the Giants are.

PLATE DISCIPLINE

Not surprising, the Giants can rack up the strikeouts because they can induce a high percentage of swings. St. Louis was middle of the pack in the Swing Percentage categories. To their credit, the Cards also did their best in limiting their Contact Rate against, but the Giants were one of the very best in limiting contact. A real, tantalizing match-up will ensue between the Giants’ starters and the Cardinals’ bats, the latter finishing among the best in Contact Rate and as one of the more selective at the plate.

ADVANTAGE: GIANTS

BULLPEN

RELIEF PITCHING
Team K% BB% WHIP FIP SIERA BABIP
Giants 20.4% 6.9% 1.07 3.44 3.26 0.256
Cardinals 21.3% 8.0% 1.22 3.61 3.33 0.286

Both teams have impressive names coming out of the ‘pen and the deadly duo of Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal return for another NLCS appearance for the Cardinals. Meanwhile, the Giants have the luxury of placing Yusmeiro Petit as a long reliever after doing a great job filling in as a spot starter.

However, there are holes that are exposed. Both teams do a good job controlling their walks, but the strikeouts were lacking this season. Both clubs profile as pitch-to-contact bullpens.

BATTED BALLS

One of the reasons why these bullpens are effective is because they do a good job with balls in play, both teams ranking in the top 10 in BABIP this year. The reason for their success is because both teams induce a high volume of ground balls and don’t give up too many line drives. They ranked outside the bottom 10 in Fly Ball Rate (FB%), but still can frustrate hitters with high pop up rates.

PLATE DISCIPLINE

Continuing the mirror-images-of-each-other theme, both teams do a great job at inducing swings. However, both teams don’t rank as high in Swinging Strike Percentage. And of course, proving that they are pitch-to-contact bullpens, both clubs create plenty of contact, which might prove to be advantageous for the Cardinals’ offense.

ADVANTAGE: EVEN

FIELDING

Both teams will not be running much so that aspect of the teams’ defense will probably not play a major role. However, both of these teams won’t scare anyone with their arms in the outfield. Where both teams excel is in their double-play efficiency, rating as a top five team in this department. Nevertheless, the Cardinals rate as a much better team in terms of range.

ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS

INTANGIBLES

  • Both clubs faced opponents with relatively low, playoff experience in their respective Division Series. That will not be the case this time around. The Giants’ current, starting, hitting lineup has accumulated 171 games, with Buster Posey leading the way along with two championships since 2010. The Cardinals’ lineup has a whopping 313 games under their belt as guys like Yadier Molina and Holliday have been around the block for a while now.
  • Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy seems to have been managing for ages now. He’s been a major league manager, without any breaks, since 1995. Conversely, Mike Matheny is completing his third year as Cardinals’ skipper.
  • Who gets to be crowned as team of the 20-teens?
  • Who’s the next former, highly-touted prospect that will break through in these playoffs for the Redbirds? Oscar Taveras, we’re waiting for you.

CONCLUSION

Based on the analysis, it’s hard to not pick the Cardinals here. Their offense is better, their pitching, though not dominant, has held its own throughout these playoffs, their bullpen matches well against the Giants, and they have a better defense than San Francisco.

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