NL Playoff Preview: St. Louis Cardinals At Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pittsburgh Pirates downed the Cincinnati Reds 6-2 on Tuesday night, earning the right to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. The NL Central rivals faced off 19 times in 2013, with the Pirates taking ten of those contests. In their most recent matchup, the Cardinals swept the Pirates at home, outscoring them 26-10. Below is my preview of the NLDS, broken down into Offense, Pitching, and Defense.
The Pirates don’t have a particularly potent offense, and when you throw in the fact that PNC is very pitcher-friendly you get an offense that scored just 634 runs, 9th in the NL. They strikeout at a high rate, and don’t walk particularly often. However, with the exception of Clint Barmes, and their pitchers who have hit far worse than those of any other team, there are not glaring holes in the lineup. Late acquisition Marlon Byrd has been strong since joining the team.
They do have power. Led by third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who knocked an NL-leading 36 homeruns, they hit 161 as a team, the 3rd most in the NL. Likely NL MVP Andrew McCutchen excelled across the board, and only Paul Goldschmidt topped his 158 OPS+. Leadoff hitter Starling Marte has returned from a DL stint, and his speed can be a weapon. Though he rarely walks, his tendency to lean into pitches, especially with two strikes, allows him to reach base at a good clip. Other than a rare catch-them-napping theft by catcher Russell Martin, Marte and McCutchen are the only threats to run. Of course, with Yadier Molina behind the plate for the Cardinals, they may want to think twice before attempting to steal.
The Cardinals scored 783 runs, most in the NL. Unlike the Pirates, they strikeout at a low rate, and don’t hit many homeruns. One of the major reasons for their offensive production was outstanding performance with runners in scoring position. Their .330 batting average with runners in scoring position was nearly 60 points higher than their overall average. By comparison, the Pirates hit just .229 with runners in scoring position. Of course, clutch hitting tends to be very fickle, and it’s anybody’s guess as to how long the Cardinals can continue to produce at this rate. Allen Craig, who hit an eye-popping .454 with RISP, will miss the NLDS with a foot injury.
Second baseman Matt Carpenter deserves MVP consideration, Thanks in large part to a .392 OBP, he scored 126 runs, the most in the MLB. Matt Holliday remains a feared hitter, his 144 OPS+ was 5th in the NL. Molina put together another strong year at the plate. While Craig is out, the chunky Matt Adams has hit nearly as well this season, though his production has tailed off lately. At 36, veteran Carlos Beltran can still hit, and his 24 homeruns led the team. Throw in 2011 World Series hero David Freese and Jon Jay, and you have a very deep lineup. Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma are the only below-average hitters.
Led by A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano, Pirates starting pitchers had the highest strikeout rate in the NL. They also had the highest ground ball rate in the MLB. Burnett had a 3.67 ERA in 6 starts against the Cardinals in 2013, and Liriano had a measly 0.75 ERA in three starts against the Redbirds. With Liriano having pitched against the Reds in the Wild Card game, expect Burnett to start game 1. Rookie phenom Gerrit Cole has come into his own. In September, he managed a 1.69 ERA with 39 strikeouts in 32 innings. Charlie Morton, a groundball-heavy pitcher with good control, rounds out the playoff rotation.
While their starting rotation is solid, the Pirates have an excellent bullpen. The bullpen’s performance in high-leverage situations has helped the Pirates to win 94 games despite a run differential of only +57. Only the Atlanta Braves bullpen had a lower ERA. Their .546 OPS allowed in high leverage situations was nearly 100 points better than the next closest team. Closer Jason Grilli struck out 36.6% of hitters, and Boston Red Sox castoff Mark Melancon was even better. With a 25.1% strikeout rate and a stingy 2.9% walk rate, he posted a 1.39 ERA. Manager Clint Hurdle loves to mix and match, and is not afraid to go to the bullpen early.
Even with their second-half struggles, Cardinals starting pitchers had the second-lowest ERA in the MLB. Ace Adam Wainwright turned in what was perhaps his best season. In 34 starts, he walked just 34 batters. Add in strong strikeout and groundball rates, and Wainwright pitched even better than his already excellent 2.94 ERA would indicate. Lance Lynn followed up his 2012 season with another good year, finishing in the top 20 in strikeout rate. He will start game 2. Hard-throwing rookie Shelby Miller had a very strong 2013, though the Cardinals lost all four games he started against the Pirates. The game 4 start will go to either rookie Michael Wacha or Joe Kelly. Though Kelly has just a 2.28 ERA in 15 starts, his very weak strikeout and walk rates indicate that he isn’t nearly that good. Wacha, who came one out away from a no-hitter in his last start, has pitched very well in his nine starts. Because the Cardinals have handled him carefully, he should have plenty of bullets left in his arm.
The Cardinals bullpen had the lowest walk rate in the NL. Closer Edward Mujica walked just five hitters in 64.2 innings. However, his recent struggles and lack of strikeout stuff have fans worried. Thankfully, the Cardinals have a deep bullpen. The fireballing Trevor Rosenthal struck out 34.7% of hitters while walking just 6.4%. Lefthander Kevin Siegrist held lefties to a .388 OPS, and surrendered only two runs in 39.2 innings. Situational lefthander Randy Choate was effective, and Seth Maness made a living off of pounding the zone and getting groundballs. Wacha dominated in his 10.2 innings out of the bullpen, piling up 19 strikeouts. Both teams are very well-equipped to handle a short outing by the starting pitcher or a long extra-inning game.
Don’t be fooled by the errors, defense is where the Pirates shine. With McCutchen and Marte, the Pirates have two center fielders patrolling the outfield. Their infield utilizes the shift more than any other team, and with athletic defenders such as Barmes and Jordy Mercer, they turn ground balls into outs at a better rate than any other team. Catcher Russell Martin controls the running game, throwing out 40% of would-be base stealers. In addition, his blocking and receiving skills are rivaled only by the Molina, the opposing backstop.
Though the Cardinals don’t make many errors, their defense is weak overall. Kozma makes up for some of his offensive inadequacies by playing a solid shortstop, and Carpenter is decent. Jay plays a strong centerf ield, but Holliday is notoriously poor in left, and Beltran’s knees limit him at the other corner. Molina is as good as they get behind the plate.
I don’t like making playoff predictions because with all the randomness inherent in baseball, anything can happen in a five game series. Anybody who says they can predict a series with certainty is lying to you. That being said, the Cardinals were the stronger team over 162 regular season games. I’ll take them in four games.