Friday, October 15, 2010

NLCS Preview: Giants, Phillies, and the Significance of Matchups

In less than 24 hours, the Giants and Phillies will begin Game 1 of the 2010 NLCS at Citizen's Bank Park. We've waited long enough; the Giants won Game 4 of the NLDS against Atlanta all the way back on Monday. But before Andres Torres doubles off Roy Halladay on the 2nd pitch of the game tomorrow, let's take a look at some important players in the series. I'll give the pitching matchups for each of the first 4 games, then expand within that context to key position players:

Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum - I'd like to think that the Giants could repeat what they did to Halladay in April this season, getting 10 hits off him and handing him his 1st loss. This is unlikely, though. There's no reason to think that a Hall of Fame pitcher like that can't shut down the Giants. Then again, there's no better reason to think he'll throw another no hitter. If the Giants do hit him, it will be thanks to an aggressive approach. Halladay is always in the strike zone. His season high for walks was 3, and he only did it twice. On the other hand, he gave up 10+ hits in 7 starts (but not a ton of runs in those games, strangely).

In the 7th month of Tim Lincecum's "worst" year as a pitcher, he is in fact as good as he has ever been. His playoff debut showed that. There are 4 Phillies with 15+ PAs against Tim: Howard, Utley, Rollins, and Victorino. The latter 3 all have done very little against him, hitting below .200. Howard, on the other hand, has 3 HRs off him, with a .409 OBP in 22 PAs. If you remember Lincecum's 1st start in the big leagues, it was at AT&T Park against the Phillies. He went 4+ innings, giving up 5 hits, 5 runs, 5 walks, and striking out 5 (these were the days when he was throwing 99 with little command). 2 of those 5 runs came on a shot Howard hit over the center field wall. Howard's high OBP in that very small sample size wouldn't be so concerning if he wasn't also slugging nearly .900. Even with only 22 PAs, it's a match up to be wary of. It would be fair to say that Halladay and Lincecum are pretty much evenly matched for this game.

Roy Oswalt and Jonathan Sanchez - Oswalt struggled in his start against Cincinnati, and this, combined with his 1-3 record against the Giants this season, makes him appear to be a better matchup for SF than he actually is. Sure, he has a 1-3 record, but he pitched well against them in each of those starts, not great, but well. These two games in Philly will not be easy to win with the pitchers they have on the mound.

Jonathan Sanchez pitched masterfully against Philadelphia at CBP in August, and that is part of the reason for him getting the Game 2 start rather than Matt Cain. There isn't much to be said for Sanchez's numbers against the Phillies' batters, because of the small sample size (yes, that is a theme today), but the fact that he is a lefty power pitcher against a lineup with 3 good hitter left handed hitters is something. On second thought, we can eliminate one of those lefties from the situation: Chase Utley hits better off left handed pitchers than right handers. Slightly less power, but better on base, resulting in a rare 8 point same sided wOBA platoon advantage. Howard is the opposite. Despite okay platoon numbers in a short season this year, he is notoriously poor against left handers. Raul Ibanez's platoon difference isn't as drastic, but this could be for the simple fact that Ibanez isn't nearly the hitter Howard is overall; Howard still rakes righties. Because two of their important hitters having this weakness, Sanchez could have good success on Sunday.

Cole Hamels and Matt Cain - Hamels' numbers against the Giants are not good, especially at AT&T. But the decision to pitch him in Game 3 rather than 2 is right in my estimation. Hamels gives up more HRs than most other good pitchers, including Oswalt. There's little reason to think that Hamels simply can't pitch at AT&T, a better park for limiting HRs than CBP. His poor numbers are simply not indicative of much. Hamels could very well pitch another shutout on Tuesday afternoon. He's that good. One player on the Giants that does have significant appearances against Hamels is Cody Ross, from his time in Florida. And he has hit Hamels well, which is no surprise given Ross' great propensity to hit left handers. Perhaps he will be a hero once again.

Ryan Howard has great numbers against Lincecum, but Chase Utley has arguably more of an edge on Matt Cain, hitting .467 with 3 HRs in 15 PAs. Once again, 15 is very small, but it's hard not to remember the time Cain nearly hit Utley in the head with a fastball (unintentionally) and Utley got back in the box and homered into McCovey Cove. Cain is pitching Game 3 because he is more of a flyball pitcher than Sanchez, although Sanchez gives up more HRs per flyball and walks more batters. I would have picked Cain to start in Philly simply because I believe he is better prepared mentally for such a start. If I can venture into pseudo sports psychology for a moment, I'll borrow the good idea that a fellow Giants fan on Twitter had, that Cain could use his "demotion" to the 3rd spot as motivation to be extra sharp. I normally don't bother with theories of extra motivation like that, because athletes have enough motivation in Game 3 of a postseason series. But for Cain I'll make the exception. I think he goes out and shows everyone just how strong he is.

Joe Blanton and Madison Bumgarner - If there is one game that the Giants are the favorites in, it is Game 4. While many would say that Philly's top 3 edge out each of the top 3 in the Giants rotation, there is no question that Bumgarner, only 21, is a better pitcher than Blanton. Blanton, with a 4.83 ERA this season, and 4.30 lifetime, is potentially more dangerous as a starter to the Phillies than Zito would be to the Giants. None of his postseason starts the last couple years have been disastrous, but he'll probably have a short leash. If somehow the Giants held a 2-1 lead going into Game 4, I wouldn't be surprised to see Roy Halladay pitch. Yes, they wouldn't be facing elimination in that game, but if they lose, they have to face Lincecum the next day.

With the blister on his finger, it might be hard for the Giants to pitch Lincecum on short rest in Game 4 should they face the same situation. No matter the series situation, Bumgarner will almost surely be the starter. He hasn't pitched well at home, but that is once again just a product of randomness. Logic just doesn't support the idea that a pitcher would naturally be incapable of pitching well in a neutral park like AT&T. Bumgarner is only 21, and he very well could struggle against the Phillies, but I think he is one of the wild cards for the Giants. He is a rare example of something the Giants have that the other team doesn't: a more than decent 4th starter.

A few thoughts on some players not yet mentioned - Ryan Howard has declined as a player, and hitter, this year, and Jayson Werth has become the Phillies 2nd most dangerous hitter behind Utley. He strikes out a lot, which is good because the Giants pitchers are all strikeout pitchers to a certain degree. But if he gets hot, he hits the ball FAR. And team that hit ball far, go far.

Earlier in the season, the Giants were known as a team that you could steal on, mainly because their pitchers didn't have great pickoff moves or fast deliveries to the plate. Then teams suddenly started getting caught a bit more. Gerald Demp just wasn't havin it. The Phillies are one of the best base stealing teams by percentage, and Shane Victorino is the most prolific. Remember the Lincecum debut I detailed above? Well, in that game, Victorino was picked off, and managed to avoid being tagged by running straight towards the pitcher's mound, then back toward 2nd base. He wasn't called for running out of the baseline. On Sunday Night Baseball, Joe Morgan called this "ESTABLISHING the baseline here, then ESTABLISHING it here". Ever since then, I've hated Victorino. Blame Joe Morgan and that awful explanation.

We're gonna have to watch out for Carlos Ruiz; he's apparently become something of a cult hero in Philadelphia. And for good reason: he's had a great season as their catcher, hitting .302/.400/.447. Yes, a .400 OBP for a catcher many of you may not have heard of.

I'm gonna finish with a look at both bullpens, with a few more thoughts on lefty matchups. Earlier today, Andrew Baggarly wrote about the importance of the Giants bullpen lefties in this series. With Howard, Ibanez, and Utley (Bochy will likely still go with that matchup for Utley even though it is wrong), the Giants will be needing more than Javier Lopez. Jeremy Affeldt will be on the roster, and possibly Dan Runzler.

The bullpen is the one area where the Giants are undoubtedly stronger. Brad Lidge has not had a great season, but has pitched well lately, and was able to brush his playoff demons aside the last two postseasons with the Phillies. Brian Wilson, however, is a better closer right now, period. Other than Lidge, the only legitimately good reliever they have is Ryan Madsen. The Giants bullpen isn't perfect at all, but they have at least a few Ryan Madsens: Ramon Ramirez, Santiago Casilla, and Sergio Romo. Yes, Sergio Romo. Now is not the time to give one of our best relievers the "Joe Nathan Felipe Alou" treatment.

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