One year ago, the dejected personnel of the Atlanta Braves staggered into the offseason as shareholders of a brutal late-season collapse, having blown a 8.5-game lead in the Wild Card race going into September. Entering 2012, much of the conversation surrounding the club wasn’t how far the Braves would reach into this year’s October scene, but whether they’d be able to escape the demons of a scarring September choke job.
How things have changed.
Having cruised to a 20-10 record this month, the Braves have secured a Wild Card berth and are looking to extend Chipper Jones’ career deep into October. Here’s a look at how the team stacks up.
We’ll start from the end. This team’s bullpen doesn’t believe in letting leads get away, with special thanks to the yeoman efforts of Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and Cristhian Martinez. Their work, along with that of their colleagues, adds up to just 14 blown saves all year, tied for league best. The relief corps’ ERA (2.80) FIP (3.26) and strand rate (79.8 percent) are either the best in the National League or right behind Cincinnati, so don’t expect too many late-inning leads to sneak by this squad.
Fielding-wise, the team’s 51.5 Ultimate Zone Rating is by far the best in the league, and greatly benefits from the trio of Jason Heyward, Michael Bourn and Martin Prado patrolling the outfield, along with Andrelton Simmons’ sterling work at shortstop.
For a team featuring marquee names such as Chipper Jones, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann, this lineup doesn’t provide a lot of thunder, evidenced, in part, by a .390 slugging percentage that’s last in the NL among playoff qualifiers. The team’s 21 percent strikeout rate is also high, though it’s offset by the best walk rate (9.3 percent) in the league, and ultimately, the team’s 92 RC+ means it’s more or less an average lineup.
While we’re at it, the team’s bench, led by Tyler Pastornicky, Ben Francisco, Jose Constanza, Eric Hinske and Reed Johnson, is somewhat unremarkable as it lacks speed and a true late-inning lefty-killer.
When it comes to the playoffs, momentum trumps statistics, which is great news for the Braves, a team that’s 48-29 since the All-Star break. Especially when the squad features perhaps the most lethal weapon in all of baseball right now: Kris Medlen, who’s helped lead the Braves to victory in each of his 12 starts since moving into the rotation July 31. Over that span, he’s posted an insane 0.97 ERA, .800 WHIP and 9.03 K/9 rate, numbers that suggest he could have the potential to upend playoff series all by himself. Mike Minor (4-0, .87 ERA) has also been excellent over the past month, and if this duo can maintain their hot streak, coupled with quality performances from Paul Maholm and Tim Hudson, this team has the potential to go deep into the playoffs.
After the All-Star break, when they seemingly couldn’t lose, people paid a lot of attention to the Reds. Over the last month, I’ve heard less about them, which is strange, because they went 15-11 in September. Aside from a scuffling start, this team has been good all year and should not be underestimated.
Going into the playoffs, the Reds have the best pitching in the NL. True, they don’t lead the league in ERA, FIP or WAR, but the playoffs are different. The Nationals won’t have Stephen Strasburg in their rotation. The Reds won’t have Mike Leake. I don’t mean to slight Leake, but, well, I think you see my point.
The Reds’ rotation will consist of Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey. Cueto is a Cy Young Award contender. Latos scuffled for the first few months, messed with his pitch selection, and has been lights-out since then. Arroyo has left mono behind and his back to his innings-eating, junk-balling, peripheral out-performing self. Bailey is the fourth starter. Nothing much to say about him. Oh, right. He did just throw a no-hitter.
Every one of the Reds’ starting pitchers is significantly above average. Even if someone gets hurt, Leake is an able replacement. The rotation matches up well with any other team they could face.
And then there’s the bullpen. Aroldis Chapman. Sean Marshall. Jonathan Broxton. When you’re playing the Reds, games get short fast. There have to be some minor concerns about Chapman, but he was rested for a week and a half and has looked fine coming down the stretch. If you are playing the Reds, it’s in your best interest to get a lead early. If you don’t, the Reds have half a dozen relievers who have had excellent seasons and three guys at the bottom of the pen who can make you look silly. As an added fear bonus, there’s at least some chance that Dusty Baker will do with Chapman what Joe Torre used to do with Mariano Rivera in the postseason.
It may be a cliche, but it’s true. Pitching wins championships.
The lineup is more concerning. The Reds have had long stretches of offensive incompetence this year. Still, the likely playoff lineup of Brandon Phillips, Zack Cozart, Joey Votto, Ryan Ludwick, Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier/Scott Rolen, Drew Stubbs/Chris Heisey, Ryan Hanigan is nothing to be ashamed of. Cozart, Stubbs and Rolen are the weak links (though Rolen’s done well when healthy), but only Cozart is likely to play every inning (and he makes up for his offense with great defense).
If you hold with the idea that 2.0 WAR is an average player, the Reds are above average everywhere except in center field. They have players who are prone to slumps, but unless everyone slumps at once, they should score enough for their pitching see them through.
I don’t know what the Reds are going to do in the playoffs. No one does. But their weaknesses are primarily on the bench. This is something that can be hidden in the playoffs. If you look simply at front-line talent, the Reds match up with any other team in October. Now we just have to see how it plays out.
St. Louis Cardinals
In 2004 and 2005, the Cardinals won 100-plus games but came up short in the playoffs. In 2006, the Redbirds limped into the postseason with 83 victories and won the World Series. The 2011 edition sneaked into October on the last day of the regular season due to another team’s monumental collapse. Naturally, they won the title, along the way defeating three teams that had set franchise records for regular-season victories.
Based on recent history, St. Louis is well-poised to make a deep run into October, right? Well, we all know past performance is not a prediction of future results, so with that hogwash out of the way, how do things look for the Cards as they head into the playoffs?
The Cardinals’ offensive attack is one of the best in the game. Despite playing in a mild pitchers’ park, St. Louis has scored the second-most runs in the National League. The franchise produces strong-hitting corner players like rabbits produce offspring, Yadier Molina has stepped up his offense year after year, and even rookie shortstop Pete Kozma—playing only because of Rafael Furcal‘s elbow injury—is wielding a dangerous bat. Second base is really the only questionable offensive position.
While the pitching staff is mediocre in terms of strikeouts per nine innings, the hurlers are fourth in baseball in both walks and home runs per nine. There is no clear No. 1 starter, which is a curse and a blessing, since all the starters give the offense a chance to win games, but none is a strong bet to twirl a dominating gem.
The downside to having a bunch of strong hitters is that those players often give up some defense, which is the case with St. Louis. They’re not awful with the leather, but a crucial defensive lapse here or there wouldn’t be shocking.
The bullpen has been an issue all season long, from a generally mediocre middle relief crew to Jason Motte‘s homer-prone ninth-inning histrionics. This is evidenced by the Cards’ 20-26 record in one-run games (24th-best in baseball) and 7-17 record in two-run games (dead last). If the game is close, that’s not a good situation for St. Louis.
These bullpen failures point at least somewhat to new manager Mike Matheny. As a skipper with no previous experience, he’s been solid, but he doesn’t yet have the experience or credibility to inspire calm confidence in his charges.
Also, on Friday they have to face Kris Medlen, behind whom the Atlanta Braves have won 23 straight times, a major league record.
As I said back in March, health will be key for the Cardinals. If Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, David Freese and Chris Carpenter all can contribute, St. Louis could go far. If more than one is forced to miss significant time, the Redbirds could start their offseason very soon.
Oh, yeah, and Kris Medlen. YIKES!
San Francisco Giants
The 2010 edition of the Giants, which barely squeaked into the postseason, and then ran the table and breezed to a World Series victory, nicely fit the mold of the ideally postseason-structured ball club: dominant starting pitchers and home run power sprinkled up and down the batting order. This version doesn’t stack up that way. The 2012 Giants’ pitching is good but not great, and though the Giants’ offense has scored abundantly in the late season, it’s done so by weaving strings of base hits—a feat generally understood to be difficult to achieve under October baseball conditions. Therefore the Giants’ vulnerability is apparent.
But there remains this fact to consider: In mid-August, this ball club was 64-53, and in a tie for the division lead, when it suddenly lost dynamic left fielder Melky Cabrera and his 4.6 WAR to PED suspension. How did the Giants respond to this apparently crippling blow? By shifting into overdrive and going 25-10 to blow away the division race and clinch with a week and a half to spare. The Giants come into this postseason playing their best baseball of the season, healthy and confident.
Though the starting pitching of this year’s San Francisco ballclub isn’t a key strength, it would be inaccurate to consider it a weakness. Matt Cain is rolling into October under a head of steam, performing as a serious ace. Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong have been up and down but generally good. The question marks are Tim Lincecum, who has flashed his former brilliance occasionally in 2012, but only occasionally, and Barry Zito, who always looks shaky, yet held it together well enough this year that the Giants were 21-11 in his starts.
The central San Francisco weapon at this point is the offense. The team’s raw stats are muted by AT&T Park, but don’t be fooled: These guys can really hit. And this is the case even with don’t-call-him-the-batting-champion Cabrera gone, as in his absence, in August and September, the Giants’ attack distinctly improved, and indeed performed as the league’s best. Superstar catcher Buster Posey is obviously the key bat, but he’s received ample support from third baseman Pablo Sandoval, center fielder Angel Pagan, second baseman Marco Scutaro (!?!), and, somewhat under-the-radar, sophomore first baseman Brandon Belt (an OPS of nearly .900 since July).
The Giants have been unable to find an adequate replacement for Cabrera in left field. Journeymen Gregor Blanco and Xavier Nady will platoon there in nothing more than a makeshift arrangement. And trade-deadline acquisition right fielder Hunter Pence has suffered a dismal second half. Pence is a notoriously streaky hitter, and could obviously bust out at any moment, but the Giants are still waiting for that moment to arrive.
It isn’t a weakness, but the Giants’ bullpen doesn’t strike fear into opponents’ hearts. With erstwhile closer Brian Wilson on the shelf since April, manager Bruce Bochy has eschewed sticking with any particular reliever in the closer role (refreshingly), and instead juggles the arms based on match-ups. The most effective San Francisco reliever is sharp-breaking-slider-specialist Sergio Romo, but he’s a bit fragile, and expect Bochy to continue to spot him very carefully.
The Washington Nationals surprised the baseball world by taking the National League East title with a pitching staff that is one of the best in baseball and an explosive offense that can strike with lightning efficiency. Add to the mix a savvy veteran manager with a track record of enabling teams to focus on strengths and play together, and you’ve got a strong mix for the postseason.
It all begins with Davey Johnson, who is entering his sixth postseason in 16 years of managing, and is taking his fourth team to the after-party. He used his entire roster this year to make this first Nationals postseason appearance.
The Nats offense is led by Ryan Zimmerman (,282/.345/.473, Adam LaRoche (.269/,341/.502), Michael Morse (.286/.317/.455) and surprising 19-year-old rookie Bryce Harper (.270/.340/.477). The offense and defense were buoyed with the return midseason of Jayson Werth (.297/.385/.432) and got surprisingly steady pop from Ian Desmond (25 home runs and a .297 BA), and second baseman Danny Espinoza (17 home runs).
The team seemingly gets a lift by one of the starting eight every night. Catcher Kurt Suzuki has contributed offensively and defensively since being acquired from Oakland, and bench players Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore and especially Steve Lombardozzi have all had their moments.
Defensively, the infield is solid if unspectacular. Outfield defense is solid—Werth brings stability with his glove while Morse had been stable in left field. The team started with a hole in center, but Harper’s been stationed there most of the season and performed well—sometimes spectacularly, sometimes erratic. Should something happen to the big three, defensively the Nats have very capabable backups in Bernadina and Moore.
Of course, the story of the season for the Nationals has been pitching—and we won’t discuss Stephen Strasburg here, as he will not be available for the playoffs. Gio Gonzalez is a legitimate Cy Young contender (21-8, 2.89 with a 1.129 WHIP). If the trade for Gonzalez was the best deal the Nats made, the best deal they didn’t make was to shed John Lannan midseason. He’s replaced Strasburg in the rotation and been steady (4-1, 4.13). Jordan Zimmerman seemed to be the hard-luck pitcher for the team most of the season (12-8, 2.94). Ross Detwiler has been solid as well. And then there’s Edwin Jackson, who’s been the most inconsistent of the starters this season, as his 9-11 record indicates, but has still had brilliant moments.
Johnson has used the bullpen in a consistent fashion all season, and while Tyler Clippard has gotten most of the saves, Craig Stammen, Ryan Mattheus, Sean Burnett, Mike Gonzalez, Tom Gorzelanny, Drew Storen and even Henry Rodriguez have been used often and are comfortable with the roles they’ll need to play in the postseason.
The major weakness should be a lack of postseason appearances for most of the players. This is somewhat overrated, but only Werth, LaRoche and Jackson have any significant postseason time. In addition, it’s not hard to see the offense being hampered by excellent pitching, and pitching often rules in the postseason. The team’s recent lack of offense has to concern Johnson going into the next round.
The Nats had the best record in baseball (98-64). While it’s easy to look back and say no one expected the Nats to be this good, one must reject the idea that they won’t do well in the postseason. Time and again this season, the Nats exhibited spirit and teamwork that is the trademark of championship teams. Anything can happen, but this is a team managed all season by Johnson as if it was already in the postseason. His skillful use of his entire roster should make things seem “business as usual” to the Nats. Look for them to go deep.