All caveats apply: Anything can happen in a short series, the playoffs are a crapshoot, yadda yadda yadda. All true and all duly noted. And my personal status as a lifelong Giants fan should be readily acknowledged; it’s entirely possible I’m wishing this more than I’m seeing it.
But right now I’m seeing the NLDS confrontation between San Francisco and Atlanta as one of the less evenly-matched square-offs between a 91-71 team (the Braves) and a 92-70 team (the Giants) we’re likely to encounter. I see the Giants as holding a pretty strong edge.
To be sure, I wouldn’t give the Giants such an edge (or any edge) if the two teams were preparing to grapple in a best-of-162 series that would take place over several months. Because, effectively, that’s what’s just occurred, and these two ball clubs wound up with barely a hair’s breadth between them (for what it’s worth, the Giants’ Pythagorean record was 94-68, and the Braves’ 93-69). But, of course, that isn’t what the two teams are preparing to do; they’re preparing to grapple in a micro-mini best-of-five set, that will take place within a week’s span.
A short series renders nearly irrelevant many of the elements that make for competitive ball clubs over the long haul: namely, roster depth (especially pitching depth) and organizational depth (the ability to call up help as needed from the minors, and/or leverage surpluses into trades). None of that stuff matters much right now. In a short series, especially the best-of-five variety, vastly more importance is vested in front-line talent, and most especially, front-line starting pitching talent.
Moreover, the long season is so often aptly likened to a marathon: It’s a test not of how good you are immediately, but of how good you can be over a period of hours. The short series is, of course, a sprint: What you might have done an hour ago, or might do next hour, won’t help you. It’s a test of what you can do right now, in these brief seconds, and only that.
And both of these factors work in favor of the Giants.
The front line
Most prognosticators, myself certainly included, didn’t think the Braves were going to be as good in 2010 as they have been. Their roster just didn’t grab one as overly impressive. But they put together their fine season despite the absence of any superstar performer, relying instead on outstanding top-to-bottom depth, and receiving masterful efforts from manager Bobby Cox and GM Frank Wren to tirelessly tinker and find just the right parts to fit emerging needs.
That’s great, but the result is a team without a particular core weapon to be feared. Atlanta’s two best hitters, right fielder Jason Heyward and catcher Brian McCann, are both excellent, but neither is the sort of stud slugger who threatens to get red hot and just carry his team for a week or more. (Heyward surely might develop into such a hitter, but at the age of just-turned-21 he’s not there yet).
Atlanta’s top starting pitcher, the veteran Tim Hudson, has enjoyed a wonderful comeback season, nearly regaining his peak Oakland form from nearly a decade ago. And perhaps the Braves’ next-best starter, sophomore Tommy Hanson, is ready to step forward and pitch like an ace, though he hasn’t yet achieved that kind of consistent dominance. But following that the quality of the Braves’ starters drops off pretty dramatically.
As for the Giants, they certainly don’t scare anyone with their offense, either. But their 3-4-5 core of Aubrey Huff, Buster Posey, and Pat Burrell has hit better this year than any trio the Braves can muster. And in terms of front line starting pitching, the Giants loom very large indeed: the worst ERA posted by any of their big three starters (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez) was logged by the back-to-back defending Cy Young Award winner, who suffered through such a terrible off-year in 2010 that all he did was go 16-10 and lead the league in strikeouts. The Giants present exactly the kind of starting pitching that threatens to shut the opposition down for multiple days, and in a short series that’s lethal.
The timing of the sprint
Perhaps even more important in this match-up is its timing. The way each team has performed recently is likely a better indicator of how’ll they do this week than the way they performed a few months ago. And in this regard the Braves should be worried.
Atlanta limped to the finish, going 14-16 in September/October, and being outscored 125-105 in the process. What’s more, two of their key performers are out of action with injuries: longtime star third baseman Chipper Jones, who put up an OPS+ of 120 in 2010, and dynamic young second baseman Martin Prado, whose OPS+ was 119. Those are two bats that will be very sorely missed. The Braves at this point aren’t as good a team as they were earlier.
The Giants, meanwhile, roared down the stretch with a 19-10 September/October record, allowing just 60 runs in those 29 games. No, that isn’t a typo. The Giants’ roster at this point is almost entirely healthy, with no one on the DL except long-forgotten Mark DeRosa. The Giants at this point are a better team than they’ve been at any previous time this season.
The mound match-up
The Braves’ bullpen is one of its chief strengths, particularly the combination of set-up man Jonny Venters and closer Billy Wagner. But the Giants’ duo of Sergio Romo and Brian Wilson nearly matches them, and overall while the Atlanta ‘pen posted a terrific 3.11 ERA, the San Francisco mark was 2.99. And that difference isn’t a park illusion, as Turner Field plays as a slightly more pitcher-friendly environment than AT&T Park.
Overall the Braves’ staff ERA+ in 2010 was 110, an excellent performance that tied them with the Phillies and Cardinals for third-best in the National League. But the Giants’ ERA+ was 121, far and away the best in either league.
It bears repeating just how stunningly brilliant the Giants’ pitching has been in recent weeks. Allowing 60 runs in 29 games is a 1960s-Dodgers kind of a stat. Since the end of August the San Francisco team ERA has been 1.91. They’ve allowed 175 hits in their past 259 innings, while walking just 70 and striking out 259. In this period the Giants have out-homered their opponents 39-to-18.
It doesn’t look good for Atlanta.