MLB Postseason Preview: Braves vs. Giants

Atlanta Braves (91-71) at

San Francisco Giants (92-70)

OVERVIEW

The Braves and Giants each snuck their way into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season after almost blowing it by dropping the first two games of weekend series. The last time so much was on the line on the season’s last day for both of them was, of course, 1993, when Atlanta and San Francisco entered the day tied for the NL West lead with 103 wins. Braves won, Giants lost, and a 103-59 team went home before the postseason. The Wild Card was introduced the next year. Wouldn’t it be kind of ironic, then, if the Wild Card Braves beat the NL West-winning Giants? (Let’s overlook the Wild Card Giants beating the division-winning Braves in a five-game NLDS in 2002 to retain the gravity of that question.)

THE LINEUPS

It’s going to be kind of jarring for an American League fan to watch this series, being that the best hitter in it is Aubrey Huff. At the same time, two of the best rookies to come along recently — Buster Posey and Jason Heyward — are second and third on that list in some order. Most of San Francisco’s lineup, in fact, involves AL castoffs; aside from Huff, there’s Pat Burrell, Jose Guillen, and Juan Uribe. Andres Torres has also had an excellent season out of nowhere in usurping the center-field job from Aaron Rowand. Turnover from Opening Day is a theme of the Giants’ lineup, with veterans Rowand, Edgar Renteria, Bengie Molina, and Mark DeRosa either being traded, benched, or injured. Furthermore, last season’s breakout star, Pablo Sandoval, has slid down the lineup from third to sixth to eighth in the final week of the season.

Atlanta’s lineup hasn’t exactly been steady, either, with season-ending injuries to Chipper Jones and Martin Prado serving as crushing blows to their offensive production. Heyward has taken a liking to the two-hole behind “All-Star” Omar Infante, with Derrek Lee and Brian McCann in the middle of the order. After that, though, it’s a daily smorgasbord of Matt Diazes and Alex Gonzalezes and Brooks Conrads. There will also be sightings of Rick Ankiel and Nate McLouth, left-handed centerfielders who used to be good but aren’t anymore.

THE ROTATIONS

As mediocre as their lineups are, these teams boast two terrific (and deep) rotations. Atlanta will likely go with a three-man rotation, with Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson, and Tim Hudson. Hudson has been their best pitcher all season, but he had to go Sunday, and Lowe has had a tremendous September (5-0, 1.17) and has experienced a lot of success both against the Giants (3-0, 1.32 in last five) and at AT&T Park (5-1, 1.98).

All that said, the Giants have arguably the best four-man staff in baseball. San Francisco will probably go with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and Madison Bumgarner, and they won’t need to bring anyone back on short rest. You don’t hold teams to three runs or fewer for 18 straight games without a bunch of good starting pitchers. It’s definitely worth noting that Lincecum has the highest ERA this season of those four Giants’ starters. In fact, both teams have set up their playoff rotations inversely related to their starters’ ERA. Hudson’s is better than Hanson’s, which is better than Lowe’s. And Bumgarner has the best among San Fran’s starters (albeit in fewer starts), followed by Sanchez, then Cain, and then Lincecum. It’s weird.

LINGERING QUESTIONS

JOHN: Aubrey Huff is really the best hitter in this series? And you call this a league? I mean, Jose Guillen and Rick Ankiel weren’t just AL castoffs, they were Kansas City Royals castoffs…Defend the NL!

And what’s the deal with the Rangers then? Did you see the bottom third of their order in Game 1? Jeff Francoeur (couldn’t start for the Mets), Jorge Cantu (Marlins), and Bengie Molina (couldn’t start for the Giants). Not to mention that Elvis Andrus, Nelson Cruz, and Josh Hamilton are all, at heart, NL castoffs.

In seriousness, Aubrey Huff wasn’t a bad AL player; he hit .300/30/100 two years ago in Baltimore. Guillen is okay, and Ankiel is only playing because Nate McLouth and Melky Cabrera have not lived up to expectations this season.

JOHN: Don’t just tell me that it’s about poor offensive teams, either, because Derek Lowe was washed up in the AL six years ago and now he’s the Game 1 starter for a “terrific” rotation…

Explain Carl Pavano.

Lowe had one bad year in the American League, and then bounced back when he went to the NL. What is it they say about correlation and causation?

JOHN: Man, what happened to Derrek Lee? Remember when that guy was chasing the Triple Crown?

That was kind of an aberrational year for Lee in 2005. He had never hit .300, hit more than 32 home runs, or driven in 100 runs before going .335/46/107. It’s not like he’s plummeted since then, because he wasn’t really that good to begin with. Plus, dude’s 35 now.

JOHN: How bad does that Aaron Rowand signing look now? How does Brian Sabean still have a job?

Who? Oh, Aaron Rowand! I forgot he was in the league. Umm, and Sabean’s team is in the playoffs, so clearly he has done a fantastic job. Plus, his nickname is Sabes, so he’s got that going for him, which is nice.

JOHN: Speaking of bad signings by Sabean, any chance we see Barry Zito in this series?

As of our posting, it was still unclear if Zito would be on the postseason roster. So it isn’t looking good for Barry.

(Rowand, meanwhile, will be on the playoff roster at least.)

JOHN: If we were going only on this year, would Tim Lincecum still be starting in Game 1?

If we were only going on this year, you’d probably go with Sanchez, who not only posted a 3.07 ERA all season but was 4-1 with as 1.01 ERA in six September starts. (Of course, Sanchez started Sunday, so you wouldn’t toss him on three days’ rest on Thursday anyway, and Lincecum would be my second choice going on this year.)

At the same time, what team sets up its rotation based only on this year? Cincinnati clearly didn’t with Edinson Volquez going in Game 1, Atlanta isn’t with Derek Lowe in Game 1, and Tampa Bay isn’t with James Shields in Game 2. You factor in a lot of things, such as performance all season, performance recently, playoff experience, familiarity with opponent, days rest, etc. And it’s certainly not an injustice that Lincecum is starting Game 1; he’s the two-time defending Cy Young winner, and while he may not have been the Giants’ best pitcher this season, he is their best pitcher.

Furthermore, the last Game 1 starter who earned the nod solely based on what he had done in that season was Rick Ankiel. QED.

JOHN: Madison Bumgarner sounds like a character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Where did he come from and how does he have the best ERA on that staff?

Well Jeeves, Madison Bumgarner was born in Hickory, NC (terrible town, Hickory is. Very boring. I’ve been there and do not recommend it) and he has the best ERA on staff because he’s allowed the fewest earned runs in relation to innings pitched.

Seriously now, Bumgarner has been one of the top prospects the Giants have been talking about for a while by now (one of their others, Angel Villalona, is unfortunately awaiting murder charges*). In the Minors, he went 34-6 with a 2.00 ERA in 63 games. He’s got a slider and curveball to go with his fastball and changeup. But don’t take my word for it; here’s Fangraphs on him.

*Guess what I did while I was in Hickory. Yep, talked to Angel Villalona. My answer comes full-circle.

JOHN: Is there any part of you that wants the Bobby Cox Era to have a happy ending (even though a division series loss is probably the most fitting end)? Do you at least have a soft spot for ex-Met Billy Wagner?

I’ll go reverse here. I do have a soft spot for Billy Wagner, who took some flak in New York but was still the best closer the Mets have had in my lifetime by a fair margin. If Wagner didn’t get hurt in 2008, the Mets would undoubtedly have made the playoffs. When he made his return last season at Citi Field and struck out the side, that was undeniably cool.

I have mixed feelings about Cox and Chipper Jones, both of whom I once hated but now largely respect. I mean, you’ve got to hand it to Cox, who usually gets the most out of his players (just look at what they do when they go elsewhere) and who is loved by them in return. At the same time, the constant bickering from the dugout, especially about balls and strikes when his pitchers clearly got the benefit of the doubt more often than not was and still is annoying.

And don’t sell his Division Series record short. While Cox and Atlanta have lost their last four Division Series, they did win six of their first seven times in that round, and aside from winning his division 14 straight seasons, Cox got the Braves into the NLCS eight consecutive seasons and nine out of 10. Not bad.

JOHN: Will Tommy Hanson’s brothers be at the games?

Here’s where I would usually make a pun out of one of Hanson’s songs, but all I really know is “Mmm Bop,” which is particularly difficult to pun off of. Did you hear, though? Those kids are, like, not kids anymore.

JOHN: To what victor will the spoils go?

The series shouldn’t go five, because the Giants are pretty transparently the better team right now, but I think Atlanta will fight them to a deciding game at AT&T Park, where Lowe will pitch poorly and the Giants will win somewhat anticlimactically. It’s kind of what happens in the Braves’ NLDS Game 5s.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tim on October 9, 2010 at 12:21 AM

    So John, still think Lincecum doesn’t deserve the Game 1 start? Thirty-one swings and misses…

    Reply

  2. Posted by Tim on October 10, 2010 at 8:37 PM

    It’s absolutely inexcusable that this post does not mention Eric Hinske’s quest for a 4th straight pennant with a 4th different team. This one’s on you, John.

    Reply

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