San Francisco Giants (94-68) at Cincinnati Reds (97-65)
Contrary to the muddled playoff picture in the American League, the National League’s top three has been settled for some time. The Reds and Giants each clinched their divisions rather early, winning them by nine and eight, respectively — the two largest margins in baseball. Two years removed from a surprising run to the World Series, the Giants are back looking for more postseason magic. The Reds can improve on their 2010 postseason by 1. Getting a hit in each game they play; and 2. Winning one of those games.
Contrary to what you might think (and what I thought when I started writing this sentence), the Giants actually outscored the Reds this season by an average of 0.3 runs per game. San Francisco has been led by otherworldly performances from Melky Cabrera (in the first half) and probable NL MVP Buster Posey (in the second half). Posey posted a .336/.408/.549 line for the season; since the All-Star Game, his OPS is something like 3.600 (fine, it’s only 1.102). Posey, combined with the addition of Marco Scutaro, have allowed the Giants to overcome Cabrera’s suspension—which, mind you, ends if San Francisco gets to the NLCS (although the team has indicated it would not bring him back).
Cincinnati’s offense revolves around Joey Votto, who would also be in the MVP race if he hadn’t missed 51 games. Votto’s .474 on-base percentage is the highest (min. 475 plate appearances, the number Votto had on the dot) by a non-steroid user (sorry Bonds and Giambi) since Edgar Martinez in 1995. Even counting steroid users, it’s the 11th-best of the divisional era. At the same time, Votto was more a doubles than a home run hitter this season. The rest of the lineup makes up for that drop in power. Jay Bruce hit 34 homers, Ryan Ludwick had a comeback year with 26 long balls, and Jersey’s own Todd Frazier hit 19 as a rookie fill-in for Scott Rolen at third.
This is where it gets fun. Cincinnati tied with Washington for the best ERA in baseball (3.34) while San Francisco was fifth in the NL (3.68). The Giants bring back three of the four starters from their 2010 playoff rotation, with Ryan Vogelsong replacing Jonathan Sanchez. The order, though, has certainly changed, with Matt Cain becoming the ace—he still hasn’t allowed an earned run in postseason play—and Tim Lincecum the question mark after a 10-15, 5.18 ERA season. In the bullpen, Bruce Bochy finally relented and made Sergio Romo the closer instead of Santiago Casilla, and San Francisco has been better for it. Romo has been one of the game’s best relievers for three years now.
On the other side, Johnny Cueto is the most underrated starter in baseball. He went 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA this season despite pitching in a home-run haven at Great American Ball Park; his adjusted ERA+ was the best in the National League. Over the last three seasons, Cueto is 40-21 with a 2.93 ERA in more than 550 innings. Both he and Cain—opponents in Game 1—will get down-ballot Cy Young votes. Dusty Baker has decided to go with Bronson Arroyo in Game 2, which is…curious. Arroyo had a solid season, but he’s not better than Mat Latos, who rebounded from a bad first half by pitching to a 2.43 ERA his last 19 starts. Homer Bailey, slated to start Game 4, only threw a no-hitter two starts back, and he has a 1.85 ERA in his last seven starts. And this doesn’t even mention the bullpen, where Aroldis Chapman found his niche as a lights-out closer who strikes everyone out and Sean Marshall and Jose Arredondo have continued their under-the-radar careers as solid set-up men.
Lingering Questions (from JOHN S)
What the hell happened to Tim Lincecum? Should he even be starting ahead of Barry Zito?
Among the things that happened to Tim Lincecum: He walked more batters, he stranded runners at a ridiculously low rate and opponents homered off him at a ridiculously high rate. The first is obviously his fault, while the other two are, to various extents, less under his control (and they are somewhat intertwined, obviously. Pitchers with high home run rates don’t strand runners as well). His FIP was a run better than his ERA. The more concerning long-term issue is this: Lincecum’s velocity was way down in 2012. Pitchers bounce back from bad, unlucky years; they don’t often reverse downward velocity trends.
But yes, he should be starting over Zito. He’s had basically two bad starts in his last 12 (ERA of 4.00), so he’s kind of turned it around.
Do you remember that kid Danny Almonte? The 14-year-old who lied about his age to pitch in the LLWS a few years ago, and who threw something like 45 perfect games with 11,000 strikeouts against those poor kids? Doesn’t Aroldis Chapman kind of remind you of him?
Aroldis Chapman IS Danny Almonte, John. It’d probably be easier to go all nuts about how amazing Chapman is with his 15+ strikeouts per nine innings or the fact that he strikes out four of every nine batters he faces if Craig Kimbrel didn’t strike out half the guys he faced in 2012. Half! When Chapman gets hit, he usually gets hit for a couple of runs; the dozen earned runs he allowed came in seven outings. Five of those outings came in a seven-game stretch in June. Other than that, he had an ERA of 0.55 on the season.
Why wouldn’t San Francisco bring Melky back for the NLCS? Is this some kind of ethical stand, or do they actually have superior outfielders?
I imagine it’s a chemistry issue. When Cabrera was suspended, San Francisco was tied for the NL West lead with the Dodgers. Since then, they had the best record in the NL at 30-15. Gregor Blanco and Xavier Nady have been almost adequate in Cabrera’s absence.
Does Matt Cain still qualify as “underrated”? Does Joey Votto? I know both signed huge contract extensions and Votto won an MVP two years ago, but they still seem to fly under the radar.
That’s because you’re an American League fan who views the National League as Quadruple-A. Cain started the All-Star Game and threw a perfect game this season (albeit against the Astros). If I could have any hitter in the National League for the next five years, it’s Votto.
How come you glossed over the biggest story of the series? Dusty Baker, VENGEANCE SERIES!
Because I don’t think Dusty Baker is a particularly good manager, and the evidence continues to mount against me. I’d rather remain in blissful ignorance.
Who will you be rooting for in this series? And who ya got?
This time of year, I usually find myself rooting for fan bases, and well, the Giants got their title two years ago. The Reds haven’t won a playoff game since 1995. Cincinnati’s football team hasn’t won a playoff game since 1991, and its college team went undefeated and didn’t get to play for the championship. The Queen City is due. I also think the Reds are the better team, especially with Votto healthy, and, so long as they don’t get railroaded by Cain and Bumgarner in San Francisco, they should win in four.