National League Divisional Series:
San Francisco vs. Cincinnati
San Francisco Giants
Why Giants Fans Should Heed my Data-Based Analysis: When the season was three-quarters complete, the Dodgers had just massively upgraded their offense and the Giants had recently learned they’d have to play the rest of the year without their first-half MVP, Melky Cabrera. Running counter to just about every piece of commentary I read, my work saw the Q4 outlook for both teams very differently. I wrote that not only would the Giants field a better offense over the last 41 games than they had for the first 120 games, they would outscore the Dodgers in Q4 and “take the division crown in September, in a surprisingly easy fashion leaving the Dodgers out of the playoffs.” You know that’s how the race ended, but did you know the Giants scored 198 runs (far above their average of 173 runs over the first three quarters) while the Dodgers scored only 151?
Why Giants Fans Should Ignore my Data-Based Analysis: Forget the sharp fourth-quarter call above, it took me three-quarters of the season to get any reasonable grip whatsoever on the talent level of the Giants. Remember, I’m the guy, in the pre-season, who thought the San Diego Padres would steal the NL West Crown with a .500 record.
The Giants had a great second-half offensively because hitting-machine Pablo Sandoval came back from injury, Brandon Belt settled more-or-less into the line up full-time, model-darling Marco Scutaro, acquired at the trading deadline, provided a huge upgrade at a problem position in the line up, and Buster Posey put himself right at the top of the NL MVP discussion with an unbelievable two and one-half months of hitting. (.385/.456/.646 – batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging after the All-Star break.) They scored 398 runs in the second half of the season but are the Giants an 800-run scoring team over an entire season, the mark of an elite offensive team these days?
My rule for modeling the post-season is as follows: Players are assumed to play at the same level they played at all year. That means that while Buster Posey will not be modeled as an 8 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) catcher for 2013 due to regression, for the 2012 playoffs he still gets that assumed offensive production of the 8 WAR player he was all year. In the case of Marco Scutaro, unfortunately his production with Colorado prior to joining the Giants drags his post season projection down, although that is mitigated somewhat by Hunter Pence’s better production in Philadelphia before the Phillies traded him to the Giants. Put it all together – including the loss of Melky Cabrera’s first-half production – and the Giants will field a 716-run team for the post-season, essentially identical to the regular season – but below the elite level they demonstrated during their second-half offensive outburst.
If the Giants do produce runs with the same frequency they did in the second half of the season, they’d become my choice to capture the NL pennant. That’s because they can match up with any team they face, especially Cincinnati, in preventing runs. In fact, outside of Atlanta’s otherworldly bullpen, the Giants are going into the postseason with the league’s second best bullpen and the best 1-2 punch in the starting rotation. The bullpen comment deserves some explanation because on the surface, it looks like an insane statement. Here are the regular season ERAs of each NL playoff team’s bullpen and my projected ERAs going forward:
Actual 2012 ERA Projected Post-Season ERA
Cincinnati 2.65 3.07
Atlanta 2.76 2.79
Washington 3.23 3.29
San Francisco 3.56 3.02
St. Louis 3.90 3.10
Why the huge difference for San Francisco (and St. Louis)? If you don’t follow your favorite team ever day during the regular season, you might be surprised when you look back at the end of the year and take note of how many different relievers each team uses over the course of a season. (The Giants used 17 different relievers, the Cardinals 19, for example.) However each team will only carry six relievers in the post season, representing the best of the team’s bullpen talent. Just as the team with the weakest 5th starter benefits from a playoff format where teams only use four starters, culling out the worst performers from the regular season data makes San Francisco look like a much better team.
Finally, there is the evaluation of skill sets. I won’t go into the details here but in a later issue we’ll play Who’d You Rather, just like last year, in which I’ll cover up the team and reliever names and simply present skill sets and you can decide which bullpen you’d like to go to battle with in the post season. For now, suffice it to say, the Giants relievers bring a very enviable set of skills to the table.
Why Reds Fans Should Heed my Data-Based Analysis: There really is no reason. As I write below, they’ve defied analysis all year.
Why Reds Fans Should Ignore my Data-Based Analysis: I’m writing this summary in McCarron airport, where, in the words of Cheryl Crow, “I’m leaving Las Vegas. I’m leaving for good.” (Yeah, that’s right, I quoted Cheryl Crow. What of it? I’ve just spent three months in Las Vegas – where locals play video poker in the Safeway – and I can’t wait to get back to the Bay Area. It’ll be nice to get change from a cashier, find it glitter-free, and not suspect it’s counterfeit. You may factor that in, if you wish, to my Giants and A’s write-ups.)
The Reds have defied objective analysis all season. With just 669 runs scored – just less than the Phillies and just more than the Mets (!) – they enter the post-season as the lowest scoring team in the playoffs. That is not how you picture a Reds team with Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, et al, playing half its games in the friendliest home run environment in the National League (ex-Colorado, but a sentence with that phrasing is always ex-Colorado), challenging Washington for the best record in the National League until the last day of the season. Making things even harder to explain is this: The stretch of games in which Cincinnati scored its most runs was the 49-game stretch when Votto was injured. From July 16 to September 4, the Reds scored 4.6 runs a game. With Votto, and his .337/.434/.567 bat in the line up, they only scored 3.9 runs a game. Let me phrase that another way: With the NL’s best hitter in the line up – the man who not only leads the NL in On Base Percentage plus Slugging (OPS) over the last three season, but leads it in OBP and Slugging over that time, the Reds offense was less potent this season than the San Diego Padres and the New York Mets.
On top of questionable run scoring abilities the Reds bring to the post season, a look at the starting pitching raises doubts as well. Johnny Cueto (19-9, 2.78 ERA) will garner a lot of Cy Young consideration – and he should, as his production during the 2012 season warrants it. However, outside of the Cardinals, I think he’s not better than the #3 starter on any other NL playoff team. You simply don’t see ‘aces’ who strike out less than the league average starter. Cueto struck out 19.1% of his batters faced in 2012 vs. the NL average of 20.1%. (The Giants top 3 starters struck out at least 22% of the batters they faced and even Ryan Vogelsong was league average.) Cueto posted terrific results because he benefitted from an extremely low HR/FB rate (given his environment) of 7.9% (NL avg. 11%) and because he stranded 78.8% of the runners that reached base against him – the 4th highest rate of all starting pitchers in the NL. When it comes to Cy Young voting, you don’t penalize a pitcher for those factors – after all, he got the job done – but when projecting future performance, you have to rely on skill sets. HR/FB rate and strand rates are highly volatile and therefore more likely the result of sequencing – or ‘cluster luck’, as I often write – rather than a repeatable skill.
I may classify Cueto as no better than a #3 starter on his peers’ staffs but he is the Reds best starter which presents a problem for the rest of the rotation when matching up against Bumgarner and Lincecum. The Reds played above-average defense this year (so did the Giants) and they ended up leading the league in runs allowed because of tremendous work from its highly-skilled bullpen. (See figures above.) If the offense can awaken, and the starting pitching continues to dance around disaster successfully the bullpen can certainly protect late inning leads.
The Reds may have won 97 games in the regular season, but I view them as a 90-win team in 97-win clothing. The Giants probably aren’t 94-wins good either, despite their final record. They banked a lot of wins in the beginning of the season, like the Orioles, while they were being outscored during that period. Still they’re 89- or 90-win good as well. I like the Giants to win this series, including a decent chance of sweeping given the new (for one year) Home/Home/Away/Away/Away format for the lower seeded team. Oddsmakers have installed the Reds as the series favorite (-130 or implied odds of 56.5%) with the Giants a +110 (implied odds of 47.6%). I’ll take the Giants in 4, under the belief the wrong team is favored.
(For those who care, close to game time, I’ll make single game predictions on Twitter, after the lineups and final rosters of each team have been announced. Not surprisingly, given the content above, the Giants look like a mildly attractive proposition in Game 1.)
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release. The book is available for pre-order here: http://www.amazon.com/Trading-Bases-Gambling-Baseball-Necessarily/dp/0525953647/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346604029&sr=1-1&keywords=trading+bases
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