To preview the Cardinals-Phillies division series, we conducted a question-and-answer exchange with ESPN SweetSpot colleague Bill Baer, who writes at Crashburn Alley and tweets as @CrashburnAlley. First, his answers to our questions. Following are our answers to his questions (also posted at his site).
This series pits the league’s best offensive team vs. the best pitching. Who wins and why?
I think the Phillies walk away winners. The Reds were a much scarier offense last year and the Phillies handled them with relative ease. The starting rotation has only improved with the re-addition of Cliff Lee, so the Cardinals will certainly have their work cut out for them. However, Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, and Matt Holliday (should he play at all) have been three of the best hitters in baseball this season, so they cannot be overlooked. [Editor’s note: The 2010 Reds had a .339 wOBA; the 2011 Cardinals had a .332 wOBA. Both teams led the league. But the Reds had 106 weighted Runs Created+, which compares to league average, whereas the Cardinals had a 111.]
Whose health is a concern?
Ryan Howard‘s the big concern. He was dealing with a foot problem in the last couple weeks of the season, but Charlie Manuel gave him a lot of rest, so hopefully he’s ready to go for Game One.
Of course, the entire infield has had health problems over the last year or two, which is why I advocated the Phillies enter the post-season with 14 position players and 11 pitchers, which they have done.
Roy Oswalt has had a couple of dubious starts. What do you expect from him, and what’s his key to success?
Oswalt looked good in his last start of the season, but he is not a critical component to the Phillies’ post-season aspirations. The key to his success is fastball velocity. When he’s in the high-80’s, he’s very, very hittable; when he’s in the low- to mid-90’s, he is reminiscent of the ace we saw several years ago with the Astros.
The Philly offense is slightly above average — how do they score runs this series?
With the starting rotation they have, they don’t need to win games 7-5 the way they used to even as recently as 2008. An overlooked component of their manufacturing of runs is base running efficiency. The Phillies have three of the most efficient base runners in the game in Jimmy Rollins (30 steals, 79% success rate), Shane Victorino (19 steals, 86% success rate), and Chase Utley (14 steals, 100% success rate). They can go first-to-third as well as anyone, so smart base running will be a big component of their run-scoring in the playoffs.
[Questions from Crashburn Alley]
Matt Holliday is unavailable for at least Game One of the NLDS. How big a deal is his injury?
It’s certainly huge if he can’t play, inasmuch as he is one of the offense’s “MV3,” along with Berkman and Pujols. GM John Mozeliak has said that Holliday’s injury might be DL-worthy had it occurred earlier in the year, so it’s definitely serious. The good news for the Cardinals is that Allen Craig is a potentially potent fill-in.
La Russa’s penchant for overmanaging is infamous enough to have been the subject of a Mustrash episode, and this is an example of TLR seemingly needing to put his stamp on the series. He does have some method to his madness, though: Using Carpenter early would allow him to return for a possible Game 5, which makes sense. The stranger call is delaying Jaime Garcia, who would’ve pitched on normal rest in Game 1, till Tuesday’s Game 3. I don’t like it because pitching Garcia in Game 1 would’ve given the team the option to start him on one-day short rest in a possible Game 4. And if not Garcia in Game 1, I still consider Jackson to be better than Lohse, despite the latter’s career year.
The Cardinals are not a very mobile team, having finished last in the NL in stolen bases with 57. Do you worry about their ability to manufacture runs against the Phillies’ pitching staff?
The Cardinals scored the most runs in the league because they manufacture runs simply by getting on base and not via “small ball.” The key, since they are so poor at stealing (not to mention the league’s slowest team) and, in addition, executing will be not running into outs on the bases, which they have done with occasional impunity. TLR will have to resist the urge to put runners in motion in order to avoid double plays, to which he may be particularly sensitive given the misguided criticism of the team hitting into so many (which is mostly a function of OBP, of course). The Phillies’ staff will make them pay or underappreciating their limited outs.
Do you feel confident that the Cardinals’ lefty relievers can neutralize Ryan Howard?
Howard has a .100 OBP/.100 SLG in 10 plate appearances against Brian Tallet. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they overhauled their LOOGys late in the season and shipped Tallet to Toronto. They now have the majors’ fourth-oldest player in Arthur Rhodes, against whose platoon advantage Howard is impervious, with .400 OBP and .750 SLG in 10 PAs. Expect Marc Rzepczynski to be the designated LOOGy, against whom Howard is 0-for-2. If for some reason La Russa gets into a pinch or wants to get creative, he could use starting pitcher Jaime Garcia in relief against Howard, who is only 2-for-12 with six Ks against him.
The Cardinals are a team heavy on right-handed hitters. Do you think they match up better against Cliff Lee than Roy Halladay?
They haven’t hit either one this year, so I think this is a case of sheer talent trumping any platoon advantage. Lee held the Cardinals to a .322 OBP/.269 SLG in two starts in 2011, while Halladay was no more generous at .286 OBP/.340 SLG.
Who do you see winning the series, and in how many games?
If I were a betting man, I’d put money on the Phillies — but not much. As superlative as the Phillies are, the Selig-format playoffs are notoriously a crapshoot, and this would be the series for the Cardinals to knock them off. The deep Philly rotation also loses some of its advantage, since the Cardinals can end it in three or, at the least, have to use their fourth man only once.