1. Matheny’s rotation picks
After a season of fairly conventional rotation management, Cardinal manager Mike Matheny decisions in the playoffs to feature Joe Kelly and bench Shelby Miller have been inscrutable. We may yet find a method to his madness, but with Miller and Lance Lynn — his second-best starting pitcher this season — relegated to the bullpen in Game 1 of the NLCS, it isn’t apparent. His decision to go with Kelly in the opener against the Dodgers ultimately didn’t backfire (unless you factor into the cost of the win the four extra innings of bullpen usage that render top reliever Trevor Rosenthal and possibly Lynn unavailable for Game 2), but that doesn’t justify giving the ball to him. For just about all you need to know regarding why, we commend Dave Cameron’s must-read article and a hit from Viva El Birdos.
2. The Cardinals’ RISP regression
Observers during the NLDS were flummoxed that the Cardinals couldn’t against the Pirates emulate their “historic” regular-season .330 batting average with runners in scoring position. But given that their season average was “only” .269, only those who are new to the concept of statistical outliers would bet on that .330 average continuing. Moreover, in the NLCS, they’ll be facing much tougher pitching in the Dodgers, who led the league in xFIP (3.52). So not only can we expect their overall batting average to be worse than the regular season, that heady RISP will almost certainly plummet, as well. And yet broadcasters and writers will continue to play the RISP angle wondering what could possibly be wrong with the Cardinals. In reality, nothing other than regression and tough opponent pitching will be the matter.
Speaking of outliers, Carlos Beltran has been ethereal in his career when it comes to the playoffs. In his career, he has posted a .359 OBP/.496 SLG during the regular season; in the playoffs, he elevates to .449/.750. Common sense tells us that those number, too, will regress, but Beltran has been able to postpone the regression a bit so far in 2013. Still, he has developed enough of a reputation as a clutch October performer that even some regression can still be good enough for headlines. He put up “only” a .333 OBP/.611 SLG in the NLDS, but that included two home runs and six RBI, a full third of the team’s totals in each of those categories. One of the keys of the NLCS will be if and when the Dodgers decide to avoid the Cardinal veteran right fielder. That would put additional pressure on Matt Holliday, who follows Beltran in the order. After Holliday’s .389/.490 campaign in 2013, the Cardinals will gladly take that option. Either way, Beltran will be front-and-center.
4. The Replacements
Each team is missing a key piece of its offense, the Dodgers in Matt Kemp and the Cardinals in Allen Craig. How much pop the combination of erstwhile Cardinal Skip Schumaker/Andre Ethier and Matt Adams, the respective replacements, provide will go a long way to gigging their teams in what shapes up to be a pitching-heavy series. Dodger manager Don Mattingly has a tough choice in his center field options, as neither Schumaker, because of skill set, nor Ethier, because of injury, offers a complete package. Mattingly sacrifices defense with Ethier, who is subpar in right field, let alone center, and is struggling with ankle pain. Schumaker is stronger afield — for instance, he may’ve been able to snare Beltran’s Game 1 drive — but is lighter with the bat (he posted .332/.332 in 2013). Adams showed that he can admirably make up for, if not fully replace, Craig, both with the lumber and the leather.
5. The Rise of the Rookies
Rookies have buoyed both the Dodgers and the Cardinals, albeit different stylistically. Yasiel Puig has dominated headlines, for his likeness to Manny Ramirez in more ways than merely his hitting. Hyun-jin Ryu spent seven years in Korea’s major league, so he’s a different kind of rookie. Paco Rodriguez will play a minor role out of the bullpen. The contributions from Cardinal youngsters are more wide-ranging, with Michael Wacha making a splash as a surprise late-season addition to the rotation, Pete Kozma (still technically a rook) posting positive WAR this year and Adams. Kolten Wong, Miller, Siegrist, Seth Maness, Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez will all see playing time, too. This is clearly not Tony La Russa’s team — and the Cardinals may just win because of their youth infusion.