I had intended for this to be a proper NLCS preview, but I didn’t finish the draft I wrote on Saturday night and when I tried to finish it yesterday, it was gone. Not the first time this has happened with my WordPress iPhone app. I suppose I should learn my lesson.
Anyway, on Friday night, in one of the more intense October baseball nights in recent memory, the Brewers needed an extra frame to beat the pesky Diamondbacks, while Chris Carpenter and the Cardinals stunned the favored Phillies (the mainstream media will tell you it was stunning, and I’m inclined to agree, but we all know how random a best-of-five series is) in a 1-0 thriller. The Brewers and Cardinals split 18 games in the regular season, and the NLCS provides a clean slate for a new chapter in this rivalry.
So how do these teams measure up, position-by-position? Since my preview is a day late, I’ll keep it brief, and I’ll try not to let last night’s results affect my predictions.
Catcher: Jonathan Lucroy vs. Yadier Molina
Molina’s better on both sides of the ball, and while his offensive edge was more pronounced this year (.349 wOBA vs. .310), Molina’s defensive reputation far outshines Lucroy’s. Before this season, in which he threw out just 19 of 65 potential base stealers, Molina had throw out nearly half (162 of 347) in his career. Lucroy scores poorly in both UZR (-4.0) and throwing out runners (30 of 107 in 2011).
First Base: Prince Fielder vs. Albert Pujols
Fielder was the better hitter this year, mostly by virtue of his drawing 40 more walks, but Pujols is the better fielder and has a decade of historically great performance on his resume, while Fielder is still building his reputation as an elite hitter.
Slight Edge: Cardinals
Second Base: Rickie Weeks vs. Ryan Theriot
With Skip Schumaker out with an injury, the Cardinals will have to give most of the second base innings to Theriot, a puzzling offseason acquisition who was below average with the bat, with the glove, and on the bases in 2011. Milwaukee, meanwhile, starts Weeks, an All-Star who was worth 3.7 fWAR this season. Weeks has struggled in October, but even in a slump, he’s better than Theriot.
Third Base: Casey McGehee/Jerry Hairston, Jr. vs. David Freese
Not much to see here. Freese actually had a decent season (.348 wOBA) and had a huge Game 4 of the NLDS, but he’s no star. He’s still better than McGehee, who is such an offensive liability that we’re likely to see retread utilityman Hairston playing most of the Brewers’ innings at third base.
Shortstop: Yuniesky Betancourt vs. Rafael Furcal
Last night’s homer aside, Betancourt is one of the worst everyday players in baseball, equally inept with the bat (.278 wOBA) and the glove (-6.9 UZR). Furcal is well into his decline phase, and didn’t do anything all that well this year either, but he accumulated more value (0.9 fWAR) in 50 games after being traded to St. Louis than Betancourt did all year (0.5 fWAR).
Left Field: Ryan Braun vs. Matt Holliday
If Holliday were healthy, this would be a matchup of two of the game’s best outfielders. With Holliday in recovery mode, it’s a huge mismatch, as Braun is an MVP candidate enjoying a monster October.
Center Field: Nyger Morgan vs. John Jay
Morgan shared time in center this year with Chris Gomez, but when he played he was electric (.346 wOBA, 15 UZR/15 games, 13 SB in 17 attempts). Jay was surprisingly good, filling in admirably after Cobly Rasmus was traded to Toronto, but he’s not quite Tony Plush.
Right Field: Corey Hart vs. Lance Berkman
Berkman is the better hitter, his .402 wOBA leading all right fielders in 2011, while Hart is a good hitter (.373 wOBA, 26 HR) with a much better glove than Berkman’s. Unless an inordinate number of balls is hit to field field in this series, Berkman’s offense makes him the more valuable player.
Slight Edge: Cardinals
#1 Starter: Zack Greinke vs. Jaime Garcia
In my ALCS preview, I lined up the starters by talent, as I wasn’t sure how they would actually line up in the series. Since we have the benefit of retrospect here, I’ll put Garcia up against Greinke. Garcia enjoyed a fine season this year, but his opponent is the best pitcher left in the playoffs, Justin Verlander aside. Greinke struck out 10.54 batters per nine this year. If he can keep the ball in the park, he should far outpitch his 3.83 ERA the rest of the way.
#2 Starter: Shaun Marcum vs. Edwin Jackson
Marcum broke out this year, pitching over 200 innings with a 3.54 ERA despite working in a hitters’ park. Jackson is only here because Adam Wainwright missed the whole season with an injury, but he wasn’t far behind Marcum in the metrics above in 2011.
Slight Edge: Brewers
#3 Starter: Yovani Gallardo vs. Chris Carpenter
This is the series’s marquee matchup, featuring the two pitchers who started for the winners of Friday night’s thrilling Game 5s. Both come in hot, Carpenter having pitched a three-hit shutout to knock out the Phillies, fresh on the heels of a shutout on the last day of the regular season, while Gallardo struck out 36 in his last three regular season starts and pitched well in both of his Division Series assignments. In the regular season, Carpenter was the better pitcher, his 3.06 FIP trumping Gallardo’s 3.59.
#4 Starter: Randy Wolf vs. Kyle Lohse
Both were disasters in their lone NLDS starts and each’s team might consider skipping him should the circumstances call for it. If we do see them, the Cardinals will be happier to start Lohse, who somehow squeezed a 3.39 ERA out of a 5.3 K/9 season, than the Brewers will be with Wolf, who also outpitched his peripherals, but only to the tune of a 3.69 ERA.
Slight Edge: Cardinals
The Brewers have the better bullpen overall (3.24 FIP vs. St. Louis’s 3.87), and when limited to the top four pitchers, their advantage is enhanced. Milwaukee will throw closer John Axford and former closers Francisco Rodriguez, Takashi Saito, and LaTroy Hawkins, while Tony LaRussa will try to patch together innings from Jason Motte, Fernando Salas, Mitchell Boggs, Octavio Dotel, and a slew of other uninspiring pitchers.
That’s seven edges for St. Louis and six for Milwaukee. We tend to get fixated on the strength of the Brewers’ stars (Braun, Fielder, Greinke, Gallardo) and forget that the Cardinals have both star power (Pujols, Berkman, Carpenter) and depth. I still like Milwaukee, as their rotation seems a little stronger and their bullpen is far better, but the Cardinals can hit anyone and will not go quietly.
Prediction: Brewers in seven