We Going to the Ship!
Monday night the San Francisco Giants vanquished the St. Louis Cardinals in the first game 7 played in San Francisco since 1962 with a 9-0 drubbing. The Giants went into a Barry Zito start in game 5, in St. Louis, down 3-1 in the series and roared back, outscoring the Cardinals 20-1 over the last 3 games. Their reward for such a heroic effort? A date with a well rested Justin Verlander, the best pitcher in baseball, in game 1 of the World Series tonight. I can think of better ways to celebrate than facing 98MPH fastballs coupled with hellacious curveballs.
For game 1 the Giants will again turn to their $126 million man and hand Barry Zito the ball. That’s the same Barry Zito who was left off the playoff roster in 2010, had a poor performance against the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS (although the Giants went on to win), and had one of the best outings of his career in a must win NLCS game 5. On paper and on the radar gun Zito vs Verlander is a complete and total mismatch, yet somehow the Giants have won Zito’s last 13 starts despite the fact that he didn’t get out of the 5th inning in 3 of them. For the most part Zito has pitched well during this stretch that goes back to the beginning of August but the big reason the Giants have won is because Zito is getting tremendous run support. On August 2nd the Giants lost to the New York Mets by a 9-1 score, and they haven’t lost a Zito start since. The run totals for those 13 wins? 4, 9, 8, 5, 6, 9, 4, 3, 9, 7, 4, 8, 5. For whatever reason the 2012 San Francisco Giants have been playing like the 1927 New York Yankees whenever Barry Zito takes the mound for almost 3 months.
As much as Zito has improved his performance recently, his success during this winning streak is a testament to the fact that baseball is always about more than 1 player. So while it’s easy to point to Verlander and say the Tigers have a huge edge in both game 1 and the series, the fact remains that both teams will need contributions from just about everyone on their roster to win a championship.
A look past the game 1 starters show 2 teams built around very different philosophies:
It is the foundation upon which just about every championship team is built, and there’s a reason the saying “pitching and defense wins championships” has been around about as long as the game of baseball has been played (more on the defense in a moment). The Tigers starters are rolling right now while the Giants are, with the exception of Vogelsong, struggling. Verlander is the best starter in the game and will likely follow his MVP and Cy Young awards in 2011 with another Cy Young in 2012, but he’s the only proven commodity among the Tigers projected starters. As much as the other 3 projected starters, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez steamrolled through the Yankees in the ALCS that performance may have had as much to do with the Yankees and their struggling offense as it did the Tigers’ starters. All 3 guys have good stuff but have been up and down at times over their careers.
Based on name recognition and postseason pedigree the Giants would appear to have an edge here. Matt Cain didn’t give up an earned run at all during the 2010 postseason, Tim Lincecum has a pair of Cy Young awards to his name, Madison Bumgarner started and won a World Series game on the road at the tender age of 21, and even Barry Zito has a Cy Young award and was once deemed worthy of a $126 million contract. Right now Vogelsong is cruising with a 1.42 ERA in 19 IP this postseason but the others are having a tougher time. Cain pitched well in game 4 in St. Louis and suffered the loss because Matt Carpenter hit a rare mistake over the RF fence, and while he didn’t have his best stuff in game 7 he was able to keep the Cardinals scoreless into the 6th. Tim Lincecum isn’t even in the rotation and Bumgarner was removed from the rotation by the end of the NLCS after getting shelled in his 2 playoff starts this year, though he’ll take the ball for game 2 of the World Series. Finally, Zito has been Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thus far in the postseason. He was knocked out of a must win game early in Cincinnati, a game the Giants went on to win despite the poor start, and then came back with the best start of his much maligned Giants career in game 5 of the NLCS to bring the series back to San Francisco where Vogelsong and Cain were waiting.
The Giants have a deep and versatile bullpen and, perhaps just as importantly, have a manager who excels at knowing who to use and when to use them. Brian Wilson isn’t around to lock down the 9th inning anymore but everyone else is more or less playing the same role they’ve always played, just an inning later. Sergio Romo and his frisbees are still death to righties, he’s just used in the 8th or 9th inning instead of the 8th. Javier Lopez and his thunder from down under are still death to lefties, he’s just being used in the 8th or 9th innings instead of the 7th or 8th. When the Giants need a groundball or want to matchup with a lefty in the 6th or 7th they still bring in Jeremy Affeldt, who is also perfectly capable of handling right handed batters. And when they need a strikeout or want to matchup with a string of righties they can still bring in Santiago Cassila who appears to be better suited to be a setup man than a closer despite his 25 saves during the regular season. George Kontos has been pitching extremely well down the stretch and into the postseason and has become the go-to guy to cleanup a starters’ mess early. That still leaves Jose Mijares as another lefty Bochy can use on Prince Fielder if need be, and Guillermo Mota is there for… I honestly don’t know. Moral support? Veteran moxie? Last but not least, the Giants have a weapon in the pen in Tim Lincecum, who though struggling as a starter in both the regular season and postseason has been lights out as a long reliever thus far in the playoffs. While the Tigers have an edge in starting pitching, Bochy’s ability to use Kontos to clean up the mess and get out of the inning before handing the ball to Lincecum for a couple of innings certainly helps bridge that gap. The loss of Wilson forced the Giants to scramble to re-establish the role of each reliever and despite some hiccups along the way this group is cruising right now.
It might be kind to say Detroit’s bullpen has a lot more question marks than San Francisco’s. Jose Valverde has been a disaster as a closer thus far in the playoffs. He still has a deceptive delivery but he no longer backs it up with elite stuff and as a result has lost his job as the Tigers’ closer. Phil Coke has been fantastic and has taken over the closers role from Valverde, though that promotion has come at a price for the Tigers. By promoting Coke to closer they’ve lost their best situational lefty and setup man. The only other left handed pitcher the Tigers have used out of the bullpen so far in the playoffs is Drew Smyly, who had solid splits against lefties during the regular season even though he gave up 4 HR to left handed batters in 116 AB (to put that in perspective Affeldt, Lopez, and Mijares combined gave up just 2 HR to left handed batters in over 300 AB). Octavio Dotel is still around at age 63 and working for his 35th MLB franchise (these are only slight exaggerations). Joaquin Benoit figures to see some time in the World Series as well, and while his K/9 is an excellent 10.65 his ERA for the season was a much more pedestrian 3.68 due to the fact that he gave up 14 HR in 71 IP. One-time “can’t miss” prospect Rick Porcello will likely be the long man for the Tigers in the World Series, but his career has been defined more by the fact he can’t miss bats than his considerable potential.
Despite the benefit of the DH and the fact that the Tigers have 2 legitimate middle of the order threats compared to about 1.5 for the Giants, the Tigers actually only scored 8 more runs than the Giants did in the regular season. The Tigers were able to club 60 more HR than the Giants did in 2012, which gives them an element of instant offense that the Giants just can’t match. Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder combined for 74 HR during the regular season, though both have been held in check through 2 rounds of the playoffs. Austin Jackson is a one of the game’s best leadoff hitters who is able to put up some impressive power numbers while still getting on base and putting pressure on the defense with his speed. Jhonny Peralta brings a touch of pop to the SS position and Alex Avila did contribute 19 HR in 2011, though that number dropped to just 9 in 2012 as he experienced an across the board regression on offense. The rest of the Tigers lineup is less than imposing. Omar Infante doesn’t hit for much power or average, but other than that he’s awesome. Avisail Garcia hit .300 in limited playing time, as did Andy Dirks. Quintin Berry is the only player besides Austin Jackson who is a threat to steal a base but he offers almost no power.
The Giants finished dead last in MLB in home runs hit during the 2012 regular season, and somehow they found a way to be even worse than that at home. Fortunately that didn’t prevent them from putting up an above average offense. For the Giants it all starts with Buster Posey, the likely NL MVP, who is the biggest power threat in the lineup. Buster hit a season saving grand slam in game 5 of the NLDS off of Mat Latos but has been cold at the plate ever since. Part of that may be due to the toll catching takes on the body, but part of it is almost certainly due to the Cardinals decision to stay away from Posey as much as possible and make Hunter Pence beat them. Prior to game 7 where Pence had one of the strangest bases loaded singles in the history of baseball, it was a strategy that was mostly successful. Pence is a notoriously streaky hitter who has been mostly cold since coming over to the Giants so I’m sure more than a few of Pence’s teammates and coaches are hoping that single was the beginning of one of his hot streaks. Pablo Sandoval has battled injuries throughout 2012, the most notable being a broken hamate bone which required surgery and seemed to sap most of his power. At the top of the order is Angel Pagan, who had a solid year both at the plate and on the bases and can be a real catalyst in front of NLCS MVP Marco Scutaro because Scutaro is so adept at putting the ball in play. It’s imperative for those two players to set the table so that the Tigers can’t pitch around Sandoval and Posey, particularly if Pence remains as cold as he’s been throughout the playoffs. Following Pence the Giants have 3 lefties in Brandon Belt, Gregor Blanco, and Brandon Crawford, and while none of them has proven to be a consistent threat at the plate they could cause matchup problems for the Tigers righty dominated pitching staff. Belt has shown a propensity for drawing walks in his short career and his .360 OBP ranks 2nd on the current roster behind Buster Posey. Blanco throws out a lot of quality plate appearances but is too often left with nothing to show for it, and while Crawford’s numbers are by no means eye-opening he seems to come through in big situations and has been in the middle of most of the Giants rallies during the playoffs.
Unlike the Tigers, the Giants are above average at just about every position on the diamond. Gold Gloves tend to be awarded as a result of name recognition and that, coupled with his rough start to the season, probably means Brandon Crawford won’t take home the award for 2012. If he continues to be an everyday player that will certainly change and he is the best defensive player for either team in this series. The other Brandon, Brandon Belt, will likely win a Gold Glove of his own at 1B before his career is over. Scutaro, at 36, doesn’t have the range to play SS consistently anymore but his range and his arm play very well at 2B. Although much is made of Pablo Sandoval’s girth and the impact it does or does not have on his range at 3B he actually covers quite a bit of ground and is very sure handed with the balls he is able to get to. In the OF the Giants benefit from the fact that Blanco is a natural CF playing LF, which allows Pagan to shade a bit towards the Triples Alley. Pagan and Blanco can both cover a lot of ground and Pence is no slouch in RF.
Although the Tigers defense has held up through the ALDS and ALCS it’s a ticking time bomb, starting with the left side of the infield. Miguel Cabrera basically ate himself over to 1B and was only moved back to 3B when the Tigers signed Prince Fielder in the offseason, who probably would have eaten himself off 1B but for the fact that Delmon Young is one of the worst defensive outfielders in the game. Jim Leyland has made the decision, at least for game 1, to sacrifice his OF defense so he can keep Young’s bat in the lineup in a move similar to when Ron Washington opted to start Vlad Guerrero in the OF in San Francisco during the 2010 World Series. That decision proved costly for the Rangers, so Leyland is taking a big risk. Next to Cabrera at SS is Jhonny Peralta who looks a lot older than 30 when he’s playing the field. His range is limited and he would probably be playing 3B if the Tigers didn’t have one of the best hitters in the game at the hot corner. Neither Cabrera nor Peralta can cover much ground which should create some holes on the left side of the infield for the Giants to take advantage of. Avila is an above average catcher behind the plate but he’s no Yadier Molina so Pagan and Blanco should be given the green light to challenge if they can get on base. Like Cabrera across the diamond, Prince Fielder doesn’t have a lot of range at 1B so a lot of the responsibility for covering the right side of the infield falls on Omar Infante who is a solid but unspectacular defensive 2B. Austin Jackson is easily the Tigers’ best defensive player and one of the game’s elite CF.
KEY TO THE SERIES
Can the Giants grind out enough long at bats to make the Tigers’ bullpen a factor in this series? The Tigers’ starters are good and they’re unlikely to give up many crooked numbers, but if the Giants can string together some good at bats and some long innings (and if the Tigers’ defense starts kicking the ball around) they can get to the Tigers’ bullpen where they have the best chance to score. The Giants have to find a way to get the Tigers’ starters out of the game before the 6th inning to force Jim Leyland to put the ball in the hands of someone other than Benoit or Coke. If the Tigers’ starters are getting into or through the 7th inning the Giants are in trouble.
PREDICTION: Giants in 6
In football, basketball, and hockey rest during the playoffs is a significant advantage because of the physical toll extra games can take on the body, but in baseball anything more than 2 or 3 days off can be a problem. Baseball is a game of rhythm and timing that’s played day in and day out from April through October, and having last played 6 days ago the Tigers have had a longer break between games than they’ve had at any time since spring training. It’s going to be difficult, even with the great Justin Verlander on the mound in game 1, to overcome a lack of timing and the Giants at the same time. Rob Neyer looked at the World Series records of teams that swept their LCS since it was expanded to 7 games in 1985. 5 teams have swept the LCS and of those 5, 4 went on to lose the World Series to the team that was forced to play more games in the LCS round. It’s an extremely small sample size but the results indicate that while some rest is good, too much rest is not.
Regardless of the sport, the playoffs tend to make weaknesses a factor in the outcome. The Giants’ weakness is their inability to generate instant offense via the home run, and that’s been on display during the NLDS and NLCS. Their run totals through 2 rounds of the playoffs: 2, 0, 2, 8, 6, 4, 7, 1, 3, 5, 6, 9. The Giants have to string together 3 or 4 hits to put together a big inning because they can’t rely on home runs.
On the other side, the Tigers’ biggest weaknesses are on defense and in the bullpen and neither of them has really been a factor for them yet. Yes, Valverde blew 2 saves and lost his job as closer but the Tigers were able to overcome the blown save in game 1 against the Yankees. The starters have pitched deep enough into games for the Tigers that they haven’t had to rely on the bottom half of the bullpen in any big situations. Defense was a key undoing for the Cardinals in the NLCS and the Tigers’ defense is significantly worse than that of the Cardinals. Even if the Tigers don’t make a ton of errors, or if the errors they do make don’t lead directly to runs, there’s a good chance that the Tigers’ defense is going to cost their starting pitchers some pitches against the Giants in the World Series and make the bullpen much more of a factor than they’ve had to be through the first 2 rounds of the playoffs. This series will come down to whether the arms in the pen beyond Phil Coke can come through in the biggest games of their lives, and the guess here is that they will struggle enough to give the Giants their 2nd championship in the last 3 years.
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