NLDS Preview – Cardinals vs Phillies

Now that the euphoria has subsided a little bit, it is time to take a look at the next team standing in St Louis’ way, the Philadelphia Phillies.

Philadelphia finished the regular season with the best record in baseball. Their vaunted starting rotation performed as advertised, more than making up for their average offense. They are the odds-on favorite not only to win the National League, but the World Series. Let us take a closer look.

St Louis will face Roy Halladay (19-6, 2.35 ERA, 2.71 xFIP, 220 K), Cole Hamels (14-9, 2.79 ERA, 3.02 xFIP, 194 K), and Cliff Lee (17-8, 2.40 ERA, 2.68 xFIP, 238K) in the LDS. The best part of this rotation is the Cardinals faced Halladay and Hamels, and beat both, barely 2 weeks ago in Philly. The other starter, Lee , has faced St Louis twice this season. The Cardinals beat him in May, with Lee returning the favor in June. So their top three, who were a combined 50-25 this season, have all suffered a loss at the hands of these Cardinals this season. They’re good, but the Cardinals know they can defeat these three.

St Louis will counter with Kyle Lohse, Edwin Jackson, Chris Carpenter, and Jamie Garcia for Game 4. Lohse (14-8, 3.39 ERA, 3.31 xFIP, 111K) beat Halladay on 19 September. That victory was his first over Philadelphia since 2008 and snapped a 3-game personal losing streak against the Phillies. Lohse has been the best Cardinal starter during their September surge. Jackson (5-2, 3.58 ERA, 4.03 xFIP, 51K) gets a much deserved playoff start. He has allowed 3 or fewer runs in all but two of his starts since joining the Cardinals. Chris Carpenter (11-9, 3.45 ERA, 3.31 xFIP, 191K) pitched St Louis to the playoffs with a dominating start against Houston, but the price is his unavailability until Game 3. In 19 starts since June 23 he is 10-2 with a 2.73 ERA.

The Cardinals are not grossly outclassed, but the statistically the Philly starters are better. Starting pitching advantage: Philadephia.

Statistically Philadelphia’s bullpen was better than St Louis’, but with a difference of less than 1 fWAR it is a minor difference. Philadelphia’s best 2 relievers are Ryan Madson (currently the closer) and Antonio Bastardo. Bastardo was pretty close to lights out for the first 2/3 of the season, but has faded noticeably down the stretch. Their bullpen will be bolstered with the presence of starters Roy Oswalt (although he could start Game 4) and Vance Worley. Michael Stutes has also seen significant work out of the Phillies bullpen.

St Louis remade their bullpen in the Colby Rasmus trade, and have turned a liability into a strength. Jason Motte comes in for high leverage situations late in games but is not the ‘closer’ per se. Kyle McClellan, Octavio Dotel, Mark ‘Scrabble’ Rzepczynski, and Arthur Rhodes will all see action out of the bullpen. This bullpen blew 2 of the last 7 games this season, but without them the Cardinals don’t close on a 23-8 tear.

Cardinal bullpen improvement since the trade deadline makes this a dead heat. Bullpen advantage: Even.

Offensively, Philadelphia boasts a formidable lineup of aging stars. Only trade deadline acquisition Hunter Pence is under 30. Still, one takes Philadelphia lightly at their own peril. They were the sixth best offense in the NL (12th overall) this season, again by fWAR. Shane Victorino had a career year hitting mostly out of the leadoff or #2 slot. St Louis’ ability to keep him in check will be a key to winning this series. Pence, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmie Rollins, and Carlos Ruiz all posted wRC+ of 106 or better. They are capable of scoring a lot of runs, but they don’t need to with the starting pitching they have.

The Cardinals field the most potent offense in the National League, anchored by Albert Pujols and the resurgent Lance Berkman. However this offense will not be the one Philadelphia saw two weeks ago. Matt Holliday is hurting, his status uncertain; he was to receive a cortisone shot for his ailing right hand. Rafael Furcal, a catalyst who hit 7 home runs after coming to St Louis, is probably out for the year with a hamstring injury. That’s the bad news. The good news is Allen Craig has stepped into Holliday’s shoes and capably replaced him, hitting .303/.329/.606 since August 25. St Louis will probably platoon at short, with Nick Punto, Ryan Theriot, and Tyler Greene seeing some time. Furcal’s defense was shaky down the stretch, so there won’t be a large drop off there, but there will be a big offensive drop.

Even without Holliday this lineup has not lost a beat. Offensive Advantage: St Louis.

Defense is the Phillie Achilles heel. Using Bill James’ Team Runs Saved as the metric, Philadelphia had the third-worst defense in the NL this season, grading below average at pitcher, catcher, first, left, and right, and exactly average at short. St Louis’ defense was below league average, but graded out 3 spots higher than Philadelphia. Their weakest positions are (worst to best) short, catcher, third, and second. The Cardinals were exactly average at first.

So basically the Phillies have the better infield, and the Cardinals have a better outfield. Defensive Advantage: Even.

Summary and Prediction

Does good pitching stop good hitting or good hitting stop good pitching? This series will be a case study. Good hitting stopped good pitching back in mid-September, but that series did not have the pressure this one will. Sure, the pressure was there for the Cardinals, but not for Philadelphia; they came in with a magic number of 1 and clinched with their lone win. Philadelphia will play at a higher level starting Saturday then they did back then.

That’s not to say the Cardinals should not bother to show up. There is no more confident team in the NL than St Louis as this post-season starts. They were all but eliminated from the post-season 5 weeks ago, yet here they are. The team is playing with house money and they know it. All the pressure in this series resides in the dugout and clubhouse of the team anointed as World Champions before spring training started. If any team can upset the Phillies, it is the Cardinals.

So long as Halladay does not no-hit them tomorrow. Cardinals in 4.

Mike Metzger is a life-long Cardinals fan currently based in San Diego. He blogs about the San Diego Padres, and you can follow him @metzgermg

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