Tonight, the National League Championship Series kicks off at Busch Stadium, in an ironic scenario. It pits the best team, by record, in the St. Louis Cardinals versus the best team, in the view of the odds makers, in the Los Angeles Dodgers. This could be seen as a slight to a Cardinal team that not only finished with the best record in the NL, but tied for the best in all of the baseball, but the Dodgers are a bit more than just their record.
After a desperately terrible start, the Dodgers played insane baseball over the second half of the season, finishing with a winning percentage of .665 after June. They pulled from the bottom of the NL West to winning their division by 11 games, the largest margin of any in baseball. Yet, they find themselves facing four games on the road against the best October franchise in baseball over the last three seasons, and it is the type of series where intangibles and talent collide, to make for a narrow decision.
So who has the edge: the hottest team in baseball or the most proven team in it? Here’s how it shakes out:
Starting Lineup: The Cardinals led the NL in runs scored this season, owed mostly to the new high mark they set hitting with runners in scoring position. As a team, they hit .330 on the year, and had five batters drive in over 75 runs on the season. Save for the injured Allen Craig, four everyday Cardinals hit over .296, with high marks of .319 and .318 from Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter.
For the Dodgers, the production was spread around. Hanley Ramirez hit .345 in 304 at-bats between a series of injuries, while Yasiel Puig hit .319 on the year after debuting in June, adding in 19 home runs, 21 doubles and 11 stolen bases. From the Opening Day Dodgers, Adrian Gonzalez led the team in the Triple Crown categories, with a .293/22/100 split on the year.
The Cardinals have the best everyday ensemble left in the game, as well as a knack for finding hits when they are needed. LA conversely has more talent in the everyday lineup, but without Andre Ethier or Matt Kemp healthy, it simply isn’t a more threatening lineup as a whole. Advantage: Cardinals.
Starting Pitching: Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw are the best back-to-back duo of starting arms in the game, and are the greatest advantage the Dodgers have on their side. Throughout the year, they combined to go 31-13, with a 2.17 ERA and 380 strikeouts. But depth is also the Dodgers ally, as Ricky Nolasco, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Chris Capuano all providing an intriguing matchup options as well.
Everything is based around Adam Wainwright for the Cardinals, but this time it won’t be able to start with him. There is a chance that he will be surrounded by three rookies in Joe Kelly, Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller in the Cardinals NLCS rotation. They are not average, but well-tested youngsters that won’t be intimidated in the moment, but will carry a heavy burden.
St. Louis is high on talent, but clearly outmatched against the two former Cy Young winners, which are slated to start four of the seven potential games in the series. Their best hope is to spring an upset against one, ride Wainwright’s opportunities and win the swing game that pits starter four vs. four. Advantage: Dodgers.
Bullpen: St. Louis relies most heavily on its young arms out of its bullpen, where no less than four can factor into any game, including the ninth inning, which has been inherited by Trevor Rosenthal (108 strikeouts in 75.1 innings, 29 holds). The presence of former closers-turned-fill in arms Edward Mujica (37 2013 saves) and John Axford give the Cardinals a solid group of mid-to-late game options, albeit with some risk.
The Dodgers rely on mix of proven specialists, closers and pure flame throwers. Kenley Jenson threw the second most pitches over 100 mph in the MLB this year after Aroldis Chapman, and closed out 28 of 32 save opportunities after moving to the ninth inning in early June. Joined by a resurgent Brian Wilson (0.66 ERA) and JP Howell (.164 average against by lefties) and they have a tough crew to crack.
The Cardinals pen has been solid throughout the year, but somewhat unnerving of late in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Dodgers have a bevy of options that miss bats easily, and instant outs are huge in the playoffs. Advantage: Dodgers.
Defense: Despite some notably limited players in Matt Holliday and David Freese in the starting lineup, the Cardinals can field. They tied of the least amount of team errors and the best fielding percentage in the National League this season. This is due in part to a strong quad up the middle of Molina, Jon Jay, Matt Carpenter and Pete Kozma.
The Dodgers conversely were not a good defensive team. Puig’s insertion in the outfield provided some much needed range, and AJ Ellis is a plus backstop, but they finished with the second most errors in the NL and wait more for strikeouts than created ones. Advantage: Cardinals.
Bench: Andre Ethier’s availability to play in the field is in question, but he can swing the bat still and is joined by Michael Young, who was acquired to add needed depth to the bench. These veteran presences loom huge in the Dodgers ability to create mismatches on-demand. Dee Gordon is instant speed boost, while Nick Punto is a defensive plus at three infield spots.
The Cardinals bench is not an offensive stock hold, after Matt Adams was forced into everyday action after the injury to Allen Craig deemed it necessary. However, Daniel Descalso and Shane Robinson are defensive bonuses that are an important part of the late game strategy for the offense-heavy Cardinal attack.
Despite the versatility of the Cardinal approach, LA’s ability to continue to create offense late in the game is major advantage that will be a factor throughout the series. Advantage: Dodgers
Manager: Mike Matheny’s major contribution in his second season leading the Cardinals has been to install the crucial team identity, as well as strategically groom the rookie base that much of the team is built around. However, he has grown as a strategist as well and uses his full roster to his advantage.
Don Mattingly has come a long way in just this season. He was one week away from losing his job when the Dodgers took off, and has become an essential part of holding together the big money, multi-personality team together.
With that said, Matheny holds an edge in the chemistry department, as well as the experience lane at this part of the calendar as well. He has already shown some positive adjustments from a year ago, and will take on a new personal distance mark in his career. Advantage: Cardinals
Injury Factor: There are two major injuries that holding both teams back from their full potential in the series. For the Dodgers, it is Matt Kemp, who only played only 73 games on the year. The team’s best player in name, but not much a part of the run the team took this season. Ethier’s foot injury is also compounding the Dodger situation, whereas he can’t be a part of the daily lineup, due to not being able to handle the demands of the field.
Conversely, the Cardinals are missing a major part of their success in Allen Craig. The run producing machine ran up 97 RBI and a hit a mind-blowing 59 for 130 on the year with runners in scoring position (.454). The absence of the All-Star first baseman has been padded by the presence of Adams, but he is an irreplaceable quantity in the steadiness of the Cardinal attack.
While the Cardinals are missing a major portion of their attack, the alternate option for the Cardinals is actually not as far of a step down as the Dodgers have faced without two-thirds of their best possible outfield. Advantage: Cardinals.
Intangibles: Momentum is everything in the postseason, and both teams come into the series with plenty. The Cardinals will be fresh off an inspiring effort from Wainwright to close out their NLDS series, and will be in front of the same home crowd buzz that it took place in. Conversely, the Dodgers will cross the country again after a similarly inspiring close out to their NLDS matchup, which concluded with Juan Uribe’s two-run, bottom of the 8th inning home run.
On the season, the Dodgers won the season’s seven game series, 4-3. Over the last month, including the playoffs, the Dodgers are 15-16, while the Cardinals are 22-10.
On the year, the Cardinals are 56-28 at Busch Stadium, and 44-39 elsewhere. At Dodger Stadium, LA is 49-34, while 45-37 on the road. Home games for the Cardinals are the biggest outstanding factor in the series for either side.
Summary: These are two teams with clear strengths, but close margins at the same time. Protecting home field advantage will be a task for the Cardinals, who will be confronted with Greinke and Kershaw in their own park, which is a powerful equalizer. Finding their groove in offense will be tough this way, for a team that has struggled to string together a consistent offering over the last week offensively, and they will need to get runs early in the game throughout the series to make it.
The Cardinals face an uphill battle from the start, but with two Dodger aces out of the way early, if they can split the first two games before sending Wainwright to the mound in game three, they have a chance to get a decisive advantage before the anything goes game four, and then the return of Greinke and Kershaw in games five and six. On paper it seems to be a long series ahead, but one with some very decisive pitfall chances early and often. The Cardinals take the edge in the head-to-head factors department 4-3, and have some important intangibles leaning in their favor as well. This bides well in their favor for a series that looks primed to go the full distance, and end in a Cardinal final advantage.