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2014 NLCS Preview: St. Louis Cardinals vs. San Francisco Giants

Who's got the edge in the battle to represent the NL for the third time in five years?

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports


The ALCS matchup is probably the most surprising that I can remember, but the NLCS is a different story, as the Cardinals and Giants are not only the two most successful teams in NL history, one of them has won the NL in 7 of the last 12 seasons, including the last 4. This is the fourth time these two teams have faced off in the NLCS. In 1987 the Cardinals won, while in 2002 and 2012 the Giants took the series.

NLCS schedule (games 1 and 6 on FOX, others on Fox Sports 1):

  • Game 1 (Saturday, 10/11, 8:00 ET): Giants @ Cardinals
  • Game 2 (Sunday, 10/12, 8:00 ET): Giants @ Cardinals
  • Game 3 (Tuesday, 10/14, 4:00 ET): Cardinals @ Giants
  • Game 4 (Wednesday, 10/15, 8:00 ET): Cardinals @ Giants
  • Game 5* (Thursday, 10/16, 8:00 ET): Cardinals @ Giants
  • Game 6* (Saturday, 10/18, 4:00 ET): Giants @ Cardinals
  • Game 7* (Sunday, 10/19, 8:00 ET): Giants @ Cardinals

*If necessary

Here they are, back again. Let's take a look at how they stack up:

Starting pitching

Each team has a pretty good rotation, led by a legitimate ace. Adam Wainwright is probably headed for his fourth top-3 finish in the NL Cy Young voting, after going 20-9 with a 2.38 ERA. His elbow has been bothering him, and there was briefly talk of him missing out on this series, but he's scheduled to take the mound for tonight's game. He'll be opposed by Madison Bumgarner, who was 8th in ERA and 6th in FIP among NL starters. The rotations are pretty even beyond those two as well. Wainwright will be followed by Lance Lynn, John Lackey, and Shelby Miller. After Bumgarner will be Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson, and Ryan Vogelsong. It's pretty close, but if Wainwright is healthy, I think St. Louis has a small edge.

Advantage: Cardinals (small)

Bullpen

Neither team has a dominant bullpen, and each team's group struggled somewhat in the second half. St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal has an impressive strikeout rate (28.3%) but a scary walk rate (13.6%), among the highest in baseball. San Francisco demoted Sergio Romo and replaced him with Santiago Casilla, who posted a 1.70 ERA. San Francisco's bullpen had the lowest strikeout rate of any AL relief corps, but they don't walk many either, and very slightly, I think they have the better bunch.

Advantage: Giants (small)

Defense

Both teams have pretty solid infield defense (nothing special, but plenty better than Tribe fans are used to seeing), but Cardinals outfielders have been better in the field. Each team also has a plus defender behind the plate. St. Louis' Yadier Molina is better know for his defense, but don't sleep on Buster Posey, who is an excellent pitch framer.

Advantage: Cardinals (small)

Getting on Base

There's not much to separate the two teams here. The Cardinals used a 7.7% walk rate and .300 BABIP to reach an OBP of .320, 5th in the NL. The Giants had a walk rate of 7.0% and a BABIP of .304, with an OBP of .311, 7th in the NL. Everyone in San Francisco's lineup has at least a decent OBP, there's no one who's an easy out (other than the pitchers, generally speaking), but Posey is the only player whose OBP is above .350. St. Louis, on the other hand, has a couple weak hitters at the end of their lineup, but also has three players (Matt Carpenter, Jon Jay, Matt Holiday) with an OBP of .370 or better.

Advantage: Cardinals (small)

Speed

The Cardinals stole only 57 bases, second-fewest in the National League, and Kolton Wong was the only player on the team to reach double figures (he stole 20). Meanwhile, the Giants stole only 56, dead last in the NL. They had only three players steal more than five bases, and no one had more than 16. So, neither team is much of a threat to steal bases, but San Francisco was much better at taking the extra base on singles and advancing on outs.

Advantage: Giants (small)

Power

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two teams is in their power. The Giants hit 132 home runs, which isn't all that impressive, but it's a lot more than the 105 the Cardinals hit, fewest in the NL. The difference is especially notable, given that St. Louis has a better park for hitters than San Francisco. Jhonny Peralta hit 21 homers to lead the Cardinals, whose team ISO was just .116, second lowest in the league, compared to the Giants, who were just above league-average at .133, though Posey's team-leading 22 home runs aren't an especially impressive total either. Among all players on either team with 50+ PA, you know who had the highest ISO? Madison Bumgarner, whose .212 ISO, 115 wRC+ and 4 HR led all MLB pitchers.

Advantage: Giants (medium)

Management

I think both St. Louis' Mike Matheny and San Francisco's Bruce Bochy are good managers, but Bochy has been doing this longer, and seems less attached to managing according to the 95 theses nailed to the door of Miller Huggins' office in 1916. Earlier this week Jonah Keri argued that Bochy is one of the best managers ever, based on his bullpen usage, ability to get stronger than expected seasons from veterans, and win close games. I don't view either of these guys as likely to cost his team a game with poor decision making or strategy, but I think Bochy is more likely to make a positive impact.

Advantage: Giants (small)

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Both these teams have had a lot of success in recent years, and I'd have rather seen some fresh blood in the NLCS. Both organizations seem really well run though, developing a lot of good young players, and complimenting their homegrown talent with small and medium sized free agent additions, rather than huge ones (though both teams, the GIants especially) do operate with a fairly large payroll.

The Giants have had a bit more success this decade, and so it would stand to reason that I'd be a little more sick of them, but I find myself mildly preferring the Giants. Maybe it's their beautiful ballpark, maybe it's never hearing about how they supposedly have the greatest fans on earth, maybe it's knowing that it won't make Joe Buck happy... Whatever the reason, I'll be pulling for San Francisco in this one.

As I laid out above, I think these two teams are pretty evenly matched in almost every facet of the game. When neither team has a substantial advantage elsewhere, I tend to fall back on the starting rotation when guessing at which will advance. In this case, I think that's St. Louis.

Prediction: Cardinals in 6

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