Phillies-Giants NLCS Preview: Q & A with Chris Quick

Four wins separate the Phillies from their third consecutive World Series appearance. The confidence of Phillies fans is at a year-long high. Roy Halladay will start Game One fresh off of holding the National League’s best offense to zero hits, and hasn’t allowed a run since the seventh inning on September 21. Cole Hamels threw a complete game shut-out of his own to wrap up a series sweep of the Reds in Game Three. The bullpen is well-rested, and the walking wounded position players have had about a week to rest. Things couldn’t have come together any better for the Phillies.

The Giants, however, are no pushovers. They may not have the same caliber offense as the Phillies, but their pitching is not to be trifled with. To get an idea exactly what to expect from the Giants, I swapped questions with Chris Quick of ESPN SweetSpot blog Bay City Ball. His answers to my questions (in bold) are found below; my answers to his questions can be found over at his blog.

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1. The Phillies are well-known for their fearsome trio of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels, plus Joe Blanton. The Giants have some great starters of their own in Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez, plus Madison Bumgarner. How do the two staffs compare in your estimation?

I think both staffs are really close in terms of talent. Halladay and Lincecum are both top flight starters in the NL. It’s hard to beat either when it comes down to it. I would probably give a very slight nod to Oswalt over Cain. Sanchez has matured a lot this year and his K-rate for a LHP is rare. Cole Hamels, however, is the better pitcher. The Giants win in the 4th spot. Blanton is incredibly consistent each year, but Madison Bumgarner has more upside and he’s equaled Blanton in WAR — 1.9 to 2 wins — in about 50 fewer innings pitched.

Overall, two very talented staffs with some great arms. I think it’s going to be a coin-flip most likely.

2. Matt Cain has made a habit of out-performing his ERA retrodictors like xFIP and SIERA. Why do you think this is?

It’s really hard to say. I think part of it is the home park (LHB have a hard time hitting home runs to their pull-field) that Cain pitches in. Sportswriters like to say that Cain has ‘figured it out’ but he’s really been the same guy that he’s always been. His control has gotten better each year over the past three years. And, for things like xFIP, for whatever reason, he rarely gives up home runs even though he’s an extreme flyball pitcher.

3. The Phillies scored, on average, about a half-run more per game than the Giants. Are Giants fans apprehensive about the offense going into this best-of-seven series against the Phillies?

I think so, even if they wouldn’t like to admit it. In the NLDS against the Braves, the Giants never really hit the ball that well and every game was decided by one run. The Giants’ pitching has been fantastic this year, but pitching against an offensive team like the Phillies has got to be stressful for the pitchers. Too many mistakes and it’s going to be hard to make up the difference. It’s a fine line to walk. But, I think if anyone can contain the Phillies — it’s the Giants’ pitching staff.

4. The Giants finished last in the National League in stolen bases. Will they be able to manufacture runs in other ways?

Do double-plays count as manufacturing runs? The Giants don’t do a lot of the ‘little things’ and I doubt they’ll start in the playoffs. The team’s penchant for hitting into double-plays might mean that Bochy starts runners more often, but that’s about it.

5. Pat Burrell is making another homecoming to Philadelphia. We loved him when he was here and he’ll get a great reception when he steps to the plate for the first time in Game One. How have Giants fans warmed up to Pat the Bat?

Yes. Burrell has been one of the more pleasant surprises of this year. He looked terrible in Tampa Bay but since returning to the NL with the Giants, he’s been one of our best hitters. His defense is still bad — as Phillies’ fans know — but his approach to hitting is extremely refreshing on a ‘hack first, ask questions later’ team.

6. The Giants were rated by UZR as the second-best defensive team in Major League Baseball. Of players with at least 300 defensive innings at one position, none had a negative grade. Do you agree with UZR? Have the Giants emphasized defense as an organizational priority?

The Giants’ UZR rating is one of the weirder things that I’ve seen, statistically, this year. The defense is a weird mix. For whatever reason, it just works. I don’t know how, it just does. Andres Torres plays the best CF in the NL but often he’s flanked by guys like Pat Burrell or (thankfully not for the NLCS) Jose Guillen. The infield is also a mixed bag. Pablo Sandoval is average-ish but his defense has been spotty this year. Juan Uribe has filled in nicely at SS, but his days a full-time starter at SS are done. The right side of Sanchez-Huff has been solid and Posey has been very good behind the plate.

Huff, in particualr, has played really good defense for a guy that has been DH’ing for a good portion of the past three years. I was skeptical of his defense before the year, but he arrived at camp noticeably in better shape and he’s made every play that’s been asked of him. The Giants seem to emphasize defense but they aren’t chained to that idea. With the inconsistent offense this year, the team has often traded defense for offense.

7. Game One will see a match-up of the two-time defending NL Cy Young award winner and the likely 2010 winner. Would you take the over or under on: 1.5 combined runs scored; 17.5 combined strikeouts; 5.5 combined hits?

I’ll say: Over/Under/Over.

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Thanks to Chris for providing some Giants-related insight. Make sure to keep up with the enemy over at Bay City Ball and on Twitter (@BayCityBall).

If you’re not following me on Twitter and want to hear my oftentimes snarky, sometimes serious thoughts, follow @CrashburnAlley.

Phillies-Giants NLCS Preview: Starting Rotations

On the whole, there will not be a match-up in the playoffs more heralded than the clashing of the Phillies’ and Giants’ starting rotations. The Phillies, of course, are given the edge as they have three pitchers in the top-15 of Major League Baseball in SIERA (with at least 100 innings). The Giants are no slouches, with their four found within the top-57. Overall, the list looks like:

As with yesterday’s look at the starting eight position players, rather than repeat what I’ve already said, I’ll direct you to the NLDS pitcher preview for comments on Hallday, Oswalt, and Hamels. Here, you’ll find only commentary on Blanton and the Giants’ four.

Joe Blanton

Blanton, now an overlooked member of the Phillies’ starting rotation, has been napping biding his time for his first appearance in the post-season. He missed the first month of the season due to an oblique injury, causing the notoriously slow starter to take even more time to regain his form. From May 3 through July 9, Blanton compiled a 6.41 ERA with a 5.7 K/9. Since then, in 15 starts, his ERA was 3.33 with a K/9 of 7.9.

Blanton will start Game Four in San Francisco unless the Phillies fall behind 1-2 or 0-3. It’s a good fit since Blanton isn’t a ground ball machine, so the fly balls are much more likely to stay in the yard in San Fran. The Giants will have only one true left-handed hitter in the lineup, two if they continue to start Mike Fontenot over Pablo Sandoval. Of the handedness match-ups, right-handed batters against right-handed pitchers is the Giants’ worst, producing a paltry .704 OPS.

It seems like the conditions for Game Four are about as good as they can get for Blanton.

Tim Lincecum

Andy from the Baseball Reference blog asked if Lincecum/Halladay is the best post-season match-up of starting pitchers ever. It very well may be. Lincecum is the two-time defending National League Cy Young award winner, while Halladay is on the verge of earning his second career Cy Young award himself. The only possible pitching match-up that would be more highly anticipated would be Cliff Lee and Halladay, and more so because of Lee’s odd departure from Philadelphia last off-season.

Lincecum had a down year, relative to his previous levels of production. He finished with a 3.43 ERA and 9.8 K/9. Those numbers are career years for most pitchers, but not for Timmy. Still, he was one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball as evidenced by his absolute domination of the Atlanta Braves in Game One of the NLDS, when he struck out 14 in a complete game shut-out.

He doesn’t have the velocity on his fastball that he used to have — he maxed out at 95 MPH on only five occasions this year, according to his FanGraphs velocity chart. Despite inducing grounders in nearly one out of every two batted balls, Lincecum is allowing home runs on about ten percent of his fly balls as opposed to 5.5 percent the previous two years. Additionally, his walk rate increased by 0.5 per nine innings. All of this caused him to average 6.1 innings per start compared to seven in 2008 and ’09.

Lincecum will be tough as always, but he is much more likely to falter with the way he has pitched in 2010. It will be a peaking Halladay against the Giants’ league average offense and a struggling (relatively speaking) Lincecum against the Phillies’ second-best offense in the league.

Jonathan Sanchez

Giants manager Bruce Bochy announced that Sanchez will start Game Two in Philadelphia and Matt Cain will start Game Three in San Francisco. This is smart on Bochy’s part because Citizens Bank Park is more hitter-friendly than AT&T Park according to the park factors found on Stat Corner (over 100 favors hitters):

Sanchez induced upwards of six percent more ground balls than Cain, and he misses bats nearly two percent more often with respective K/9 rates of 9.5 and 7.1. It will be much harder to hit a home run off of Sanchez than Cain in Philadelphia.

Sanchez has a low-90’s fastball that will occasionally reach 94-95 MPH. He complements that with a tilting slider and a mediocre change-up. The only Phillies that have hit him well are Chase Utley (1.192 OPS in 18 PA) and Shane Victorino (.904 OPS in 16 PA). Overall, current Phillies have an aggregate .517 OPS against him in 133 PA. Phillies fans are likely least confident about Game Two, and it seems to be justified.

However, Sanchez has benefited from a .262 BABIP in 2010, which helps explain the difference of more than a full run between his xFIP and his ERA. Sanchez is good, but not 3.07 ERA good.

Matt Cain

As mentioned above, Cain will start Game Three in San Francisco. The environment suits his relative fly ball tendency given the spacious confines of AT&T park. It will be much harder for the Phillies’ lefty-heavy line-up to go yard against him given the ballpark’s left-handed park factor of 82.

The Phillies hit Cain well in their 92 combined PA against him — well enough for a .974 OPS, including 12 of the 23 hits allowed going for extra bases.

Cain has a traditional pitcher’s arsenal of a low-90’s fastball, backed up by a curve, slider, and change-up. He’s used all four effectively according to the pitch type linear weights on FanGraphs.

The most puzzling part of Cain is that, whether you’re a baseball traditionalist or a Saberist, his success seems almost unexplainable. He posted very low ERA’s in each of the last two seasons, but appears to be nothing more than a Joe Blanton clone. In fact, Blanton has the lower career xFIP, including a lower xFIP in each of the past two seasons. Cain’s home ballpark likely has a lot to do with his success, but the Giants have also had an above-average defense (per UZR) in each of Cain’s five full seasons. He will pitch in Game Three with both advantages, unfortunately for the Phillies.

Madison Bumgarner

It’s not official yet, but Andrew Baggarly reports:

Bochy said rookie Madison Bumgarner wasn’t definite to start Game 4, “but it’s fair to say he’s penciled in.”

That means Barry Zito is almost certain to get the eraser again. Bochy was noncommittal when asked about Zito, who was left off the division series roster, but the manager said he isn’t looking to add a 12th pitcher to the staff.

“With the days off, you don’t need a fifth starter,” Bochy said. “I don’t see any difference as far as how we’re going to set things up.”

Bumgarner struggled at times since his call-up on June 26. But in his final six starts to end the season, Bumgarner posted a 1.18 ERA with a strikeout-to-walk ratio approaching five-to-one. He also threw six effective innings in Game Four of the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves, doing his part to help the Giants advance to the NLCS.

He’s not as hard to hit as Sanchez but can be equally as effective. While Sanchez strikes out more hitters, he also walks twice as many batters as Bumgarner. The Phillies, a veteran-laden group that excels at working counts, are more likely to exploit Sanchez’s lack of control than Bumgarner’s general propensity for contact.

Overall, the Phillies definitely have the advantage with starting pitching, but it’s still very close. In my Q&A with Chad Dotson of Redleg Nation, I analogized the Phillies’ and Reds’ starting rotation to Maine lobster and Alpo. Against the Giants, the analogy is Maine lobster and filet mignon.