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Phillies-Giants NLCS Preview: Starting Rotations

Posted By Bill Baer On October 14, 2010 @ 8:52 am In 2010 Playoffs,MLB,Philadelphia Phillies,Sabermetrics,Series Preview | 5 Comments

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.


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