by Richard Van Zandt, BaseballEvolution.com
October 6, 2010
Heading into the 2010 National League Division
Series, the Atlanta Braves and the San Francisco Giants are two teams headed in
opposite directions, despite how even at first glance they may, in some ways,
appear. The Braves (91-71) played .591 ball in the first half of the season but
slipped to a .527 mark after the All-Star game. They were overtaken by the
Phillies for the lead in the NL East on September 11 and proceeded to go 14-16
down the stretch, nearly falling out of the playoff picture altogether before
finally winning the Wild Card on the last day of the regular season. The Giants
(92-70), meanwhile, played at a .534 pace before the break but had a .608
percentage afterward. From August 31 onward, San Francisco rode
Aubrey Huff’s Rally Thong to his predicted 20-10 record and snatched the NL West
lead away from the Padres for good on September 26, before securing the division
title on the season’s final day.
The Giants earned their playoff spot by using a
tried and tested method: pitching, pitching, and more pitching. Tim Lincecum
(16-10, 3.43), Matt Cain (13-11, 3.14), and Jonathan Sanchez (13-9, 3.07) became
the first trio of Giants pitchers in franchise history to each strike out 175
batters or more each in a season and closer Brian Wilson tied Rod Beck’s
franchise record of 48 saves in a season to lead the majors.
The Braves, as they always have under the
leadership of Bobby Cox, did the same, getting strong starting pitching from
their big three of Tim Hudson (17-9, 2.83), Tommy Hanson (10-11, 3.33), and
Derek Lowe (16-12, 4.00). Lowe went 5-0 in September with a 1.17 ERA while
closer Billy Wagner notched 37 saves for the year, including his 400th
career save in what he says will be his last season in the big leagues.
Overall, the Giants were first in the National
League with a 3.36 team ERA while the Braves were third at 3.56, but the real
key to both these clubs’ pitching success lies with their bullpens. Atlanta’s
relievers were third collectively in the NL with a 3.11 ERA while only the
Padres bullpen’s mark of 2.81 was lower than the 2.99 ERA the Giants relievers
While the Braves pen was consistently exceptional
from start to finish (collectively they posted just one ERA above 3.31 in any
month of the season, a 3.72 mark registered in April), the Giants relief corps
down the stretch was absolutely downright nasty, posting a 0.90 ERA after August
31. Collective, the Giants’ pen gave up eight earned runs in 80 innings pitched
in September and October and six of those were scored in a 10-9 loss to the
Rockies in Denver. Toss out that one game and the numbers become an absurd two
earned runs allowed in 75 innings pitched (0.24 ERA) after September 1. Thanks
in no small part to that pen, the Giants amassed a streak of 18 straight games
of allowing three runs or fewer before that ill-fated game in Colorado ended
that run. They finished the season giving up more than three runs in a game just
three times in their final 25 games.
Offensively, the teams are similar as well, with
Atlanta finishing 6th in the league in batting average (.258) and
team OPS (.740) while the Giants were 7th in batting average (.257)
and 8th in OPS (.729). Where the two teams differ more at the plate
is in on-base and slugging ability. The Braves are a team that manufactures
runs, reaching base at a league-best .339 clip while finishing 5th in
the league in runs scored (738). But they were only 9th (tied) in the
senior circuit in slugging (.401) and ranked just 11th in home runs
with 139. Among Braves hitters, only Brian McCann belted more than 20 homers
(21) and his 77 RBI topped the club. Rookie Jason Heyward was second on the club
with 18 home runs and 72 RBI.
The Giants, on the other hand, finished a
surprising 6th in the league in home runs (162) and slugging (.408),
but were just ninth (tied) in on-base % (.321) and ninth in runs scored (697).
Aubrey Huff hit 26 home runs and Juan Uribe added another 24 while rookie Buster
Posey and veteran Pat Burrell slammed 18 apiece in just over half a season each
with the club.
This is where the Braves just may find their edge.
As everyone knows, hitting is at a premium in October, and every single run is
precious. The Giants down the stretch were a team that relied heavily on the
long ball to score. San Francisco batted just .235 after August and scored 106
runs (3.66/game), of which over 62% came courtesy of the big fly. The Giants'
offense struggled mightily in the final month, getting shut out four times in
September. They scored only 19 runs in their 10 losses down the stretch, with
nine of those runs coming in that September 25 game against the Rockies.
Meanwhile, in five starts against the Giants this year, the Braves playoff
starters Lowe, Hanson, and Hudson went a combined 3-0 with a 1.62 ERA. The
Giants’ reliance on the homer and their inability to create runs could well turn
out to be their Achilles heel and what helps the Wild Card Braves to sneak past
San Francisco and into the NLDS.
The Giants, however, are healthy heading into the
series. Their biggest roster decisions lay on whether to include Barry Zito over
rookie Madison Bumgarner as the 4th starter and whether to carry
Aaron Rowand and Edgar Renteria. Zito, Rowand, and Renteria are the club's top
yhree earners in payroll in 2010, but all three could find themselves left off
the first round roster entirely.
The Braves, on the other hand, may have to go with
30-year old rookie Brooks Conrad (.250, 8 HR, .811 OPS) at third base with
injuries having knocked out both Chipper Jones and Martin Prado for the year.
They may also be forced to go with rookie Brandon Beachy (0-2, 3.00) as their 4th
starter with Jair Jurrjens’ (7-6, 4.64) injured knee not likely to be ready in
time for first round action. Additionally, veteran reliever Takashi Saito (2.83
ERA, 56 GP) pitched just once after September 17 while battling a sore shoulder
and isn’t likely to make the post-season cut. Lefty Eric O’Flaherty (2.45 ERA,
56 GP) hasn’t thrown since September 20 with blurred vision problems which have
yet to have been diagnosed. He is also unlikely to be available, and these depth
issues could very well play into deciding this series.
But if pitching wins championships, then defense
is the backbone of the pitching. And when it comes to defense, the Giants have
the edge. They rank second in the majors in team UZR at 54.4 and they were
second in the NL in Team Defensive Runs Saved (54), according to the good folks
at BillJamesonline.com. But while the Braves rate favorably with 35 DRS (4th
in the NL), they rank just 27th in the majors with a -34.4 UZR. An
odd discrepancy, but nevertheless it is clear the Giants are the better
defensive team, with San Francisco committing just 73 errors on the year (one
more than San Diego and Cincinnati, who together were amassed the fewest in the
NL) and the Braves being charged with 126 miscues, just one fewer than
bottom-dwellers Washington and Pittsburgh. Teams can ill-afford to give away
outs in October.
The Giants come into this series confident and
hot, while the Braves come in cold and on their heels. The Giants' pitching has
peaked at just the right time, posting an astounding Sept/Oct team ERA of 1.91,
led by their ace Lincecum, who went 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA in September, and a
bullpen on fire. The Braves starters were a collective 10-12 in Sept/Oct with a
4.09 ERA, while their ace Tim Hudson lost 4-of-his-final-6 decisions and posted
a 5.32 ERA in his final seven starts. The Giants will surely struggle to find
runs, but with San Francisco’s pitching and defense, so will the Braves. The
added benefit of home-field advantage, however, should be enough to push the
Giants over the top in a tough-fought final five games for the legendary Bobby
Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Richard resides in San Francisco, California and can be reached at email@example.com.