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2010 NLDS Preview
Atlanta Braves vs. San Francisco Giants

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 registered.

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.

My Prediction

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 Cox.




Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Richard resides in San Francisco, California and can be reached at richard@baseballevolution.com.

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