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2012 NLDS Preview
San Francisco Giants vs. Cincinnati Reds

by Richard Van Zandt, BaseballEvolution.com
October 6, 2012

Just prior to the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton from the Philadelphia Phillies to help bolster a roster that had, just a week prior, seen the addition of former Rookie of the Year and MVP runner-up Hanley Ramirez in a deal with the Miami Marlins. Then on August 15, the Dodgers' division rivals up north in San Francisco were dealt what seemed to be a deathblow, when Melky Cabrera, batting .346 and leading the league in hits with 159, was handed a 50-game suspension for violating baseball’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, effectively ending his season with 45 games left on the schedule. This just two weeks after the club acquired Hunter Pence from the Phillies in a deal that seemed to be exactly what the Giants sputtering offense needed, and just two days after Pablo Sandoval had returned from a hamstring injury that had sidelined him for the past three weeks.

The Giants lost that afternoon to Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals in a lackluster effort that left the team a game behind the first place Dodgers; the club seemingly in a daze after having lost such an integral member of their lineup in such a sudden and stunning fashion. But while the club’s fans were busy justifiably fuming at the popular Melk Man for his selfish and terribly timed transgression, the Giants clubhouse was busy regrouping and banding together. No one gave the Giants a shot when Cabrera was banished. No one except the 25 guys in the Giants clubhouse, that is.

From that day forward, San Francisco went 30-14, the best record in the National League, and second only in baseball to those Amazing A’s across the Bay in Oakland (33-13). Not only did they catch and pass the Dodgers for first place, they trampled them, opening up a double digit lead by September 20 and finishing the year 8 games ahead of Los Angeles in the standings. They even had the added extra pleasure of knocking their hated rivals, and their $260 million All-Star payroll, out of Wild Card contention on the next-to-last day of the season. This despite a blockbuster deal pulled off by Ned Colletti just 10 days after the Melky suspension that saw the boys in blue add both Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett to a clubhouse that, with their recent additions from the Mariners (reliever Brandon League), Marlins, Phillies, and Red Sox, was beginning to more closely resemble a highly paid All-Star roster.

Meanwhile, it was July 15 and the Cincinnati Reds were just beginning to play their best baseball of the year when their stellar first baseman Joey Votto injured his knee sliding, requiring surgery and forcing him to miss the next six weeks of the season. They had just taken their sixth game in-a-row when the 2010 NL MVP was injured, and the win had pushed the Reds past Pirates and back into first place by a game in what was becoming a see-saw battle for the NL Central. It was gut-check time for Cincinnati and, after splitting the next four games, the Big Red Machine responded by winning 15-of-their-next-16 games, including a season high ten-in-a-row, while opening up a 5.5 game lead over Pittsburgh. For the year, the Reds went 34-17 without Votto in the lineup, and from July 16 onward Cincy recorded the second-best record in all of baseball (47-27) behind none other than, once again, those Amazing Oakland A’s (48-25). They finished the season nine games up on the second place Cardinals.

Like San Francisco, they didn’t shy away from adversity. Instead, it seemed to give them strength, a kind of strength they would need down the stretch as their manager Dusty Baker was sidelined for 11 games in late September by an irregular heartbeat and then a mild stroke. Baker’s health issues came just as the Reds were poised wrap up the Central division crown, and indeed he would miss the clinching game, as well as Homer Bailey’s no-hitter, as he recovered in a Chicago hospital. In his absence, the Reds went 7-4 under bench coach Chris Speier and they would finish the season with the second-best record in baseball. Baker would return to the dugout for the final three games.

So now the two clubs who stared adversity straight in the eye and refused to blink will meet Saturday in Game 1 of the NLDS at AT&T Park, where ten years previously Baker had skippered the Giants into the World Series. The series will open in San Francisco despite Cincinnati’s home field advantage due to the extra Wild Card added just prior to the ’12 season.

Having rushed to add the extra team to the post-season, MLB opted for a 2-3 format in the first round, for this season only, thus giving the Giants the first two games of this short series at home. If San Francisco can hold home field in those first two games, they will be well positioned to knock off the Reds in their house. Oh sure, the Reds finished the year tied for the best home record in the league, but the Great American Ball Park is a well known hitter friendly environment, and the Giants are the league’s best hitting road team, scoring over 5 runs a game away from AT&T Park, and belting 72 of their major league-low 103 home runs. Meanwhile, the Reds posted just the 8th best ERA at home in the National League at 3.51 runs per 9 innings, and allowed 96 big flies, the third highest total in the senior circuit.

Just don’t expect the Giants staff to return the hospitality. Giants pitchers collectively pitched to a 3.09 ERA in home games this season, allowed a league low 53 long balls at home, and won just two fewer contests at AT&T than the Reds did at the GABP. Reds hitters, meanwhile, were just 12th in the NL in runs scored on the road, 12th in road OPS, and 13th in home runs away from home, whereas back at home they ranked 6th, 6th, and 2nd in those same categories. While San Francisco’s pitching staff has had their share of trouble throwing on the road (their 4.29 road ERA is merely 12th in the league), Cincinnati’s staff has been outstanding in less-than-friendly confines, collectively posting a major league-best 3.18 ERA in road games and notching 32 saves, also tops in baseball.  

Positional Edge

Catcher

San Francisco – Buster Posey/Hector Sanchez

Cincinnati – Ryan Hanigan/Dioner Navarro

While Hanigan was above average behind the dish for the Reds (7 defensive runs saved) and Posey merely adequate (0 DRS – 18th), the Giants cleanup hitter simply led the majors in batting average (.336) and OPS+ (172). His .408 on-base percentage was good enough to lead all National Leaguers who actually accumulated 502 or more plate appearances, and he was fourth in the league in slugging (.549), and second in OPS (.957) despite playing his home games at unforgiving AT&T Park. He hit just 7 of his 24 home runs at home, and yet he hit .343 there. His .433 batting average versus lefties was easily the highest in the majors. Voted to start the All-Star game, he batted .385 after the break to put himself decisively into MVP contention. He was, in fact, all that stood between Miguel Cabrera and a major league triple crown.  

Edge: Giants

First Base

San Francisco – Brandon Belt

Cincinnati – Joey Votto

Despite missing six weeks, Votto had another fantastic season for the Reds, batting .337 with an amazing .474 on-base percentage and 94 walks in only 111 games, good for a share of the league lead with Dan Uggla of the Braves. His on-base percentage actually ranks atop the NL due to the same rule (10.22) that the players union and MLB agreed not to enforce in the case of Melky Cabrera for the batting title. He was well on his way to another MVP-caliber season when he injured his knee, and when he returned in September he put up a slash line of .316/.505/.421 in 25 games. That’s 24 hits and 28 walks – yes I said 28 walks – in just 25 games.

Belt, on the other hand, struggled early and often, but at no point in the season did it get any lower than it did in early July, when he collected just 4 hits in 47 at bats (.085) over 18 games and simply looked lost at the plate. However the Baby Giraffe bounced back and hit .328/.386/.476 over his final 60 regular season games. Give this one to the Reds, but not by as much as you might think.

Edge: Reds

Second Base

San Francisco – Marco Scutaro

Cincinnati – Brandon Phillips

No doubt Brandon Phillips had another fine year at the plate and in the field for the Reds, batting .281 with 18 homers, 30 doubles, and 15 stolen bases in 17 chances, along with 11 defensive runs saved (4th). But make no mistake, the biggest mid-season acquisition this year was made not by Ned Colletti and the Magic Johnson All-Stars, but by Giants GM Brian Sabean when he picked up the savvy veteran Scutaro in late July in exchange for fringe prospect Charlie Culberson. Batting a modest .271 for Colorado at the time of the deal, all Scutaro did was go on to bat .362 in 61 games for San Francisco, with 44 runs driven in. He finished the year riding a 20-game hit streak and ended the season 3rd among all NL’s in hits with 190.

Edge: Even

Shortstop

San Francisco – Brandon Crawford

Cincinnati – Zack Cozart

These two are very similar players defensively, although Crawford struggled with consistency early on, making 12 of his 18 errors in his first 60 games. He improved markedly both in the field and at the plate as the year progressed, playing a Gold Glove caliber defense in the second half and batting .298/.351/.405 over his last 45 games. Cozart, on the other hand, slumped to just .238/.272/.385 in the second half, and he hit only .240 in September while dealing with a strained oblique muscle. With 15 home runs, he has the edge in power, but Crawford enters October playing his best ball of the year.

Edge: Giants

Third Base

San Francisco – Pablo Sandoval

Cincinnati – Scott Rolen

The veteran Rolen struggled in April and May and was batting just .174 when he went on the DL with an injured shoulder. He struggled upon his return in June, but came to life in July and August when he hit .322/.419/.504. The 37-year old hit just .222 in September, though, and could be showing signs of wear.

Sandoval, meanwhile, missed nearly as much time as Rolen, breaking the hamate bone in his left hand one year to the day after having surgery to repair the same injury in his right hand, and straining his hamstring as he stretched for the ball while playing first base. Nevertheless, he hit .307 with 8 home runs in the first half of the season, and was named the All-Star game starter, where he hit a bases loaded triple that helped to secure home field advantage for the NL in the World Series. His hand and leg injuries slowed him in the second half, as he batted just .260 after the break, including .211 in August, but he finished the year batting .286 in September, with 4 home runs and 17 RBI in the final month.

Edge: Giants

Outfield

San Francisco – Hunter Pence, Angel Pagan, Gregor Blanco/Xavier Nady

Cincinnati – Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs/Chris Heisey, Ryan Ludwick

The Giants thought they had solidified their outfield with the acquisition of Pence in July, adding him to the mix with Pagan in center and the Melk Man in left. Then the other shoe dropped and Cabrera, at the time leading the majors in multi-hit games with 52, was out the door, not to return even if the Giants survive deep enough into the playoffs. That bridge has been burned. The Giants turned back instead to the speedy Blanco who had taken the right field job from Nate Schierholtz earlier in the year with his patience at the plate and ability on the bases. He had gone cold however, batting just .197 from June 1 up until the day Melky was ousted. The day Cabrera was suspended, though, it was Blanco in left. He collected two hits that day and two more the next, and would bat .281 with a .343 OBP the rest of the way. Pence, on the other hand, struggled as a Giant, batting just .219 after the deal, but still always seemed to find a way to come up with the big hit, driving in 45 runs in 59 games to give him 104 for the year. Pagan had a very good year for the Giants, batting .288 and slugging .440 while leading the majors with 15 triples (and setting a SF era club record in the process) and stealing 29 bases.

The Reds outfield, of course, is led by their powerful right fielder Jay Bruce, who had 34 home runs, 35 doubles, and 99 RBI despite batting only .252. Ryan Ludwick also supplied a fair amount of power to the party this year, clubbing 26 homers to go with 28 two-baggers and 80 ribbies. Stubbs on the other hand, struggled at the plate, batting just .213 with a .610 OPS, including just .160 with no home runs after August 6, although he stole 30 bags and played strong defense in centerfield.

Edge: Reds

Starting Pitching

San Francisco – Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito

Cincinnati – Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake

Only Matt Cain (16-5, 2.79) and Madison Bumgarner (16-11, 3.37) are set for San Francisco, going in games 1 and 2. Beyond that, manager Bruce Bochy will soon have to choose between Ryan Vogelsong (14-9, 3.37), who struggled mightily over a seven game stretch in August and early September (10.31 ERA) but railed off three straight strong starts to end the year (0.53 ERA), his two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, who pitched terribly during the first half of the season (6.42 ERA) and led the league with 15 losses on the year, but pitched much better in the second half (3.83 ERA), or Barry Zito. That’s right, I said Barry Zito. Crazy as it may sound, Zito has been one of the Giants' best pitchers this season, especially in the second half, and he’s as big a reason as any why the Giants are playing October baseball. He went 15-8 on the year with a 4.15 ERA (ironically the very same mark he recorded in 2010 when he was left off the post-season roster), winning his last seven straight decisions while the club won each of his final 11 starts. Yet, even with his successes, he remains a dicey proposition, as six times this season he failed to make it out of the fourth inning of a start, including three times in August.

Johnny Cueto, the Reds' Game 1 starter, is among the leading candidates for the Cy Young Award, going 19-9 on the year with a 2.78 ERA and a league-best 151 ERA+. Bronson Arroyo (12-10, 3.74), Mat Latos (14-4, 3.48) and Homer Bailey (13-10, 3.68) will follow Cueto to the bump. Mike Leake (8-9, 4.58) is the odd man out, available out of the pen. Arroyo has been consistent, posting a 3.73 ERA before the break and a 3.76 mark after, but has been vulnerable at home, allowing opposing hitters to bat .295 at GABP with 10 HR in just 86 IP. His road ERA is 3.57, though, and spacious AT&T Park should help him keep the ball in play. Latos, known infamously in San Francisco for scribbling “I hate SF!” on three baseballs he signed for charity after the ’10 season, had a very strong year for Cincy, striking out 185 batters in 209 innings and finishing with a 2.84 second half ERA. Bailey threw a career high 208 innings for the Reds, but finished strong, posting a 2.32 second half ERA and throwing the first no-hitter by a Cincinnati pitcher since Tom Browning’s perfect game in 1988.

For the year, the clubs' starters ranked 4th (Reds – 3.64) and 5th (Giants – 3.73) in the NL in ERA. The Giants' starting five made all but two starts this year, while the Reds' top five started 161 of the team’s 162 games. They are two of the top pitching rotations in the game and about as evenly matched as you could get. Expect a well-pitched series.

Edge: Even

Bullpen

San Francisco – Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez, Jeremy Affeldt, Jose Mijares, George Kontos, Clay Hensley

Cincinnati – Aroldis Chapman, Sean Marshall, Jonathan Broxton, Jose Arredondo, Sam LeCure, Logan Ondrusek, Alfredo Simon

The flame-throwing Chapman (1.51 ERA, 38 SV, 15.3 K/9) leads a talented bunch of relievers that make games awfully tough in the late innings for opponents and may even be better than the glory days of The Nasty Boys - Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton, and Randy Myers. Collectively, they posted the best bullpen ERA in baseball with a 2.65 mark and notched the most saves with 56. Still, despite the loss of All-Star closer Brian Wilson just two appearances into the year, Bochy skillfully manipulated his relievers into recording 53 saves, the third-highest team total in the majors, often by emptying out his bullpen one batter at a time.

Edge: Reds

Prediction

This series is likely to turn out as five very hard fought, low scoring, tension filled games where the last team to score is the team that wins the game, and probably the series. The veteran Giants pitchers, who struggled a bit during the dog days (4.31 ERA in August), will need to step up and pitch as they did in 2010 if they want another shot at the trophy. The young Reds, described by Baker as “guys here still learning how to hit, still learning how to play, basically” will need to learn quickly if they want a better result than their four-game, first round loss to the Phillies in 2010. Both teams will need to keep mistakes to a minimum and do all the fundamental things right. The Giants made a lot of errors early in the year, but enter October playing their best baseball of the year, going 20-10 after the calendar flipped to September. That’s the same mark they posted back in 2010 when they won it all. They are a veteran club that doesn’t know the word quit and does whatever it takes to get the job done.

Giants in five games.


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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