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2014 National League Wild Card Preview
Pittsburgh Pirates vs. San Francisco Giants

by Richard Van Zandt, BaseballEvolution.com
September 29, 2014


The schizophrenic San Francisco Giants of 2014 got off to a tremendous 43-21 (.672) start through June 8, at which point they led the second place Dodgers by 10 games in the NL West, before stumbling to go 16-29 (.356) over the next seven weeks to complete a stunning 13-game turnaround that left them three games behind their bitter rivals with just two months to play. Despite rebounding with a 16-12 (.571) month of August, they only managed to shave a single game off of that lead by the time the calendar flipped to September and then finished the season’s final month with a disappointing 12-12 (.500) record.

Against Los Angeles, over the course of the season’s final three weeks, they lost four times in six tries, including an embarrassing 17-0 nationally televised crushing in front of a sellout crowd at AT&T Park. The last of those losses to LA, a 9-1 beat down on September 24 brilliantly authored by Cy Young/MVP Clayton Kershaw in Chavez Ravine, left the Orange and Black 5.5 back with only 4 to play, and forced the Giants to watch first hand as the Dodgers celebrated their second consecutive NL West championship. That Brian Wilson closed out the victory for LA, merely served as salt in the wound at the hands of the enemy.

Despite that setback, the Giants still managed to back their way into the second National League Wild Card spot when Milwaukee, which led St. Louis by 6.5 games (and Pittsburgh by 7.0) on July 1, completed an even more stunning collapse the following day when they lost 5-3 to Cincinnati, their 45th loss in 75 games (.400). The Brewers, who led the NL Central as late as the morning of September 1, will be going fishing this October while both the Cardinals and Pirates attend the annual MLB Post-Season Ball, Pittsburgh as the number one Wild Card for the second consecutive year, after finishing two games behind the St. Louis for the Central crown.

San Francisco will send its fully rested ace, Madison Bumgarner (18-10, 2.98 ERA, 117 ERA+, 3.08 FIP, 1.09 WHIP, .240 BAA, .200 BA w/RISP), up against Pittsburgh in the NL Wild Card match-up this Wednesday. The 25-year-old Bumgarner should be in the top five in Cy Young voting and has now thrown 200 or more innings in four consecutive seasons after tossing a career high 217.1 in ’14. He also set a new San Francisco era record for the most strikeouts in a season by a lefty with 219. He had a career year at the plate, too, batting .258 for the season after entering the 2014 campaign as a .138 career hitter. Additionally, he not only set a SF franchise record for the most home runs in a season by a pitcher with 4 (tied for the most by any MLB pitcher since 2006; Carlos Zambrano, 6), but tied a major league record with 2 grand slams by a pitcher in a single season (Tony Cloninger, both on July 3, 1966 vs the Giants). He also tied for the most RBI by a Giants pitcher since the move west in 1958 (15; Juan Marichal, 1966), and slugged an astounding .470 in 78 plate appearances.

The Pirates will counter with 2014 Comeback Player of the Year Edinson Volquez (13-7, 3.04 ERA, 117 ERA+, 4.17 FIP, 1.23 WHIP, .235 BAA, .223 BA w/Men On), who had the worst ERA (5.71) in the majors last season. Volquez didn’t face San Francisco in ‘14, but has a 2-2 record with a 5.72 ERA in 11 career starts against them. The Giants won’t be facing the same Volquez they remember, though. Volquez has revitalized his once promising career with his best big league season since he posted a 3.21 ERA while winning 17 games with the Reds in 2008, his first season as a full-time major league starter. In the intervening five seasons, he went 24-23 with a 4.94 ERA, He’s done it by lowing his walk ratio to a career low 3.3 BB/9 IP in his first season in the Yellow and Black. He credits the Pittsburgh coaching staff with his revival and he’ll get a shot at playoff redemption, having given up 4 runs in 1 2/3 innings pitched in his only previous post-season start, with Cincy against the Phillies in the 2010 NLDS.  Over his last 11 starts since the beginning of August, Volquez is 5-0 with a 1.63 ERA, including a 2-0 mark with a 1.08 ERA in 5 September starts.

In their quest for a third World Series championship in the last five seasons, San Francisco will have to make do without centerfielder and leadoff man Angel Pagan, who is out due to a bulging disc in his back that required season ending surgery. The Giants went 56-35 (.615) this season in games started by Pagan, but just 32-39 (.450) without him in the starting lineup. Moreover, they are just 74-93 (.443) the past two seasons without their Angel in the outfield, and 90-67 (.573) when he starts.

They’ll also have to do it by winning in a ballpark where they have lost six of their last nine games, and against a team who they lost to four times in six tries this season. In fact, the Pirates have beaten San Francisco 8 times in 13 tries the past two seasons, and are 14-11 overall against the Giants under manager Clint Hurdle.

And they’ll have to do it against a team that went 17-9 in the final month of the season.

Here’s a positional breakdown of the two teams.

Catcher:

San Francisco – Buster Posey – .311/.364/.490, 143 OPS+, 22 HR, 89 RBI, 30% CS, -4 DRS

Pittsburgh – Russell Martin – .290/.402/.430, 136 OPS+, 11 HR, 67 RBI, 39% CS, 12 DRS

As he did in his 2012 MVP winning season, Posey came alive in the second half of the 2014 season, batting .354/.403/.575 after the all-star break, including .393/.436/.607 in September. Martin, meanwhile, had a career year at the plate after not batting higher than .250 since 2008, including a .225 mark over the past three seasons combined. Martin deserves a lot of credit for the Pirates turnaround and playoff appearances the past two seasons, but Posey is a perennial MVP candidate.

Advantage: Posey

First Base:

San Francisco – Brandon Belt – .243/.306/.449, 114 OPS+, 12 HR, 27 RBI, 3 DRS, 6.2 UZR/150

Pittsburgh – Gaby Sanchez – .229/.293/.385, 91 OPS+, 7 HR, 33 RBI, -3 DRS, -1.2 UZR/150

Facing a left-hander in Bumgarner, Sanchez, the right-handed portion of the Pirates first base platoon, will get the call. Sanchez hit just .200 with a .578 OPS down the stretch in September and rates out negatively with the glove. The slick fielding Belt, meanwhile, seems to have found his swing at the right time, batting .381/.458/.619 in his last 6 games, after missing much of the season due to a broken thumb and a concussion.

Advantage: Belt

Second Base:

San Francisco – Joe Panik – .305/.343/.368, 104 OPS+, 1 HR, 18 RBI, -1 DRS, 0.6 UZR/150

Pittsburgh – Neil Walker – .271/.342/.467, 127 OPS+, 23 HR, 76 RBI, -2 DRS, -8.7 UZR/150

The rookie Panik has eased the loss of Marco Scutaro with a fantastic first season, including a .345/.374/.423 triple slash line since August 4. The Giants top pick in the 2011 amateur draft, Panik has solidified the 2-hole in the San Francisco lineup. The veteran Walker set a career high for home runs with 23, including 14 that either tied the game, or put the Pirates ahead. Walker comes in cold, though, having collected just 6 hits in his last 39 regular season at bats, with a .554 OPS in his last 10 games.

Advantage: Walker

Third Base:

San Francisco – Pablo Sandoval – .279/.324/.415, 111 OPS+, 16 HR, 73 RBI, 4 DRS, 3.3 UZR/150

Pittsburgh – Josh Harrison – .315/.347/.490, 134 OPS+, 13 HR, 52 RBI, 9 DRS, 7.6 UZR/150

Harrison had a breakout 2014 all-star campaign, finishing second in the league in batting with a .315 mark, and playing a solid third base after Pedro Alvarez regressed and lost the position. Though Sandoval managed to keep off the weight he lost in the off-season, his offensive numbers weren’t what the Giants would have hoped for, especially in the season’s final month, in which he batted just .218 with a .550 OPS.

Advantage: Harrison

Shortstop:

San Francisco – Brandon Crawford – .246/.324/.389, 104 OPS+, 10 HR, 69 RBI, 8 DRS, 0.1 UZR/150

Pittsburgh – Jordy Mercer – .255/.305/.387, 95 OPS+, 12 HR, 55, 9 DRS, 0.3 UZR/150

The two young shortstops produced similar batting lines and rated out similarly defensively, but Crawford comes in having batted .365 with a .928 OPS in the month of September, with 16 RBI in 23 games, while Mercer hit .241 with a .761 OPS over 24 games in the final month of the year.

Advantage: Crawford

Left Field:

San Francisco – Travis Ishikawa – .252/.311/.393, 100 OPS+, 3 HR, 18 RBI, 1 DRS, 0.0 UZR/150

Pittsburgh – Starling Marte – .291/.356/.453, 128 OPS+, 13 HR, 56 RBI, 10 DRS, 5.1 UZR/150

Injuries to Pagan and Michael Morse mean that Ishikawa, the Pirates Opening Day first baseman, gets the call against the right-handed Volquez, despite playing just 29 innings in left field in his career, all since August 20. Ishikawa, who came up with the Giants, batted .274 in his return to San Francisco, filling in for Belt, but collected just 2 hits in his last 17 at bats (.118) for the season. The 25-year old Marte, meanwhile has become one of the best left fielders in the game, on both sides of the ball.

Advantage: Marte

Centerfield:

San Francisco – Gregor Blanco – .260/.333/.374, 103 OPS+, 5 HR, 38 RBI, -7 DRS, -4.3 UZR/150

Pittsburgh – Andrew McCutchen – .314/.410/.542, 168 OPS+, 25 HR, 83 RBI, -11 DRS, -12.0 UZR/150

Blanco has done a solid job replacing Pagan in centerfield, batting .298/.366/.447 in 68 games since July 10, but he’s no Andrew McCutchen. Like Posey, McCutchen is a perennial MVP candidate, having won the award just last season. Despite a fractured rib, McCutchen hit .347/.452/.589 in September, but he’s only 2-for-10 in his career against Bumgarner.

Advantage: McCutchen

Right Field:

San Francisco – Hunter Pence – .277/.332/.445, 121 OPS+, 20 HR, 74 RBI, -2 DRS, 2.2 UZR/150

Pittsburgh – Travis Snider – .264/.338/.438, 118 OPS+, 13 HR, 38 RBI, -4 DRS, -26.1 UZR/150

Pence had a great season for the Giants, playing in all 162 games for the second consecutive season, but he comes in ice cold, having batted just .165/.240/.231 in 25 September games, and collecting 1 hit in his last 28 at bats. Snider, on the other hand, batted .288/.356/.524 with 9 home runs since the all-star break.

Advantage: Pence

Bullpen:

San Francisco – Casilla (Cl), Romo, Lopez, Affeldt, Machi, Strickland, Lincecum

Pittsburgh – Melancon (Cl), Watson, Hughes, Gomez, Wilson, Axford

The Giants bullpen ranked fifth in all of baseball with a 3.01 ERA collectively, while the Pirates ranked 9th with a 3.28 mark. However, since the 1st of August, the Pittsburgh pen has compiled a stingy 2.80 ERA while the Giants relievers have struggled with an average allowance of 3.96 runs per every 9 innings pitched.

Advantage: Pittsburgh

Bench:

San Francisco – Arias, Susac, Duffy, Duvall, Dominguez, Perez

Pittsburgh – Davis, Stewart, Sanchez, Tabata, Barmes

Injuries have forced much of the Giants bench depth into the lineup, but rookie Matt Duffy is 6-for-15 (.400) as a pinch hitter, and 8-for-16 (.500) overall since September 7. The Pirates, meanwhile, led all of baseball with 43 pinch hits, but 21 of those came from Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider, both of whom are expected to be in the lineup Wednesday, and Ike Davis has been battling the flu.

Advantage: Pittsburgh

The Final Word

This game will likely come down to who executes defensively and who pitches the best. Runs will be at a premium. Experience is on the Giants side, although Pittsburgh got their post-season jitters out of the way in 2013. Madison Bumgarner, however, is a big game pitcher who rises to the occasion, as evidenced by his 15 career scoreless World Series innings.

Prediction: San Francisco Giants 2, Pittsburgh Pirates 1


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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