So the postseason in baseball and October are rolling right along…beautiful leaves are shimmering and flying; autumn winds grow colder even as Indian summer warms us periodically. Soon, the cold end of fall will approach, and not so long after that wilting winter winds will erase the memory of the boys of summer, the overgrown baseball players we baseball fans cannot stop watching every chance we get while checking statistical outcomes and projections on a daily or near-daily basis.
As one of those “stat guys” to some extent (I also have a fondness for a good narrative, especially in October), I want to see who projects to have the best chances… and to see just how bad the Orioles are on paper, and how wicked their magic is. And how good the Cardinals are, even though they practically fell into the playoffs amidst a cloud of botched bunt attempts, bullpen meltdowns, and binary offensive confusion.
One thing the Pythagorean record of the Orioles won’t tell you is their effectiveness at winning baseball games. This is where sabermetrics severely undervalues good and consistent bullpens. Some work needs to be done on weighting that statistically. I commend the efforts to make WAR into a great stat, but feel it is not truly there quite yet. I am not ready to write it off nor am I ready to write off traditional stats just yet. Triple Crowns are a ton of fun, as are new ways of viewing the game.
One thing the Cardinals Pythagorean record won’t tell you is that they barely reached the postseason through the new wild card… they had the fifth best record in the NL… in any other season thus far, they would be watching October baseball from the comfort of their living rooms. If baseball was just run differential, the Cardinals’ 117 would dwarf the Oriole’s 7, but yet the Orioles won more games in the season. What are the Orioles doing so well?
They are tied with the Yankees in the Divisional Championship Series, yet the Yanks run differential is an incredible 136. Omitting the 9th inning implosion of the Orioles in game 1 and we see why: the Orioles thrive in tight games for some reason. They can get into them, and often times they can win them much more than the average team. On the other hand, the Cardinals had big troubles with tight and close games in 2012. The first two games of their series exemplified their season: lose by 1 run in a low scoring game, then have an offensive eruption the next day. This two sided offense and their bullpen can possibly get them in big trouble. They will need to put these problems behind them.
The Orioles have had splendid great luck. Their pitching staff as a whole has a .285 BABIP against, which is definitely below league average. However, this staff as a whole was just in the middle of the major leagues in effectiveness by fWAR. The only areas they truly excelled at are their innings pitched total (first in MLB) and 2nd in MLB in saves. While their bullpen was not extremely great, they were pretty effective the whole season, so they didn’t lose as many of these close games or extra inning games they got themselves into.
The end of the season resulted in the O’s utilizing their bullpen quite often, and they have been on a roll. So besides a pretty decent bullpen, what can the Baltimore Orioles do? They can hit the long ball. Since September 1st, they have hit 214 home runs, only the Yankees have hit more. So expect that series to be a blastfest, hopefully.
Other than that, the Orioles are a thoroughly mediocre team. Their defense is not real good, in fact UZR thinks it is a liability. Consider this team as one of the weirdest successes in baseball history, much weirder than the 2011 Cardinals.
Back to the Cardinals… The 2012 Cards team is the best offense in the NL. Allen Craig was arguably the best hitting first baseman; Yadier Molina turned himself into an offensive weapon (2nd only to Buster Posey offensively at catcher); the corner outfielders Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran were both among the best hitters in the NL in the outfield; Jon Jay surprised and .343 wOBA, one of the best among CF; David Freese also among the best hitters at his position. This offense, while not as consistent as people would like them to be, is pretty lethal. They seem to be able to work counts as well as be aggressive.
Since September 1, the Cardinals starters ERA has been 3.27, and their WAR total was 4th in the NL. Their bullpen has also gelled to the point where it has gone from liability to 5th in MLB in FIP and 3rd in xFIP with 1.5 WAR.
Their opponent which they are tied with at this time, the Nationals, have a slightly better run differential over the Cardinals, and were the best team for much of the season in the NL. Lately though, the Nationals pitching has been trending downward. Stephen Strasburg tends to boost your confidence, and without his aceness you are not the same team. Their hitting has been pretty hot though, nearly as good as the Cardinals formidable offense.
This series appears to be a very tight matchup… for any edge the Cards have on offense, the Nationals have an edge on overall defense. Still, I think the Cardinals can pull this off in 5 games.
The Reds vs Giants is an interesting matchup too… it appeared that the Reds would steamroll their opponent, except for one deflating factor: they too lost their ace, at least til the World Series timeframe it appears. Both teams are the top two Clutch teams in MLB by fangraphs Win Probability related stat. This could be conducive to massive drama. Still, even without Cueto, the Reds are the better team on paper. They have a higher run differential, although not significantly higher. Both teams are about equal on defense. I think this will come down to bullpens, and 5 games.
The Tigers pitching staff is #1 in fWAR total. They had the best starting pitching in the AL in ’12. Their bullpen can hang with the A’s bullpen. Both seem to be playing well towards the end of the season. What should set them apart besides people like Justin Verlander is on offense though… I just find it difficult to believe the A’s can hold back the Tigers offense. Detroit in 5, but this one is pretty hard to say since it is finishing up in Oakland…
So on paper, the Yankees and Cardinals would probably duke it out in the World Series, which would be an extra-historic affair. The two most successful franchises in baseball history. But baseball, like in life, things are rather difficult to predict. It seems that there are 4 very good series happening this year, making it a wonderful year to be a baseball fan and able to watch the games (what is up with the scheduling this year?). Starting at noon 10/10/12, baseball will probably both fulfill and crush our expectations, thrill and annoy us. How could the Orioles and Athletics still be in this? Will the two superior teams, the Tigers and Yankees, face each other soon? Or will the Tigers inexplicably underperform and the Yankees choke in the postseason, as they sometimes do? Will the Cardinals recapture that 2011 magic and beat the team that was better in 162 games? Will the Reds overcome the loss of their ace pitcher? Only time will tell, not paper.