Five Keys: Braves vs. Giants
Both San Francisco and Atlanta are built around excellent starting pitching staffs
They also have the two best bullpens of any of this year's playoff teams
Their offenses, however, are weak, and the Braves will miss Martin Prado
The Braves and Giants are both built on the bedrock of great pitching. Of their seven meetings, of which the Braves won four, not a single game had more than nine runs scored -- combined. In their most recent four-game series in Atlanta two months ago, the Braves took three of four in low-scoring fashion, winning 3-2, 3-0 and 6-3 while losing 3-2 in 11 innings.
Since then, however, the Braves have lost several key players to injury -- most notably, infielders Chipper Jones and Martin Prado, starter Jair Jurrjens and reliever Eric O'Flaherty -- while the Giants added relievers Ramon Ramirez and Javier Lopez just before that August series and acquired Jose Guillen and Cody Ross after it.
By the time the Giants' new personnel got acclimated to their new team at the end of August and the Braves began playing without their key contributors, the balance of power in the National League has tipped. Since the beginning of September, the Giants are 20-10 and outscoring opponents 111 to 62 -- the latter is 46 fewer runs allowed than any other NL team in that span. The Braves, meanwhile, are 15-16 over the same stretch and have a minus-13 run differential.
Also of concern is that, though the Braves had the majors' best home record (56-35), they had the worst road record of any team in the postseason (35-46), seven games worse than the other three NL teams. The Giants had a more even split -- 49-32 at home, 43-38 on the road -- and of course have home-field advantage, thanks to the Braves' status as the wild card.
Emotions will be running high in the Braves clubhouse as their storied manager, Bobby Cox, braces for what could be his final few games in a major league uniform, but the reality is that -- though the Braves were a better team for the first two-thirds of the season -- the Giants are the better team right now.
Their rotations are nearly reciprocal on paper. The Giants have two young studs (Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum) supported by an All-Star veteran (Barry Zito) and an emerging talent with 90-plus starts (Jonathan Sanchez). The Braves have two All-Star veterans (Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe) supported by a young stud (Tommy Hanson) and an emerging talent with 90-plus starts (Jurrjens). San Francisco also has a star rookie in Madison Bumgarner, while Atlanta has been patching the fifth spot of its rotation with rookies Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy, who have struggled.
Both rotations ranked highly in staff ERA -- the Giants were second in the majors at 3.54 while the Braves were sixth at 3.80 -- but San Francisco has the clear edge in recent performance, with a 2.36 mark in September and October. Three of its starters (Sanchez, Bumgarner and Lincecum) had sub-2.00 ERAs after Sept. 1, while Cain had a 2.19 ERA through five starts until he struggled on Friday. Zito will likely be skipped in the Giants' playoff rotation, as Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez will throw the first three games. If the Giants are up 2-1, Bumgarner may get the call in Game 4 and Lincecum in Game 5; if they trail 2-1, look for Lincecum to go on short rest, with Cain following in Game 5.
Atlanta received terrific stretch-run performances from Lowe and Hanson -- both had sub-2.00 ERAs and Lowe was named NL Pitcher of the Month after going 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA -- but the rest of the crew struggled as the rotation had a 4.09 ERA after Sept. 1. Cox has shown that he's not shy about starting his veterans on short rest, so look for Lowe to pitch Games 1 and 4, the latter on short rest, while Hanson and Hudson, who rebounded from a tough September with a strong start, will pitches Games 2, 3 and 5 in some order. Whoever throws Game 2 can pitch in Game 5 on normal rest.
This one is essentially a wash between the two best bullpens of all playoff entrants. The Giants ranked second in the majors with a 2.99 ERA, trailing only the Padres, while the Braves were third with a 3.07 mark. And both should avoid giving up too many momentum-changing, late-inning homers, as the San Francisco and Atlanta bullpens are the majors' two best at keeping the ball in the park, allowing 0.57 and 0.65 home runs per nine innings, respectively.
San Francisco's bullpen, led by major league saves leader Brian Wilson (48 saves, 1.81 ERA), was outrageously good down the stretch, even more so than the starters. Beginning Sept. 1, the Giants' relievers threw 80 innings and allowed only eight earned runs for a 0.90 ERA, holding hitters to a .161 average. Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo have had particularly good years in front of Wilson, and their only downside -- having no lefty alongside Jeremy Affeldt -- was rectified by trading for Lopez.
The Braves' bullpen may be even better suited for October. Power plays in the postseason, and Atlanta led all major league relieving corps with 10.1 K/9. Braves relievers also induced the most double plays in the majors, at a rate of 0.91 per nine innings. The health of Takashi Saito, who has missed some time with shoulder soreness, is important to give Peter Moylan a break as a reliable righty arm. Among lefties, closer Billy Wagner (37 saves, 1.43 ERA) had one of his best seasons, while Jonny Venters was great all year. When O'Flaherty was sidelined with blurry vision, Michael Dunn filled in well.
The Giants had the majors' second-best defense, according to Baseball Prospectus' Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, while the Braves were No. 13. San Francisco has no defensive weakness, only varying degrees of glove grandeur, from the slightly above-average (Juan Uribe's 0.8 Ultimate Zone Rating at shortstop) to the exceptional: first baseman Aubrey Huff, left fielder Pat Burrell, second baseman Freddy Sanchez, right fielder Nate Schierholtz and Andres Torres at all three outfield positions have an UZR of at least 5.1.
Atlanta's middle-of-the-pack ranking, on the other hand, was only that high because of Heyward in right field and Rick Ankiel in center both have good range. The infield defense was shaky even when Jones was at third base and Prado at second, both of whom had negative UZRs. The continued defensive struggles of infielders Omar Infante and especially Brooks Conrad at second and third have been well-documented.
The Giants, however, may not be the team to exploit that weakness, as no one has more than 11 infield hits this season, a total that ranks outside the majors' top 100.
Dominating the headlines all week will be stories about Heyward and Giants catcher Buster Posey -- a pair of former Georgia high school phenoms who faced each other for the state's Class AAAA title in 2005 and who are now the presumptive top two candidates for NL Rookie of the Year.
Both have game-changing abilities. Posey has shown a bit more power (18 HRs and .505 slugging percentage in 406 at-bats) than Heyward (18 HRs and a .456 slugging percentage in 520 at-bats), but Heyward has shown a more consistent ability to get on base (91 walks and a .393 OBP) than Posey (30, .357). Each plays to their spot in the lineup, as Heyward typically bats second and Posey bats fourth. Heyward has also proven to be a dynamic right fielder, while Posey has been steady behind the plate despite early concerns over his defense.
But also important will be the impact of a quartet of rookie arms. The Braves' Venters has been terrific all season as their top left-handed setup man, going 4-4 with a 1.95 ERA and 10.1 K/9 in 83 innings. He has actually been nearly as effective against righties (.207 average against) as he has against lefties (.198 average against). Dunn is 2-0 with a 1.89 ERA in 19 innings, though his 1.68 WHIP indicates that he's been lucky in getting out of jams. And the other revelation for Atlanta has been Craig Kimbrel, who made a few early-season appearances before being recalled from the minors as a bullpen mainstay in late August. He has gone 4-0 with a 0.44 ERA -- one earned run in 20 2/3 major-league innings this season -- and a staggering 17.4 K/9.
The Giants, on the other hand, have the rookie left-hander Bumgarner, who was dynamite in five September starts, posting a 1.13 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP in 32 innings. He ought to be in line to start Game 4 and, if not, will complement Affeldt as a second lefty reliever.
These are by far the lowest-scoring playoff teams. The Braves scored 41 more runs than the Giants this year, but that was with the services of Jones and Prado, their third and fourth best hitters this season as ranked by OPS. Nate McLouth, on the other hand, survived a dreadful start and minor league demotion to provide a little more kick to the offense, but Atlanta only scored 3.5 runs per game in September and October.
As noted above, the Giants didn't have a full season of Burrell or even of Posey, two of their best three hitters, but San Francisco has still had trouble scoring runs, averaging just 3.7 per game during their 20-10 flourish to the season.
Atlanta holds the pinch-hitting edge with veteran Eric Hinske available, and he has been a World Series good luck charm, reaching three straight World Series with three different teams -- Red Sox in 2007, Rays in '08 and Yankees in '09, winning two of them. Also on the bench, of course, is Cox, who is making his 15th postseason appearance, but his counterpart, Giants skipper Bruce Bochy, is no slouch. He guided the Padres to four playoffs, including one NL Pennant in 1998, defeating Cox's Braves 4-2 in that year's NLCS.
THE PICK: Giants in four