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if you're scoreboard watching this weekend, forget about cincinnati and houston. the only out-of-town series that really matters is the four-game set that begins tonight at chavez ravine --- padres v dodgers. whoever wins that division is the cardinals' likely opponent in the nlds. these two teams are tied in the loss column atop the nl west; it's their last head-to-head meeting of the year.

which club would we rather face? let's take a quick look. we'll begin with the basics --- run differential:

scored allowed diff pyth w-l
los angeles 730 672 +58 79-67
san diego 649 619 +30 76-69
st louis 695 688 +7 73-72

not much to choose from there. the padres' real-life record trues up with their pythagorean record; the dodgers have been slightly unlucky / inefficient this year, underperforming their pythagorean w-l by 2 games. neither team looks particularly ripe for st louis; other way around, i'm afraid. let's move on to the pitching staffs --- the numbers in parens in each cell below indicate the team's rank among nl teams:

era sho hr avg obp slg w/9 k/9 k/bb
san diego 3.94 (1) 11 (T1) 155 (7) .250 (1) .313 (1) .405 (2) 2.88 (T1) 6.74 (T8) 2.34 (2)
los angeles 4.21 (4) 9 (T4) 140 (3) .268 (9) .329 (4) .418 (4) 3.03 (4) 6.34 (12) 2.10 (8)
st louis 4.53 (8) 9 (T4) 174 (T12) .267 (8) .337 (7) .441 (13) 3.20 (5) 5.98 (14) 1.86 (9)

bet you didn't realize how good the san diego pitching staff is -- 1st or 2d in the league in most of these categories. and their league-leading figures are not just a ballpark effect caused by spacious petco; they lead the national league in road era, too. the pads' bullpen era (3.37) is 2d in the league to the mets; they're 3d in bullpen opp avg (behind mets and stros). san diego's experiment with david wells is off to a decent start; he's the type of pitcher who has given st louis fits all season. so on the pitching side, no-brainer --- the cards would rather play the dodgers.

it's kind of striking how similar the stl and la pitching staffs are. note how they track each other in opponent average, walk rate, and k rate. the only meaningful difference between them is in the number of homers they allow -- and that alone could decide any series they play. but leave that aside for a second. both the cards and dodgers are low-strikeout, high groundball, pitch-to-contact staffs. they're nearly identical in go/ao ratio (1.43 for la, 1.39 for stl) and rank 1st /3d in the league in that category. their bullpens are also near twins -- los angeles 6th in the league in pen era (3.98), st louis 8th (4.04).

sidebar: i wondered how the cardinals' opp obp could be so much higher than the dodgers' when the teams are so close in opp avg and bb/9. the answer: hit batsmen. the erratic st louis hurlers have plunked 77 hitters this year, 2d most in the league; the dodgers have only hit half as many guys, 39, the league's lowest total.

the home run differential would be a huge concern if these two teams met. i checked the home-road splits to see if la's advantage is simply a ballpark effect that we can write off to dodger stadium's large proportions. no such luck: los angeles actually has allowed fewer homers on the road than at home. they simply do a better job than the cardinals of keeping the ball in the park. in a postseason series, there may be no better advantage to hold over an opponent. but here's the catch: the dodger hitters are not well equipped to exploit the cardinal pitchers' vulnerability to the hr. la's offense is dead last in the league in home runs, with 129. when the teams met for 7 games in july, the cardinals yielded only 2 homers in the entire series -- which, we all remember, st louis swept 7-0.

since we've started down this road, let's look at the offenses overall:

runs hr avg obp slg w sb
los angeles 730 (4) 129 (16) .275 (1) .346 (1) .426 (9) 532 (4) 111 (3)
st louis 695 (9) 161 (7) .270 (T2) .338 (6) .428 (7) 475 (9) 51 (15)
san diego 649 (13) 145 (13) .262 (12) .331 (12) .415 (14) 496 (6) 109 (4)

looks pretty cut/dried again --- dodgers are well above average in every category except homers, while the padres rank in the bottom 1/4 of the league in ev'ything but walks and steals. but in this case, the ballparks do seem to be creating some distortions. if we look only at away games, to filter out park effects, the padre offense is much, much better than the dodgers' -- a whopping 80-point advantage in OPS -- and significantly better than the cardinals' -- san diego has outslugged the birds by 12 points and out-obp'd them by 10 in road games. i honestly think the padres have a more dangerous lineup, even though their stat line appears to be weaker than la's; outside of petco, the pads can put runs on the board. even without adjusting for ballpark effects, the padres have clouted 20 more home runs than los angeles and outpointed the dodgers in isolated power by 4 points. factor in the ballparks, and it seems clear that the padres are more likely to capitalize on the cardinals' homer-proneness. so, once again -- bring on the dodgers.

neither team has particularly dangerous left-handed hitters, which is mildly encouraging; weaver, looper, and wainwright all have been vulnerable to lhb this year, as have (at times) the left-handers in the bullpen. the cards don't have any pitcher they can confidently send in to face a lineup with hitters like beltran / delgado or (should they make it) utley / howard; but they may have the arms to contain andre eithier and jd drew, or adrian gonzalez and aging brian giles.

ok --- so we want the dodgers to win this division. now here's where it gets complicated. we want the padres to lose 3 or 4 to the dodgers this weekend, to get the dodgers into position for the nl west title --- but if that happens, then the padres may lose ground to the phillies in the wild card race. san diego currently has a 2.5-game bulge. if philadelphia manages to come from behind in that competition, then the cardinals may find themselves playing the mets in the nlds. personally, i could live with that; i think the cards have a better chance to beat new york over 5 games than over 7, so if they're gonna have to face them at some point, might as well do it in a shorter series. but a number of you have argued that the cards' best chance of beating the mets might be avoidance -- ie, hoping that the dodgers or padres beats the mets in the nlds -- and i'm starting to come around on that. david pinto noted recently that good pitchers have beat the mets pretty regularly -- and the dodgers and pads both have better pitchers than the cards do. either of those teams might stand a good chance of surprising new york -- more so than the cardinals. . . . .

but enough of this talk. having gone through the exercise, here's my conclusion: it doesn't matter who the cardinals play; they're gonna struggle against any october opponent. the mets pads and dodgers rank 1,2, and 4 in the league in era; the only soft pitching staff they might run into is the phillies', whose lineup might score 20 runs a game vs the cardinal pitchers. so --- go dodgers; go padres. whatever.

just go cardinals.