Wait a minute. Before we get into this, let's take a second to ourselves. Deep breaths. Getting to the NLCS is amazing. It means a team is one of just two playing baseball in the league, and four in the game. It's a huge accomplishment, and it marks an exceptional year for any franchise. Going back to 2000, here is a list of NLCS appearances:
Zero: Washington, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Diego.
One: Miami, Milwaukee, Colorado, Houston, Chicago, Atlanta.
Two: New York, Arizona.
Three: Philadelphia, Los Angeles.
Four: San Francisco.
Nine: St. Louis.
As you no doubt know by now, this is St. Louis' fourth in a row. The point isn't to belittle any of the other teams, but we should make sure to recognize just how unusual this run is. The Cardinals aren't just being successful here, they're being historically successful. Enjoy it.
There are approximately eight thousand previews for this NLCS around in print and pixel springing up today. It should be a close series, they say. The Cardinals are probably a little better at preventing runs and the Giants are probably a little better at scoring them, they say. Both organizations are filled with winning winners who win, they say. In the end, the Cardinals are maybe a slightly better team, some of them say. It's all true, if a little tautological. But as every series so far this post-season has illustrated, it doesn't mean very much. The Dodgers were better than the Cardinals, and the Nationals were better than the Giants, and here we are. Neither of those series even got to game five.
I'm certainly not going to make a pick in the series, but l'll say that even with Adam Wainwright's recurring health concerns, I think the Cardinals have a good shot at getting better performances from their starter every game this series except when Madison Bumgarner is on the mound, and it was good to see the offense alive and kicking. We'll see. Let's take a look at those Giants.
Manager: Bruce Bochy
Strengths: He's been around forever and has rings and stuff. Seems like an amusing guy to have a drink with. Probably Ron Swanson's favorite manager. Also, likely actually a good manager.
Weaknesses: Used to keep Brandon Belt locked in a cage beneath the dugout. Has been caught having conversations with his mustache.
Catcher: Buster Posey (R)
Strengths: Playing baseball. Hitting for average, hitting for power. Doing those things while being a solid defensive catcher, framing pitches.
Weaknesses: He's only average at throwing runners out. Looks kind of human against sliders. His real name is Gerald. Look it up.
First Base: Brandon Belt (L)
Strengths: Appears to be on the rise as a good hitter. Had excellent 2013, posting a BusterPoseyesque .289/.360/.481 line.
Doesn't appear to have much of a platoon split.
Weaknesses: Has been hurt a lot in 2014 with a broken thumb and concussion problems. Not a good fielder. Doesn't have a big platoon split, which is good for the Cardinals, given the Redbird all RHP rotation.
Correction: Brandon Belt is a good fielder, as our friends from MC have helpfully pointed out below in the comments. Mea culpa!
Second Base: Joe Panik (L)
Strengths: Good contact hitter with plenty of liners. Nothing to suggest he's bad defensively.
Weaknesses: Doesn't walk, doesn't run, doesn't hit for power. That pun you're thinking about using with his name? It's been done.
Shortstop: Brandon Crawford (L)
Strengths: Very good defensively. Not hopeless with the bat.
Weaknesses: Well, he's not very good with the bat either. His batting career has been a bit like Kolten Wong's rookie season with more walks and fewer dingers. It's promising in a rookie, but nothing exciting in a veteran. Not a threat on the basepaths. Again, reverse splits.
Third Base: Pablo Sandoval (S)
Strengths: Hitting anything thrown in his general direction, often decently hard. The guy swung at 48.1% of pitches outside the zone this year (league average is 31.3) and still hit .279/.324./.415. Hits RHP even better than that. Fair defender.
Weaknesses: Power has slipped the last two years. Really struggled against LHP this year. Might as well turn him around late.
Left Field: Michael Morse (R) and Travis Ishikawa (L)
Strengths: This isn't a platoon. I expect to see Morse most games if he's healthy enough to be on the roster, as appears likely as of my writing this. Morse is a very solid hitter for average and power. Ishikawa has reportedly been surprisingly adequate as a fielder considering he's been a career first baseman.
Weaknesses: Morse is a very poor fielder, strikes out a lot, and doesn't walk much. There's nothing to suggest Ishikawa is a major league caliber hitter. He was DFA'd by the Pirates this season, and they were "traded for Ike Davis" desperate at first.
Center Field: Gregor Blanco (L)
Strengths: Solid defender. Excellent batting eye. Nothing special as a runner, but can steal a base.
Weaknesses: Not Angel Pagan. No power. Will you even remember him when he's gone?
Right Field: Hunter Pence (R)
Strengths: You will remember him when he's gone. He's long been one of my favorite players to watch, as his movements, which are constant, suggest that his body is made up of slap bracelets and slinkies. It's ugly beauty at its finest, and he's a fine player for it. 2014 saw him put up another good but not great .277/.332/.445 batting line with good baserunning. Solid defender.
Weaknesses: He remains a very good baseball player, but was never a star, and now isn't quite as good as he used to be. Also doesn't clean the peanut butter off the knife before putting it into the jelly jar.
Bench: Andrew Susac, C (R); Juan Perez, OF (R); Matt Duffy, MI (R); Gary Brown, CF (R); Joaquin Arias, util. (R)
Strengths: Susac, the rookie backup catcher, looks to have a solid bat already. Brown has some speed. Defensive flexibility. Matt Duffy hit well in AA this year?
Weaknesses: It's a pretty weak bench. Arias is a punchless middling vet, Brown is a rookie who doesn't look too exciting, Duffy is very raw, and Perez might or might not stick as a fourth outfielder. Whoever doesn't start between Morse and Ishikawa will be the best pinch-hitting option, which isn't a bad thing at all if Morse is on the bench, but it's rough if he's not.
Overall, the Cardinal and Giant position players are eerily similar. Both teams had a .308 wOBA this season, though the Cardinals were slightly better at getting on base and the Giants had a little more power and ran the bases better. Factor in defense, and both teams offer zero superstars, a few very good players, and a few solid players.
Top individual fWAR break-down, with asterisks indicating at least 40 games missed in the year:
Cardinals: 5.4, 3.8, 3.8, 3.1*, 2.5, 2.0, 1.9*
Giants: 5.7, 4.7, 3.0, 2.7, 2.0, 1.9*, 1.6*
The Giants are fourth in the NL with 23.7 fWAR from their position players, and the Cardinals are fifth with 22.0. Neither team is great, but they are both deep, balanced teams.
Starting Pitcher Madison Bumgarner (L)
Strengths: He is one of the best pitchers in the game. He throws a fourseam fastball, a cutter that sometimes acts like a cutter and sometimes acts like a slider, a curve, and the occasional changeup. Puts the ball where he wants it, quite willing to bust righties inside. And oh yeah, he slugged .470 this year. His ISO was higher than Matt Adams'.
Weaknesses: Not quite Clayton Kershaw, and you know what the Cardinals did to that guy.
Starting Pitcher Jake Peavy (R)
Strengths: Has a strong fourseam, twoseam, cutter trio of fastballs, plus a curve, changeup, and a slider in his back pocket, though he leans heavily on the fastballs. Doesn't walk too many. Has a sparkling ERA and FIP (2.17/3.03) since coming to San Francisco in late July. Read this really good Eno Sarris grips and approach piece with Peavy.
Weaknesses: His strikeout rate is down under 20% now, and while he does have good command, he can probably be hit hard when he misses his spots. Needs to get swings at pitches off the plate to be effective. Lefties slugged close to .450 off him this year (PLAY OSCAR, MIKE).
Starting Pitcher Tim Hudson (R)
Strengths: Extreme groundball pitcher who gets grounders with a sinker, cutter, and split-finger fastball, and can throw a curve as well. Had a solid year overall and did well in his start against the Nationals in the NLDS.
Weaknesses: He's 39 and had a terrible second half. Is he cooked? Doesn't miss bats. Lefties hit him well (PLAY OSCAR, MIKE).
Starting Pitcher Ryan Vogelsong (R)
Strengths: Mixes the usual three fastballs well with a curve and changeup. Like any old (37) pitcher who has managed to hang around, he's really good on days when he puts the ball exactly where he wants to, as he did against the Nationals in the NLDS.
Weaknesses: Underwhelming when he doesn't put the ball exactly where he wants to. Lefties as a group had a .346 wOBA against him this year (PLAY OSCAR, MIKE).
Strengths: It's a very good bullpen. Affeldt remains a very effective lefty, they can get innings and groundballs from Casilla and Machi, and strikeouts from Petit and the rookie Strickland.
Weaknesses: Once great closer Sergio Romo had problems with dingers this year, and Javier Lopez is a middling lefty. Tim Lincecum didn't pitch in the NLCS, but Bruce Bochy is a nice guy and wants to get him in a game somewhere. So there's that.
Backed by a good bullpen, the Giants' rotation is capable of dominating a series, as they did in the NLDS, but as something of a believer in new Shelby, I'd argue that after Bumgarner the next best four starters all wear birds on their uniforms. If you want to look for an edge between two very evenly matched teams, there it is. But again, it's seven games. An edge doesn't mean a whole lot.
One final note: I've read some people noting that Shelby backed off his previously rejuvenated curve against the Dodgers. I'm not worried about it. The Dodgers were the second-best team in baseball against curveballs this year. Look for it to reappear this series.
Editor's Note: Oh, hi there. It's me, Aaron Finkel. I'm here today to tell you about an exciting new opportunity offered by FANDUEL. SB Nation's partner FanDuel is hosting a one-day Fantasy Baseball league for tonight's Post-Season games. It's $2 to join and first prize is $1,000. Jump in now. Here's the FanDuel link for today's games.Try FANDUEL today!