It is an incredible achievement that the Cardinals have made the playoffs in 2020. The depth and resilience of the team has been tested, and the Cardinals have managed to hold up well enough to play baseball into October. However, their first match-up with the Padres is a tough one. The Padres posted the second best record in the National League at 37-23 and their lineup had the third highest wRC+ in the National League (115). However, the Cardinals may be capable of causing an upset and winning the series, especially since they must only win two games.
Obviously, the first thing working in the Cardinals favor is the injuries to Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet, two key pieces of the Padres rotation. These were the two best starters for the Padres this season and it is certainly going to help the Cardinals if they cannot play. However, the second factor working in the Cardinals favor is the Padres relative struggles against left handed pitching. The Padres are not bad by any means against southpaws; however, the .761 OPS that the lineup has tallied against left handers is significantly lower than the .815 OPS that the lineup has tallied against right handers. To put this in perspective, the Dodgers posted an OPS of .821 this season which was good for second in the majors, and the third placed Mets posted an OPS of .807. The Padres’ OPS against right handers falls in this range. However, the Padres’ OPS against left handers falls between the 12th placed Angels (.763) and the 13th placed Rays (.753).
This is clearly a dangerous lineup, but it is closer to an average lineup when it faces left handed pitchers, and this should suit the Cardinals. This was likely the Cardinals reasoning when they decided to start Kwang-Hyun Kim in game 1, but it should also help the team throughout the series. The Cardinals best chance to win a game may be in game 1 with Kim on the mound who has had a great season in terms of run prevention (1.62 ERA), even if his 3.88 FIP suggests that he may be over-performing. However, when the Cardinals go to the bullpen, they have a number of left handed weapons to throw at the Padres.
To begin with, Andrew Miller has returned to form this year with a 2.58 FIP and an improved 9.1% walk rate. After posting a disappointing 5.19 FIP last season, which was largely due to an elevated home run rate, Miller’s improvement this season gives him the potential to be a key reliever for the Cardinals in the postseason. Additionally, Austin Gomber has pitched successfully out of the bullpen and rotation this year, and he could find Mike Shildt leaning on him against the Padres. His 1.86 ERA is much higher than his 3.54 FIP; however, it is entirely possible for him to keep preventing runs at the same rate, especially in a three game series. Regression tends to happen over a longer term than one playoff series, so Austin Gomber could very easily pitch well this series and prove to be a valuable asset against the Padres.
Genesis Cabrera has also stepped up in a big way this season, pitching 22 1⁄3 innings out of the bullpen and posting a 2.42 ERA. However, Cabrera also has an extremely high walk rate of 16.7% and allows an average of 1.21 home runs per nine innings. This has contributed to a 4.76 FIP which suggests that plenty of regression is in store for Cabrera. However, just like Gomber, he has managed to prevent runs very well, and his high walk rate may not catch up to him in one or two games against the Padres. Finally, the Cardinals also have Tyler Webb who has tallied a 2.08 ERA and 3.61 FIP which presents Mike Shildt with another solid southpaw to throw at the Padres. He has been an important reliever for the Cardinals as well this season as he has thrown 21 2⁄3 innings, giving him the second most bullpen innings on the team (behind Cabrera).
These left handed options in the bullpen, as well as Kim, will be crucial in attempting to slow down the Padres lineup. There seems to be plenty of regression in store for this group as a whole, but the Cardinals can probably dodge this in such a short series against San Diego. Even so, Andrew Miller could be the key reliever in this series, and if the rest of the Cardinals southpaws can continue their run prevention success from the regular season, then they may just win the two games required to advance past the Padres.