3 Thoughts on Winning the NLDS #sfgiants #nlds #2014playoffs

1. Ryan Vogelsong is magic. I tweeted before the game that I thought Vogelsong had at least one more moment of greatness in him, and then he came through with a really good start. I thought if he could get through the lineup one time it would be huge and he gave even more than that. He has to start again. Petit is too good of a weapon in the bullpen.

Bochy is magic too. I know manager’s don’t have as much influence on the game as fans tend to think, but a large factor in this series was Bochy’s experience (now 8-0 in playoff series with the Giants) versus the inexperience of Matt Williams. You’ve got to wonder how the Nats might have fared under Davey Johnson in this series. Asked after the game why he went with Thornton and Barrett in the 7th instead of Clippard/Strasburg/Stammen, Williams said “all year long they’ve been our 7th inning guys.” The key phrase there was “all year long.” You cannot play the postseason the way you play “all year long”. Bochy adjusted, Williams did not. That’s one way to neutralize a more talented roster.

2. I incorrectly predicted every LDS. And I’m totally fine with that. No Tigers, no LA teams, and the Giants are still in it. Yes, please. Not to make excuses, but coming into the playoffs I honestly had no idea what to do: the Angel’s ace was out, Detroit’s bullpen sucked, the Dodgers seemed vulnerable after their two aces, and the Nationals had to play the Giants. This is one of the most wide open postseasons in an era of wide-openness. Anything can happen.

Subthought: the Giants will need more offense to beat the Cardinals. Some good news: the Cardinals don’t have a rotation like the Nationals. One of the reason the Giants struggled to score runs in this series is because the Nationals starters are really good. Runs should come a little more easily this time around. Also, Michael Morse could return, which could mean dingers or a lot of bad swings at sliders in the dirt.

3. For the fifth year in a row either the Giants or the Cardinals will represent the NL in the World Series. In fact, can you guess the last team represent the NL who was not the Giants/Cardinals/Phillies? It was…wait for it…the Rockies. Whoa.

In the last five years the Cardinals have won 30 playoff games, and the Giants 26. That’s the top 2 teams.

A complete list of NL entrants to the World Series since the new collective bargaining agreement era began in 2002: Giants, Marlins, Cardinals, Astros, Cardinals, Rockies, Phillies, Phillies, GiantsCardinals, Giants, Cardinals, Cardinals/Giants.

The Cardinals have been doing this for 20 year now. Many people think of the Braves and Yankees when they think of long runs of greatness by a baseball team. The Cardinals are in that discussion and, I would argue, at the top of the list for impressiveness. What they have done/are doing is unreal.

No matter how it goes down it is old blood versus new blood in the World Series.

More thoughts on the next round coming soon.

-SB

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Thoughts and Predictions for the DS #MLBplayoffs

1. Tigers vs. Orioles. These teams are mirrors of each other. Baltimore hits home runs, plays great defense, and has a stellar bullpen. Detroit has the THE STAR and the starters. This is going to be the ultimate test of postseason theories: do you need strong starting, defense, bullpen, or home runs to win?

  • Prediction: Tigers in 4. The Tigers will not win the world series with that bullpen (we’ve heard this story before), but they have more than enough to get past an Orioles team that lacks dominant starting pitchers.

2. Angels vs. Royals. The Angels have the best record and offense in baseball. The Royals bunt and steal all the time and have the best bullpen in the postseason. Will this be bedlam in KC or Mike Trout’s national coming-out-party?

  • Prediction: I want to pick the Royals so badly. I really, really do. Oh, I want to pick them. In fact, a couple of months ago when I was sketching things out, I thought they might have the best path to the World Series in the American League. That, though, was based on them winning the division, which they did not do. Furthermore, that game against the A’s revealed just how clueless Ned Yost can be. Sometimes, and it is rare, a manager can help win a series, usually they are fairly neutral, and there are some times where they are an all-out liability, and I fear that is where Yost is. Yikes. Angels in 4.

3. Dodgers vs. Cardinals. Of course they are playing each other, which means, if the Giants get through they will have to play their long-standing mortal enemies (the Dodgers, just in case you didn’t know), or the team Giants’ fans have learned to hate in recent years (the Cardinals, mostly for being the Cardinals). And even if the Giants don’t make it through it means one of these teams will play the Nationals (who we will then hate) in an absolutely awful NLCS. This is the most detestable of all possible matchups.

  • Prediction: Mattingly is horrible, the bullpen is shaky, and the non-Kershaw/Greinke starters are a major liability. Plus Puig will do something stupid at some point. Otherwise the Dodgers are basically unbeatable. The Cardinals had a surprisingly bad offensive season, some shakiness in the rotation (that seems to have been shored up), and are here mainly because the Brewers faded so badly. And yet, they are the Cardinals, the team, other than the Giants, most likely to play flawlessly in October. I won’t be the least bit surprised if the Cardinals win this series, but I’m going with the Dodgers in 5.

4. Giants vs. Nationals. The Nationals are the best team, in my opinion, top to bottom in this tournament. So, of course, the Giants get them in a short series. Awesome. That being said, the only result here that would be shocking to me is a sweep by either team. Mostly, though I just don’t see the Giants laying down. It’s going to go 5 either way. I’ll have a bigger preview tomorrow morning, but for now a couple of silver linings for the Giants: the Nationals have a lot of right-handed starting pitching. They are really good, so that part stinks, but the right-handedness plays into the hands of a lineup that is heavy lefty right now. Second silver lining: Matt Williams is a rookie manager, and only 4 times has a rookie manager won a World Series. The last one to do it, of course, was another ex-Giant, Bob Brenly, whose team won in spite of him, not because of him. Loved Matt Williams as a third baseball in the black and orange, but he might be a liability.

  • Prediction: The Nationals are too deep to go down to a Giants team lacking Angel Pagan, Michael Morse, and Matt Cain. Nationals in 5.

-SB

What the Cardinals and Red Sox Can Teach the Giants

It’s been fascinating living in Boston this year, watching people react to the Red Sox. At first, it was apathetic (Napoli who?), than it was resignation (we’re going to suck again), then it was mild interest and excitement (we don’t suck), than it was sentimental (Boston  strong and cute beards), then it got serious (playoffs!), and then it got out of control (the city nearly threw the parade after the game victory).

Now it’s back to worrying about curses, and can a team without stars actually win a world series (um, yes).

Anyway, those are just some thoughts, and now for the real heart of the matter: what this world series teaches our beloved SF Giants.

  • The Red Sox Way:

We’ll begin here because their situation most closely resembles where the Giants are at right now. Last year everything fell apart for the Sox, which led to a major, house cleaning, trade with the Dodgers. In the wake of all that transition the Red Sox did two things: (a) take short term gambles on players who could potentially produce what the needed most (power, defense, and character). (b) they hoped and prayed their starting pitchers who used to be good, got good again.

This is applicable to the Giants because they do not have tons of money to spend on free agents. And there aren’t any big name free agents that really get your blood pumping. And recent history suggests it is very unwise to go all in on name brand free agents anyway (just ask the Angels).

In fact, the Red Sox stole strategy A from the Giants (Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross, Juan Uribe, Pat Burrell, Gregor Blanco, Marco Scutaro, etc). The Giants are going to need to replicate this success somehow this offseason.

And it sure looks like strategy B is where we are headed as well. The resign of Tim Lincecum follows the same kind of logic the Red Sox have employed with John Lackey and Jon Lester. Hope the magic comes back. And it has. I have no idea how, but it has. I’d be shocked if Ryan Vogelsong wasn’t in the rotation to start 2014. Same strategy.

Employing these two strategies together seems foolish (more on this later), but it worked for the Red Sox (and aren’t the Giants the Red Sox to the Dodgers Yankee’s in this crazy new baseball world?).

  • The Cardinals Way:

The Cardinals are in the World Series (and are the best organization in baseball) because they produce their own quality players year in and year out. And there are more on the way. It’s actually quite scary and hard to fathom.

For a while this was the Giants‘ strategy. The core of the two championship teams includes a long list of home grown talent (Cain, Lincecum, Bumgarner, Wilson, Romo, Posey, Sandoval, Belt, Crawford, even Jonathan Sanchez and Nate Schierholz helped with their play and by getting traded for good things).

And there is another wave coming, especially in the pitching department. But, not much help for 2014.

  • And what about Moneyball?

This might seem like a non-sequitur, but hear me out. Let us all remember that Moneyball is not about on-base percentage, it is about market inefficiencies and exploiting resources other teams neglect.

Over the past couple of years, the Giants have (to the surprise of many around baseball) been on the front edge of a couple of trends: (a) run-prevention (i.e. pitching and defense), (b) minor-league free agent gold (like Juan Uribe or Santiago Casilla or Ryan Vogelsong), (c) dramatically undervalued veterans (like Aubrey Huff and Marco Scutaro), and (d) creating a contact heavy, low strikeout lineup.

[a quick aside about D. recent post-season history has borne out the reality that high contact teams are much better suited for playoff success than low contact/high power teams…the last 3 world series bear this out, as does the on-going frustrations of the Atlanta Braves and the Detroit Tigers, two teams that strikeout way too much. the current world series matchup is, perhaps, the greatest test of this to date: the Cardinals should win this series because they strike out dramatically less than the Red Sox. so far, games 1 and 2 hold true: whoever strikes out the most at the plate loses.]

All of which leads us to the Giants strategy this offseason: last year they pretty much brought everyone back and it didn’t work. So far, the are doubling down on that strategy and paying a steep price for it. Most pundits have been very critical of both contracts, seeing them as overpays and pre-reactions to a yet-to-be-determined market.

Are the Giants crazy, lazy, or are they on to something? 

Both the Red Sox and the Cardinals are testament to the importance of doing hard things. Many, many people in Cardinal nation thought the world was coming to an end when Albert Pujols left. That turned out fairly well.

No one thought there was any way the Red Sox could really get out from underneath the mess they had made with bad contracts and bad hires. They did it (thanks to the Dodgers), and they went deep into the unknown and came out of it with a pennant.

The Giants, though, like to return to what they know. The did it with Barry Bonds, they did it with guys from the 2010 team and with the 2012 team. They are doing it again now.

I’d love to see them be bit less sentimental and more imaginative. However, the Giants have proven to be able to see things that others have not been able to see, and so maybe we’ll never regret paying Hunter Pence so much and maybe Tim Lincecum will pull a John Lackey.

In sum, every pennant winning team is a strange combination of design and great fortune, and if the Giants return to the heights in 2014 this will no doubt be true of them.

In a strange way they reflect both of these “ways” of team building. Here’s to hoping they do know what they are doing.

(-SB)

On Pujols

I should admit upfront that I am a bit of an Albert Pujols fanboy. Maybe it’s because we are the same “age”. Maybe it’s because I’ve never lost a fantasy baseball league where I had him on my team. Maybe it’s because I called that moon shot he hit off Brad Lidge in the playoffs a few years back. I don’t know. But he has been my favorite non-Giants/non-Red Sox player for years now.

Since I’ve moved to Boston I have actually met a number of people from the midwest. Far more than I ever knew in California. Which means I’ve met some Cardinals fans. The response to Pujols-to-the-Angels has been somewhat surprising. A little sadness but a whole lot of relief. As in, “I’m so glad we didn’t forfeit our future just to keep El Hombre around.” And I understand that…Cardinals fans look at Pujols and see the next A-Rod, but know the team has much less ability to absorb a bad contract when compared to the Yankees. They knew keeping Pujols meant seeing a lot of good young talent walk away over the next ten years. I get it.

But I also get the Angels. The Angels have been taken to task by the national media over the past few years for all of the free agents they have not signed. Especially last year when they were supposed to get Carl Crawford and/or Adrian Beltre (and before them it was Konerko, Sabathia, Texeria, etc). Everyone thought: “They play in a huge market, make money, won a World Series, and a have an owner willing to spend, why do they keep chickening out at the last-minute.”

Because Pujols. Now, I’m sure they have not been sitting around for the past 3-4 years with a plan to grab Albert when he hit the market, but he did, and because they had passed on some of these other guys they were ready for it.

seriously, who would you rather have for the next 7 years? Carl Crawford, Mark Texeria, Alex Rodriguez, or Albert Pujols? No brainer.

Because here’s the deal. Pujols is a once of a lifetime opportunity. My apologies to the Prince Fielder’s of the world, but this guy is the best player of this free agent class, of the past 5 years, and of this generation. He will slow down a bit, but barring a catastrophic injury, Pujols is going to hit 700 home runs. He is going to be a force at age 40. He is going to guarantee they have a good offense every year for the next 10 years. There are not enough superlatives.

Now, I am not as cynical as I once was, and so if the Giants don’t win the 2010 WS I probably don’t look back on the Bonds’ years the same way, but I’ve lived the reality of having a once-a-generation player as the heart of the team. The Giants had a chance in 1993, ’97, ’98, 2000, ’01, ’02, ’03, and ’04. Yes, it didn’t happen to any of those teams, but as we all know, it could have. How are the 2010 Giants really all that better than the 2000, or the 2002 versions? Pujols himself has won two rings with teams no one thought had a chance, and has lost with teams that were juggernauts (2004, 2005).

Bottom Line: when a player like Pujols comes along, you go all in and you see what happens. No guarantees, but the Angels will be competitive, interesting, and relevant for a decade. Done.

So, while I get all the arguments for letting him go, I don’t fault the Angels for opening the bank vault and rolling out the red carpet. It’ll be interesting to see how we think about this 10 years from now, but I can tell you this, having lived through Bonds, you WILL enjoy every minute of it Angels fans. You will.

(-SB)

Closing the Book on 2011

As I wrote earlier, this World Series had the air of 2002 written all over it. Turns out that was more on point than I imagined. Team with a rally animal gains a 2-1 advantage, then falls behind on the road 3-2, but then wins a Game 6 for the ages and defeats its deflated opponent relatively easily in Game 7. I’ve seen this one before.

The Cardinals are frustrating to me for two reasons: (1) I was not so secretly rooting for the Rangers because I felt like their taking home the title would somehow validate the Giants World Series victory of 2010. (2) The Cardinals do not neatly follow my pitching addition/emergence theory that I’ve been harping on all year.

But here’s the interesting thing. In some ways the Cardinals validate the Giants run of a year ago by showing that a hot team that gets in at the last-minute is a dangerous, dangerous foe. In fact, in the system might actually favor this type of team (see paragraph 6).

And, if you break down the season, the Cardinals actually follow the pattern I set out, but they did it in compressed time (over the course of the season instead of the offseason). This happened in part because of the injury to Adam Wainwright. But, over the course of the season the Cardinals witnessed the emergence of a closer (Jason Motte) who posted an ERA+ of 162, career years from Kyle Loshe, a strong sophomore (injury free) season from Jaime Garcia, and the midseason reinforcements of Edwin Jackson (who ensured that Jake Westbrook would not pitch in the post-season), Mark Rzepczynski, and Octavio Dotel (who ensured that Ryan Franklin would not pitch in the post-season).

All of that translated to season-best-production in September/October. They set season best marks in Strikeouts, ERA, K/BB ratio, OBP, SLG, OPS+, WHIP, and K/9.

Of course, and this will always burn me a little, if the Houston Astros played the Cardinals as well as they did the Giants, we’d be writing a very different story right now.

(-SB)

Game 5

Bullets:

  • I was totally prepared to write a post-game article about how Ron Washington is going to lose this series by going to the Alexi Ogando well too many times. Seriously, Wash, you have Mike Adams and several other dudes down there in the pen and Ogando is still pitching, still walking guys, still leaving 95 mph fastballs up in the zone? Maybe I’m biased towards Adams because I saw him get so many Giants out, maybe he’s hurt, but that bullpen has other arms! Use them.
  • Instead we have another LaRussa gem. I know the guy is smart, I know that he’s won a ton of games and been successful for a long time. I know that everyone has bad days and no manager gets it right even most of the time, but I really do wonder if some of the teams he’s managed could have/would have done better under someone else. Those A’s teams (’87-’91)…the ’04/’05 Cards…now this team. Hindsight is always perfect, but I think the question needs to be asked.
  • This point has been made several times already but what were the Angels thinking when they traded Mike Napoli? Obviously, they wanted Vernon Wells. Obviously, they like Jeff Mathis. But their 2011 team needed: (a) Power (b) A first baseman (c) anyone who can hit. Unbelievable. Texas has improved its bullpen over the 2010 version of the team, but Napoli is the real big difference between this year and last year.
  • Game six of the World Series is important. I know this because I like the Giants. I highly recommend that the Rangers end this thing on Wednesday. Still hoping for a game 7 though!
(-SB)

Game 2

Baseball is such a humbling sport. Yesterday all the World Series analysis focused on the wizrdry of Tony LaRussa and how his cagey wisdom and guttiness allowed to pull all the right strings to help his team win. Now he’s a bum. Well, maybe not a bum, but no other job in sports is as second guessed or as misjudged as the baseball manager. We almost always over (and/or under) estimate how important the manager really is.

Then there’s the Pujols situation. The greatest player of his generation is a huge goat today. Baseball is the best sport at making even its best practitioners look horrible in small sample sizes. Plus the skipping out on the media thing doesn’t look good.

Also, there’s been some pitching in this series, which is a welcomed development. The bottom line is these teams are incredibly evenly matched. 90ish win teams with good, not great starters, the ability to hit some home runs and score, and bullpens that have a lot of options. What’s the X factor? Is it the managers? Is it the stars? Is it Allen Craig? I say whoever can get two more quality turns out of its starters takes this series, which is going to go seven. That’s about all I am convinced of so far.

(-SB)