NLCS Game 4 preview: Giants have Cardinals' backs against the wall
Start Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
TV: FOX Sports 1
Status: Giants lead 2-1
On Tuesday afternoon, the Giants pounced on Cardinals starter John Lackey for four first-inning runs, but an unusually flat-footed Bruce Bochy stayed with a flagging Tim Hudson for too long, allowing him to fritter away the lead to the point that St. Louis tied the game in the seventh inning. A 10th-inning sequence that ended with Randy Choate throwing away Gregor Blanco's sacrifice bunt attempt, allowing Brandon Crawford to score the winning run, finally gave the Giants the victory and the series lead.
As Cliff Corcoran pointed out in his preview, postseason history tells us that teams that win Game 3 in a previously tied best-of-seven series have gone on to win 71 percent of the time (62 out of 87 series). Such teams winning Game 3 at home have won 79 percent of the series (27 out of 34). That said, teams with the home field advantage in Game 4 have won just 81 of 161 games (a .503 winning percentage), by far the lowest of any of the seven games, and well off the pace of Games 1-3 (.565) and 5-7 (.559). That may be because teams down 2-1 and on the road have tended to respond by calling on their best starting pitchers when possible, though such a theory hasn't been subject to a closer analysis.
Matchups: The fourth starters of the two teams' respective rotations have each taken just one postseason turn thus far — Game 4 of their respective Division Series on Oct. 7 — but both acquitted themselves well via near-quality starts in what proved to be series clinchers. Matched up against Clayton Kershaw, Miller threw 5 2/3 innings of two-run ball over the course of 82 pitches; despite allowing five hits and walking three, he netted two double plays. He left trailing 1-0; the second run came in when Seth Maness allowed a hit before extricating himself from the inning, and of course we know how that game turned out.
Against the Nationals, Vogelsong also lasted 5 2/3 innings, yielding just one run on two hits and two walks while throwing 81 pitches and departing with a 2-1 lead. While the Giants bullpen coughed that up — seriously, has Bryce Harper's home run landed yet? — they ultimately KO'd the Nats to advance to the NLCS.
Though he's avoided last fall's mothballing (Michael Wacha has that job now), the 23-year-old Miller was not as effective in 2014 as he was during his stellar rookie season. In 183 innings — a total kept down by a brief midseason foray to the bullpen — he posted a gaudy 4.54 FIP founded on shaky peripherals (1.1 homers, 3.6 walks and 6.2 strikeouts per nine). Miller benefitted from stellar defensive support; his .259 batting average on balls in play was the second-lowest rate among NL ERA qualifiers.
Thanks to improved strikeout and walk rates — not to mention an even lower BABIP — Miller improved considerably in the second half:
Underlying that improvement was a change in Miller's arsenal. He learned how to grip a sinker from late-July acquisition Justin Masterson; whereas PITCHf/x showed him as throwing just seven such pitches (0.4 percent) prior to the All-Star break, the sinker accounted for 8.4 percent of his offerings in the second half and produced a groundball 58 percent of the time when put into play. His control improved in general after the All-Star break, as did his whiff rates on pitches out of the strike zone.
Taking the season as a whole, Miller showed a minimal platoon split, yielding a .235/.301/.388 line to righties and .238/.321/.388 to lefties, the difference almost entirely resting on a higher walk rate against the latter. Despite a strong lefthanded presence, the Giants' lineup was less effective against righties (.253/.307/.387) than lefties (.258/.318/.390) during the regular season, though in the small sample of the postseason, their .242/.304/.306 line against righties represents an improvement upon their .200/.286/.220 line against lefties.
Confining the numbers to those from the regular season, switch-hitting Pablo Sandoval (.317/.363/.461) and righty Buster Posey (.314/.366/.478) were more effective against righties than any of the team's lefties. Righty Hunter Pence showed more power against righties (.274/.323/.456) but reached base with more frequency against lefties (.284/.355/.415), while lefties Brandon Belt (.233/.299/.473) and Crawford (.213/.291/.346) did not thrive.
For what it's worth, Miller did not face the Giants this year; he made his first start of 2013 against them (5 1/3 innings, two runs, including a solo homer by Pence) and threw seven scoreless against them later in the year. The only other Giant with a home run off him is leftfielder Travis Ishikawa, more on whom below.
As for Vogelsong, the 37-year-old righty rebounded from a terrible, injury-shortened 2013, but his season was an uneven one; his ERA was above 5.00 in April, June and September, and below 3.00 in May and August. His full-season 4.00 ERA was good for just an 87 ERA+, but his 3.85 FIP (off 0.9 homers, 2.8 walks and 7.4 strikeouts per nine) wasn't far removed from his stronger 2011-2012 work.
Having Game 5 in San Francisco should a good thing for Vogelsong. He showed a substantial home/road split, posting a 3.00 ERA and 2.54 FIP at AT&T Park, but a 5.10 ERA and 5.41 FIP elsewhere, and benefitted both from a much stronger groundball/flyball ratio at home (1.24 vs. 0.84) as well as a ridiculously lucky rate of home runs per flyball (2.1 percent vs 14.8 percent). His strikeout-to-walk ratio also doubled (3.7 vs 1.9) under such circumstances. Some of those differences are probably random noise, but his splits have generally tilted heavily toward the comforts of home since his 2011 reemergence.
Elsewhere in splitsville, Vogelsong showed a substantial platoon split in line with those of 2011 and 2012 (but not 2013); righties hit just .223/.303/.372 against him, but lefties hit .287/.334/.453. That's a worrisome trend, given that Cardinals lefties have combined to hit .295/.357/.619 with nine of the team's 12 homers thus far in October, with Matt Adams (.318/.349/.505 vs. righties in the regular season), Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong and pinch-hitter Oscar Taveras memorably going yard in Game 2 of this series. That said, during the regular season, the Cardinals hit just .252/.317/.363 against righties, compared to .254/.330/.388 against lefties, and they've managed a lopsided .196/.278/.443 postseason line against righties.
Vogelsong faced the Cardinals twice this year, getting knocked around for four runs in 6 1/3 innings in St. Louis on May 29 (the since-departed Allen Craig took him deep), but throwing seven strong innings of two-run ball in San Francisco on July 2. Recall that Vogelsong threw two seven-inning one-run starts against the Redbirds in Games 2 and 6 of the 2012 NLCS, part of a stellar postseason resume; he has a 1.19 ERA while allowing just 30 baserunners in 30 1/3 innings over five starts. Maybe they should call him Big Game Ryan.
The Molina Factor: After straining his oblique and departing in the middle of Game 2, Yadier Molina was on the bench to start Game 3, with A.J. Pierzynski getting the nod; he went 0-for-4 at the plate with a strikeout. Via the FastMap at BrooksBaseball.net, which shows the differing and typically expanded strike zone that umpires tend to call against lefty and righty hitters, the Cardinals did not get the benefit of several calls on the outside edge of the plate against lefties that the Giants did, something that may owe to Pierzynski's inferior framing. As FOX Sports' C.J. Nitkowski pointed out, the ball-four call on Crawford in the 10th was one such case. Via Baseball Prospectus' catcher framing numbers, Pierzynski was 4.4 runs below average on that front (including his time in Boston); alternate option Tony Cruz was 5.1 runs below average, while Molina was 3.7 runs above.
While Molina was spotted warming up Trevor Rosenthal in the top of the ninth inning, he never entered the game, and afterward indicated that he would likely get a cortisone shot either after the game or early on Wednesday. Either scenario increases the likelihood that he won't play.
The Ishikawa Factor: Tuesday's big first-inning hit was a three-run double off the bat of the Giants' newish leftfielder, who has gone through quite an odyssey. A former San Francisco draft pick who was a role player on the 2010 championship team, Ishikawa spent all of 2011 in the minors, then passed through the hands of the Brewers, Orioles, Yankees, White Sox and Pirates over the next two seasons and change, accumulating just 232 major league plate appearances from the start of the 2012 season into this past April, when he was released by Pittsburgh.
During the regular season, he took just 81 plate appearances for the Giants, all but two of which came from Aug. 1 onward, and made just 14 starts, including the first three of his career in leftfield. With Mike Morse's oblique strain keeping him off the Division Series roster and now active but rusty, Bochy has started Ishikawa in seven of the team's eight postseason games; he's 6-for-21, with several solid defensive plays to accompany his offensive output.