NLDS Preview: Nationals can withstand spotlight, overcome champion Cardinals
No National League team has a richer postseason history than the St. Louis Cardinals: 11 World Series titles, the most of any NL team, including one last year. On the flip side, no National League team has a more barren postseason history than the Nationals. Including their 37 seasons as the Expos, the franchise has never reached the World Series and won just one series in its postseason history, back in 1981. This year, however, the Cardinals had the fewest wins of any postseason entrant (88) while Washington posted the most in baseball (98). Here's a look at their National League Division Series matchup, which starts on Sunday in St. Louis.
Player To Watch: Bryce Harper
Since the day he arrived in the major leagues in late April, the Nationals' rookie has been the player you can't not watch, thanks to his combination of raw talent and a baseball IQ well beyond his 19 years. His hitting, baserunning, defense and relationship with the media have all produced must-see moments. Harper hit .270/.340/.477 with 22 homers and 18 steals in 597 plate appearances, setting teenage records for walks (56), extra base hits (57), and Wins Above Replacement (5.0), and overcoming a six-week slump (.171/.257/.244 with just two homers and four extra-base hits in 141 PA from the All-Star break through August 15) with a fantastic finish (.327/.384/.660 with 12 homers in 179 PA the rest of the way).
Most experts expected Harper to spend a good portion of the season in the minor leagues, if only for service time issues, but the combination of the Nationals' hot start, a rash of injuries, and manager Davey Johnson's desire to get him on his squad sooner rather than later worked in his favor, and his ahead-of-schedule arrival is similar to that of the once-floundering franchise's story.
Harper's slump came about in part because lefties began to exploit him, particularly with offspeed stuff on the outer half of the plate, as the Yankees' Andy Pettitte did in a 14-inning game on June 16 that saw Harper go 0-for-7 with five strikeouts. Overall, Harper hit just .240/.300/.415 in 202 plate appearances against lefties, compared to .286/.360/.509 in 395 PA against righties. St. Louis' lack of a shutdown southpaw could loom large; reliever Mark Rzepczynski wasn't tremendously effective against lefties (.255/.320/.362 in 103 PA), and Jaime Garcia, their only left-handed starter, hasn't shown much of a platoon split over the course of his career.
Key Matchup: Edwin Jackson vs. the Cardinals' lineup
Had the Braves won the NL wild-card game, Johnson planned to start lefty Ross Detwiler against them in Game 3, following Gio Gonzalez in Game 1 and Jordan Zimmermann in Game 2, because many of Atlanta's big bats are neutralized by southpaws. But with the Cardinals' victory, Johnson plans instead to use the righty Jackson, who won a World Series ring with St. Louis last year, because they're more effective against lefties than righties. They hit for the league's second-highest OPS against southpaws (.787 on a .276/.338/.450 line, with some rounding in there), while they ranked a still-imposing fourth against righties (.747, on a .270/.338/.410 line). As I pointed out in my wild-card preview, of their five 20-homer hitters — Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig, David Freese, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina — all but the switch-hitting Beltran are righties. Craig, Holliday and Molina all slugged above .600 and had OPSes over 1.000 against southpaws, but none of those righties slugged above.482 (Craig) against same-siders, and all were in the .820-.830 range in OPS.
Furthermore, Jackson was stronger against righties (.236/.293/.385) than lefties (.249/.304/.454), a split that has persisted for the past two seasons but tended to tilt more in the opposite direction earlier in his career. Even so, Johnson's choice may raise some eyebrows, given that Jackson was rocked for a 6.54 ERA in six September and October starts, reaching the sixth inning just twice, and averaging just 5.3 innings per turn. Most notably — ominously? — he was chased from his Sept. 28 start against St. Louis, allowing nine runs on six hits and four walks while retiring just four hitters, none of them via strikeout. Jackson's peripherals during the six-start span weren't too far out of whack, but he was hit for a .354 batting average on balls in play, which may have been a stretch of bad luck, or a fatigued pitcher simply leaving too many pitches in the middle of the plate.
Stat To Know: Defensive efficiency
Defensive efficiency is the percentage of balls in play a team converts into outs. It's the flipside of the oft-cited batting average on balls in play, and it's much simpler and less subjective than systems such as Ultimate Zone Rating or Defensive Runs Saved that rely upon judgment calls such as whether a given batted ball was a line drive or a grounder, or whether an extraordinary effort was needed for a player to get to a ball. It's far better than fielding percentage, too, because it focuses on the large number of plays a defense makes rather than the small number of errors they make.
These two teams have a big gap in that category, and it bears watching. The Nationals were in a virtual tie for second in the league with a .702 defensive efficiency, while the Cardinals were at .686, three points below the league average. Combine that with the gap in strikeout rates between these two teams — 8.1 per nine for the Nationals, 7.5 for the Cardinals — and you can see the Nats have an edge in shutting down opponents on both fronts, though the loss of Stephen Strasburg -- famously shut down to a predetermined innings limit -- cuts into both rates just a bit.
Roster Snapshot: Who's missing
The glaringly obvious absence for the Nationals is that of Strasburg, who made his last start of the season on September 7 before being shelved. Particularly if the 98-win team fails to advance to the League Championship Series, that decision is going to be second-guessed by every pundit from Washington, D.C. to Washington state, and it has the danger of overshadowing the actual games on the diamond. We won't belabor the point here, but without Strasburg, Detwiler has been bumped up to fourth starter status, and into the postseason rotation. The 26-year-old southpaw —the sixth pick of the 2007 draft — posted a 3.40 ERA in a career-high 164 1/3 innings, though he's no Strasburg; his 5.8 strikeouts per nine are roughly half that of the man he replaced (11.1). As noted above, the Cardinals are stronger against lefties, and Dewiler did show a pronounced platoon split (.170/.255/.259 in 165 PA against lefties, but .263/.320/.414 in 521 PA against righties), so he could be on a short leash.
The Cardinals are without shortstop Rafael Furcal, who was lost for the season at the end of August due to a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow; he may need Tommy John surgery. Twenty-four-year-old rookie Pete Kozma, a 2007 first-round pick who had all of 22 major league plate appearances prior to Furcal's injury, has hit a searing .333/.383/.569 in 82 PA since taking over the spot. A career .236/.308/.344 hitter in the minors (.232/.292/.355 at Triple-A Memphis this year), he's unlikely to sustain that, but until he proves otherwise, he's not the lineup sinkhole that might have been expected, and going forward, he may be able to approximate the .264/.325/.346 hit by Furcal this year.
As noted above, the other thing that stands out about this Cardinals roster is their dearth of lefty relievers to go after lefties Harper and Adam LaRoche, whom Johnson tends to separate in the batting order with Ryan Zimmerman, who owns a career OPS against lefties that's 100 points higher than against righties. Matheny's predecessor, Tony La Russa, wouldn't stand for such a shortage. Rzepczynski, a key midseason acquisition for the Cardinals last year, wasn't nearly so effective against lefties this year as last; he saw his ERA rise by nearly a run (3.34 to 4.24) as his strikeout rate fell and his homer rate spiked. Sam Freeman, the only other lefty reliever on the roster, is a 25-year-old rookie who was knocked around for a 5.40 ERA in 20 innings, and in that small sample, he's actually been hit harder by lefties than by righties.
X-factor: Davey Johnson
The Nationals are in the playoffs for the first time in their eight-year history — second if you go back to their original inception as the Montreal Expos — but Johnson is no stranger to October baseball. As a player, he was part of four pennant-winning Orioles teams (1966, 1969, 1970, 1971) including two World Series winners, and he made a trip to the playoffs with the Phillies in 1977 as well. As a manager, he has now taken four separate franchises to the dance. He led the Mets to the 1986 world championship, and won the NL East with them in 1988; he took the Reds (1995) and Orioles (1996 and 1997) to the postseason as well. Only in 1988 did his teams fail to win at least one series, and in all he has a respectable 23-23 record in the postseason.
Even at 69 years old, spending his first full season in the dugout since 2000, Johnson has shown a deft touch handling the league's youngest team. He pieced together one of the league's top bullpens despite Drew Storen's first-half absence, and managed around substantial injuries to key regulars such as Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Ian Desmond as well. He showed an uncanny knack for handling his bench; in a league where the average pinch-hitter batted .230/.309/.346, Nationals pinch-hitters batted .288/.367/.420. He stuck with Harper through his midsummer slump, and handled the Strasburg controversy better than most other managers might have, publicly supporting general manager Mike Rizzo's decision even at the cost of losing his ace. He kept the team focused through all of that; the Nationals were at least two games above .500 in every single month, and didn't relinquish a share of the NL East lead after May 22. His team couldn't be in better hands.
Prediction: Nationals in 4
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