Hooray, playoff baseball is here! The Giants are set to play Game One of the NLDS tomorrow night against the Cincinnati Red Stockings. The only thing I know about the Reds is that 1) Cincinnati is impossible to spell right and 2) Mr. Red is a cheap, horrible, freakishly scary knockoff of Mr. Met. (Oh good lord.) Thankfully for you, readers, I got to sit down with Chad Dotson, proprietor of the SweetSpot Network’s Reds blog, Redleg Nation, and ask him some questions about the Reds. We touched on the Reds’ underrated pitching, Joey Votto’s health, and whether or not Ardolis Chapman is human.
You can read his responses below, and then my responses to his Giants-related questions beneath that.
1. In the regular season, the Reds really seemed to have the Giants’ number at times, going 4-3 against the team. How do you feel about the Reds’ chances to beat the Giants in the NLDS?
Honestly, I feel pretty good about Cincinnati’s chances. The Reds spent much of the season in a battle for the best record in baseball, and this team is certainly better-equipped than the 2010 NL Central champion Reds who were unceremoniously swept out of the postseason in three quick games. The pitching is good, the Reds have the best hitter on the planet, the bullpen is lights out, the managing is…well, the pitching is good. (Actually, Dusty has done a pretty good job with this team, if you can believe it.)
That said, these may be the two most evenly-matched teams in the Division Series for either league. I expect it to be a low-scoring, competitive series. I think the Reds are probably slightly better than the Giants, but as we all know, that means almost nothing in the post-season.
2. I hate to drop the phrase “underrated” into a question, but the Reds’ rotation has been very good this year and it seems that the starters — outside of Johnny Cueto — often get overlooked. Do you think the team gets enough credit for its starting pitching?
No, the rotation doesn’t get enough credit, but I can’t say that it bothers me much. Look, the Reds have suffered through some very lean years, pitching-wise. Giants fans won’t understand this, but imagine going through a decade when guys like Jimmy Haynes, Paul Wilson, Cory Lidle, Joey Hamilton, and Mike Remlinger were your Opening Day starters. Go ahead, imagine that. Ugly, right?
Cincinnati’s rotation allowed fewer runs than any other National League team this year, and it wasn’t just Cueto (19-9, 2.78, 151 ERA+). Mat Latos has been even better than Cueto since mid-June (9-2, 2.43). Homer Bailey finally began to come into his own this year (13-10, 3.68), though he wasn’t able to throw a perfect game like Matt Cain; Homer had to settle for a no-hitter last week. Even Bronson Arroyo has been good, one year after breaking the all-time franchise record for home runs allowed.
Most interestingly, none of Cincinnati’s starters missed a single start all season wrong. It’s the primary reason the team has been so competitive.
So, certainly the Reds pitching has been underrated. I doubt, for example, that very many people will suspect (without looking at the numbers) that Cincinnati has had better pitching and a worse offense than San Francisco this year. After the great run we’ve seen from Giants pitching staffs (with offenses that struggle) in recent year, you’d think it would be the other way around.
3. What worries you the most about the Reds in the postseason?
The offense, or lack thereof. In September and October, the offense sputtered across the finish line, scoring just 83 runs in 29 games. Overall, Cincinnati’s offense was just so-so all season long. Center fielder Drew Stubbs fell off a cliff offensively (while getting 544 plate appearances, most of them near the top of the order), and the bench is simply horrific. When Wilson Valdez (24 OPS+) and Miguel Cairo (29 OPS+) are two of your primary options off the bench, you’re in a bit of trouble.
Health is a bit of a concern, as well. We’ll talk about Joey Votto in a moment, but Ryan Ludwick is banged up right now, too. He says he’s ready to play in the playoffs, and the Reds will need him; Ludwick has had a wonderful season (.275/.346/.531, 26 HR, 80 RBI).
Scott Rolen is a constant concern, as well. Rolen hasn’t been completely healthy for years, and though his season stats look pretty ugly (.245/.318/.398, 8 HR, 39 RBI), Rolen has actually been pretty good in the second half of the season. Of course, in the 2010 playoffs, a run-down Rolen played worse than I ever could have imagined: 1-11 at the plate, with 8 strikeouts. The Reds can’t afford another performance like that.
Of course, if Ludwick or Rolen can’t go, it’s just another opportunity to get rookie Todd Frazier in the lineup (.273/.331/.498, 19 HR, 67 RBI), and that isn’t a bad thing at all.
4. Big question: How healthy is Joey Votto?
Healthy enough, I guess. Votto has said for a while that he won’t be 100% until the off-season, but he continues to play through the knee pain. Since returning from a lengthy stint on the disabled list, Votto’s power has been nearly nonexistent (zero homers, 8 doubles in 105 plate appearances). Something’s not quite right about Votto.
Giants fans shouldn’t get too excited about a less-than-healthy Joey Votto, however. Even playing hurt, Votto has still produced: .316/.505/.421 since returning at the beginning of September. For the season, Votto hit .337/.474/.567 with a robust 174 OPS+, and he led the league in on-base percentage (sorry, Buster Posey). Joey Votto remains the best hitter on the planet, and the most important cog in the Reds lineup.
5. The Reds drop from 6th in the NL in runs scored when playing at home, to 12th in runs scored when hitting the road. Do you worry about the Reds’ offense outside of GAB? How do you feel about opening the NLDS on the road for the first two games?
As mentioned above, I worry about the Reds offense, period. Cincinnati is 21st in the majors in OBP and runs scored, and that’s not great. Fortunately, Cincinnati has been as good at run prevention as any team in franchise history. So, yes, I’m concerned about the offense, especially away from Great American Ballpark. I hope the pitching can continue to carry the team (seems like Giants fans may have some experience in this area).
As for this playoff setup, with the higher seed starting on the road, I actually don’t mind it as much as most people. Sure, it’s a silly way to schedule these games, but I really don’t think it puts any added pressure on the Reds. Actually, I think there’s much more pressure on the Giants. They need to win both of the first two games because, if they don’t, the path to the NLCS becomes awfully difficult. If Cincinnati can just split the two games in Northern California, they’ll be fine, and that’s what I would have said if MLB were using a conventional series setup.
If nothing else, it’s something new to debate. In the end, however, I’m not sure it really changes the dynamic of the series very much at all.
6. Aroldis Chapman, pitching android or human being?
Giants fans: if you haven’t really paid close attention to Chapman, you are in for a treat. I’ve never seen anything like him. You probably already know about the fastball that sits in triple digits, with a silky-smooth delivery. You know he has a 1.51 ERA, 38 saves, a 122:23 K:BB ratio. Ignore all that, if you can, when he enters a game in this series. Watch for his slider.
I promise you, if you have never seen it before, you won’t believe it. When he throws that slider in there at 91 mph, and the best hitters on the planet feel their knees buckle…well, it’s just not fair. I simply cannot wait to see the Cuban Missile enter a game at GAB, in front of a packed house and a playoff atmosphere.
(Of course, the Reds really need to convert Chapman into a starter before next season, but that’s another discussion for another time.)
A quick note here: Cincinnati’s bullpen isn’t just Chapman. The bullpen’s ERA of 2.65 is the best in baseball, despite losing their anticipated closer (Ryan Madsen) before he even threw a pitch. They’re better than the 1990 Nasty Boys bullpen. It’s just a shame that none of them has a really spectacular beard.
And here are the Giants questions; Chad’s questions are bolded, my answers are below.
1. What are your perceived strengths of the Giants, especially as compared to the Reds? Can you briefly break down the hitting/pitching/bench of the Giants?
I think most would be shocked to learn the Giants, when using some of the advanced metrics, and even the old-fashioned ones, have the better offense between the two clubs. The Giants have out-produced the Reds in: runs scored, OBP, wOBA (narrowly), and wRC+, which adjusts for park and league.
As far as the hitting goes, the team is led by Buster Posey who is having an MVP-caliber season. Angel Pagan, Brandon Belt, and Pablo Sandoval have all been assets on offense. Belt, in particular, started the year slow, but has hit .293/.362/.423 in the second half. The Giants are still working on filling LF since Melky Caberera’s suspension, and they’ll do it with a platoon of Xavier Nady vs. LHP and Gregor Blanco vs. RHP – not the most glamorous platoon.
The pitching, of course, is led by All-Star, and Perfect Game Thrower, Matt Cain. Cain’s having his usual 200 innings of above-average baseball season. He’s truly a treat to watch live. Madison Bumgarner should earn the second rotation slot for his strong season (208.1 IP, 191 K, 49 BB, 3.50 FIP). Bumgarner features a low-90s fastball and a slider that he’ll run in on right-handed batters. The third rotation spot should go to Tim Lincecum, the former Cy Young Award winner that’s struggled something terrible this season. While Lincecum has pitched better in the second half, he’ll undoubtedly have a short leash. The first sign of trouble and it’ll be a bullpen game. Ryan Vogelsong should be the fourth starter, depending on how the series is shaping up.
The Giants’ bench should contain guys like Joaquin Arias (lefty masher and INF UTIL player), Hector Sanchez (back-up C), Aubrey Huff (designated veteran PH), Gregor Blanco (speedy OF, PR specialist), and possibly Ryan Theriot (LHP platoon guy). No amazing talent in this group, but it’s a pretty diverse spread, and it gives Bruce Bochy some good match-up choices.
2. Is there a player for the Giants who isn’t a big name, but might be a big factor in this series?
This one’s easy – Marco Scutaro. Since the Giants acquired Scutaro from the Rockies in late July, the second baseman has roasted the ball, hitting an amazing .362/.385/.473 in 268 plate appearances. Scutaro isn’t an All-Star, but he’s been invaluable at patching up second base – a spot previously held by Ryan Theriot – and solidifying the number two batting spot in the order. Hardly a game goes by without Scutaro doing something really good for the Giants.
3. The last time the GIants won the NL West, they went on to win the World Series. The obvious difference between the 2010 and 2012 teams appears to be that this year’s club has a more robust offense. Is the 2012 version of the Giants better equipped to make a deep run than their championship predecessors?
It’s hard to say how far the team can or will go. As we all know, postseason baseball is really a crapshoot. This year’s team is a little different from the 2010 team in that the pitching is down a little, but the hitting is up. So, you’re entirely correct to pick up on the offense aspect.
I think the Giants can succeed in the postseason in 2012 and I think it’ll come down to the pitching like always. Matt Cain’s having his usual great year; Madison Bumgarner has struggled with his mechanics towards the end of this season, but he’s still the second best pitcher on the staff; Lincecum has been better in the second half, but he still seems so darned volatile; and Ryan Vogelsong, after hitting some bumps, appears to be pitching quite well again.
4. One thing the Reds and Giants have in common is that they both played very well in the absence of a star hitter. The Reds have Joey Votto back in the lineup, but Melky Cabrera won’t play in the postseason for SF. How will that affect San Francisco’s offense?
Not to quibble, but if Buster Posey isn’t a star hitter, I don’t know who is. Posey should earn NL MVP honors and has been the biggest reason the Giants have weathered the loss of Melky.
Additionally, the Giants’ offense has benefited a lot from Angel Pagan’s fantastic season (116 wRC+). Brandon Belt has been a net positive for the team (118 wRC+). Belt’s had his up-and-downs, but he’s been the team’s best option at first base all season. Pablo Sandoval has battled injuries, again, but he’s still an above-average hitter (114 wRC+); and, fortunately for the Giants, Sandoval was heating up to end the season, posting a .350 wOBA in the month of September. The team added Hunter Pence at the trading deadline. However, Pence has hit just .219/.287/.384 for his new club. Pence has really looked overaggressive and out of sorts at the dish, but you hope that he can get hot in a short series like the playoffs.
Losing Cabrera hurts the offense, but the team has responded well since Melky’s suspension, going 30-15 over that span. You have to like that kind of tenacity.
5. Both the Reds and the Giants lost their closer for the season early in the year (Ryan Madson and Brian Wilson). How confident are you in the current Giants bullpen?
I’m pretty confident about the bullpen. While it’s true that the Reds have the better bullpen, the Giants have done a solid job with what they have. Bruce Bochy, in particular, has done a great job replacing Wilson’s production with the platoon-closer of Sergio Romo (vs. RHB) and Javier Lopez (vs. LHB). Bochy’s willingness to deviate from the traditional ‘one pitcher must close out the game’ mindset has been one of the reasons why the bullpen has been so steady. Earlier in the year the Giants were using Santiago Casilla to close out games and while Casilla did a pretty good job, he ran into some issues midway through the season and the Giants decided to switch things up, moving to the platoon-closer.
Consider the following:
Romo vs. RHB – 153 batters faced, 57 strikeouts, 6 walks, .245 wOBA against
Lopez vs. LHB – 97 batters faced, 22 strikeouts, 6 walks, .240 wOBA against
That’s great production.
Additionally, Jeremy Affeldt really finished the year strong (2.73 FIP) and he gives Boch another ‘battled tested’ arm that’s been through the playoffs. George Kontos (2.80) has also been a great addition. The Giants don’t have a relief monster like Chapman in their bullpen, but it’s a good group of arms. Towards the end of the season, Bochy got really aggressive with his reliever match-ups and you can bet he’ll do the same in the playoffs.
6. Barry Zito isn’t really going to start any games in this series, is he?
No, he really shouldn’t. I recently pondered the usefulness of Barry Zito in the postseason on my blog to several mixed responses. Among fans, Zito is this weird Litmus Test right now. Some people are ready to roll with Zito in the posteason as a starter; and, others, like me, are terrified by that notion.
Zito is clearly the fifth best pitcher on the staff and while his year, as a result of low expectations, has been nice, it hasn’t been anything out of the ordinary for Zito. Depending on how you look at things, and which flavor of WAR you like, he’s ranged from replacement level to about a half-win above replacement. That’s OK for a back-end guy that soaks up innings, but it’s not a guy you want to turn the ball over to in a short series.
Granted, Zito’s pitched pretty well down the stretch, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s the low man on the talent totem pole. Compounding matters further is that Zito’s usefulness as a long man is debatable. It’s said that his warm-up routine isn’t suitable for the bullpen and the Giants already have several better lefty pitchers. Pitchers such as Jose Mijares, Jeremy Affeldt, and Javier Lopez are the better bets for platoon match-ups.
Zito has earned his postseason spot, but I’m also not sure he serves a purpose. This could be one of Bruce Bochy’s biggest decisions.