While I’m warming to the idea of the dual Wild Card system (this may be some A’s-Royals afterglow; forgive me), I’m not wild about the concept of reducing an entire baseball season to a single game. It’s a fairly obvious injustice when one team, with a record several games better, must put its whole campaign on the line against another in a single matchup (see, for example, the two previous NL Wild Card tilts), but I object just as strongly to the cases where a single game separates two clubs. That the Royals, who tilted the close calls in their favor once more than did the A’s over the course of the long season, had to risk having that day-to-day doggedness invalidated by a single loss, seems unfair.
Happily, then, for the second time ever, Wednesday night’s Wild Card matchup pits two teams who tied this season. Even absent the new play-in playoff system, we’d be getting this game. I’m especially delighted that the two teams finished, not only with the same record, but with an exactly even plus-51 run differential. And on top of that, they’re in a near dead heat in the race for the best home park in baseball! I digress. I’m sorry.
There’s nothing like this earned feeling of everything coming down to a single game, and the game itself should be a great one. Here’s my preview.
When the Pirates are At Bat
The first thing to know when the Pirates are at bat is that Madison Bumgarner will be the one facing them. Bumgarner is awesome. Even with James Shields and Jon Lester pitching in the AL game last night, Bumgarner is clearly the best starter of this year’s winner-take-all collection.
Though he just turned 25 in August, Bumgarner has already been a big part of two World Series champions. In 2012, you could argue he was the ace of the Giants’ second title winner. This time around, there’s no doubt about it. Bumgarner set career highs in innings pitched, wins and strikeouts this season. He fanned one of every four batters he faced, and walked fewer than one in every 20. (Drink it up while he’s with us, by the way. Guys who pitch as much as he has before they turn 25 aren’t long for the world, at least at a level comparable to this.)
Bumgarner is dominant, but he’ll need his best stuff even so. Believe it or not, there’s an argument that the Pittsburgh Pirates have the best offense in the National League. (The Dodgers probably have an edge, ultimately, but it’s that close.) If you don’t know about the delightful and dangerous Andrew McCutchen, I can’t help you very much. He’s already the reigning NL MVP, and he proposed to his girlfriend on The Ellen Show, for crying out loud. Beyond McCutchen, though, this is a largely anonymous team, and that’s a shame. They’re deep and they’re very, very talented.
There’s Josh Harrison, a throw-in in a 2009 trade who entered this season with 575 replacement-level plate appearances, and who this season, had 550 of them and hit .315. There’s Neil Walker, a Pittsburgh native who rediscovered his power this season and had a career year. There’s Russell Martin, who would have led the NL in OBP if he’d had 40 more plate appearances. There’s Starling Marte, who stepped forward from plenty good to true stardom this season, taking better command of the strike zone along the way. That’s five real studs making up the heart of the lineup. Importantly, though, it’s not a black hole at the bottom of the order. Travis Snider, Jordy Mercer and a platoon of Ike Davis with Gaby Sanchez have given the team league-average offense from the other slots in the order, and Mercer has done so while delivering plus fielding at shortstop. They do everything pretty well. They were fourth in the NL in home runs, second in OBP and tied for first in walk rate. They struck out at a significantly below-average rate, too.
Defensively, the Giants hold their own, but there’s no reason to expect them to hugely help Bumgarner. If that five-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio isn’t enough of a weapon, Bumgarner’s goose is cooked. The San Francisco bullpen is solid, but unspectacular. There’s scarcely a more disparate pair of pitchers, from a physical perspective, than Bumgarner and long-relief weapon Tim Lincecum, but my gut says that if Lincecum comes on, it will mean that the Pirates have already marked up Bumgarner.
When the Giants are At Bat
Madison Bumgarner he ain’t, but Edinson Volquez posted a 3.04 ERA for the Pirates this season. He’s getting a lot of flak from the sabermetric crowd leading into this start, and it’s true that he’s far outperformed his peripheral indicators. Whereas Bumgarner has struck out five times as many as he’s walked, for instance, Volquez has not even fanned twice as many. He remains, as ever, an electric sort of arm who just can’t keep a firm hold on the strike zone, and who misses fewer bats than you’d like such a pitcher to miss.
On the other hand, though, Volquez is a very good pitcher in one regard: he uses that electric-seeming stuff to induce many ground balls. And happily, that plays right into what might be the Pirates’ greatest team strength. They’re the most grounder-centric pitching staff in the NL, for the second year in a row, and it works so well because their infield defense is just phenomenal. Harrison, Mercer and Walker are all above-average, and through aggressive shifting, the Pirates get even more out of them than they might be expected to get. Volquez isn’t a 3.04 ERA pitcher, but that doesn’t mean his 3.04 ERA is a total mirage. It’s just, mostly, a testament to his teammates. I expect him to be better than many think he will be tonight.
Still, the Pirates can’t win a Madison Bumgarner versus Edinson Volquez matchup. It’s going to have to be Bumgarner v. Wholestaff. The Bucs have a deep and versatile bullpen, with two strong lefties and two strong righties in short-relief roles, and they’ll also have Vance Worley and Jeff Locke available for longer work tonight. Given that, Volquez should face no more than 18 Giants batters. From there, a parade of solid Pittsburgh relievers can take over.
The Giants are a strong offense, too, though nothing like Pittsburgh’s. Hunter Pence and Buster Posey fairly approximate Walker and McCutchen. In fact, Pence is sufficiently superior to Walker at the plate that I might even give the Giants’ big bats an edge. Everywhere else, though, San Francisco is fielding either an injured player’s replacement, a recently returned injured player or Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval is fine, and all, but he’s not as good as any of Harrison, Martin or Marte, and he’s the Giants’ third-best hitter right now. A healthier version of this team would be a nightmare for almost anyone. This version (sans Angel Pagan, sans Michael Morse and with an only moderately healthy Brandon Belt) is going to struggle.
As the tone of all this might portend, I’m picking Pittsburgh. I think this is an underrated team, and since I’m picking them to win this Wild Card Game without even using one of their top two starters, I’m going to remain optimistic about them heading into the Division Series, should they make it. The Giants’ hopes, as I think I’ve stressed, depend a great deal on Bumgarner pitching well, holding down that good Pirates lineup.
Don’t sleep on this Pittsburgh team. Last year’s won more games and was cuddlier, but this year’s is a World Series contender. They need only to escape this one-game death trap, then have their relief pitching hold up, in order to have a shot.
As for the Giants, they’re in for a strange winter. Sandoval will be a free agent. Whether they look to keep him might well depend on whether they have any leftover sentimental feelings from a nice playoff run when the decision point comes. If they don’t do so, they really need to find a second anchor-type bat for their order, someone to pair with Posey who produces more reliably and stays healthier than guys like Pagan and Morse.Next post: This One Will Be the Fun Series: Royals Beat Orioles 8-6, Take 1-0 ALCS Lead
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