The St. Louis Cardinals are the more talented team in their 2013 NLDS showdown with the Pittsburgh Pirates. That’s difficult for an impartial observer to dispute. While Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen might be the best player in the series, the next three (or four or five) players in a ranking of all 50 players are probably all Cardinals.

St. Louis is not a gimmicky team, in the way some among this year’s playoff group are. They do not depend upon platooning, nor defensive shifting, nor a single overwhelming strength.

They did hit remarkably well with runners in scoring position this season, but their .332 team OBP led the National League by a healthy five points. Their runs didn’t come from guile or clutch skills. They were the inevitable result of putting more runners on base than any other team to whom we can compare them, apples to apples.

Meanwhile, the pitching staff is excellent, and thoroughly conventional in its shape. Their ERA was the NL’s fifth-best this season, and their FIP (fielder-independent pitching, which attempts to tease out defense from the things a pitcher more completely controls) was the second-best. Adam Wainwright is a top-10 overall starter in baseball. He might be top-five. Around him, the staff fills out with young guys who throw hard.

The Pirates are a talented team, too, but they’re not on St. Louis’s level. Around McCutchen, they have a handful of fine players, but just one or two who rate as significantly above average. Their offense is the postseason’s worst, although it still scored the ninth-most runs in the NL in a pitcher’s park. (Their team True Average, a Baseball Prospectus metric that accounts for park factors, competition, etc., ranked fifth in the NL.) The top three pitchers in the starting rotation might be the next three players on the Pittsburgh depth chart, as it were.

Even so, it’s hard to tease out their skills from those of the Pirates’ defenders. Shifting and shadng have fed into sparkling defensive numbers for the Pirates. Opponents who rely on putting the ball in play suffer, because the Bucs have a terrific team defense that doesn’t even rely on any particular individual to prevent hits.

That’s what makes this series interesting. You see, the Cardinals do rely heavily on balls in play to score runs. They scored just 26.05 percent of their runs on homers this year, the lowest share of any team in baseball. They struck out in a smaller percentage of their plate appearances than all but four teams, and only the Giants made more contact among NL teams. These things play right into the hands of the Pirates.

So the question arises: Does talent conquer all in playoff baseball? Over the course of 162 games, only extraordinary circumstances can prevent an exceptionally talented team from reached the playoffs. In what we call short series, though, which actually run longer than any scheduled regular-season series ever would, playing just a single team, do matchup problems overwhelm talent advantages?

Anecdotally, I think that they do. It’s hard, of course, to isolate playoff series where the talent gap and the matchup edge are both clear, and both run in opposite directions, and even then, it’s hard to tease a real effect out of the intrinsic variance involved. I don’t think numbers will give us a great answer to the question. Just follow this series, and log its outcome away as a data point in favor of either the best team or the well-positioned team winning.

When the Pirates are at bat…

St. Louis’s run prevention is all about winning the battle for the strike zone. They struck out 20.5 percent of opposing batters this season, and handed out unintentional walks to 7.0 percent. Both of those figures are within the top tercile of MLB.

That’s not great news for the Pirates. They struck out in 21.7 percent of their plate appearances, third-highest in the NL, and walked in just 7.6 percent, a below-average figure. Pittsburgh needs to find a way to make consistent contact in this series, in order to exploit the Cardinal defense. St. Louis had the 10th-worst Defensive Efficiency in baseball this year (the percentage of balls in play turned into outs), and with a park adjustment, that becomes fifth-worst.

It’s worth noting that the Pirates who will face the Cardinal hurlers aren’t wholly the team that racked up that high whiff rate. Marlon Byrd only has 20 strikeouts in 115 plate appearances since joining the Bucs, which better lines up with his career norms than does the strikeout rate north of 25 percent that he posted with the Mets this season. Byrd is an upgrade, in terms of contact skills, over guys like Garrett Jones and Travis Snider—even against right-handed pitching. Clint Barmes fanned in 70 of his 330 plate appearances. Jordy Mercer, who has usurped Barmes as the team’s primary shortstop, did so in just 62 of 362 trips. Justin Morneau’s power is fading fast, but he had just 110 strikeouts in 635 plate appearances this season, and just 12 in 92 trips with the Pirates.

So Pittsburgh is better-positioned, today, to exploit the Cardinals’ weaknesses. The Cardinals, for their part, have developed an important weapon to help neutralize some Pirates batters with whom they had figured to match up badly. That weapon is named Kevin Siegrist.

Siegrist is a left-handed monster arm in the bullpen. For the Cardinals, with as right-heavy a pitching staff as any contender, he’s a huge addition. In 45 appearances this season, he fell an out short of getting to 40 innings, so he’s little more than a specialist. He’s one heck of a specialist, though. He struck out 50 of the 152 batters he faced in the regular season, and allowed only four of 19 inherited runners to score. Pedro Alvarez is going to come up in a very important situation at least once in this series, and Siegrist is probably going to strike him out in that situation.

Around Siegrist, while the St. Louis staff matches well to the Pirates’ style, they won’t have a ton of options for matching up platoon-wise. I’m not sure that’s a huge deal, though. They’ll want Randy Choate and Siegrist facing Alvarez every time it matters in the series, but Jones, Morneau and Snider are something short of tremor-inducing even for right-handers. One caveat: Neil Walker is a switch-hitter, but kills righties and struggles against lefties. He and Alvarez will be four spots apart in the batting order most of the time, though, so Mike Matheny may have to take his medicine and let the best righty available attack Starling Marte, Walker and McCutchen in big spots.

When the Cardinals are at bat…

There’s a crucial qualifier to the statement that the Cardinals are a more talented team than the Pirates. While it’s true of each team’s 40-man roster, and true over the course of the long season, it’s all about what team one can field during the series in question. In this case, the fact that the Pirates have improved more over the course of the season helps blur the line between the teams. So, too, does the absence of Allen Craig.

Craig doesn’t have elite power, nor elite strike-zone control. He walks about seven percent of the time and strikes out about 18 percent of the time. He hits many more doubles than homers. He’s such an exceptional raw hitter, though, that it doesn’t matter. Over his last three seasons (admittedly, in fewer than 1,300 total plate appearances, thanks to injuries), he’s hit .315, .307 and .315 again. With even his modicum of power and patience, that’s a marvelous hitter.

He’s out, though, for this series, and likely for the Cardinals’ entire post-season run, should it go beyond this. Without him, the Cardinals still field perhaps the National League’s deepest lineup, but Matt Adams goes from the best bench weapon in the league to the fourth- or fifth-best first baseman in the postseason.

Craig will be missed, especially, when Francisco Liriano starts for Pittsburgh. The Cardinals’ righty bats have small platoon splits, so they can’t easily feast on Liriano, and Adams can’t get out of the lineup with Craig sidelined.

As mentioned above, the Cardinals don’t hit home runs. They score by getting hits, stringing them together. That’s a difficult offense to sustain against good pitching, though, and the Pirates have good pitching. It’s also difficult to do if the opposing defense is especially sound, which as I noted above, this one is. The Pirates’ staff also induced ground balls on a higher percentage of total opponent batted balls than any other team in the league this season, which helps minimize the risks associated with the constant contact St. Louis makes.

You have to love the Pirates’ pairs of left- and right-handed late-inning guys, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson from the left side, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli from the right. Clint Hurdle was surprisingly wise about using them this year, setting aside virtually all the important innings for them and letting the likes of Bryan Morris and Jeanmar Gomez handle the lower-leverage spots.

My X-factor here is Gerrit Cole. He came on very strong to close the season, and his sheer stuff makes him seem playoff-proof. He might yet emerge as the most important part of the equation if the Pirates are to beat the Cardinals.

Prediction

I think Hurdle will get the best of Matheny a few times, in small ways. I think the Pirates’ lineup, which has taken firmer shape over the past month and a half, will find ways to score runs. I still think St. Louis wins at least Adam Wainwright’s first start, and that the Bucs’ middle relief might cost them a crucial run or two. This could come down to rotation depth, and whom you like better in Game Four. For me, it’s the Cardinals, so I’ll take them in five games.

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