NLDS Preview

LINEUPS

Chicago

K. Lofton CF
M. Grudzielanek 2B
S. Sosa RF
M. Alou LF
A. Ramirez 3B
R. Simon 1B
A. Gonzalez SS
D. Miller C

Atlanta

R. Furcal SS
M. Giles 2B
G. Sheffield RF
C. Jones LF
A. Jones CF
J. Lopez C
R. Fick 1B
V. Castilla 3B

The Braves’ offense far outperformed the Cubs’ this year, outscoring them by 180 runs. The Cubs’s offense is burdened by a number of low on-base hitters: OBP sinks include Gonzalez (.294), Miller (.310), Ramirez (.315 with the Cubs, .324 overall) and Simon (.315 with the Cubs, .308 overall). The Cubs’ offense is pretty much based on Sosa hitting home runs, which he of course does a lot, but the real necessity is for Lofton and Grudzielanek to get on base at the top of the order, because the 5-8 spots aren’t going to produce many runs. They’re a better offensive team now than at the beginning of the year, because whatever their flaws Lofton, Ramirez, and Simon replaced worse players. But they’re middle of the pack at best.

The Braves led the NL in runs, homers, and slugging, and were second in on-base. Their best hitters were Sheffield (.419 OBP, .606 SLG) and Lopez (..377/.687; the SLG would have been second in the league if he’d qualified for the batting title) but the Braves got above-average offense for every position but first base. Sosa led the Cubs with a .911 OPS; that would have been fifth on the Braves. Vinny Castilla’s .310/.461 performance was the closest thing to a weakness, but wouldn’t have been out of place in the Cubs’ lineup. Unlike the Cubs, the Braves can strike with the bottom of their order and have good power at the top.

Neither team is outstanding defensively, but I think that the Braves are probably a shade better… The Cubs can minimize the Braves’ power somewhat with their righthanded power pitching, but even then the Braves can nickel-and-dime you to death — they led the league in batting average too. While the Braves didn’t hit righthanders as well as lefthanders this year, that’s a bit of an illusion because the entire league hit much better against lefthanders. The Braves’ advantage over the Cardinals, Giants, and Rockies was actually in their performance against righthanded pitching. As for those pitchers…

ROTATIONS

Chicago

K. Wood RHP
C. Zambrano RHP
M. Prior RHP
(M. Clement RHP)
(S. Estes LHP)

Atlanta

R. Ortiz RHP
M. Hampton LHP
G. Maddux RHP
(H. Ramirez) LHP
(S. Reynolds) RHP

It remains to be seen what Baker will do if the series goes to four or five games. Clement’s a pretty good pitcher but not within a mile of their big three. Prior will probably start only once, having pitched Saturday, but the temptation would be to move him up to Wednesday so he’d be available for a Game Five; he was probably the best pitcher in the league this year. However, Zambrano is no slouch and had a 3.11 ERA and 13 wins this year, and led the team in innings pitched. Wood’s the wily veteran of the group, all of 26 years old, and led the league in strikeouts. They are still very young, and Prior and Zambrano are practically rookies — 116 innings pitched apiece entering the year. I have no time for the “psychological pressures of the postseason” argument. What I do wonder about is the physical strain on two guys who have topped the 200 innings pitched mark for the first time.

Bobby Cox will definitely go with three starters barring injury. If experience is what you’re after, this is the team — all three have pitched in the World Series — but I prefer quality, and their 2003 performances don’t match up to the Cubs’ starters. All posted ERAs in the high threes, which is respectable but hardly acelike. Ortiz seemed to hit the wall in the second half but righted himself in his last couple of starts. Though he led the league in wins, that’s largely a function of luck and the team. Hampton and Maddux both pitched much better in the second half than the first.

On paper, the starting pitching seems to counter the offense; the Cubs are outstanding and the Braves mediocre. But I think that on the whole, the Cubs’ starting pitching isn’t quite as dominant as the Braves’ offense, and the Braves’ pitching is probably better than the Cubs’ offense. Ortiz, Hampton, and Maddux are all good pitchers; the Cubs have at least three bad hitters and a couple more who while not bad, aren’t good.

BENCHES
Chicago

P. Bako C
E. Karros 1B
R. Martinez IF
T. Goodwin OF
T. O’Leary OF/PH
T. Womack “IF”

Atlanta

H. Blanco C
J. Estrada C
J. Franco 1B
M. Franco 1B/PH
D. Bragg OF
M. DeRosa IF
J. Garcia IF

The Cubs’ bench… Whew. Only Martinez of that group can be described as a good player, and that’s a bit charitable. He’s a good hitter for a utility infielder. Karros is a has-been, though he might be of use against Hampton or one of the Braves’ lefthanded relievers. Primary pinch-hitter O’Leary is dreadful. Womack and Goodwin have tactical value as pinch-runners and (in Goodwin’s case) defensive replacements, and similarly to Karros could hurt a lefty. Paul Bako is better than Henry Blanco.

The Francos should serve as the Braves’ main pinch-hitters as they have all year. Julio would start at first if for some reason Shawn Estes started, but that’s very unlikely. DeRosa has indicated that his injury is not serious and expects to play on Tuesday. After a dreadful first half Darren Bragg was pretty good in the second, at least in batting average; he still has no power. Garcia’s up to pinch-run and to give the Braves a glove if one of the regular infielders leaves the game for some reason. Estrada is more likely to play a role than Blanco, in my opinion, giving the Braves a switch-hitter off the bench.

While the Braves’ bench is “better” than the Cubs, it doesn’t really serve their purposes in postseason much better. What the Braves actually need from their bench is a couple more guys who can pound righthanded pitching and two or three good pinch-runners. There’s not a lot of tactical value there other than M. Franco. The Cubs need a bench that can take the pressure off the bottom of their order — two or three outfielders or first base types who can hit for Gonzalez and Miller in key situations. What they have is a bunch of approved veterans who can no longer hit, a utility infielder, and two pinch-runners.

BULLPEN

Chicago

J. Borowski RHP-CL
M. Guthrie LHP
K. Farnsworth RHP
M. Remlinger LHP
D. Veres RHP
A. Alfonseca RHP

Atlanta

J. Smoltz RHP-CL
K. Mercker LHP
W. Cunnane RHP
R. King LHP
K. Gryboski RHP
D. Holmes RHP
J. Wright RHP

(Probably only six of those guys will make it, with Wright the most likely odd man out.)

Ex-Brave Borowski won the closer’s job when Alfonseca failed. Though he wasn’t dominant in a Smoltz/Gagne way, he was more than effective enough, with 33 saves in 37 attempts. Guthrie was mostly a LOOGY; against the Braves he’d be used either to turn Chipper around or to kill a pinch-hit attempt from M. Franco. Farnsworth and Remlinger are the primary setup men. Beyond them, I’d expect Clement to actually be the long man if needed, as neither Veres or Alfonseca was at all useful this year.

Smoltz was tremendous before going on the DL. His health is the Braves’ primary concern; if he’s fully effective — he was after returning until getting knocked around some in his last appearance — they can be pretty comfortable in any game they lead after eight. Getting to him has been a concern all year. Mercker is probably the best option for the eighth inning. Cunnane and Wright both had good ERAs as Braves but bad track records, and I don’t know how they’ll be used. Cox would probably like to use King as a LOOGY but he’s better when used to start an inning. There’s a health question there as well, and if he can’t go Jung Bong might take his place. Gryboski is mostly used when the Braves want a ground ball to get out of an inning. Holmes is another health question mark. I expect that at some stage Horacio Ramirez will be asked to relieve.

OUTLOOK

The Cubs are the chic pick, based upon two things. The first is their status as the emotional favorite, and I have no truck with that. The second is their righthanded power pitching, and that’s something to deal with. But remember that the Braves are the better team. They had a better record this season and won the season series. While they don’t have the starting pitching the Cubs have, their pitchers are more than equal to the task of controlling the Cubs’ anemic offense.

The way to beat the Braves — at least when Maddux isn’t on the hill — is to work the counts, get some walks off pitchers who have control issues, and get their pitch counts up, forcing Cox to go to his shaky middle relief early. Sooner or later, you’ll run into a reliever having a bad day. The Cubs don’t walk much at all. Only the Mets and Dodgers walked less this year; only those teams and the Reds had lower on-base percentages; only the Reds, Brewers, and Phillies struck out more. That doesn’t look to me like an offense that’s suited to beating Ortiz and Hampton. The Cubs have one chance, it seems to me: make this a low-scoring series, hope Wood and Pryor can be dominant, and win at least a couple of games by soccer scores. Against the best offense in the NL, that seems unlikely.

PREDICTION: Braves
MOST LIKELY: Braves in Four

15 thoughts on “NLDS Preview”

  1. Bang up job Mac! The Cubs offense can’t hold a candle to the Braves, so if we can just knock the shine off of their starters – and ours keep us close – we should be in good shape.

  2. The Braves lineup also struck out the least in the national league (likely leading to the high team batting average). This is the same formula that lead to the Angel’s success last year, though with markedly less power. Incidentally, the Red Sox also used a similar formula this year, putting up very similar numbers to the Braves. If hitting prevails, this could be our Series match-up…

  3. Great work Mac. A few comments:

    I guess I agree that the Braves defense is a shade better than the Cubs, but one large advantage the Bravos have is in center. Lofton’s range in center is significantly reduced from his Cleveland prime and he has no arm to speak of. Expect the Braves to be aggressive in taking extra bases on him. However you evaluate Andruw’s defense these days, he’s miles and miles better than Lofton at this key defensive position.

    Vinny absolutely owned Chicago this year: .565/.542/1.087/1.629 in 23 at bats. Sheffield did not 2-18, 4 BB.

    You are on the money when you say that the way to attack the Braves is work their starting pitchers control issues and get into the bullpen. You are also on the money when you say the Cubs are a team with no idea of how to do this.

    I think the Atlanta bench is actually pretty good. A look at how their pinch hitters stack up:

    vs LHP vs RHP
    Julio M.Franco
    DeRosa Estrada
    Estrada Bragg

    That’s actually not too bad for a NL team. Plus you’ve got two serviceable pinch runners and Blanco is around if you need to use Estrada to hit or pinch run for Lopez. I actually consider the bench a strength. Maybe it’s just me.

    Both bullpens are unbelievably weak considering these are playoff teams.

    Finally some predicitions:
    -Bobby Cox will intentionally walk Sosa at a wildly inappropriate time. And it will work.
    -Dusty Baker will have Tony Womack at the plate in a high leverage situation. And he’ll come through.
    -Chipper Jones will misplay a ball so badly in left you will wonder if he was trying to avoid the ball because he owed it money.
    -Kenny Lofton will take a route to a ball in center that would make Lonnie Smith proud.
    -Russ Ortiz will have an inning where he seems to have no idea how to throw the ball over the plate. That will be immediately followed by him retiring the next nine batters in order.
    -Greg Maddux will throw a first pitch 82 mph floater to someone and they will deposit it onto the street for a solo homer. I will mutter to myself “I can’t believe we pay this guy $15 million” (Like I’m chipping in my own money). That will be immediately followed by him retiring the next nine batters in order.
    -FOX!’s baseball coverage will make me physically ill. (OK, that’s a given)

    Finally the real predicition:
    Braves in 3

  4. Great analysis. I think the Braves are going to roll over the Cubs despite the sentimentality that Chicago has.
    My prediction is Braves in 3, but anything can happen on any given day, so I could see Braves in 4.

  5. Great analysis, Mac. I think that the Braves will win in four. The Cubs’ offense is not that strong; the pitching will have to be perfect for Chicago. Chicago’s bullpen isn’t the most foolproof in the world; I think the Braves will get to them often. Don’t be surprised if the Braves come back in the 8th or 9th innings against their bullpen.

    Anyone else here a little miffed about so many people picking the Cubs over Atlanta? They are a great story, but just because the Angels ended 40 plus year era of misery doesn’t mean the Cubs will as well. Nor will the Sox, although I think they have a much better chance than Chicago of winning the World Series. I guess,in the end, they’ll win because they have the best team. Or at least, most lucky.

  6. Way to go Mac. Good work on the summary. I too have been somewhat miffed at how many people have been picking the Cubs, but I understand. They are my second favorite club, and I would love to fantasize about them beating up on any other team were they not facing Atlanta. People just want to believe. These Braves should prevail though. I am looking for Gary Sheffield to exorcise whatever demons prevented him from doing anything in last year’s playoffs and everyone else to just keep doing what they did all year. It would really take a complete offensive collapse to lose this series (not that I want to invite one!)

    One thing I am really curious about is how we will use Horacio in relief. I mean, he is a guy to whom Bobby and Leo have trusted a ton of innings over the course of the year, so obviously he should have a good place in the postseason bullpen, yet they havent yet used him as a reliever, so I am wondering what the situations would be. I don’t know if he should only be used as a cleanup guy if a starter falters. I could see him as being a decent option for a seventh inning sometime. I just wonder what Bobby and Leo are thinking…

  7. I think it’s a combination of factors leading to people picking the Cubs. One is that the Cubs have a good record in recent weeks… but that ignores the fact that they’ve played a lot of games against bad teams recently. There’s certainly the emotional angle.

    And I think people overestimate the importance of starting pitching in the postseason. Ironic, isn’t it? But while Prior and Wood are great power pitchers, they aren’t Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling ca. 2001. They won’t have the ability to pitch most of the Cubs’ innings, and they won’t be as overpowering when they do pitch.

    I’m just looking at the numbers. The Braves have the best offense in the league and a pitching staff firmly in the middle. The Cubs have a good pitching staff, not the best in the league — though the best still playing — and a below-average offense. I don’t see any reason to think that the Braves will be particularly vulnerable against the Cubs, so you’re stuck with intangibles for an explanation. I’m sure that intangibles exist, but I’ll go with the bats. And the Braves want this one, too.

  8. Agreed, Mac. The Cubs’ only advantage over the Braves is their starting pitching. Unbelievably, they have both a worse bullpen and worse bench than the Braves.

  9. Very nice preview Mac. I like your insight re the Braves main pitching weakness (starting pitcher wildness followed by mediocre middle relief) not really being of much help to a team full of hackers.

    A quick note about your bullpen forecast: Simpson said during yesterday’s Turner South broadcast that Darren Holmes was done for the year, which seems to be verified by the AJC today (“torn rotator cuff”). So I guess Wright is in.

    BP does some interesting research today indicating that the “better” team, i.e. the one with the better record, has only won 54% of playoff series all-time. This makes baseball more of a toss-up in the postseason than any other sport I’d imagine, so picking winners can never be much more than guessing.

    That being said, my guess is a Braves sweep.

  10. Dear Braves Fans,

    I’ve been a Cub fan since 1958 when I first saw Ernie Banks on tv, with Jack Brickhouse announcing. I think it was Jack. I’ve been through Heartbreak Hotel so many times that I gave up about 4 or 5 years ago and tried to become a Braves fan for a season. Of course the Braves didn’t make it to the Big Series that year either, so I came back to Chicago. Usually I watch the Cubbies until the beginning of June or they are 20 games out, whichever comes first.

    You guys have some great players. I love Andruw Jones, and of course I have been sick over Maddux since forever. Chipper is a stud. But I haven’t watched you guys this year, so I don’t know how good your team actually is. 100 wins is a lot. I did catch a few moments of highlights recently, and it looked like your home park was nearly vacant towards the end of the season. Cub fans on other sites are saying tickets are still available, and apparently we’ll have a big presence. I’m hoping our fan support down there will be worth a run or two, if that indeed ever happens.
    Every other post-season series the Cubs were in that I saw, our pitching was always the weakest link. And in Wrigley, there is very little room for error. I think our rotation gives us the best hope to win the series. I remember back in 88 or 89 when you guys beat us (Sorry, the old memory is bad now) both Maddux and Glavine killed our hitters, mostly with sliders and curveballs that were 8 or 9 inches off the plate being called strikes. I was furious with the umpiring then. I just hope this series isn’t decided by bad calls or some wacky once in a lifetime play.

    The Cubs have been battling all September to make the playoffs, and I think that momentum is going to be to our advantage as well. Granted, the Astros and Cards imploded, but our record was still very good for the last month. Your guys have been coasting, and that may lead to complacency.

    Lastly, I really like Dusty Baker’s managing job. He’s got a take no prisoner’s attitude that’s been missing in Chicago since Jordan’s days. Ernie Banks is my favorite player, and I always loved his sunny disposition. But now in my old age (56 this year) I want us to come out Champions of the World, something that would sustain me through the end of this life and into the next. And if they have to step on some toes to do it, so be it.

    Looking forward to a great series.

    Allan

  11. I’ve scanned ESPN, CNNSI, and CBS Sportsline, etc. and EVERY site/analyst is PRO-CUB. Most of the analysts are saying pitching beats offense. It looks like the Braves are underdogs. I think this is going to be a difficult series (may go all 5) either way.

  12. Just looking at ESPN’s panel of experts…

    It’s 12 “experts” picking the Cubs with 6 taking the Braves.

    Cubs: Stark, Gammons, Sickels, Caple, Baker, Kapisch, Rogers, Schwarz, Olney, Silver, Sutcliffe, Karabell

    Braves: Neyer, Gwynn, Candiotti, Ridge, Szefc, Crasnick

    It’s interesting that none of the 12 guys that picked the Cubs to beat the Braves had the guts to predict a Cubs WS victory. Three of the Braves backers (Gwynn, Candiotti, and Ridge) picked the Atlanta to go all the way.

    I don’t think there is anything to read into all this pro-Cub hype. Atlanta is there every year so there is just nothing sexy about picking the Braves to win. These guys want to pick an upset, and the Cubs have the most appeal. They aren’t going to pick against Barry, the Twins are last year’s story, and the A’s-Sox matchup has no clear favorite.

  13. I don’t think there is anything to read into all this pro-Cub hype

    I think a lot of it comes back to the “good pitching beats good hitting” mentality. They ignore that the formula only worked all the way once for the Braves, but there ya go.

    A few other notes:
    –Mac mentioned Clement – Clement has a career 3.86 ERA vs. Atlanta in 51+ IP. Not great, but certainly respectable; however, I don’t know how much of that was racked up against hte weak offenses of the last few years
    –Karros had a 980 or so OPS against lefties this year in 110 or so AB. He was at 880 last year. So he can be useful in that role.

    My prediction: Braves in 5. We lose one on a starting pitcher implosion, one on a bullpen implosion. Hopefully if the offense gets shut down, it happens on such a day.

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