2019 MLB Playoffs NLCS Preview & Prediction: Washington Nationals vs. St. Louis Cardinals

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The narrative is going to be that the Los Angeles Dodgers lost the NLDS. When you have one of the league’s largest payrolls and future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw gives up back-to-back home runs on back-to-back pitches to blow a lead, the takes are pretty one-sided. When the manager uses Kenta Maeda for one inning, but Joe Kelly for two, the takes get even more one-sided.

There will be a time and place to talk about that, but let the record show that the Washington Nationals WON the NLDS. They won a playoff series for the first time in franchise history. They battled through the adversity of the Wild Card Round and two cross-country flights to win in extra innings at Dodger Stadium, a place where the Dodgers went 59-22 in the regular season. They went 1-2 in the postseason.

The Nationals advanced and their prize for advancing is another underdog winner in the St. Louis Cardinals. An historic first inning took all of the drama away at SunTrust Park and that was all she wrote, as the Cardinals moved on to the NLCS. They expected to get the Dodgers and be on the road in Chavez Ravine for Game 1. Instead, they are at Busch Stadium against a Wild Card team that won more games in the regular season than they did.

One team did what it had to do in Game 5. The other made what could be a catastrophic decision. The Nationals got six solid innings from Stephen Strasburg and went to Patrick Corbin to face four batters in relief. Corbin could be used in Game 1, but now the Nationals can roll out Max Scherzer on Friday on regular rest after he started Game 4. That means Corbin for Game 2 and Strasburg for Game 3, which won’t be played until October 14, so he’ll be on regular rest.

The Cardinals scored 10 runs in the first inning of Game 5 and still used Jack Flaherty for over 100 pitches. To further compound matters, he purposely hit Ronald Acuna Jr. between the shoulders with a huge lead in the fifth. MLB won’t suspend him, but they should. Acuna’s alleged “antics” aside, there was a lot of intention in that pitch and that bullshit needs to be stopped in baseball. Call me soft, call me a snowflake, call me whatever. A dude pimping a home run to hurt a pitcher’s feelings isn’t the same as throwing a pitch at 95 mph with the potential to cause bodily harm.

Anyway, Flaherty still won’t be available until Game 3. The Cardinals will have him for Games 3 and 7 now, but skipping Flaherty’s start or limiting him to one inning since he got hot could have meant three potential starts. Sure, short rest would have been a factor, but it may be a risk worth taking when you consider the rest of the Cardinals rotation.

In any event, it wasn’t a banner day for managers this past Wednesday and those decisions are only going to be magnified as the postseason rolls along.

There are a lot of things to focus on in this series, but as I did for the NLDS, let’s take a look at my three keys and how these teams stack up. The Nationals are -120 with the Cardinals +100 at BetOnline.

  1. Miles and Waino

With Flaherty unavailable before Game 3, in all likelihood, it will be up to Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright. Both guys were exceptional in their NLDS starts. Wainwright increased the usage of his curveball dramatically and threw 7.2 shutout innings with eight strikeouts and two walks. Mikolas only struck out two batters, but he kept the ball in the yard and only allowed one run on three hits. Shutting down the Braves is no easy task, but Mikolas was able to do it.

Those two guys will be huge in this series. Dakota Hudson contributed with 4.2 innings of useful work with one run allowed on five hits, but it is really tough to rely on him, given his penchant for walking batters.

The Cardinals were third in ERA and second in FIP among starting pitchers in the second half, due in large part to Flaherty’s performance. He had an 0.91 ERA with a 2.22 FIP and a 3.19 xFIP in 99.1 innings. Mikolas, however, greatly improved from the first half with a 3.72 ERA, a 4.05 FIP, and a 4.15 xFIP. Mikolas shaved 18 points off of his wOBA against from first half to second half and 39 points of SLG. He still allowed 11 home runs in 84.2 innings, but that was better than 16 in 99.1 innings.

The concern with Mikolas is the same as it is with every starter. The times through the order penalties start to mount for him. The first time through, opposing batters had a .309 wOBA with a .426 SLG. The second time through, he yielded a .326 wOBA and a .454 SLG. The third time through, he yielded a .333 wOBA and a .494 SLG.

Wainwright’s numbers were mostly identical between first half and second half. Like Mikolas, his TTO splits are a big deal. Opposing batters posted a .304 wOBA the first time through. They had a .348 the second time through.

Wainwright threw 57 curveballs out of his 120 pitches in Game 3. He had six of his 13 swinging strikes on the CB. He did get a little fortunate with some of the batted balls, but it was very clear that he got the memo about using his best pitch. Wainwright allowed a .284 wOBA during the season on his curveball. He allowed a .365 wOBA on everything else. As a team, the Nationals ranked 13th in wOBA against curveballs at .279.

These two will be huge, especially because a long series means two starts for each of them.

  1. Coming Out Swinging

Pitching staffs can get exposed in a seven-game series. A five-game series is easy. You generally use your three best starters and your five best relievers and carry a mop-up dude if you need one. Playing up to seven games in 10 days is a little bit different. A fourth starter gets introduced to the mix. Middle relievers become more important. Primary relievers could see a higher workload. Remember when Brandon Morrow pitched all seven games of the 2017 World Series? (He’s pitched 30.2 innings since and just missed all of 2019)

Given the need for more starting pitching depth, the Cardinals may have the bullpen advantage, which I’ll touch on in my last key. The Nationals have the offensive advantage. Washington’s offense posted a .350 wOBA in the second half with a 113 wRC+. Only the Astros and Yankees were better in the wOBA department. Keep in mind that pitchers inexplicably take up plate appearances for the NL teams. Washington was fifth in SLG after the All-Star Break.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, ranked 16th in wOBA and had a league average offense with a wRC+ of 100. This is a huge worry for me coming into this series. The Nationals offense is just better in event facet. The Nationals walk more and strike out less. The Cardinals are going to face some very hard throwers. The Nationals are going to face guys like Mikolas and Wainwright with lower strikeout rates. Perhaps Mikolas and Wainwright can neutralize Washington’s BB% advantage, but you’d surely like to see more strikeout stuff out of the Cardinals rotation.

In fairness, the Nationals did tie for the league high in BABIP in the second half at .316. They tied with the Rockies, who are perennially near the top of the list because of Coors Field. The Cardinals only had a .296 BABIP. It’s entirely possible that there was a lot of good luck in there for the Nationals, who ranked 17th in average exit velocity in the second half at 87.7 mph.

The Cardinals ranked 28th. And they were among the lowest in average exit velocity over the course of the season. Quality of contact is something that can be a little bit tough to figure out, but the Nationals did make better quality contact all season long.

Paul Goldschmidt was 9-for-21 in the NLDS and hit a couple of home runs. Marcell Ozuna did the same. The Cardinals only hit four home runs, but did have 16 doubles and a triple. Extra-base hits will be important with the strikeout artists for the Nationals in that starting rotation. The Cardinals struck out in 24% of their PA in the NLDS against a Braves team not really known for as much strikeout prowess. The Nationals struck out in 22.1% of their PA against a Dodgers team with a lot more strikeout artists.

The Nationals are going to make more contact and likely with more quality. Their offense could very well be the deciding factor in this series.

  1. Searching for Relief

Both of these bullpens worry me. The Nationals have already used Strasburg and Corbin in relief in these playoffs. Corbin has actually been used twice in relief. Scherzer was also used in relief. Of the 54 innings for the Nationals, 32 have been pitched by Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin. In a seven-game series, that may not be sustainable.

At some point, guys like Hunter Strickland, Wander Suero, and Tanner Rainey are going to have to get outs. It’s hard to push Sean Doolittle too far with his extensive injury history. Daniel Hudson has already pitched four of the six playoff games, though he has only thrown 3.2 innings. Davey Martinez isn’t thought to be a managerial savant, but he’s going to have to become one rather quickly to help push this pitching staff through.

The Nationals staff has 75 strikeouts in 54 innings and, again, that will be a big key to the offensive performances in this series.

The Cardinals bullpen was pretty solid in the second half. It ranked top 10 in fWAR and the relievers collectively struck out over a batter per inning, although a 9.09 K/9 ranked 17th in the new normal of Major League Baseball.

Carlos Martinez was great in the second half, but he had his hiccups in this past series with six runs allowed in jus 3.1 innings. John Brebbia had a 4.30 ERA, but a 2.57 FIP in the second half. Giovanny Gallegos, Tyler Webb, and Ryan Helsley all had solid second half numbers. Andrew Miller is not reliable at this point in his career and walked two more batters in the NLDS.

Players have to execute, which was a big theme of Game 5 in the Nationals/Dodgers series, but managers also have to put them in the best positions to succeed. The Cardinals have a lot of bullpen options, likely more reliable ones than the Nationals, given that Washington now needs its starters to actually start games.

The Cardinals only had 46 K in 45 innings against the Braves. That means a lot more balls in play from their pitching staff than the Nationals pitching staff.

Fortunately, the Cardinals were among the best defensive teams in baseball. The Nationals were more of a league average defense.

On the whole, the Nationals have two key advantages – their offense and their starting rotation. The Cardinals have two key advantages – their bullpen and their defense. It is going to appear that Washington has a huge edge with the Big Three of Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin and a better lineup. I can’t disagree with that statement.

When it comes down to the playoffs, we all know the importance of bullpens. That could end up being the great equalizer, assuming C-Mart gets his head right. St. Louis’s defense could also bail out the pitching staff.

Ultimately, though, I’m picking the Nationals to advance to the World Series. They’re going to put more balls in play and they’re going to prevent more balls in play by striking out Cardinals hitters. In the high-variance environment that is the playoffs, give me the team with more batted balls in play. Even though few teams in baseball were able to convert more balls in play into outs than the Cardinals, the Nationals offense is clearly better than what St. Louis brings to the table.

I’ll take Washington in about six games or so. They’ve slain one playoff demon by winning a series. The pressure should be off a little bit now.

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