The National League Division Series that begins this afternoon in St. Louis is a bit like the five-game Cardinals series in PNC Park that straddled the end of July and the first day of August, only this one has everything riding on it.
You might recall the Pirates took the first four games of that matchup. Pirates fans hope this series goes like that rather than the three-game sweep by the Cardinals in St. Louis in early September. On the season, the Pirates went 10-9 against the Cardinals and, once again, the games may come down to this question:
Can the Pirates, with some of the best pitchers in baseball at dealing with runners in scoring position, stop this team that has been extraordinary at hitting with runners in scoring position all year?
In the clutch
The Cardinals top hitters with runners in scoring position (RISP):
Batter / Hits / Avg.
Allen Craig / 59 / .454
Matt Holliday / 48 / .390
Matt Carpenter / 45 / .388
Carlos Beltran / 46 / .374
Yadier Molina / 47 / .373
The Tale of the Tape chart shows the Cardinals have an overall offensive advantage in nearly every important area but home runs, where the Pirates lead by 36. (Speaking of which, the Pirates imports from New York teams, Russell Martin and Marlon Byrd, combined for three home runs in the victory Tuesday night against the Cincinnati Reds. Don't you think New Yorkers are getting tired of the Pirates using their franchises as a minor league system? Heh, heh.
What that chart doesn't show is the Cardinals' freakish success with runners in scoring position (RISP) this season. St. Louis hit .330 with RISP this year, 71 points higher than the Cardinals' overall average. Their on-base average (.402 with RISP compared to .332 overall) and their slugging average (.463 to .401) also soared with runners on second or third. Stats geeks always warn against putting too much into this, that these kinds of gaps tend to narrow with enough time, but they never did for the Cardinals.
Their On-base Plus Slugging (OPS) with runners in scoring position was .865, 123 points above the National League average of .712. Pirates batters meantime had an OPS of just .655 with RISP. The Pirates' .229 batting average in that situation -- a discrepancy that also wasn't supposed to last all season -- was 101 points below the Cardinals'.
RISP success is important, but it's not everything. The Pirates were able to score 205 runs when nobody was in scoring position, compared to 165 for the Cardinals. Solo home runs, extra-base hits with a runner on first and the occasional sacrifice fly can still put numbers on the scoreboard. The wild-card win against the Reds was significant in that regard, with the Pirates scoring six runs despite going 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position.
More important, though, the Pirates are very good at preventing runs. The Atlanta Braves are the only NL team to give up fewer runs this season. Part of that is defense. Baseball Prospectus ranked the Pirates fifth and the Cardinals 21st in Defensive Efficiency, a measurement of how many balls in play are turned into outs
The other part is, of course, pitching. The Cardinals have it, but the Pirates have been a hair better, as the Tale of the Tape chart shows. Some of that edge can be credited to the Pirates' defensive shifts and their fleet-footed outfielders catching up to balls that might otherwise be hits.
Both staffs also are very good at keeping the ball in the park, though the Pirates are a bit better. Perhaps PNC Park is the difference, but Pirates pitchers have given up the fewest home runs in the NL (101) and the Cardinals the next fewest (112).
As this began with RISP, though, Pirates pitchers should be credited with having the second-lowest OPS against them in those situations. Again, only Braves pitchers (.674 OPS against) beat the Pirates (.675). Cardinals pitchers are at .706. The Pirates also edge St. Louis pitchers in batting average against them in scoring-position situations, .247 to .253.
If Pirates pitchers can cool down the Cardinals hitters to .247 with runners on second and/or third, and maintain its edge in power, Pirates fans should enjoy this NLDS.
• • • •
The first line of defense in run prevention is the strikeout, so let's end with a tip of the cap to A.J. Burnett, the Pirates starting pitcher today.
Burnett was the most-prolific strikeout pitcher in the NL this year, fanning 9.85 every nine innings. Among the four NL teams still playing, Francisco Liriano was second with 9.11 K/9. The top Cardinals starter, rookie right-hander Michael Wacha, came in at 9.05 in just 641/3 IP. Burnett's mound opponent today, Adam Wainwright, had a 8.16 K/9.
Burnett's no Hall of Fame pitcher. With a record of 147-132 and a 3.99 career ERA, Cooperstown won't come calling.
But Burnett has been a true ace in his two seasons with the Pirates, and he's at the point in his 15-year career that every handful of Ks has him passing another big name on the all-time strikeout list.
Here's hoping Burnett has more than a few games left for the Pirates, but he already has had a sweet run up the K-List this season.
Following are the 20 pitchers Burnett passed as he struck out 209 batters on his way to his current career total of 2,180, 55th on the all-time list. The four Hall of Famers Burnett surpassed are in italics:
Al Leiter, Livan Hernandez, John Clarkson, Red Ruffing, Johan Santana, Kevin Appier, Billy Pierce, Andy Benes, Catfish Hunter, Orel Hershiser, Rick Reuschel, Dazzy Vance, Fernando Valenzuela, Bobo Newsom, Kevin Millwood, Roy Halladay, Dennis Martinez, Tim Wakefield, Camilo Pascual and Vida Blue.
If Burnett returns next season and strikes out 200 more, he can put more of Cooperstown in his rear-view mirror: Grover Cleveland Alexander, David Wells, Jim Palmer, Tommy John, Eddie Plank, Lefty Grove, Dwight Gooden, Juan Marichal, Rube Waddell, Early Wynn, Robin Roberts and Charlie Hough.
That's impressive company.
Brian O'Neill: email@example.com. First Published October 3, 2013 3:30 PM