When the Cardinals and Giants meet in the NLCS, it will be a matchup of two very similar teams
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
It seems that every year in the MLB, there are teams that look, on paper, like they have what it takes to be a World Series contender. Recently, those teams are also the ones who spend the most money.
Both Los Angeles ball clubs have been throwing money at their problems in hopes of better results. The Dodgers pulled off a couple of monster trades, while the Angels acquired most of their stars off the free agent market.
Either way, the Dodgers built a star-studded team with the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez, and the Angels have signed Albert Pujols, C.J Wilson, Josh Hamilton and Mike Trout to megadeals.
In the Motor City, a similar philosophy has been brewing the past couple of seasons. The Tigers have been very aggressive in making deals. They signed Prince Fielder to a $214 million contract before the 2012 season, only to trade him after two years for Ian Kinsler. They made Justin Verlander one of the richest players in the league when they signed him to an extension in 2013, and Miguel Cabrera signed a $248 million extension the day before Verlander.
Then they traded for David Price, giving the Tigers the last three American League Cy Young winners with Max Scherzer, Price, and Verlander.
It seemed like these three teams were almost too good to fail. They were unquestionably the World Series favorites thanks to their star power and flare.
However, history and intangibles were forgotten in that assessment. People were so caught up in the huge contracts and national appeal that they forgot that baseball is played on a diamond, not on paper.
The St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants exemplify what it really takes to win championships at the big league level.
Cardinals’ left fielder Matt Holliday may have said it best:
Talent doesn’t equal victories. You can take all the sabermetrics, and look at everything on paper, if you like. But there are intangibles, and there is chemistry, and there is the will to win that you can’t calculate.
It’s interesting that Holliday brings up sabermetrics. The Oakland A’s, king of sabermetrics, have only made it to the ALCS once this century despite making the playoffs nine times.
So maybe it would be an accurate statement that money and sabermetrics can get you to the playoffs, but it takes a little more to advance deep into the postseason on a yearly basis.
In athletic parlance, both of these teams have the “it” factor.
If you had to guess who has won the most playoff games in the MLB over the past five seasons, the answer will surprise most people. It’s not the Yankees, Dodgers, Tigers, Angels, or Red Sox, as one might guess. It is the Cardinals leading the pack with 30, followed closely by the Giants with 27.
There are many factors that go into creating the perfect playoff team, but I will try to address as many as possible in this article.
First is the bullpen. To continue playing deep into October, a dominant bullpen is necessary. You need a lights out closer that can be trusted to keep a one-run lead safe in the final inning as well as a few shutdown relievers who can bridge the gap between the starting pitcher and the closer.
Both the Giants and Cardinals hang their hat on pitching, their rotation and their bullpen. The Cardinals feature a very young bullpen, with Trevor Rosenthal, Seth Maness, and Carlos Martinez all logging significant innings at age 25 or younger.
Pat Neshek may be the most consistent, though. The old man of the bullpen, Neshek came into the postseason with a 7-2 record and a sparkling 1.87 ERA. The Cardinals aren’t afraid to use him, either, as he was called on to pitch in each of the Cards’ four NLDS games against the Dodgers.
The Giants’ nucleus of Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt and Jean Machi has been very effective as well. Romo struggled in the closer’s role at the beginning of the season, but once the Giants switched to a closer-by-committee late August, Romo has thrived pitching in the seventh and eighth innings.
The Dodgers and Tigers showed what can happen when this integral part is nonexistent. Both teams repeatedly threw away leads in the late innings in their Division Series losses.
A trustworthy bullpen is invaluable because it gives the manager more flexibility in his handling of the pitching staff. Especially in the playoffs, where every out is meaningful and hard to get, managers can use as many pitchers as they want because in the playoffs there is no point in saving your pitchers; if you lose the series, you’re season is over either way.
Also, it makes it easier for the starting pitchers to pitch their game. In the regular season, starters don’t like to show all their stuff the first time through the lineup because they are concerned with pitching deep into the game and saving the bullpen for the treacherous 162-game season.
But with a solid bullpen, starters can throw their whole arsenal at the opponent from the get-go. Because if the starter can get through five or six innings without giving up many runs, the manager can play matchups the rest of the way to the finish line.
This leads into the next piece of a successful postseason team, the manager. The manager must be a calm presence in the dugout because weird things are going to happen. The ones that over-manage are the ones that get into trouble.
The Giants’ Bruce Bochy and Cardinals’ Mike Matheny are two of the best in the business when it comes to stoicism and handling a bullpen. Matheny is known for making double switches late in games to help with team defense, and he is also not afraid to bring in multiple pitchers in one inning if he feels it gives his team the best chance to win.
Bochy has such a phenomenal reputation as a manager that a Grantland columnist recently wrote an article saying Bochy deserves to be considered as one of the best in major league history.
Matheny has led his team to at least the NLCS in all three of his seasons at the helm of the Cardinals, while Bochy won two World Series recently where he had the less-talented roster.
In 2010, the Giants beat a Rangers team loaded with Josh Hamilton, Vladimir Guerrero, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler. Then two years later, Bochy’s squad needed only four games to dispose of the Miguel Cabrera and Price Fielder-led Tigers in the 2012 World Series.
The fact of the matter is that good pitching gets the better of good hitting most times in October. Hits and runs are always at a premium in the postseason, which is why a prolific offense does not always result in wins.
It’s all about timely hitting in the playoffs. The Dodgers-Cardinals series is a perfect example. The Dodgers raked all season with their star-studded lineup while the Cardinals struggled to score runs for a large portion of the season. But in the NLDS, facing outstanding pitchers who were throwing their best pitches all the time, it was the Cards’ peskiness that reigned supreme.
Clayton Kershaw had only allowed one home run all season to a left handed batter, yet Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams, both lefties, connected on pivotal round trippers off of the likely Cy Young award winner and one of the most dominant pitchers in this generation.
Solid defense is vital as well. Not so much making the spectacular play, but the routine play. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Giants were the fifth-ranked team in the MLB in defensive efficiency, and the Cardinals were seventh.
So if a solid pitching staff, a manager who knows how to get the most out of his players, timely hitting, and consistent defense are the keys to a deep playoff run, the Cardinals and Giants are the teams that theoretically should blossom in the October environment.
When they match up in the NLCS starting on Saturday, it will be a matchup pitting two teams with eerily similar philosophies. Both pride themselves on pitching and defense, and both teams adhere to the theory that you cannot have too much pitching.
The Cardinals added John Lackey at the July 31 trade deadline, while the Giants traded for Jake Peavy. Both veteran pitchers have been stellar additions, and will be a big part of their team’s success.
Anything can happen in a best-of-seven series, but whatever happens, both of these teams have achieved more than was expected of them already.
The last time these two teams met in the NLCS, the Giants edged out the Cards in 2012. The series went seven games, and the Giants ended up winning the World Series.
Let those other teams keep spending boatloads of money, the Cards and Giants know what it really takes to win. Money doesn’t buy wins, players do. And it takes a close-knit team, one that does the little things correctly, one that just has “it.”