NLCS Preview

My National League Championship Series preview is up at Baseball Prospectus, and it’s free (it’s supposed to be mirrored on SI.com as well, but that link will have to wait). In the intro, I included a hat-tip to one of the storied rivalries of my youth. I don’t remember the 1977 wildness (recounted here and to even better effect via a column by the late, great Jim Murray at Dodger Thoughts), but I vividly remember “The Penguin” Ron Cey waddling home on Bill Russell’s pennant-clinching hit in the 1978 LCS and the announcer telling the audience that Russell was a clutch hitter, a new concept to me. Anyway:

Adding color to what already appears to be a competitive series, the Phillies-Dodgers matchup is one steeped in LCS history. The two teams battled three times for the NL pennant from 1977 to 1983, with the Dodgers taking the first two series in memorable and sometimes bizarre fashion but the Phils getting the last laugh. Echoes of that matchup reverberate with the presence of representatives from that era on the coaching sidelines here; ironically, it’s former Phillies pepperpot Larry Bowa coaching third base for the Dodgers in his inimitably aggressive style, and former Dodgers base thief extraordinaire schooling the Phils in the fine art of baserunning as the Phillies’ first base coach. More recently, Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino was astutely plucked from the Dodgers’ system via the Rule 5 Draft in 2004, and right fielder Jayson Werth spent three years in LA before landing in Philadelphia. Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t note nearby Norristown, PA native (and Phillies’ free-agent signing circa 1945) Tommy Lasorda’s long-standing grudge against the Phillie Phanatic.

Further down, I’ve got some numbers on the Dodger offense pre- and post-Manny:

Period    Games  RS   R/G   HR (LgRk) RHR  %RHR (LgRk)  AVG/ OBP/ SLG
Thru 7/31 108 450 4.17 74 (15) 106 23.6 (15) .256/.321/.376
From 8/1 54 250 4.63 63 (3) 93 37.2 (7) .281/.355/.443
Total 162 700 4.32 137 (13) 199 28.4 (13) .264/.333/.399

Percentage of runs on home runs is a favorite stat of my colleague Joe Sheehan; it tends to characterize the potency of an offense. The Phillies were second in the league and third in the majors in this category at 42.6 percent, and the Dodgers, wiht the trade, moved up from a rate that would rank 15th in the league before the trade to seventh in the league (slightly above the 34.5 percent average) after. With Rafael Furcal now atop the lineup again in front of Ramirez and company, the importance of that stat grows even more.

Anyway, I went into the piece thinking that once again I’d be picking against a team I’m rooting for, but the closer I looked, the more I analyzed, the more I came around to the idea that this matchup could favor the Dodgers:

Despite the difference in full-season records, this is a relatively even matchup. Hamels is possibly the best starter on either team in the series, but the Phillies’ reticence towards bringing him back on three days’ rest may neutralize that if the Dodgers shorten their rotation and opt for Lowe to start Game Four. If that’s the case, Philadelphia’s only clear advantage in the matchups would come in the opener, whereas a Hamels/Billingsley Game Five could be a tossup (note the extra day off in between Games Four and Five that will keep the latter on normal rest), and Lowe-Blanton or Lowe-Moyer might be expected to tilt the Dodgers’ way, tilting the series as well.

Otherwise, Torre’s got a couple of decisions that may put him on the spot (Maddux/Kershaw for Game Four and Kuo on/off the roster), something he generally tries to avoid. Either way, that Game Four pairing could still favor the Dodgers by a hair, but the rest are tossups, with Hamels’ and Billingsley’s advantages over their opponents canceling out. What it may come down to in that case are the Dodgers’ staff’s stinginess in surrendering home runs (they led the NL with the fewest allowed at 123, 24 fewer than any other club) and their tactical advantage in being able to counter the Phillies’ concentration of lefty threats with one pitcher as compared to the Dodgers’ more dispersed lineup may prove the deciding factor.

In the end (and with the caveat that I’m a Dodger fan, albeit one who’s proven comfortable with picking against my own strong rooting interests in such past previews), I’m willing to go out on a limb and call this for the Dodgers in six.

As I noted in the comments to that pice, adjusted for ballpark, the ability of the Dodger staff to limit home runs stands out even more starkly. Only Greg Maddux and Chan-Ho Park allowed homers at an above-average rate, and neither appear to be central to the Dodgers plans. By contrast, Brett Myers and Joe Blanton both allow homers at an above-average rate, and Cole Hamels is right at the average. Furthermore, as one Dodger Thoughts comment pointed out, Maddux and Clayton Kershaw are the only two pitchers active for the series who allowed home runs to the Phillies this year.

I’m still waiting to see how the various roster decisions fall regarding Hong-Chih Kuo (potentially on) and Takashi Saito (potentially off) before I adjust my analysis there. But I do think this is a winnable series for the boys in Dodger blue.

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