NLCS Preview: War, Peace, Crime, Punishment, and Bullpen Management

My epic-length preview of the Dodgers-Phillies National League Championship Series matchup is up at Baseball Prospectus. Whatever its merits or flaws, I’m reasonably certain it’s the LONGEST preview of its kind. Getting the chance to do a Playoff Prospectus is an honor, and I always try to pour myself into the project, word count be damned. To me, arriving at a prediction — Dodgers in six, in this case — isn’t as important as the analysis behind it, because I don’t go into the process with my mind made up. Admittedly, my knowledge of the Dodgers is deeper than that of the Phils, particularly because I already previewed their first-round series. I did the Phillies twice last year, which helped make up for seeing less of their first-round series than any of the others.

The key in this series is the bullpens:

Dodgers                  IP     ERA   WXRL   rFRA
RHP Jonathan Broxton 76.0 2.61 4.89 2.63
LHP George Sherrill* 69.0 1.70 4.30 1.83
RHP Ramon Troncoso 82.2 2.72 3.50 2.79
RHP Ronald Belisario 70.2 2.04 0.19 2.99
LHP Hong-Chih Kuo 30.0 3.00 1.10 2.32
RHP Jeff Weaver 79.0 3.65 1.75** 4.02
RHP Chad Billingsley 196.1 4.03 3.72** 4.38

RHP Brad Lidge 58.2 7.21 -3.26 8.44
RHP Ryan Madson 77.1 3.26 2.32 3.08
LHP Scott Eyre 30.0 1.50 1.55 2.17
RHP Chan Ho Park 83.1 4.43 1.93** 3.00
RHP Chad Durbin 69.2 4.39 0.95 4.96
LHP Antonio Bastardo 23.2 6.46 -0.10# 7.06
rFRA: Relief-only FRA
*: Full-season combined statistics

Let us not mince words: given the Dodger rotation’s limited stamina, this team’s post-season fate falls squarely on the shoulders of their bullpen. Fortunately, those are big shoulders, and [Joe] Torre demonstrated his knack for using his relief corps to shorten games in the Division Series. Their bullpen has such depth that they were able to withstand the early hook of Wolf, and to match up Broxton with Albert Pujols in the late innings of all three games, regardless of whether it was the eighth or ninth. Dodger relievers tossed 9 2/3 innings in the series, allowing eight hits and one walk while striking out seven, stranding four baserunners inherited from starters and yielding two runs, both in garbage time. Work like that wins championships.

Not that it should be a great surprise, given that the team led the league with 13.2 WXRL, and that Broxton not only led the league in that category, but led all relievers in strikeouts (114) and strikeout rate (13.5 per nine). The deadline addition of Sherrill was key, as it prevented Torre from burning out the likes of Belisario and Troncoso while offering him a hurler who smothers lefties (.163/.226/.261 career) and has experience closing; Sherrill put up a 0.70 FRA [Fair Run Average] in high-leverage duty after coming over. Fellow southpaw Kuo’s second-half return to form (2.19 ERA, 28/9 K/BB ratio in 24 2/3 innings) following elbow troubles provides the Dodgers with two chances to stifle Howard in the late innings. Elsewhere, Belisario and Troncoso generate ground balls by the bushel while steering clear of the long ball. The former was hell on righties (.157/.234/.252). The latter, who didn’t pitch in the Division Series after losing a bit of Torre’s confidence over the season’s final two months (a 4.87 ERA and 5.3 BB/9 will do that) nonetheless finished eighth in the league in WXRL. Weaver was a late addition to the playoff roster, and came up huge in relief of [Randy] Wolf, wriggling out of a bases-loaded jam and getting the win; he provides Torre with another situational righty, not to mention an unhappy reminder that the manager’s post-season record in handling bullpens is hardly spotless. Left out of the rotation, Billingsley’s ability to miss bats is yet another weapon.

By contrast the Phillies’ bullpen rates as a serious concern, even after [Charlie] Manuel successfully navigated it through the Colorado series. One year after converting every save opportunity en route to a World Championship, Lidge blew 11 saves and set a record for the lowest single-season WXRL. The Phils mulled various options during the season’s final weeks, but ultimately Manuel gave him the ball to close out the final two games, albeit with a caveat. Reintroducing a cut fastball into his repertoire against lefties, Lidge worked around a pair of walks while pitching the entire ninth inning in Game Three, and came on with two outs and two on in Game Four—following Manuel’s situationally-based choice to start the inning with the lefty Eyre—to strike out Troy Tulowiztki, closing out the series.

Part of the reason Manuel wound up returning to Lidge is because of the rest of the bullpen’s limitations, primarily due to injuries. Madson remains his top set-up man, capable of missing bats and getting more than three outs when the need dictates. The most obvious choice to supplant Lidge — he saved 10 games this year — Madson’s move to the ninth leaves a vacuum that the Phils couldn’t fill. The Phils had hoped Brett Myers could assume a high-leverage role, but he remains less than 100 percent following hip surgery. Trouble finding the strike zone in his sole Division Series appearance, as well as doubts about his ability to pitch consecutive days, have cost him a roster spot in favor of Park. The team’s second most effective reliever (2.1 WXRL, 3.00 FRA, 9.4 K/9 after moving from the rotation), Park hasn’t pitched in a game since September 16 due to a hamstring strain. Durbin’s a lower-leverage righty who walks far too many hitters for his own good (5.8 UIBB/9); he nonetheless saw eighth-inning duty in Game Three, after Manuel used Madson to put out a fire lit by Eyre in the seventh. Eyre, of course, is now the top lefty due to J.C. Romero’s torn flexor tendon; he doesn’t stifle lefties to quite the extent of most specialists (.240/.321/.396 career), nor does he miss many bats. Bastardo is a rookie who showed little platoon difference during his June in the rotation, but he did whiff 7.2 per nine.

How Manuel will use Blanton and Happ, his two options to start Game Four, remains to be seen. Blanton served in middle relief in Game Two and as the long man in Game Three, surrendering a run each time. Happ faced one batter in Game Two, gave up a hit, and served up a dud of a start (three innings, seven baserunners, three runs) under frigid conditions before departing due to a comebacker off of his shin. The summer’s rotation savior scuffled down the stretch, with a 4.83 ERA and zero quality starts after August 27.

Admittedly, I’ve got plenty of emotion wrapped up in this series, but that’s one of the reasons I’m so thorough with my analysis. And in the end, I can’t help but conclude that the Dodgers’ righty-heavy lineup and deep bullpen sets them up to attack the Phillies’ weaknesses — and counteract their strengths — better than the Phillies can do same, plus they have the benefit of home-field advantage. Here’s hoping they can seize the opportunity and avenge last year’s loss.

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