September 29, 2003

2003 Playoff Preview:

Marlins - Giants


W L Win% RS RA Pyth% EqA DEF
San Francisco 100 61 .621 755 638 .583 .271 .7219
Florida 91 71 .562 751 692 .541 .266 .7039

San Francisco 4.69 .264 .338 .425 180 281 593 980
Florida 4.64 .266 .333 .421 157 292 515 978

San Francisco 3.96 .250 .321 .386 136 259 546 1006
Florida 4.27 .258 .325 .396 128 300 530 1132

I got the magic stick

I know if I can hit once, I can hit twice

I hit the baddest chicks

Shorty don't believe me, then come with me tonight

And I'll show you maaagic

(What? What?) Maaagic

I got the magic stick

--- Lil Kim and 50 Cent, "Magic Stick"

Here now, the aforementioned "Magic Stick":

                     AVG      OBP      SLG     AB/HR

2001 .328 .515 .863 6.52
2002 .370 .582 .799 8.76
2003 .341 .529 .749 8.67

2002 Post-Season .333 .597 .978 5.63

Barry Bonds has just completed what I believe to be the greatest 3-year run in the history of baseball. And stuck in the middle of those three extraordinary seasons was one of the greatest post-seasons in baseball history too.

While leading the Giants to within one win of a championship, Bonds got on base 60% of the time last October and, when he was actually pitched to, hit a home run every 5.6 at bats.

Say what you want about Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez or Carlos Delgado or Manny Ramirez or Jim Thome - they are all great, great hitters. But none of them change the entire face of a game like Barry Bonds does.

When Bonds comes to the plate this post-season, the opposing team will have two options:

1) Put a runner on base.

2) Risk a hit 35% of the time and a home run 15% of the time.

It's really that simple. If you don't pitch to him, there is a zero percent chance of him hitting a ball into McCovey Cove. On the other hand, if you do pitch to him, there is a chance he might actually make an out, but there is also a very good chance the at bat will end with a bunch of guys on rafts diving for a baseball.

I really don't know which approach the Florida Marlins will take. In last year's playoffs, Bonds' first-round opponent, the Altanta Braves, decided they would pitch to him. He walked "only" four times in five games...and also hit 3 homers.

The other two teams the Giants faced, St. Louis and Anaheim, decided they'd feel safer just not dealing with Barry. He walked a total of 23 times in 12 games during the NLCS and the World Series. And, of course, when the Cardinals and Angels did pitch to him, he did plenty of damage (5 homers in 28 at bats).

To be honest, if I were a manager facing Barry Bonds in a playoff series, my decision would be an easy one. Whenever it was even remotely possible, I would walk him. I wouldn't do it in the first few innings when the bases were empty or with the bases loaded, but he'd be getting four wide of the plate in just about every other situation.

I just don't think it is worth the heavy risk you take throwing him something close to the strike zone and the rest of the San Francisco lineup is not incredibly strong. Without Bonds' totals included, the Giants are batting .262 as a team, with a slugging percentage of just .400. I would simply make those other hitters beat me.

Now, obviously every team Bonds plays, whether in the regular season or the post-season, has a plan to not deal with him in key situations. The question is whether or not the Marlins have decided to pitch to him in the questionable spots. Personally, I'm hoping they do pitch to him on occasion, just because I enjoy watching baseballs orbit into the October night sky.

It would seem at first that the Marlins, with two tough lefties in their starting rotation, are better suited than most teams when it comes to actually pitching to Bonds. I say it would seem that way "at first" because...well, it's not actually that way at all.

When the Marlins put lefties Mark Redman (14-9, 3.59 ERA) and Dontrelle Willis (14-6, 3.30) on the mound in Game Three and Game Four, they'll be going up against the following:

Bonds vs LHP

2002 .384 .976
2003 .363 .790

Bonds' batting average and slugging percentage have actually been significantly better against lefties than against righties in each of the last two seasons.

Despite that, throughout the season opposing managers have summoned their lefty-specialist from the bullpen to face Bonds in the late innings of close games. I suspect if you polled most managers and most casual fans, they would answer that yes, putting as many lefties as possible out there against Bonds is a good idea.

In theory, it is a good plan. But plans against Barry Bonds don't work, even in theory. Interestingly enough, San Francisco has built a lineup that is actually able to offset Bonds being stifled by left-handed pitching, even though that isn't actually the case.

Here's how San Francisco's everyday players compare against righties and lefties, using (OBP x 1.7) + SLG, which I feel is a more accurate snapshot of a hitter's value than simple OPS (on-base % + slugging %):

                        vs RHP     vs LHP     +/- vs LHP

C Benito Santiago .972 1.031 + 6%
1B J.T. Snow 1.110
Andres Galarraga 1.201 + 8%
2B Ray Durham 1.001 1.267 + 27%
SS Rich Aurilia .893 1.177 + 32%
3B Edgardo Alfonzo .959 .909 - 5%
LF Barry Bonds 1.643 1.659 + 1%
CF Marquis Grissom .920 1.335 + 45%
RF Jose Cruz Jr. .970 1.205 + 24%

The one spot in San Francisco's lineup that produces less against left-handed pitching is third base, and even that spot declines by only 5%. Everywhere else, they increase their production against southpaws.

Marquis Grissom leads the way by being 45% more productive offensively against lefties. That may seem like an unbelievable increase, but consider Grissom's splits:

           AVG      OBP      SLG

vs RHP .280 .298 .409
vs LHP .364 .399 .657

That's about as big a split as you'll see from a right-handed everyday player. And he's not alone.

Rich Aurilia increases his production by 32% against lefties, Ray Durham goes up 27% and Jose Cruz Jr. rises 24%. Benito Santiago goes up a modest 6%, while the first base platoon of J.T. Snow and Andres Galarraga is about 8% better against lefties.

This is a lineup built to destroy left-handed pitching. Here are the team-totals:

           AVG      OBP      SLG

vs RHP .257 .330 .402
vs LHP .285 .365 .500

Using (OBP x 1.7) + SLG, San Francisco's hitting against lefties is about 16% better than it is against righties. Their batting average goes up 28 points, their OBP goes up 35 points and their slugging percentage increases by nearly 100 points, which is huge.

In fact, the Giants have the highest team slugging percentage in all of baseball against left-handed pitching. Against right-handed pitching, their .402 SLG ranks just 25th.

It's really pretty interesting. The Giants have a team with a left-handed superstar who is so good that he lures other teams into putting left-handed pitching on the mound. They have built the team around that superstar and, whether by coincidence or design, have surrounded him with hitters who absolutely feast on lefties. When you add in the fact that Bonds himself is hitting like .370 with an .875 slugging percentage against lefties in the last two years...well, it's not a very encouraging sight for a team relying heavily on two left-handed starters, like the Florida Marlins are.

While the Giants are perhaps the most extreme team in baseball when it comes to their hitting against righties and lefties, the Florida Marlins are very similar.

Florida's everyday lineup features one left-handed hitter, one switch-hitter, and six right-handed hitters. Their top bench-player (whichever one of Miguel Cabrera and Jeff Conine doesn't start) is also right-handed. As you might expect from an offense with all those righties, they have been much better against left-handed pitching this season:

           AVG      OBP      SLG

vs RHP .258 .325 .406
vs LHP .292 .357 .469

It's not quite the same gap that the Giants have (a 16% difference), but it's significant. Using (OBP x 1.7) + SLG, Florida is about 12% better offensively against left-handed pitching.

By having a lineup that includes 75% right-handed hitters (not counting the pitcher), I think Florida is perhaps even more vulnerable to good right-handed pitching than San Francisco, who typically start two lefties (Snow, Bonds) and two switch-hitters (Durham, Cruz Jr.) against righties.

This could be a major problem for the Marlins in this series, because they will be facing one of the top right-handed pitchers in all of baseball right away, in Game One.

San Francisco ace Jason Schmidt finished the year 17-5 with a 2.34 ERA in 207.2 innings. He struck out 208, walked just 46, and allowed only 14 homers. His splits against righties and lefties were fairly even.

Here are the numbers the Marlins should be concerned about, his numbers against righties:

           AVG      OBP      SLG

vs RHP .204 .240 .335

Wow. He gave up just seven homers in 358 at bats against righties and had an amazing 113/15 strikeout/walk ratio against them.

So, you've got a team full of right-handed hitters who don't do nearly as well against righties as they do lefties, and they are going up against one of the best right-handed pitchers in baseball, who dominates right-handed (and left-handed) batters. Oh, and they'll be seeing him twice this series if it goes the distance. Throw in the fact that it is very likely both of Schmidt's starts will come in Pac Bell, where he is 15-6 with a 2.31 ERA over the last two years, and the Marlins could be in serious trouble.

The one area where I think Florida might have a chance to hurt Schmidt is with their running-game. Schmidt has not had a ton of steal attempts against him during the last few years, which is probably a sign that he is at least decent at keeping an eye on runners. However, when someone does try to steal, they are usually successful.

Here are his stolen base against numbers since joining the Giants in the middle of the 2001 season:

          SB     CS       %

2001 4 2 67
2002 12 2 86
2003 17 0 100
TOTAL 33 4 89

Add in the fact that Benito Santiago threw out just 18.5% of attempted steals this year and I think Schmidt is definitely susceptible to teams that want to run.

And, if there is one thing the Marlins can do offensively, against righties and lefties, it is run. They stole 150 bases this season, the most in all of baseball. Juan Pierre led MLB in stolen bases with 65 (at a 77% clip). Luis Castillo and Derrek Lee each stole 21, followed by Juan Encarnacion at 19 and Ivan Rodriguez at 10.

In looking at their stolen base numbers though, I was absolutely shocked to see what Luis Castillo has done this year:

             SB     CS      %

Pre-2003 229 84 73
2003 21 19 53

Castillo stole 50, 62, 33 and 48 bases from 1999-2002, leading the league in both 2000 and 2002.

I guess I had just been looking at Florida' team stolen bases numbers all season, figuring Castillo and Pierre were both racking up steals left and right. Turns out Pierre was, but Castillo has really struggled. Not only did he steal just 21 bases, his lowest total in a full-season, he did so while being caught 19 times, which is a horrible "success" rate.

Castillo stole 14 bases while being caught 9 times in the first-half and then went 7/17 (41%) after the All-Star break. I haven't seen him play enough in the second-half to say either way, but it wouldn't surprise me if there is something physically wrong with him. For the most part, he is still hitting (.320 in the second-half, although just .244 in September) though, and much of his hitting is based on speed too, so who knows?

Castillo is one of the best on-base threats in the league and his ability to steal bases would be a huge asset for the Marlins in this series, particularly against Schmidt. If he's not completely healthy though, running him is a mistake, which means Pierre should probably be the only chicken running around with his head cut off.

I think the Marlins have a very tough task ahead of them in this series and I would make them the biggest underdog in the first-round, even bigger than the Twins, who are going up against the mighty Yankees.

Florida is starting the series with two right-handed starters, Josh Beckett (9-8, 3.04) in Game One and Brad Penny (14-10, 4.13) in Game Two. I suspect they would likely have had Redman or Willis in one of those two spots (and maybe both) if they'd had an opportunity to set their rotation how they wanted it, but the way the Giants hit lefties, I think it's a good thing they didn't.

The way I see it, the Marlins absolutely must take at least one of the first two games of this series, in San Francisco, because they have almost no shot of winning both games in Florida, at least not with two lefty starters on the mound. Taking Game One against Schmidt is going to be a very tough task and, with the way they hit righties, taking Game Two against Sidney Ponson (17-12, 3.75) is only going to be slightly easier. Still, I think Game Two is the one the Marlins have the best shot at winning.

Game Three, against lefty Kirk Rueter (10-5, 4.53), and Game Four, against rookie right-hander Jerome Williams (7-5, 3.30), would also seem to be very winnable games for the Marlins. Unfortunately for Florida, those are also the two games they will send their lefties to the mound.

The good news for the Marlins is that I really don't think they'll have to face Jason Schmidt twice in this series. The bad news is...

Giants in four.

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