Magic Number: 4
Writing a preview for the ALDS is cool. It's something new and fun. Writing a preview for the ALCS is intimidating. The games are suddenly big and important. Writing a preview for the World Series is impossible to believe, even as I sit and put these words down.
The Rangers will now play the most important stretch of games in their history. It's entirely possible they will never play more important games. The magnitude of what's about to happen is unfathomable, and putting it in to words when your team is involved is impossible. I've been watching this thing every year for a decade and a half, watching other teams celebrating and picturing what it would be like to see the team I live and die with play there. It's going to actually happen, now. Finally.
Texas is officially and forever part of that lore of the World Series so often discussed among baseball people. It's entirely likely that some Texas Ranger is now going to be a part of baseball legend. With an awesome pitching performance, or a big hit, or a dominant series at the bat, or a highlight reel play, one of these guys we've loved for so long is probably going to be remembered for generations thanks to something he does in the coming days.
Oh, and Bengie Molina is guaranteed a ring. I'm hoping that doesn't mean he takes the series off or anything.
I'm big on baseball history, and this game is actually an important piece of history. This is one of the most relevant franchises in the sport against one of the most irrelevant. Beyond that, however, it's two cities looking for their first championship ever. The Giants have won five world titles, but none (in three appearances) since moving to San Francisco. One fan base is guaranteed to have an all-important first this year.
The Rangers just ran through two of the best teams in the American League, and it wasn't a fluke. They looked comparable, if not better, before the games were even played, and they outscored them by a truckload. The Giants are perhaps a bit underrated and they have absolutely earned their spot, but they are not the Yankees, they are not the Rays, and the National League is not the American League. The games still have to be played, but I have a feeling you know exactly what I am saying to you here.
FanGraphs' Top Five Giants In 2010
- Andres Torres, CF: 570 PA, .252/.320/.431, 13/21.2 DRS/UZR, .363 wOBA, 6.9 WAR
- Aubrey Huff, 1B: 668 PA, .290/.385/.506, 11/6.7 DRS/UZR, .388 wOBA, 5.7 WAR
- Tim Lincecum, SP: 212.1 IP, 9.79 K/9, 3.22 BB/9, 3.43 ERA, 3.46 tERA, 3.15 FIP, 5.1 WAR
- Matt Cain, SP: 223.1 IP, 7.13 K/9, 2.46 BB/9, 3.14 ERA, 3.49 tERA, 3.65 FIP, 4.0 WAR
- Buster Posey, C: 443 PA, .305/.357/.505, 4 DRS, .368 wOBA, 3.9 WAR
To start our preview, here's a glance at the guys who put forth the best seasons for the Giants this season. If you're just joining this series for the first time in the biggest games the Rangers have ever played, the ranking comes in the form of the FanGraphs stat Wins Above Replacement. It is, essentially, an estimate of how many wins a player produced for his team over the course of the season against what a scrub like a 25th man, scrap pile free agent or AAA call up would have put up over the same playing time. If you come across a stat you're not familiar with, there's a handy glossary at the bottom of the page.
The Giants don't seem to have a lot of star power, but some of that is probably playing in a lacking baseball market on the west coast. They certainly have extremely good players who should be treated as stars. Torres and his multi-tool self came out of nowhere to put himself in a position where he belongs on MVP ballots. Huff fit the cliche of "professional hitter" more than anyone maybe ever has. Lincecum had a "down" year that could still be called nothing short of elite. Cain continued his workman-like track record of solid results over lots of innings to put up a season most teams would like to have in the front of their rotation. Posey came up late (after being blocked by Mr. Molina) before going on a tear in the 2/3 of a season he was given and looks headed to being one of the elite catchers in baseball. History.
Posey actually helps highlight an interesting point on the Giants that relates to the Rangers. It's been discussed here that the Rangers are better than their regular season record indicated, as many of the important players on the roster in October weren't there together for much of the year. The same can be said of the Giants. Posey didn't come up until late, and same for fellow-elite rookie Madison Bumgarner. Sweet-swinging left fielder Pat Burrell wasn't brought over until well after the season started from Tampa Bay. NLCS MVP Cody Ross was a late season waiver addition. The Giants are a better team right now than they were through the regular season, and their play reinforces that.
Something to be remembered when looking at the Giants' WAR, by the way: it's not adjusted for league quality. In today's MLB, a rule of thumb used by a lot of sabermetricians is to expect a two win player (roughly average) in the AL to put up about a 2.5 win season if he changed leagues. Adding that up over a whole roster is a sizable difference.
To start a comparison of the offenses, here's the likely lineup. . . sort of. . . of each team compared in terms of weighted On Base Average. It's basically like OPS with more accurate weights on an OBP scale.
Probable(?) Giants Lineup
- CF Andres Torres
- 2B Freddy Sanchez
- 1B Aubrey Huff
- C Buster Posey
- LF Pat Burrell
- RF Cody Ross
- 3B Juan Uribe
- SS Edgar Renteria
- P Pitcher
The Giants lineup is extremely hard to predict for this series. In the NLCS they had three people start at third, two in center and two at short. Near as I can guess, this is the likely lineup for the first two games, but I'm really not positive. The top six here are probably pretty reliable, it's the back of the order that has questions. After his NLCS performance, I'm betting Uribe gets most of the playing time, but it could also go to Pablo Sandoval (.314). Or they could both play, with Uribe at short and Renteria on the bench. There's also Mike Fontenot (.307), but I'm betting that experiment is over. It's probably good for the Rangers if it's not.
On top of that, we have the complication that always comes this time of year: only using the DH half the time. Since the first two games of the series will be in San Francisco, that means NL rules and that means pitchers hit. If the series goes to seven games, that would mean pitchers hit in this series most of the time. For their part, the Rangers have said they'll be using Vladimir Guerrero in the outfield in San Francisco. Doing that for every NL game is an iffy proposition at best, not just defensively, but at the plate. David Murphy (.358) was just about as good as Guerrero at the plate in 2010, and likely holds the platoon advantage in the first two games, as the Giants are probably going to start two righties.
For the Giants, I don't even have a clue who plays DH. The last time the Giants used a DH they had Burrell man the position and played Aaron Rowand (.287) in left. That makes sense, and I'm going to go ahead and expect that. Burrell apparently, however, does not like DHing, and there's suggestion the Giants will play Uribe the whole series and put Sandoval at DH for those games.
Just by looking at that image, the Giants offense probably looks a lot closer to the Rangers than you'd expect. There are two points to be made here. The first is that, yes, the Giants offense is probably close to what you'd expect. The way the guys likely to play this series hit (including some regression and park adjustment), the Rangers are looking roughly half a run better per game, four or five games better over a seven game set. That's significant, though considering how healthy a good Rangers offense is and how poor of a reputation the Giants offense has, it's probably closer than people would predict. Like I said, the Giants offense, like the Rangers, was not together for the entire season. As it stands now, it has more potential to score runs than it's given credit for.
The second point to be made, of course, is that they did that in the National League. You're definitely talking about scoring fewer runs against the stiffer competition of the AL. So we can still very comfortably say the Rangers have the significantly better offense going in to the Series.
To compare the pitching, here's each game's likely starter by Fielding Independent Pitching. Essentially what their ERA would probably be with average luck and defensive support. Remember: since it's like ERA, the shorter the bar the better.
- RHP Tim Lincecum vs. LHP Cliff Lee
- RHP Matt Cain vs. LHP C.J. Wilson
- LHP Jonathan Sanchez vs. RHP Colby Lewis
- LHP Madison Bumgarner vs. RHP Tommy Hunter
- RHP Tim Lincecum vs. LHP Cliff Lee
- RHP Matt Cain vs. LHP C.J. Wilson
- LHP Jonathan Sanchez vs. RHP Colby Lewis
At this point, both teams have announced their pitching rotations. There's still a possibility for change or pitching someone on short rest, but here's what we're probably going to get all seven games (if necessary).
If the story has eluded you, at some point last season, Tim Lincecum started losing his velocity. Where he was once a fireballer who could hit the mid-90s, he's now a guy who tops out at about 91 MPH on his fastball. He's made up for that by getting more movement and throwing his changeup a whole lot more. His devestating off-speed pitch is now his article of dominance, coming in around seven MPH behind the fastball, and he throws it more than a fifth of the time. That's what should be scaring you as a Rangers fan. He's gone from a guy who blows pitches by hitters to a crafty pitcher that works on location and movement. He fits it with a curve he throws nearly as often as a slider that he throws a little less than half as much.
Cain is an interesting case, as his ERA pretty consistently remains lower than his FIP. Some of that is defense, some of it is ballpark, and some of it is luck. And some of it may also just be unique skill. On top of that, his FIP is also much lower than his expected FIP (regressing the rate of home runs on fly balls to average), indicating more results that are either lucky or extremely unique. All of that can be said about his game two opponent C.J. Wilson, though, making for a very interesting matchup. To me at least. Some of that also seems to be Cain being a nifty matchup for his home park, as he's closer to typical on the road. Unfortunately, both of his starts in the World Series -- assuming he starts game two -- would be in San Francisco. He has a boring repertoire mostly revolving around a low-90s fastball and mid-80s changeup.
Sanchez is a solid lefty offering for the middle of the rotation. In the American League, he'd probably be fairly mediocre. That's not bad at all for a third starter, of course, but it's a drop off from the seasons the five better starters of this series had in 2010. He gets the strikeouts, more than nine per nine innings, but he's prone to some extreme wildness, walking nearly 4.5 per nine innings pitched. He throws a fastball that barely tops 90 around two thirds of the time and couples it with a low-80s change at around one-in-six pitches. He also has a breaking ball that sometimes seems to be called a slider and sometimes seems to be called a curve the rest of the time. Whatever it is, it's actually been a pretty effective pitch through most of his career.
Bumgarner will make NL hitters cry for a long time, starting immediately. He showed the ability to strike people out at a good rate and avoid walks in his debut season, and may well have put up the value of a very good No. 2 starter, if not a borderline No. 1, with a full season. Like Cain, he probably got a little lucky thanks to his park swallowing home runs and his defense grabbing balls in play. Also like Cain, he's still pretty good regardless. And he's got upside. Bumgarner uses his low-90s four seamer less than half the time, which is fairly unique. He also uses a two seamer of similar velocity about a tenth of the time, as well as a low-80s change to pair them with. The curve he uses about as often as the change is something incredible, coming over at about 75 MPH with nearly twice as much break as the average curve, and it's extremely effective. He likes his mid-80s slider, which he uses a bit more often than his other secondary offerings, though with less effectiveness in his rookie year.
The Giants pen is legitimately fanastic, led by Brian Wilson. He struggled some in the post season, but he is absolutely one of the best closers in baseball, and may well have been the best in 2010. His extreme fastball is bad enough, but it's his vicious slider that comes in close to 90 MPH that really destroys hitters. The Rangers don't want to face him. Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla are excellent supporting cast, and will make comebacks in the last three innings rough. The ace up the bullpen's sleeve is lefty specialist Javier Lopez, who used his fastball/slider combo to put up a 2.55 K/BB ratio against lefties. You can bet if Josh Hamilton comes up in a close-and-late moment, Lopez will be brought in to handle him.
The Giants are hailed for their pitching, and with good reason. They have good pitching. As you can see there, though, the Rangers' front three stacks up very well with San Francisco. And there are a couple of things to figure on top of that. The first is that FIP is still affected by home run rates, and the Giants' ballpark gives up a lot fewer of those than Arlington (though it should be noted San Francisco, over all, is actually a fairly neutral park). The second is that the Giants' pitchers deal with weaker lineups that feature pitchers hitting at the back end.
The National League scored 4.33 runs per game as opposed to 4.45 in the American League. Applying that difference to the Giants' pitchers alone gives the Rangers even more of an edge in the first three games, and that's before we even consider league quality. Another aspect to consider is home run rates on fly balls, something that's not entirely up to the pitcher. Regressing them to league average actually puts Lincecum and Lee much closer, though Lee continues to lead after league considerations. On the other hand, it also brings Hunter much closer to Bumgarner in that game four matchup that so dominantly favors San Francisco on that graph.
This is no insult meant to the Giants pitching staff. They have one of the best pitchers in baseball, a really good guy after him, another good option third and a rookie who is probably going to be magic going fourth. But, all things considered, that rookie is the only San Francisco starter who looks like the better starter in his game in 2010. That should say less about the Giants' pitching, which, again, is very good, and more about how underrated the Rangers' pitching has been this season.
For a fielding comparison, here's a representation of each player in the metrics Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, each in terms of runs saved in the field over average per 150 games played.
It's best to have large sample sizes -- more than even a full season -- when using stats to assess defensive skill. So this is less of a representation of ability and more an estimate of how the guys going in this series played in 2010
Even with that, there are some questions. In both metrics this season, Aubrey Huff had by far the best season of his career. Life time he's looked below average at first. Pat Burrell, statistically, had a good year in the field for the Giants, which is way out of whack for him. Uribe's elite bar at third base comes from a tiny sample of just over twenty games played there. And, though he may not have played better all season, I think most would agree Elvis Andrus's real defensive ability is better than average.
On paper, the Rangers' decision to start Vladimir Guerrero instead of David Murphy (-5.6/0) wouldn't make a massive difference in 2010. Murphy has shown to be a little better than that over his career, however, and Guerrero's defensive performance in 2010 is all of 16 starts. Guerrero is listed in left field on the chart partly because it's easier than moving Nelson Cruz, but also out of wishful thinking. Right field in San Francisco is massive, and moving Cruz's range for Guerrero's aging legs would likely be a mistake.
This comparison would have the Giants looking more than a quarter of a run saved better per game than the Rangers, or almost two runs saved over the course of seven games. These guys are probably closer to their career rates, however. The Giants may still be the better defensive team, but the difference is more like half a run saved over a seven game span. If that.
As mentioned, it's a good bet the Giants will be using Aaron Rowand (3.3/5.9) plenty instead of Pat Burrell in the field, putting Rowand in center and Torres in left. For his career, Rowand has looked like a good center fielder, and that gain will help off set the lack of an every day DH some.
We can take every one of these matchups and look at how many runs on average the two teams would score in these games, and use that to get an expected record (making sure to regress speculative performance rates and adjust NL pitchers for an AL offensive environment). That's exactly what I'm going to do, but something needs to be addressed: league differences. I'll be including some time given to the Sandovals and Rowands and Francouers and Murphys of the two rosters, both at the plate and in the field, in order to account for DH options in games 3-5.
The NL is just not as good as the AL, plain and simple. The hits the Rangers get are against stronger rotations, the strikeouts their pitchers get are against stronger lineups. It's a difficult thing to account to, but any comparison between the two teams that doesn't try underrates the Rangers chances. Over the last three (once through the cycle) years, the AL has a .558 record in interleague play. Over the last six years (twice through), it has a .563 record. So expecting the average AL to go from .500 to .560, improving from 81-81 to 91-71, if they changed leagues is probably pretty reasonable. You can also see some work done at Beyond the Boxscore here on league quality differences, reinforcing nearly a 60% difference in true talent record between AL and NL teams through the last interleague cycle. However, this year, the difference was closer to 30%. In the interest of playing it somewhat conservative, I decided to split the difference between the two numbers. That may be underrating the NL by little bit, but it also may be overrating it by a little bit.
On a matchup basis, the series looks pretty close before you plug that difference in, though definitely favoring the Rangers. Once you add that league difference, however, the Rangers come out looking comfortably favored in every game save the Cain vs. Wilson matchups, where the Giants pull their win expectancy close by playing at home, (homefield advantage is real and included). Running those expected game-by-game records through a simulation (designed by Steve Sommer) looks like this:
It looks like Rangers dominance. At least as much as you could expect in a World Series setting. The Rangers look here to be winning the World Series just under 66% of the time it's played. That may seem like a lot, but the Rangers and Giants looked roughly similar relative to the leagues they played in this season, with the Rangers looking just a bit better at full strength, but the two leagues to not look similar. A .560 record like the AL roughly has against the NL over the last several years is equivalent to just under four wins over seven games. Which would mean, if two teams are close relative to their leagues, the AL team should be expected to win a seven game series a great percentage of the time. In this case, that's a little more than two thirds of the time. And, remember, I'm not even going all the way to .560 in this estimation. If you consider the .560 record for AL against the NL over the last 3-6 years, the Rangers come out closer to 70% to win the series. If you use the roughly .530 record from this season, the Rangers still come out winning more than 63% of the time. When evaluating this series, you cannot ignore the differences in talent between the two leagues that make up the teams' schedules.
In fact, the odds favor the Rangers enough they can still feel confident about winning the series if Cliff Lee fails for the first time in his playoff life in game one. Should the Rangers manage to go a believable 3-1 through the first four games, the Rangers will have Cliff Lee waiting to clinch at home in one of the most one-sided games (on paper) in the series, despite the presence of Tim Lincecum.
I understand that number up there is pretty hard to believe. I would probably choke on whatever I was eating if someone showed them to me if I hadn't gone through the steps of doing it myself. I expect to be linked to and mocked as a result. And, hey, that may mean I'm wrong. I may be accounting for the league differences wrong. We'll never know until these teams play each other a thousand times, so this is just my best guess from the information we've got, and that information says the AL is the much better league. I also feel I should point out that small bar on the left side is not how often the Rangers are swept in four, it's how often they're swept in seven. The Rangers are swept more like 3% of the time; still a small number, but it would actually be visible on the chart.
That, of course, does not mean it's a done deal. This is not fire for the "Giants aren't being given a chance!" meme; rather, this is saying they very much have a chance. 1-in-3 is far more than a puncher's chance; it's a very real shot. The Giants should not be treated as anything other than sizable underdogs, but there are also anywhere from four to seven games left to be played and we know very well the favorable team doesn't always win. These Giants just upset a Phillies team that was mostly the same as -- if not better than -- a Phillies team that two years ago beat an AL team perhaps better than this Rangers team in five games. Don't go planning to buy your sweet Sports Illustrated commemorative swag yet, Rangers fans. But you can, at least, feel pretty comfortable in your chances.
This is the place where you usually say something about how we should be looking forward to a good series and stuff like that. But I don't want to say that. I have nothing against the Giants, but I want their next four games to be blow out losses. I want something I could barely dream is possible to become reality. It's hard to have a better chance this this, Texas. Please don't blow it.
I'll still love them forever if they don't, of course. In this calm before the storm, I think it would be a good idea to remember, regardless of what happens over the next week or so, how magical this year has been.
Like I have never meant it before: Go Rangers.
Individual Game Estimated Rangers W%
Glossary: WAR, DRS, UZR, wOBA, FIP, tERA