The San Francisco Giants know they will be facing either the Washington Nationals or the Cincinnati Reds in the upcoming 2012 National League Division Series. As though speaking in one voice, virtually every Bay Area sports commentator, broadcaster, sports talk radio host and peanut vendor has pronounced that the Giants would be much better off if they faced the Cincinnati Reds rather than the Nationals.
But here's the thing: they're all wrong, dead wrong.
Wrong in the way that the NFL ref-lites were wrong in the Green Bay-Seattle game. Wrong like cauliflower pizza or the Pittsburgh Pirates having a winning season. I mean really dog-def wrong. And here's why.
Baseball experts and insiders agree that nothing is more important in a short playoff series than a solid, high performance bullpen. It's nice to have home runs and you'd like to see your starting pitchers go seven, but a team's bullpen will likely be the real difference between making or breaking your post season dreams.
And no team in Major League Baseball has a better bullpen than the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds' pen is #1 in MLB saves with 54, #1 in ERA at 2.61, and they lead the Majors with 10.04 strikeouts per nine innings.
A couple of other relevant numbers: in the National League Cincy is #1 in opponents batting average (.215), #1 in WHIP (1.20), and #4 in strikeouts (462).
The Red's closer is one of the most dominating young players in the game. Twenty-four year old Aroldis Chapman has put up some some stunning numbers to date: 36 saves, 1.55 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, and 119 strikeouts in 69.2 innings pitched. He routinely throws at and above 100 MPH and backs up his four seam fastball with a darting slider. As of August, Aroldis Chapman's career strikeouts to innings pitched is 14.66.
Backing up Chapman are two of the best set-up men in any bullpen: Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton. Marshall has a 2.62 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP with 73 SO in 58.1 IP. He has 9 saves and 21 holds. Since coming over from Kansas City in July Broxton has a combined 2.25 ERA with 43 SO in 55.2 IP. He has 9 holds and 27 saves (23 with KC).
Another huge advantage to playing the Nationals over the Reds is the ballpark factor. ESPN's Park Factors rates Cincy's Great American Ball Park as the third highest home run ballyard in the Majors. The Reds have built their offense around the home run, while the Giants have the lowest home run total in the Majors at 95 (and they're the only MLB team with under 100 HRs) .
That means if the Reds just split the first two games of the Division Series at AT&T Park they will have a huge advantage with the next three games being played on their home field, also known as Home Run Fantasy Park.
The Giants' strengths are starting and bullpen pitching and that's where they can go head to head with the Nationals-- beat the Nats on that and you have the series. Getting into a home run derby with the Reds in Ohio will likely not have a happy ending.
The last important reason for wanting to play the Nationals over the Reds is the experience factor.
The Reds made the playoffs in 2010 led by Manager Dusty Baker and top hitting first baseman Joey Votto. Years before, Baker took the Giants to three post seasons including a World Series in 2002, and a number of Reds players have playoff experience. That kind of resume counts for a lot when you're in the pressure cooker known as post season baseball.
The Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos franchise made the NL playoffs a total of one time in 44 years-- in 1981 when they lost the NLCS. So Washington enters the NLDS as a young team with virtually no playoff experience.
And two weeks ago the Nat's brilliant brain trust decided to shut down Stephen Strasberg, maybe the best young pitcher in the Majors-- just in case he gets hurt. Thanks to this amazingly bad ownership decision, Strasberg's 15-6 record, 1.15 WHIP, and 197 strikeouts in 159.1 innings pitched will not be a factor if the Giant's face the Nationals.
San Francisco's World Series Championship season was only two years ago. Manager Bruce Bochy, his coaching staff, and eleven players on the current active roster were part of that winning team. This is a young and very hungry squad with a ton of recent playoff experience.
All due respect to the local sports pundits, talk show mavens and stadium insiders, San Francisco should cross their fingers and hope the Cincinnati Reds end up with the best record in the National League when the 2012 season ends. Then the Giants can start the playoffs against the Washington Nationals.