Analyzing Baseball’s Final Four

Now that the 2014 major league season is down to the final four, we can reflect on how these four teams made it to the League Championship Series and how they stack up for a World Series run.  To do so, I’ll look at the hitting, pitching, and defense of the remaining teams.

One of the best ways to measure a player’s offensive contributions is with Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+). Weighted Runs Created Plus attempts to quantify a player’s total offensive value and measure it in runs relative to the league average, controlling for park effects. League average for position players is 100. Every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average, so a 110 wRC+ means a player created 10 percent more runs than a league average hitter would have in the same number of plate appearances. I’ll use that 110 wRC+ threshold, based on the numbers on FanGraphs, to identify above average offensive players.

Last year’s World Series matchup featured two of the teams that make a strong case for the importance of offensive excellence. The World Champion Boston Red Sox had seven players with a wRC+ of 110 or better, tied for the most in baseball, and two more with a 109 wRC+. Their World Series opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals, had six players that were at least 10 percent better than average, tied for third best in baseball.

Players with 110 wRC+ or Better
2013 Playoff Teams
Minimum 250 Plate Appearances

Team

Players

Boston Red Sox

7

Pittsburgh Pirates

7

St. Louis Cardinals

6

Detroit Tigers

6

Tampa Bay Rays

6

Oakland Athletics

5

Los Angeles Dodgers

5

Atlanta Braves

5

Cleveland Indians

5

 

This season, the American League Championship Series features the Baltimore Orioles and the Kansas City Royals. Manny Machado’s knee injury in August and Chris Davis’ 25-game suspension left the Orioles with only four above average offensive regulars heading into the postseason. While Davis’ suspension garnered plenty of media coverage, his offensive production had been below average, 94 wRC+, this season.

Making up for the loss of Machado and Davis’ poor season was center fielder Adam Jones, who hit 29 home runs and slugged .469. Jones was among the best hitting center fielders, ranking second and seventh at the position in home runs and slugging percentage, respectively, among qualifiers. In addition, Nelson Cruz was one of the most underrated offseason free agent signings. Dan Duquette signed Cruz to a one-year deal for $8 million in February, securing a middle-of-the-order power bat to protect Adam Jones. Cruz handily outperformed his one-year deal by hitting an MLB-best 40 home runs in 2014.

While the Orioles have four above average offensive players, they have an abundance of above average defensive players. The Orioles lead the American League by a wide margin with 56 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). The Athletics finished second with 42 DRS. Baltimore has four players that rank in the top 10 at their respective positions, including the important up-the-middle positions with catcher Caleb Joseph, shortstop J.J. Hardy, and second baseman Jonathan Schoop.

Perhaps the most remarkable story of the season has been that of Steve Pearce. The 31-year old journeyman has taken advantage of the his opportunity this season by slugging .556 and hitting 21 home runs on his way to a 161 wRC+. Pearce also shined defensively where he ranked in the top 10 in Runs Saved at two different positions: first base and left field. This season, Pearce should be one of the most dangerous and versatile players in the postseason.

Beyond their individual players, the Orioles also have a nice advantage in the form of defense shifts. Baltimore led all teams in baseball with 599 shifts on balls in play a year ago and increased that total this season to 705 shifts, fourth most in baseball. That dedication to the shift resulted in seven Shift Runs Saved.

One the major reasons the Orioles advanced past the Detroit Tigers in the ALDS was the effectiveness of their bullpen. Where the Tigers bullpen failed to hold leads in the series sweep, the Orioles bullpen was superb. Manager Buck Showalter used his bullpen for 12 innings over the three games, and his relievers surrendered just three runs in that span. Showalter has a plethora of options to deploy against righties, including hard-throwing Tommy Hunter and sidewinder Darren O’Day. But his star reliever is their left-handed trade deadline acquisition Andrew Miller.

Miller pitched 3.1 innings of no-hit baseball against the Tigers, striking out three batters against only one walk. Showalter utilized Miller’s versatility to pitch multiple innings in Games 1 and 3. Miller came on in the sixth inning in Game 1 to hold a one-run lead before the Orioles offense torched the Tigers bullpen for eight runs in the eighth inning. In Game 3, Miller inherited a runner on first, but he still held the Tigers scoreless, bridging the game to Orioles closer Zach Britton. Britton saved the final two games of the series, sending the Orioles to the ALCS for the first time since 1997.

The Kansas City Royals’ return to the playoffs was built upon power arms in the bullpen, speed, and defense. The Royals collective athleticism and speed buoyed an often lifeless offense. They led MLB in stolen bases this season, with Jarrod Dyson and Alcides Escobar each stealing 30-plus bases this year. Speed has continued to play a major role in the Royals’ postseason success thus far as the Royals stole seven bases against the Athletics in the Wild Card play-in game. They stole another five bases in their sweep of the Angels in the ALDS.

The Royals bullpen features three of the best power arms in baseball. Setup men Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis and closer Greg Holland each have an average fastball velocity over 95 mph, with Herrera and Davis touching 100 mph at various times this season. Davis was nearly untouchable this season, striking out almost 40 percent of the batters he faced while averaging only one earned run per nine innings. Holland and Herrera kept pace with Davis, with Holland fanning 38 percent of hitters and Herrera punching out 21 percent. Both maintained sub-2.00 ERAs, as well. In their four playoff games so far, the three flamethrowers and TCU rookie sensation Brandon Finnegan have been outstanding. They have combined to throw 15 innings, allowing just three earned runs and striking out 18 batters.

While their offense had its ebbs and flows this season, the Royals’ defense remained a constant strength all year. Kansas City saved 40 runs defensively this season, third most in the AL. Their outfielders were particularly outstanding. Left fielder Alex Gordon led all AL players with 27 DRS this season. Nearly as impressive were Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson who saved 24 and 14 runs, respectively. That defensive success has continued into the postseason where Cain and Dyson have made spectacular catches and outfield assists to stymie any potential rally put forth by the A’s and Angels.

During the regular season, the Royals had only three above average regulars on offense. So far this postseason, their offense has improved dramatically. First baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas were well-below average offensive players in the regular season. Hosmer hit a paltry 9 home runs and Moustakas hit 15. But both players have played like stars in their playoff games, hitting a pair of home runs, each, including two game-winning home runs, one by Moustakas in Game 1 and the other by Hosmer in Game 2 of the ALDS.

The National League Championship Series pits the San Francisco Giants against the St. Louis Cardinals, two of the most successful NL franchises over the last decade. The Giants are quite familiar with the spotlight and hope to continue their odd trend of winning a World Series in even years just as they did in 2010 and 2012.

Five Giants were at least 10 percent better than league average offensively this season. Team leader and perennial MVP candidate Buster Posey has the rare ability to both get on base at a high rate and hit for power. He ranked near the top in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage among catchers in 2014. Posey is surrounded by outfielder Hunter Pence, a stealth MVP candidate, and Pablo Sandoval, an above average offensive third baseman. In his career, Sandoval has really shined in the postseason. He has a solid .294/.346/.465 in the regular season, but in the playoffs, Sandoval has been a superstar, hitting .311/.351/.547 with six home runs in 27 career playoff games.

The Giants’ staff ace, Madison Bumgarner, is perhaps the most underrated pitcher in baseball. Still just 25-years old, Bumgarner has already won two World Series and finished in the top 12 in Cy Young voting twice. This season, with Matt Cain lost to injury for much of the season, Bumgarner established himself as the clear ace of the staff. It was his fourth consecutive season with more than 200 innings, and Bumgarner was also among the NL leaders in strikeout rate, walk rate, and ERA. He even excels in the batter’s box. In Bumgarner’s limited 78 plate appearances this season, he hit four home runs and posted a 115 wRC+, the best among pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances.

Even with Bumgarner at the top of the rotation, the strength of the Giants pitching staff is its bullpen. Manager Bruce Bochy can use his bullpen to counter any matchups that Cardinals manager Mike Matheny might present during the NLCS. Bochy has a lefty specialist in Javy Lopez who neutralizes left-handed hitters. Lefties are hitting just .190/.248/.290 against Lopez this season. Right-handed reliever Sergio Romo has regained the feel for his devastating slider, which he featured with tremendous success as the Giants closer in 2012. Bochy now has a flame-throwing righty in Hunter Strickland to counter difficult right-handed hitters with his 98 mph fastball. Santiago Casilla closes down games. He has a mid-90s fastball and two breaking pitches, a curve and a slider, which successfully held hitters to a .175 batting average against this season.

Last year’s NL Champion, the St. Louis Cardinals, aim for a return trip to the World Series. The Central Division champs had five above average offensive players this season, but they had to do it without catcher Yadier Molina for a good portion of the season. Between 2011 and 2013, Molina posted three consecutive seasons with a wRC+ above 125, but this season, he was barely above league average. Molina’s torn thumb ligament on his right hand, which put him on the disabled list from July 9th through August 29th, may explain his subpar offensive season.

With Molina sidelined, the Cardinals had several players who stepped up both offensively and defensively. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta lived up to the four-year $53 million free agent contract he signed in the winter. He has provided both power and defense, with 21 home runs and 17 Runs Saved, which had him near the top in each category among shortstops.

The Cardinals would not have advanced past the Dodgers in the NLCS without the efforts of third baseman Matt Carpenter. The TCU product was taken by the Cardinals in the 13th round of the 2009 draft and has steadily risen to become one of the best players in baseball. In fact, since the beginning of the 2013 season, Carpenter is 4th in the NL in FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement with 10.7 WAR, trailing only center fielders Andrew McCutchen and Carlos Gomez and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. During that span, Carpenter has been over 30 percent better than league average offensively, ranking in the top 10 among all NL position players in batting average and on-base percentage. Against the Dodgers in the NLDS, Carpenter hit .375/.412/1.125 with three home runs and a decisive three-run double against Clayton Kershaw in Game 1, cementing the Cardinals rally in the opening game of the series.

The Cardinals’ playoff rotation is built around staff ace Adam Wainwright, who finished second in the Cy Young voting last year and has once again built a strong case for the award in 2014. Among NL starters, Wainwright was second in innings and third in ERA and Fielding  Independent Pitching (FIP). Lance Lynn, the Cardinals Game 2 starter, has pitched over 200 innings in back-to-back seasons and is unusual in his approach. Lynn throws 79 percent fastballs, which is the second highest fastball percentage in MLB.

The Cardinals acquired veteran pitcher John Lackey at the trade deadline from the Boston Red Sox. Lackey has raised his game in the postseason in his career. His playoff ERA is under 3.00 in 17 starts, compared to an ERA over 4.00 in the regular season. He also has 86 strikeouts against just 36 walks in his postseason career. Lackey immediately paid dividends for the Cardinals in his Game 3 start against the Dodgers in the NLDS. In that start, he pitched seven innings and gave up just one-run on five hits while striking out eight batters and walking just one.

The two League Championship Series possess plenty of interesting matchups. The AL pits the Orioles’ power versus the Royals’ speed and the Royals’ lefty-laden lineup against Buck Showalter’s ability to counter with his relief corps. Both teams excel on defense, but Caleb Joseph should be able to slow the Royals’ running game down, and Nelson Cruz, Steve Pierce and the Orioles offense should continue to mash home runs, perhaps even a few the hard-throwing Royals bullpen.

The NLCS is a complete toss-up, seemingly destined to go the distance and be decided in seven games. Although the Giants have the better bullpen, which manager Bruce Bochy deploys as well as any manager in the game, the Cardinals’ lineup is deeper with power from both sides of the plate, and they also have the stronger rotation.

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