NL Wild Card Series Preview: St. Louis Cardinals vs. San Diego Padreson September 29, 2020 at 12:00 pm

NL Wild Card Series Preview: St. Louis Cardinals vs. San Diego Padres

It’s grimly fitting that San Diego’s playoff drought would end in a year like this. After nearly 15 years of baseball as forgettable as the half-dozen jerseys they cycled through in that time, of course the Padres snapped their October skid in such an exciting matter — and in such killer threads — right when nobody could come watch them do it. Par for the course for arguably the country’s most luckless sports city.

But for any Friars fan who can overcome the first half of “bittersweet,” the deck is actually stacked pretty well for them here. While any fair bracket would slot them in the two-seed most years, this season’s weird format actually plays to their advantage. Anything can happen in a short series but at least this set isn’t as short as it would have been normally: Were this any of the past eight seasons, San Diego would have suffered the misfortune of posting the league’s second-best record and getting a trip to the coin-flip round for their trouble.

Instead, they’ll live to fight another day if Game 1 goes south, an extra benefit given their opponent. Few clubs would be at a significant disadvantage in a best of three, but if you were looking to tip the scales toward one side, you’d have their foe limp into the series physically and mentally drained. Such is the case here, where the Padres battle the beleaguered St. Louis Cardinals, who are still catching their breath from playing 10 double headers over the past 45 days.

A baseball season is said to be a marathon, not a sprint; for St. Louis in 2020, it was arguably both. Given their daunting schedule, the Redbirds can be slightly forgiven for mediocre underlying metrics. I’ll buy the idea that they’re a little better than they played.

But one consequence of an expanded playoff field is that inevitably some qualifiers look weak relative to who we are used to seeing in October. Compressed schedule or not, these Cardinals match that description. Only three players posted a wRC+ above league average (I’m not counting Austin Dean‘s seven PAs) and the pitching staff’s ERA outperformed its FIP by more than half a run. Indeed, their ERA-FIP was the second-largest swing in all of baseball.

A look up and down the roster suggests a team running on empty. Dakota Hudson will miss the postseason after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Carlos Martinez, club ace turned closer, has spent the past two months staring into the void and wondering what happened. Jack Flaherty looks mortal. Matt Carpenter hasn’t singled since 2018.

How St. Louis Can Win Anyway

The lack of days off in the postseason this year means that teams will have to navigate October differently. Washington’s 2019 strategy of only allowing six of their pitchers anywhere near the mound will not work this season. Teams cannot plan on coaxing a handful of innings from their starters before turning things over to dominant bullpens night after night, as Kansas City’s World Series clubs did so successfully. That’s a major impediment for St. Louis, a team with a deep bullpen but a thin rotation. At some point, the Cardinals will run out of pitching.

But perhaps not quite yet.

With two days off, St. Louis can set its rotation as they please. The three starters still standing are all perfectly capable arms, and the Cardinals have enough depth in their bullpen to pivot if the middle innings get hairy. Later in this postseason, teams will need more than four or five innings from their starter in most games, but here the Cards can probably get 12-15 innings from these relievers and survive to fight another round.

Meanwhile, San Diego’s two best starters enter the week with lingering questions about the health of their right arms. Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger both left their most recent outings with arm tightness, which is just about the last thing Jayce Tingler wanted to see in their final tuneups.

Anything can happen in the course of three baseball games, and the health of the Friars rotation swings the advantage one way or the other. But regardless of whether San Diego’s studs show up, St. Louis’s most likely path forward involves a couple of crisp outings from the pitching staff while the offense scores just enough to get out of dodge with two wins.

San Diego’s Edge

To win a baseball game, it helps to have star players. The Padres have more of them than the Cardinals: They’ll have the top starter (if he’s healthy), inarguably the best two position players, and perhaps the most dangerous relief weapon in the series.

The health caveat is a pretty significant “if,” though. Lamet’s history of arm trouble is concerning, particularly given that Clevinger already looked out of sorts at times this season even before his elbow barked. San Diego won’t get far this October if these two can’t pitch.

If they can, look out. Lamet’s surge into Cy Young contention was as definitive as it was surprising. Usually, two-pitch hurlers with control problems wind up in the bullpen. But at the time rubber usually meets road in that transition, Lamet elevated his game. He started throwing harder, finding the zone more often, and enticing more whiffs, all while more than halving his home run rate from 2019. In fact, of the 21 starters who fanned at least a batter per inning, only three registered a lower HR/9 ratio than Lamet. There’s a little strand, BABIP, and perhaps fly ball fortune boosting his top line numbers. But if the underlying peripherals are indicative of the kind of player he is now, he’s on the long-list for best pitcher in baseball.

I don’t need to say much about Fernando Tatis Jr. here. He’s a wunderkind, a delight to watch play, and if my slightly damp index finger is a reliable anemometer, Baseball Twitter’s consensus NL MVP.

Tatis has been so good that he’s overshadowed his colleague on the left side of the infield. Manny Machado shrugged off a down year and finished 2020 with a .304/.370/.580 line, good for a career-best 147 wRC+. Add in standout defense at the hot corner, and you have one of the 10 or so best players in the National League.

And it’s not just those two. With the midseason addition of Austin Nola, the Padres are solid 1-9 in the lineup. Jake Cronenworth will have to do this again before we buy in fully, but even if he’s this year’s Tommy Edman, the Padres still have a formidable middle of the order. Eric Hosmer finally altered his launch angle meaningfully this year, and only crummy BABIP luck kept him from posting the stat line of his finest dreams; as is, he set career highs in slugging and ISO while notching a 127 wRC+. I don’t know what to make of Wil Myers‘ season, but it feels relevant to mention that he slugged .606 and was the 15th best hitter in baseball.

To sum all of that up: Sure, the Cardinals have a decent pitching staff, but they’ll have their hands full with a great Padres lineup and San Diego may have better ball chuckers anyway.

What I’m Watching

This series hinges on health. With Lamet and Clevinger, the Padres have a meaningful advantage in the starting pitching department. Without them, that advantage disappears entirely.

This is more than just a binary of whether or not one or both of those pitchers can start. We won’t know how effective they are until they pitch, nor how durable they’ll be until they reach the later innings.’s AJ Cassavell reported that anonymous club sources said those two played “aggressive catch” today, a gamely if meaningless status update. It all seems to point to Zach Davies, who posted a 2.73 ERA and a 3.88 FIP on his way to a 1.3 WAR season, getting the ball in Game 1, though a starter has yet to be announced. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Who Wins?

My first blogging gig was at It’s About the Money Stupid, a Yankees blog of all things, back in their title-winning 2009 season. I was 18 and under the illusion that I was ready for the internet to comment on my baseball writing; the site had a larger comment section to offer than my desolate Blogspot, so off I went. My primary duty was to write the series preview every so often, a matchup that inevitably favored New York. I don’t think I’ve ever liked any part of any writing assignment less than the three sentences I’d write at the end of those series previews, an exercise in vainly searching for a way to put a novel spin on “The Yankees should probably win the series.”

You don’t need to read that here any more than I want to write it. I don’t even want to mention Vegas betting lines or our playoff odds; all of that is meaningless if we don’t know who can pitch. Instead, let’s get back to basics. Two good baseball teams will gather in San Diego this week. The series may well hinge on the health of two of the Padres pitchers. Regardless, they’ll play two, maybe three games depending how the first couple shake out. It will be good, competitive baseball played by talented people who want to win very badly. Enjoy the ride!

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