NL Championship Series Preview: San Diego Padres vs. Philadelphia Phillies

Bryce Harper
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Did anybody out there have this one? None of us did. While it’s not altogether surprising that either the Padres or the Phillies, two very good teams, made it this deep into the postseason, it’s incredible that both of them have, considering who they had to go through to get here. While a handful of the FanGraphs staff members picked the Padres to beat the Mets in the Wild Card Series, none of us picked them to beat the Dodgers, and even though the vast majority of us thought the Phillies would dispatch the Cardinals, only two of us picked them to beat Atlanta.

This seems foolish in hindsight, especially as it pertains to the Padres. They have a dangerous heart of the order led by MVP candidate Manny Machado and young star Juan Soto, who is starting to heat up. Neither Max Scherzer nor Spencer Strider seemed 100% in their respective postseason outings (key details that allow for some amount of site-wide absolution), making the Padres the lone NL postseason team with three totally healthy premium starting pitchers in Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and Joe Musgrove. Their bridge to Josh HaderRobert Suarez and Luis García in high-leverage spots, Tim Hill as a lefty specialist and Steven Wilson as a mid-90s/slider middle inning rock — might be the best relief corps of the remaining playoff teams, depending on whether you value depth (Houston’s bullpen takes the cake in this department) or peak individual nastiness ceiling (give me the Padres or Guardians). Despite Fernando Tatis Jr.’s suspension and a difficult playoff draw, San Diego has now bested the two teams that spent most of the calendar atop the National League and now enjoys home field advantage in a League Championship Series.

The Phillies are also playing with house money. If you had listened to Philadelphia sports talk radio in August (I was visiting home and fell off the wagon), you’d have thought the Phillies were an awful team rather than a good one that’s simply somewhat incomplete. Even though they (along with the Padres) kind of backed into the playoffs, the depth of their lineup and their two elite starters were obviously enough to make them dangerous in October, and in two playoff series those traits were sufficient to overcome a middling bullpen (which may or may not be without veteran David Robertson again in the NLCS) and bad team defense. With the NLCS set to get underway on Tuesday, we’re no more than a week and a half away from one of these two clubs punching a World Series ticket.

Philadelphia’s four-game elimination of Atlanta kept Zack Wheeler from having to pitch in a decisive Game 5, enabling him to take the ball for NLCS Game 1 in San Diego. It also sets up him and Aaron Nola to start a combined four of the first six games of this series, all on normal rest thanks to the off day for travel after Game 2. That’s big for the Phillies: the drop from Wheeler/Nola to third starter Ranger Suárez is steeper than San Diego’s drop from Darvish and Snell (also on track to pitch Games 1, 2, 5, and 6 on usual rest) to Musgrove, if there’s a drop there at all.

Because there is no scheduled off day for travel after the series leaves Philadelphia and heads back to San Diego for a theoretical sixth game, whoever starts Game 3 would need to work on short rest in a potential Game 7, perhaps muting San Diego’s anticipated Musgrove advantage a bit by increasing the likelihood that both bullpens are heavily involved in what would otherwise be the sequel to that matchup. And while six-pitch Suárez had a fine second half of the season as he began throwing more cutters, his last few starts have been rocky, including a bullet-dodging, five-walk mess in NLDS Game 1 against the Braves.

Even without any production from NL regular-season home run leader Kyle Schwarber so far in the playoffs, the Phillies’ vaunted offense has been their October engine, as they’ve plated at least six runs in four of their six games so far. Bryce Harper has ten hits in those games, six of which have gone for extra bases. Most of the rest of the team’s offensive success has come from timely, baton-passing hitting rather than white-hot individuals, aside from a scorching Harper.

Philly manager Rob Thomson has sometimes utilized an in-game platoon at shortstop and in center field, mixing and matching Edmundo Sosa and Bryson Stott, as well as Matt Vierling and Brandon Marsh. The two lefty bats — Stott and Marsh — often start, and Thomson tends to sandwich them around Jean Segura at the bottom of the Phillies’ order, to prevent hitters eight, nine, and one (typically Schwarber) from being vulnerable against relief lefties for three consecutive batters. If Bob Melvin can deploy the lefty Hill, or maybe even Sean Manaea, proactively against the bottom of the order and coax Thomson into inserting his righties in the middle of the game, he can ensure that the Padres get favorable right-on-right matchups late, since Thomson will have already made his relevant offensive substitutions, and the entire back half of the Phillies’ lineup will be right-handed from then on.

Don’t sleep on Vierling. The gap between his xwOBA and actual wOBA was the seventh-largest in MLB among hitters with at least 150 plate appearances in 2022, suggesting he had tough ball-in-play luck during the regular season and is a better hitter than his surface stats would make you think. Snell may present a favorable matchup in Game 2; his breaking balls tend to finish toward the down-and-in portion of the zone for right-handed hitters, which is where Vierling’s somewhat odd-looking swing tends to be most dangerous. Having him (or the threat of him hitting for Marsh) and Rhys Hoskins surrounding Schwarber in the lineup might also dissuade Melvin from attacking Schwarber with a lefty, or put the Phillies in position to punish him for it if he does.

Whatever the Phillies think they can do to get Schwarber going, they have to try. Not only have his results been bad during postseason play, but the quality of his at-bats has also taken a hit. He’s hitting .050 so far during the playoffs and is seeing about one fewer pitch per plate appearance, on average, than he was during a more patient regular season.

Conversely for the Padres, things look like they’re starting to click for Soto, who struggled most of the year. While he hasn’t homered yet this postseason, he was starting to pull the ball with power in the middle of the NLDS, and he once again showed flashes of oppo gap power. His triple slash line from the NLDS looks bad, but in three of the four games, he had either the hardest-hit ball in play or the second-hardest-hit ball in play. He might be turning a corner. Machado, meanwhile, has sustained an MVP level of play, and the Padres have also gotten cherry-on-top contributions from the bottom of their lineup, especially Trent Grisham and Austin Nola, who had a big NLDS.

Unless Melvin pulls a fast one and starts Jorge Alfaro or Luis Campusano, the Nola brothers will face one another in the biggest baseball game of their lives. They played together at LSU — only one season; then-shortstop Austin has three years on Aaron — and have faced each other in regular-season games each of the last two years.

Though not as intensely personal, there is more narrative intrigue in this series. Both García and Alfaro are former Phillies. García had spent a year away from baseball and was briefly cutting hair and working for a moving company in 2012 when the Phillies signed him and gave him his first big league time; his career is now about a decade long. Alfaro was part of the Cole Hamels trade return from Texas and is the only of the many prospects in that trade to have kind of panned out. Brad Hand is also a former Padre, returning to the place where he broke out and was eventually traded for Francisco Mejía.

The Padres have better defenders at every position but catcher, the better bullpen, and a slightly deeper “top” of their rotation, though that only matters for one game in this series. The Phillies have a deeper lineup and a more helpful bench. Both of these clubs were put together by front offices that tend to skew old school, and both are full of cold-blooded players and field staff who mostly appear to play loose and with poise rather than self-ignited intensity (Harper and Ha-Seong Kim are exceptions to this) — something that both boisterous fanbases will no doubt bring to the party during this star-studded chase for the pennant.

Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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Bruce Schwindtmember
3 months ago

Gonna be at Friday game at CBP and am already pumped. Hoping for a great series with two great fanbases out in full force.

3 months ago
Reply to  Bruce Schwindt

It’s so great to not have to deal with Dodgers or Braves fans in this series. San Diego and Philly will both be rocking and hopefully the vibes will stay positive. Go Padres!

3 months ago
Reply to  peli

you’d prefer phillies fans over dodger fans? lolz

3 months ago
Reply to  sweepcut

One of the most irritating traits a fanbase can have is thinking that they (as fans) are better than everyone else. Cardinals fans are probably the worst about this, but the Dodgers are bad too

3 months ago
Reply to  sweepcut

Phillies fans are notorious for their rudeness. Don’t sweat the downvotes, sweepcut. You ain’t tellin’ nothin’ but the truth.

3 months ago
Reply to  E-Dub

Normally I agree with the “all fanbases” part, but Philly fans really do seem to be in a class all their own.