After two elimination games on Wednesday night, the National League Championship Series has its two participants: the St. Louis Cardinals and the Washington Nationals. It’s not quite the matchup most predicted — only four of 32 FanGraphs predictors pegged the NLCS correctly a week ago — it’s hard to say that either team got there cheaply. The Game 5’s were very different; one was a fantastic blowout, the other a fantastic crushing of Clayton Kershaw’s hopes and dreams, and just like that, the National League’s two winningest teams saw their seasons end before mid-October.
The Washington Nationals were a ZiPS favorite going into their series with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not a literal favorite — the Dodgers were still projected to win 51%-49% — but certainly a team that was hitting above their seasonal win total. Over 162 games, there’s no doubt that the Dodgers were the better club, but over a short series of five games, Washington’s Big Three of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin match up against any team in baseball. It didn’t always work (see: Corbin’s first relief appearance), but combine the Wild Card and the NLDS, and Nats were able to use that trio in just under two-thirds of their total innings (66.3%). In the regular season, that number was only 40.1%.
Similarly, while the Washington relief corps still isn’t a good unit, they’ve at least been able to use the shorter timeframe of postseason baseball to lop off some of the dreadful performances at the back of their bullpen. Kyle Barraclough and Matt Grace weren’t around to start any late-inning conflagrations (Trevor Rosenthal was mercifully released in August). The bullpen combined for an abysmal 5.68 ERA in 2019, but the seven pitchers brought in this October have combined for a 3.90 ERA. That’s certainly not going to remind anyone of the Yankees, but it’s at least a serviceable group if you’re forced to use them.
In a seven-game series, the Nationals undoubtedly will have to utilize the bullpen more than they did in the NLDS. The two extra games the NLCS can run do not come equipped with an additional day of rest, so it would be even harder to feature a surprise guest appearances from their top starters. Aníbal Sánchez will certainly get another start unless Game 4 is an elimination game for the Nats, and while I wouldn’t count out a Scherzer appearance in a truly high-leverage relief situation, I think you’ll necessarily see Washington rely on its relief pitching more. St. Louis’ offense is not L.A.’s, something that’s not necessarily captured in Win Expectancy calculators, so the average relief outing is slightly less frightening against the Cardinals than an identical game state against the Dodgers.
On the other side of the ball, the Nats didn’t score the second-most runs in the National League by accident, and their perfect R-L-R-L top-of-the-order of Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon, and Juan Soto is a late-inning matchup headache, which was on display best in Game 5.
It’s not all bad news for St. Louis, however, as the Nats will be without one key benefit of facing the Dodgers when they take on the Cardinals: left-handed pitching. Washington hit 43 points of OPS better in the regular season against lefties than righties, and that pattern that continued against the Dodgers. Even with some of the biggest-name southpaws in baseball, Dodger lefties had a 5.30 ERA against the Nats compared to 3.42 for the right-handers. Even Hyun-Jin Ryu, who survived his start relatively unscathed, didn’t have one of his sharpest games against the Nationals. Unless something very bad happens to a Cardinals pitcher forcing a Genesis Cabrera start, every Cards starter this NLCS will be right-handed.
Shifting from the Nats’ offense to the Cardinals’, for a team that added Paul Goldschmidt to an offense that ranked fourth in the National League in wRC+ in 2018, St. Louis had a shockingly underwhelming season. The team’s wRC+ of 95 (100 when you exclude pitchers), while not poor in a historical sense, was the second-worst of the 2000s for the Cards, ahead of only the 2007 edition.
The Cards didn’t exactly play Whiteyball in 2019, but it was the closest they’ve been to that 1980s heyday in some time. Immune to the explosion in home runs from 2018 to 2019, the team’s 210 home run total was only good for 12th in the National League. Meanwhile, the club’s 116 stolen bases tied for third in the majors and was the most for a Cardinals team since 1999.
While Nicholas Castellanos was the offensive addition that got the most hoopla in the NL Central this summer, one can argue that it was in fact the Cardinals who made the biggest addition, “acquiring” Tommy Edman from Triple-A Memphis.
Edman’s .301/.354/.403 combined line in 2018 made him interesting, but the projection systems weren’t excited about him at the start of 2019. They ought to be entering 2020. Even if the ball is changed and Edman loses much of his newfound power (he hit 18 home runs between Triple-A and the majors after seven in 2018 and five in 2017), he gets on base enough, and was competent enough at a variety of positions, for him to stay a solid contributor. The departed Jedd Gyorko always had intriguing power upside, but the current version of Edman is better defensively, and more versatile. ZiPS isn’t (yet) buying a 123 wRC+, but it does have Edman at a 101 wRC+ right now, which is terrific for a player who doesn’t fall on his face at second, and is a real improvement for the offense.
I have to wonder if the Cardinals will drastically change the configuration of their roster for the NLCS. Game 5 was a real puzzler for me. I’m in the distinct minority, based on the reactions to this idea on social media, but I wouldn’t have let Jack Flaherty throw a single pitch with a 10-run lead. If I had, then I would have treated it as his bullpen day, given him 25 or so pitches, and taken him out after two innings. (That notion had significantly more support on twitter)
What I wouldn’t have done is let a 23-year-old pitcher, one who will be up to as many as 39 starts in 2019 if the Cardinals win the World Series, throw 104 pitches with a 10-0, 12-0, 13-0, or 13-1 lead. I generally avoid the most extreme versions of pitch count fetishism, but that’s because I see winning actual games of baseball as a priority to be balanced against pitcher workload.
But there was no actual game of baseball to be won by using Flaherty to this extreme. Nor did it rest the bullpen. Génesis Cabrera and Daniel Ponce de Leon are on the roster primarily to eat up these low-leverage innings and neither threw a pitch until Cabrera was finally trusted to hold a 12-run lead in the ninth. There was never going to be a lower-leverage situation in which to use these guys. If manager Mike Shildt wasn’t going to use them, why even carry them on the roster? Having Tyler O’Neill available as another bat off the bench late in games is far more useful than a pitcher you won’t let pitch.
The result of Flaherty’s usage is that the Cardinals, the projected underdog in the NLDS, won’t enjoy the services of their best starting pitcher, the one who was all-world in the second-half and was instrumental in their playoff run, until Game 3 when they could already be down 2-0.
On the strength of their superior offense — even not facing a left-handed starter — and a top three that can all match Flaherty, ZiPS projects the Nationals as a 56%-44% favorite in the NLCS, with each game a competitive one, but the Cards at least a slight underdog in each. That is, until the prospective Game 7 matchup between Flaherty and Strasburg in St. Louis.
Going back to the Flaherty-relief question, how do things change if you do have Flaherty available for Game 1? In this case, none of the matchups are lopsided enough that it moves the percentages a whole point in either direction; as much as Flaherty’s usage annoyed me on principle, it probably isn’t anything worth worrying about too much (ZiPS always has been, and remains, a Miles Mikolas fan). There’s one caveat though: a better-rested Flaherty ready to pitch in Games 1 and 5 gives the team more flexibility to use as a reliever or even as a starter on short-rest if the situation calls for it. It’s not something that a projection model like this can capture very well (at least at this time), but it still needs to be said.
With the Dodgers and Braves out of the playoffs, only one possible World Series matchup has ever been seen before, so we have a good chance of experiencing something completely new rather than, say, an Astros-Dodgers rematch. The Nats, of course, have never been to the World Series, while the Rays have only been there once (against the Phillies), and the Astros twice. The Cardinals and Yankees have faced each other five times in the World Series, but not since 1964. And St. Louis is one of the rare teams to have a winning record in championships over the Yankees, 3-2! Of course, they’ll have to advance first.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.