MLB Division Series Preview: San Francisco-Cincinnati

Cincinnati and San Francisco had their respective divisions wrapped up fairly early and while the Reds had a shot at the National League’s top seed, this matchup in the MLB Division Series has been at least written in pencil for a while now. It starts tonight in San Francisco, as the second part of a playoff doubleheader that starts with Oakland-Detroit. The Reds-Giants  continue tomorrow and then come to Cincinnati for the final three games on Tuesday thru Thursday.

TheSportsNotebook previews the series by focusing on each team’s ability to get on base, hit for power, along with their starting pitching and bullpen. Then we’ll add in a historical footnote to give these games some context, examine how the bookmakers of Las Vegas see things and conclude with a prediction.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: This is a significant problem for the Reds, who ranked just 10th in the National League in on-base percentage. It’s a low rank for a team that won its division by such a substantial margin and plays in a hitters’ park, but if you look at the talent individually, there’s reason to hope things can different in the postseason.

Joey Votto is healthy and his OBP is a dazzling .477, in part because teams will do anything to avoid pitching to the first baseman. Ryan Ludwick has enjoyed a comeback year in left field at .351. Ryan Hanigan is a pesky .366, the kind of catcher who can quietly make a big difference to a lineup.

But other key offensive players—namely Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Scott Rolen—are subpar when it comes to getting themselves aboard consistently. Shortstop Zack Cozart has had some hot streaks, but the rookie has had terrible dry spells and the final .291 OPB he posted tells you there were more of the latter. Dusty Baker needs to find a way to get Todd Frazer into the lineup. He’s respectable at getting aboard. Playing him means displacing Ludwick or Rolen, as Frazier can play left field and third base (he can also play first, although he’s obviously not displacing Votto). Rolen has struggled, but Baker might be taken in by his postseason experience.

San Francisco has the reputation for being all pitching, but they were third in the NL at getting on base, and while some of that is due to the production of Melky Cabrera, now suspended and disgraced for PED use, the Giants are an underrated lineup. Buster Posey has turned in an MVP-caliber season, driven by a .410 OPB, while Brandon Belt and Pablo Sandoval are solid at the corner infield spots. Angel Pagan has had a respectable year in center, and Marco Scutaro has swung the bat very well since coming over in a trade from Colorado.

POWER: The Reds rank 6th in slugging, but given the hitter-friendly dimensions of their home park, this is even a little low. In fairness, they were without Votto for several weeks after the All-Star break, and while the Reds continued to win, it did hurt their power numbers. Votto, Bruce and Ludwick all have to produce, at least with extra base hits and RBIs if their team is going to win. This is another area where Frazier could help—is it coming across that I think Baker should keep Rolen on the bench and play Frazier instead? Good. And Phillips has good power for a middle infielder, slugging .454, while there are no obvious liabilities.

San Fran is 8th in slugging, but with their home park being pitcher-friendly, it’s fair to assume they’ll at least be even with Cincinnati, if not better. Posey has driven the ball very well, while Sandoval is another good power threat. Belt and Pagan are at least tolerable when it comes to their ability to hit the gaps. But this is the area where Hunter Pence has to step up. The rightfielder has been a non-factor since being acquired from Philadelphia at the trade deadline, but we know he can contribute here, as well as with getting on base. But in no area is a Pence step-up needed more than in the area of power.

STARTING PITCHING: Both teams are strong here, and this is pretty even-up each step along the way. The aces, Matt Cain for San Francisco and Johnny Cueto for Cincinnati, are lined up to pitch Games 1 & 5. While Cueto has had the better season this year, Cain still had a solid 2012 campaign and his overall career tells us he can match up with the #1’s anywhere in baseball.

Game 2 is Bronson Arroyo-Madison Bumgarner, with the latter having better stuff, but the former having more durability. Then it’s Tim Lincecum-Mat Latos in Game 3, as the Giants’ two-time Cy Young winner can make a big impact on this series if he continues his second half resurgence. Then it’s Homer Bailey, the Cincy starter who threw a September no-hitter in Game 4 against an undecided starter for the Giants. It could be Barry Zito or Ryan Vogelsong, or maybe even Cain on short rest if San Fran is in a must-win spot.

RELIEF PITCHING: Both teams are good here and no one’s going to feel confident about coming back after five innings, but Cincinnati is a little deeper and better in the ninth inning, thanks to having Aroldis Chapman and San Francisco having been without Brian Wilson all year. The Giants have two high-quality late-inning pitchers in Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo, who combined for 38 saves. But closing in the regular season is different from closing in October and we’ll have to see how they respond.

More important, the loss of Wilson has put Frisco an arm down all year and that’s an edge Cincinnati can exploit. Dusty Baker is about two pitchers deeper than Bruce Bochy in the pen, and that gives an edge in a tie game and more options for a quick hook on a starter early.

HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: This is the first time the Reds and Giants have met in the playoffs, and even though they were both in the old NL West together from 1969-93, they never really went at each other in a big pennant race. The closest we can come is 1971, when San Francisco briefly interrupted the Big Red Machine with a division title and again in 1987, when they beat out Pete Rose in the latter’s run of four straight second-place finishes while managing Cincinnati. But neither race was particularly dramatic.

Where these cities cross paths is in football. The 49ers beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl two different times, in 1981, when both had dramatic turnarounds, and in 1988 when Joe Montana built on his legend with a late touchdown pass to John Taylor. Winning a Division Series round in the MLB playoffs won’t make up for that, but Cincinnati has to feel like they owe Frisco a little something.

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS: Cincinnati is a slight favorite to win the series at (-125),where it requires a $125 bet to win $100. San Francisco is posted at (+105), so you can get a 5 percent return for taking the underdog. What is interesting is that the Giants are considered the better play to win the World Series, at (+385), while you can get Cincy for (+495) to win the whole thing. So the bettors who like the Giants in this series like them a lot, while those who like the Reds, don’t see it going much past the coming week.

THE SPORTSNOTEBOOK PREDICTION: I’m very skeptical of Cincinnati’s offense to get anything going consistently, given their problems with getting on base and my doubts that their power will translate well away from their home park. Furthermore, I think Lincecum’s second-half resurgence is real and that Pence can finally give San Francisco a boost. I’m taking San Francisco to sweep this in three straight and even if Cueto wins tonight, a game I expect to be a pitcher’s duel, the Giants will win the ensuing three.