Thursday, September 29, 2011

Postseason Hitters in the National League

And that’s how you end a sports season: dramatic games that decided the playoff fates of four teams that ended in the same few hours. It seems like the right teams got in with possible apologies to the Red Sox and Braves, who both bottomed out in September. Both St. Louis and Tampa Bay head into the playoffs with a head of steam, but that may or may not mean anything when the playoffs start this weekend. With the match ups set, I can now look at the hitters in the National League with more specificity.

Before I get into the hitters, I did not look at the Cardinal pitchers in my earlier preview. For whatever reason, I saw the possibility of the Rays making the playoffs, but it seemed unlikely that the Cardinals would also make the leap. Yet, here we are. The St. Louis starters have been excellent down the stretch. Chris Carpenter is the big name on the staff and he had his third straight fine year after missing the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Carpenter hurled 237.1 innings and struck out 191 batters. He had a 2.15 ERA in September and had two shut outs. He also shut down the Phillies for eight innings on September 18 in a 5-0 win over Philadelphia. Kyle Lohse has been the Cardinal ace in September. He has allowed a combined four earned runs in four starts. Lohse, who was primarily a journeyman before hooking up with Dave Duncan, has had his best season. The 30-year-old right-hander had a 3.39 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. Like Carpenter, he beat the Phillies in September. Lohse allowed allowed one unearned in a 4-3 win on September 18. Jaime Garcia also beat the Phillies in September (sense a trend?). He allowed one run to the Phillies over seven innings. The 25-year-old Garcia made 32 turns through the rotation and had a 3.56 ERA and 1.37 WHIP. The three Cardinal pitchers give St. Louis a puncher’s chance at pulling the upset over Philadelphia and should be considered as late draft fodder.

The Cardinal offense has also been excellent. Like their starting rotation, St. Louis has three star hitters. Unfortunately, one of the stars, Matt Holliday is having troubles with his injured hand. He hit just .254 in September. He was limited to 124 games this season because of various maladies and you may want to wait to see if he is in the lineup this weekend before drafting him. Holliday only had two hits in 17 at bats against Philly pitching this season. For the first time in his ten-year career, Albert Pujols failed to get 100 RBI. In other words, he is a failure (or perhaps the hitters in front of him are failures). Pujols played in 147 games and hit 37 homers, but was limited to a career-low 27 doubles. In September, he hit .355 with a .561 slugging percentage. Phat Albert smacked Cardinal pitching around for a .385 average in 26 at bats. Last year, Lance Berkman was an afterthought with the Yankees, but he bounced back with a more Berkman-like year with the Cardinals. He finished with 31 homers and a .301 average. Berkman opened the season with a sweet April and finished with a hot September. He hit .374 this month and crushed Philly pitching all season with 14 hits in 30 at bats. If you are in a deep league, you can consider Yadier Molina and Allen Craig. Molina hit .337 after the All-Star break and hit 32 doubles this season. Craig hit .327 in September, but was limited to four hits in 23 at bats against the Phillies.

The Philly offense is second rate compared to their impressive pitching staff. Ryan Howard is the lineup’s big bopper, but he hit .253 this season and struck out 172 times. While he hit just .263 against Cardinal pitching, he was walked seven times and had a .481 on-base percentage. While he did not do much in the 2010 playoffs, Howard had three homers and 17 RBI in the 2009 World Championship season. The Phillies’ best hitter has been Hunter Pence, since he arrived from Houston. He hit .324 with 11 homers in 54 games with Philadelphia. Since he was in the NL Central, he faced Cardinal pitching quite a bit and had a good bit of success. Pence had 22 hits in 63 at bats (.349). Only five of those hits were for extra bases. The Phillies have big names in the middle of the infield, but neither Chase Utley nor Jimmy Rollins had their best season in 2011. Utley was limited to 103 games and hit just .259. He had nine hits in 28 at bats against Cardinal pitching, but all of his hits were singles. Before going 0-for-6 in the season finale, Rollins had 11 hits in the four previous games. He hit .282 against the Cardinals. Catcher Carlos Ruiz hit .333 against the Cardinals and .301 in September. He could be a decent last round batter. Raul Ibanez should probably be skipped at least for the first round. He only had two hits in 23 at bats against St. Louis.

In Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, the Brewers have the best one-two punch in baseball. The Brewer right fielder had his best season in his excellent five-year career. He finished with 33 homers, 111 RBI, and a career-high 33 steals. He hit above .300 in every month save May and was 5-for-12 against Diamonback pitching with a pair of homers. Braun hit .330 in September with eight homers. Fielder put an exclamation point on his season on Tuesday with a three-homer day to push his total up to 38 dingers. For the third straight season, Fielder walked more than 100 times and had a career-high .415 on-base percentage. Cecil’s son had some problems with Arizona pitching: he had six hits in 27 at bats and struck out 11 times with just one walk. Corey Hart also did not hit well against the Diamondbacks. He hit just .138, but three of his four hits left the yard. Hart hit .284 in September. Nyjer Morgan is a table setter for the Brewers and hit .292 in September with 14 runs. He hit .333 against the Diamondbacks. Like Hart, Rickie Weeks could not solve Arizona pitching. He hit .148 in 27 at bats against the Diamondbacks.

Justin Upton has had his breakout season in 2011. The 24-year-old hit a career-high 75 extra base hits, including 31 homers. He cut down on his strikeouts a bit with 126 K’s in 591 at bats (compared to 152 K’s in 495 at bats in 2010). Upton had moderate success against the Brewers wit a .286 average and two homers in 28 at bats. If you are looking for a Diamondback who wore out Milwaukee pitching, you can look at catcher Miguel Montero, who hit .421 with two homers in 19 at bats. Montero hit .313 in September and cranked four homers. Leftfielder Geraldo Parra also hit reasonably well against the Brewers seven hits in 22 at bats. Keep an eye on Chris Young, who hit .280 in the 2007 playoffs and hit the 20-20 mark for the third time in his low batting average career.

Perry Missner is a freelance writer.