No matter how I turn my computer screen, Hunter Pence is still looking at me.
Dear Mr. Selig,
I like to think of myself as a reasonable man. At least amongst the subset of people who yell online about baseball, I think I'm comparatively levelheaded. I'm willing to be open-minded about rule changes, and I very rarely feel the need to write all-caps screeds about situations that are problematic to me.
But seriously, bro, this second wild card is just the worst. Just the absolute worst. And yeah, sure, maybe it keeps more teams invested down the stretch, and maybe that interest represents more interest in the league that can be measured in dollars and cents at the end of the year. And maybe it's working really well in the American League and it's all leading up to a play-in game that, if nothing else, will certainly be exciting.
But think about me for a second, Mr. Selig. Think about my plight as a fan of a team that is doing it's damnedest to prove that it isn't a playoff team, yet somehow finds itself very much in the hunt for a playoff spot. When the Diamondbacks got swept by the Padres for the second time in a row and fell 10.5 games back in the NL West, I made my peace with not making the playoffs. Root for the rookies to do well, wait 'til next year, and write weird fan-fiction about other NL West teams in the meantime, I said.
However, I neglected your brain-child, Mr. Selig, that dastardly second wild card. And now, as a result, rather than just giving up and enjoying a September without consequences, you've given me some hope to cling to, and that's the cruelest thing you can give to fans of a team like the Diamondbacks. Now, rather than writing Chapter 2 of Colleti-ral Damage ("The Ride of the Sabean"), I have to write an actual series preview.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):
If I had told you in March that the Diamondbacks would have a robustly better pitching staff than the Giants in 2012, you would probably feel pretty confident about the team's chances, no? If I had told you that the Giants would have a noticeably better offense than the D-Backs, you probably would have hung your head in sorrow, no? If I had told you that both would be the case, you probably would have punched me and accused me of being a phony time-traveller who is talking out of his ass. Baseball's weird.
You know about the middle of this order already. Pablo Sandoval is good, Hunter Pence is good even if he hasn't been in 175 PAs for San Francisco, and Buster Posey is better than most people think, which is saying something because most people think he's one of the best young catchers in the game. You know this. What you might not have paid as much attention to is the overall quality of the top of their order.
The second baseman bats second in Bruce Bochy's lineup. This is an unavoidable part of his worldview and shame on anyone who tries to change it. So, within that admittedly counterproductive framework, it sure helps to have a second baseman who isn't terrible with the bat. The platoon of Ryan Theriot and Emmanuel Burriss that played almost every game through July produced an OPS that struggled to stay north of .600. Then, more as an afterthought than anything, they stole Marco Scutaro from the Rockies while they were busy clutching their four-man rotation and sobbing. Since then, he's started 44 games and produced an OPS+ of 130. In a world where the Dodgers traded their farm system for the Red Sox salary obligations, Marco Scutaro might have been the biggest move in the NL West race.
It's not that Angel Pagan was a bad player before 2012. He had an OPS of .837 in 2009, and a career figure of .756. When you add quality defense at an important defensive position, and the fact that he's spent much of his career in pitcher's parks, that makes a pretty useful player. But he isn't a guy who makes you despair when your division rivals pick him up. I thought he'd platoon for the Giants, get about 400 PAs and pick up about 2 WAR. So, from that perspective, his line of .289/.339/.438 is everything the Giants could ask for and more. He was recently called the most underrated player in baseball, and it's not hard to see the reasoning for that.
Insightful Commentary: See, this is why being handed a slim hope for the second wild card is a miserable experience: just look at Skaggs' last start. Within the context of a meaningless late season trial, his three-inning, five-run start against the Padres was a bump in the road. Live and learn, kid. Brush it off and get 'em next time. Within the context of a playoff race, it's an assassination of what little hope we have left. The team can't afford to have starts like that. See why the first scenario is more fun?
Matt Cain took his tried and true formula of limiting walks and ensuring that the contact that he does allow doesn't go for line drives or home runs and improved it this year. His K:BB ratio is over 4 in 2012, which is by far the best of his career, and the improvement has come without any noticeable rise in his HR% rate. He probably won't win the Cy Young Award this year, but the fact that he's being mentioned as a contender means that people are finally starting to realize just how good of a pitcher Matt Cain has been for the seven years or so.
Insightful Commentary: I don't have any insightful commentary about Wade Miley at this point because really, what more can you say? Here's something weird that I just thought of, though: Miley, who is probably going to win the Rookie of the Year award, is actually the second-oldest pitcher on his staff at the end of the season. There isn't really a point to that, but it's odd to think about, no?
One of the nice things about the Giants have a real live offense this year is that guys like Matt Cain, who have suffered from unseemly win/loss records for years, are finally vindicated for their performance. The downside is that guys like Barry Zito end up with better win/loss records than they deserve that make people say things like, "Dude just knows how to win, plain and simple." Barry Zito is not very good.
Insightful Commentary: Corbin doesn't have pedigree of Bauer or Skaggs, or the "come out of nowhere" likeability of Miley, so it's easy for him to get forgotten or just get added to the list when folks are talking about all the great arms on the D-Backs. But frankly, that's not really fair to Corbin, who has pitched more than well enough to stand on his own. Corbin's K:BB isn't quite as good as Miley's has been this year, but it's in the same stratosphere, and Corbin is three years younger. Corbin's K/9 is also better than Miley's. If Corbin can cut his home run rate, it's entirely possible he could have a Miley-esque season in 2013.
Ryan Vogelsong has looked decidedly less magical than usual recently. He's posted a 9.56 ERA over his last six games, and has struggled with home runs over that period. One thing that might be worth keeping in mind with Vogelsong is that he has thrown 349 innings over the past two seasons after never throwing more than 133 in a major league season (I can't find any numbers about his workload in Japan). A little dead-arm would not be unexpected.
Final Verdict: I'm biased obviously, but I think this series is clearly about the Diamondbacks. The Giants would like to keep their lead over the Dodgers right where it is, but being seven games up leaves them a little room for error. What they have a chance to do here is extinguish what's left of the Diamondbacks' postseason dream. It's hard to predict, especially with the "Babes in Toyland" portion of the Diamondbacks' rotation going in all three games, but I'll say the Diamondbacks stay alive at home. Diamondbacks two games to one.
McCovey Chronicles for Giants news and cynicism.
(Stats via Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs.)