Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Atlanta Braves v. Houston Astros

This one's a rematch of the best division series of 2004. A lot has changed since then--the Astros lost two huge bats, but made up for it with otherworldly pitching. The Braves lost some of their pitching clout, but made up for it with their bats. I expect this to be closely contested and exciting, just like last year.

Lineups
Andruw Jones should not win the MVP. Yes, he hit a lot of home runs. So did Cecil Fielder, and he didn't win the MVP. Same with Adam Dunn. He's not going to win the MVP. Fact is, Jones (.299 EqA) is a pretty one-dimensional hitter, and he can be pitched to. Chipper Jones (.323) remains the best hitter in a good Atlanta lineup with no weaknesses. Aside from the Yankees, they have the best-hitting infield in the playoffs. Houston relies upon Lance Berkman (.317) and Morgan Ensberg (.311) to carry their offense. Think of them as the poor man's Ramirez and Ortiz. Both have great power and plate discipline. Berkman's OBP has been well over .400 his entire career. Craig Biggio (.271) and Jason Lane (.273) had decent years, but nothing to scare you. Beyond those 4 players, pickings are slim. Houston's lineup is at its best when Orlando Palmeiro plays left field with Berkman shifting to first and kicking out the anemic Mike Lamb. ADVANTAGE: BRAVES

Bench
Houston doesn't have much here at all. Eric Bruntlett (.247) is adequate as a late game replacement, but there isn't a guy who can be considered a good option as a pinch hitter. Of course, their starters go so deep into games, that usually isn't an issue. The Braves can go much deeper on the bench, with perpetual prospect Wilson Betemit (.271), Adam Laroche (.262) and utility man Pete Orr (.255) as viable options. ADVANTAGE: BRAVES

Starting Pitchers
This really isn't fair, is it? It's not an exaggeration to say that Houston may have the best front three of all time (this season anyway). Only 6 pitchers this year posted SNLVAR over 7.5. Well, Clemens (9.4), Pettitte (8.5) and Oswalt (7.6) are half of them, and Chris Carpenter is the only other in the playoffs. Atlanta has a strong front two with John Smoltz (6.9) and Tim Hudson (5.3), but beyond that there is the untested Horacio Ramirez (3.4) and either Jorge Sosa (4.2) or John Thomson (1.7). Nope, it really isn't fair. ADVANTAGE: ASTROS

Bullpen
Brad Lidge (4.634 WXRL) gets all the press, but his setup man Dan Wheeler (3.395) enables Houston to shorten games even more. Chad Qualls (1.910) gives them good depth. Atlanta's bullpen has been a mess all year. Kyle Farnsworth (2.069 WXRL in only 27 innings with Atlanta) has performed extremely well as the closer, but there isn't a dominant setup man behind him, only a smattering of mediocrity. Bobby Cox needs to deploy Farnsworth creatively (ie, not just in the 9th inning) or it could spell defeat for Atlanta. ADVANTAGE: ASTROS

Defense
Andruw Jones actually posted his worst defensive year since his 1996 rookie season this year, although "worst" for him is still above average. This year it was shortstop Rafael Furcal (+22 FRAA) who put up the ridiculous numbers. Add Marcus Giles (+9), and you have the best double-play combo in the playoffs. Houston has defensive standouts up the middle and on the left side of the infield. Centerfielder Willy Taveras was outstanding at +16 FRAA, and catcher Brad Ausmus put up his usual +8. Morgan Ensberg was at +8 FRAA; combined with his .311 EqA, he's the best all-around player on the team. Though both teams have quality players and no real woofers in the field, Houston enjoys a healthy advantage when it comes to defensive efficiency, ranking first in the National League, while Atlanta is only 11th. I'm a bit skeptical of this. Houston's ridiculous pitching probably means there aren't as many well-hit balls they have to field, and Minute Maid has a particularly small left field--when you hit it out there, it's either a homer, which doesn't effect efficiency, or an out. Nevertheless, I'll give Houston the nod here. ADVANTAGE: ASTROS

Bottom Line
I'm looking forward to this series more than any other, National League purist that I am. Thursday night's matchup of Clemens v. Smoltz has the potential to be a classic. Everyone knows that Houston can pitch well enough to win, so the question is whether they can hit enough to win. Morgan Ensberg may very well be the determining factor. Berkman's brilliance is a given, but Ensberg has to pick up where Carlos Beltran left off last postseason. Ensberg's regular season suggests he can. I think this series will be taut, low scoring, and come down to the 9th inning of game 5. Just like I did last year, I'm taking Houston's bullpen over Atlanta's. ASTROS WIN 3-2.

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