If the current division and wild-card standings in the National League hold in place, the San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds will face each other in the divisional series round of the NL playoffs.
The Washington Nationals currently have the best record in the NL, which matches them up with the winner of the one-game wild-card playoff. That leaves the Giants and Reds for the NL's other first-round playoff series.
As of Sept. 12, Cincinnati currently has the better season record at 86-57. If the standings were laid out by league and not division, the Reds would have a 5.5-game lead over San Francisco and its 80-62 season record.
But just because the Reds have the better record doesn't mean the Giants won't beat them in a five-game playoff series. San Francisco has several advantages over Cincinnati that give it the edge in a divisional series matchup and will push it to a first-round upset.
Stronger Starting Pitching
The Giants have the pitching advantage against any team they might face in the postseason except for the Washington Nationals. Statistically, the Reds actually have a better team ERA for the regular season, and the two teams are virtually even in their starting pitchers' ERA.
But let's look at how the matchups would break down for each individual game rather than collectively.
Cincinnati would arguably have the edge in a Game 1 pairing of Johnny Cueto versus Matt Cain.
Cueto has been among the NL leaders in ERA all season long. He keeps the ball on the ground and holds baserunners well, preventing many potential runs from scoring. Cain isn't far behind in ERA, however, and is more of a strikeout threat that can shut down an opposing lineup.
In Game 2, Mat Latos has been impressive during the second half of the season, compiling a 3.16 ERA. But Madison Bumgarner has pitched even better, posting a 2.97 ERA and putting himself in consideration for the NL Cy Young Award. The Reds have a .763 OPS against left-handed pitching this season, which makes them an interesting matchup versus Bumgarner.
However, it's in the back end of the starting rotation where the Giants have the true advantage.
Ryan Vogelsong has been one of the best pitchers in the NL throughout the season. Barry Zito has had his most successful season since joining the Giants. And though Tim Lincecum is having his worst season as a major leaguer, he's improved significantly in the second half, putting together a 3.22 ERA.
While Bronson Arroyo has rebounded impressively after a poor 2011, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake have struggled with consistency, especially in the second half of the season.
Bullpen Has the Lefties
Two of the Reds' most fearsome hitters are Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, both of whom hit left-handed. The Giants are well-equipped to face those sluggers with a trio of lefty relievers.
Jeremy Affeldt has held opposing left-handed hitters to a .220 average and .607 OPS this season. Javier Lopez has been even better, holding lefties to a .198 average and .571 OPS. The Giants also added Jose Mijares by claiming him on waivers. Left-handers are hitting .221 against him with a .604 OPS.
Votto hits everyone well, but he's a bit less potent versus left-handed pitching. While a .300 average and .916 OPS are excellent, those numbers are still lower than against right-handers.
But the Giants' lefty relievers would be especially effective when facing Bruce. Against left-handers, Bruce is batting .222 this season with a .763 OPS.
San Francisco also has right-handed relievers that pitch well against lefties. Opposing left-handers are batting .186 against Sergio Romo this season. Santiago Casilla is also relatively effective against lefties, allowing a .256 average.
One of the quirks of MLB's postseason format this year is that the lower seed will host the first two games of a divisional series with the higher seed then getting to play the final three games at home.
So despite having the better record, the Reds will have to play the first two games of their NLDS with the Giants at AT&T Park. Pitching in a ballpark that's the second-most friendly to pitchers, according to ESPN.com's park factors, will make Cain and Bumgarner even more formidable.
The Reds are third in the NL with 165 home runs as a team, but AT&T Park's larger dimensions should help keep the ball in the yard during the first two games of the divisional series. That gives the Giants a significant advantage, one that could help them take a 2-0 series lead. San Francisco would then have three chances to win one game in Cincinnati.
However, the Reds have a 40-29 road record this season. So if one team can fight through this ridiculous one-year postseason format, it's Cincinnati.
But if you were to ask the Reds whether they prefer to begin a playoff series at home or on the road, they'd surely choose the more familiar, comfortable surroundings of Great American Ball Park. Having to travel out to the West Coast can discombobulate any team coming from the eastern side of the country.
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