Autumn is in the air. The leaves are beginning to fall, the weather is beginning to change and postseason baseball is upon us.
What better time to start predicting which teams hold an edge this year than right now?
Last year gave us a World Series champion that we did not quite expect to win. What I mean by that is that the Cardinals were not 100-plus game winners, division champions or even a team that was in the hunt at the beginning of September.
However the Cardinals did get hot at the right time and began to play their best baseball of the season during the final stretch of the season in September.
Eight and a half games out of the division lead to the Brewers and 10.5 games out of the lead of the wild-card to the Braves, the Cardinals began to claw their way back into postseason relevance. The Cardinals clinched the wild-card on the final day of the regular season by beating the Astros and got help from the Phillies who beat the Braves.
The big questions this year are which team is the hot team and which team holds an edge over the others going into playoff baseball this year?
Let's take a look at the divisional-round matchups starting with the Giants and the Reds.
The Reds have been great all year and had won 22 of 25 games at one point in the season. They also won the NL Central Division with 97 wins, one less than the league-leading Nationals.
The Giants have been good but not great all season, but did manage to win enough games and beat the Dodgers for the NL West Division title.
Head-to-head the Reds hold the advantage in terms of pitching which is usually the sign of a good playoff team. The Reds' pitchers have allowed the fewest runs of any playoff team and had the lowest bullpen ERA in the league this season. However they rank No. 21 overall in runs scored and No. 17 overall in batting average.
The Giants have the advantage in terms of batting, ranking No. 12 overall in runs scored, No. 5 overall in batting average and No. 8 overall in on-base percentage. However, the Giants will be without star hitter Melky Cabrera who is suspended through the divisional round of the playoffs and withdrew himself from the remainder of the playoffs.
In most cases I would prefer to pick the team with the better overall pitching staff to win this matchup, which would be the Reds. However, teams typically pitch their top three pitchers in the playoffs and the Giants arguably have a better top-three than the Reds do with Matt Cain, Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum (in no particular order).
Couple that pitching lineup with a better offense and you can conclude that the Giants should move on to the NLCS.
In the other matchup we have either the Braves or the Cardinals facing the Nationals. We will know later today who exactly will be facing the Nats, but for now let's examine all the matchups, starting with the Nationals and the Braves.
The Braves have reversed their collapse from September last year to go 20-8 in the month of September, and appear to be the hot team going into the playoffs this year. They have also allowed only two runs or fewer in 11 of their last 18 games and rank No. 5 overall in ERA for the season.
However, their offense has struggled this year and ranks in the bottom half of the league in runs scored, batting average and slugging percentage.
On the other side, the Nationals have had perhaps the best pitching staff in the league this year and rank in the top five in ERA, quality starts, WHIP and batting average allowed. The Nats also boast an offense that ranks in the top half of the league in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
The downside for the Nationals is that they will not have ace Stephen Strasburg pitching at all this postseason.
Even without Strasburg pitching, I still see the Nationals beating the Braves if that is the matchup we get in the Divisional Round. The Nats still have great pitching even without Strasburg.
If the Cardinals face the Nationals, I still do not see much changing in terms of who will be playing in the NLCS.
Statistically speaking, there is no reason the Cardinals shouldn't give the Nationals trouble in the divisional round of the playoffs. They rank ahead of the Nats and in the top five in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. They also boast a pitching staff that includes Kyle Lohse, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, all of whom would be pitching in the playoffs against the Nats.
Although they have the batting stats and the starting pitching to get it done, I still don't see them repeating their success from last year. Starting pitching can take you far, but without star hitters Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman I do not see them beating the Nationals.