Will Dodgers Be Able to Slow Down Cardinals Ace Adam Wainwright in NLCS?

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Will Dodgers Be Able to Slow Down Cardinals Ace Adam Wainwright in NLCS?
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The St. Louis Cardinals are moving on to the National League Championship Series to face the Los Angeles Dodgers because they were able to win one game in the National League Division Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

...And because staff ace Adam Wainwright took care of the other two wins.

After disappointing to the tune of six earned runs in 2.1 innings in Game 5 of last year's NLDS against the Washington Nationals, Wainwright didn't disappoint in Game 5 against the Pirates on Wednesday night. The veteran right-hander went the distance, allowing one earned run and scattering eight hits and a walk to lead the Cardinals to a series-clinching 6-1 victory at Busch Stadium.

Mix in his superb seven-inning effort in Game 1, and Waino's body of work in this year's NLDS comes out to 16 hits, .196 opponents' batting average, 15 strikeouts, one walk and, all told, a 1.13 ERA. 

"Beast mode" is a phrase the kids use these days, and my understanding is that it can be applied here. Hats go off to the Pirates for having a great year—and for thrilling the 20-somethings among us who were mere children the last time they made the postseason—but they just had no answer for Wainwright. 

With the Pirates out of the picture, the question now becomes whether the Dodgers will have an answer for the Cards ace. He'll be available to start Game 3 of the NLCS on Monday, and could start another game in the series if need be.

Without giving too much away, let's just say that Wainwright might not be able to dominate the Dodgers quite as thoroughly as he dominated the Pirates.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

We can get the obvious out of the way first, and that's that the Dodgers are a better offensive team than the Buccos. They scored more runs and posted a higher OBP, and ultimately morphed into one of the top offensive teams in the National League in the second half. Per FanGraphs, the Dodgers ranked third in the NL in runs scored and tied for second in OBP after the break.

So the Dodgers have that going for them, which is nice. And slightly more to the point as far as the topic at hand is concerned, the Dodgers weren't particularly great at hitting right-handed starters, but they were better than the Pirates:

Dodgers and Pirates vs. RH Starters, 2013
Team Split AVG OBP SLUG OPS
Pirates vs. RH Starters .241 .310 .393 .703
Dodgers vs. RH Starters .264 .328 .395 .724

Baseball-Reference.com

The Buccos, indeed, were one of the least effective teams against right-handed starters in 2013, as that OPS of theirs against righty starters ranked in the bottom third of the league. 

To be sure, Adam Wainwright is no ordinary pitcher. He has impeccable command and one of the league's deadliest curveballs, and the Pirates were cut out to handle neither in the NLDS. Especially not the latter.

There's a statistic at FanGraphs that quantifies how many runs above average players and teams generate against certain pitches. In terms of curveball runs above average (wCB), the Pirates were among the league's dregs. Jordy Mercer and Jose Tabata were the best the Pirates had against curveballs, and neither of them were poised to be starters in the Division Series.

That was Wainwright's open invitation to let Uncle Charlie run wild against the Pirates. And he did.

According to Brooks Baseball, 27.20 percent of Wainwright's pitches during the regular season were curveballs. That's a lot, for the record, but nothing compared to what he did to the Pirates. In the end, 38.21 percent of his pitches in the NLDS were hooks, and on those he gave up...[drum roll]...just three singles. That's against 12 strikeouts and one walk.

So yeah, score one for Waino's curveball-heavy attack. Or two, one supposes. Wainwright might be willing to try the curveball-heavy attack against the Dodgers next. But then again, maybe he won't if he dives deep enough into his scouting reports.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

While the Dodgers weren't one of the league's top teams at hitting curveballs (22nd), they weren't nearly as bad as the Pirates (28th). And rather than bench players, L.A.'s three best hitters against hooks were Andre Ethier, Hanley Ramirez and Juan Uribe.

We can take an even closer look at what Wainwright is about to go up against. There are eight players he's most likely to come up against in the NLCS, and here's how they performed against curveballs thrown by right-handed pitchers in 2013, per Brooks Baseball:

Dodgers Regulars vs. RH Curveballs, 2013
Player AVG ISO K BB
Carl Crawford .304 .044 5 1
Mark Ellis .182 .000 5 1
Hanley Ramirez .278 .556 5 0
Adrian Gonzalez .147 .029 11 1
Yasiel Puig .185 .037 14 0
Andre Ethier .345 .207 7 1
Juan Uribe .346 .192 11 2
A.J. Ellis .242 .030 5 1

Brooks Baseball

Ramirez, Ethier and Uribe did plenty of damage against right-handed hooks, and Carl Crawford saw them well enough to hit .300 against them. As great as his hook is, that makes four guys in the Dodgers' projected lineup that Wainwright might not be able to beat with constant curveballs. Captain Obvious says this is not an ideal scenario for him.

That's not the only thing that could make the Dodgers a tough matchup for the ace, however. I mentioned that Wainwright has impeccable command, and that's something you probably already knew. The guy only walked 1.3 hitters per nine innings, after all.

But Adam Wainwright's style is not the same as, say, Bartolo Colon's, who gets by on pounding the zone like clockwork. Waino can do that, but he's also the kind of pitcher who can get hitters to do his will by getting ahead and then getting them to expand the zone. Per FanGraphs, only Cole Hamels and Matt Harvey drew more swings outside the strike zone.

Here the writing on the wall says that Wainwright is instant death on any team that has a tendency to be aggressive outside of the strike zone. And if we compare the Pirates to the Dodgers using some more plate discipline data from FanGraphs, what we find is that one thing is not like the other:

Pirates vs. Dodgers: O-Swing% and O-Contact%
Team O-Swing% O-Contact%
MLB Average 31.0 66.6
Pirates 31.7 62.9
Dodgers 31.1 66.8

FanGraphs

The Pirates were slightly worse than the average MLB team at fishing outside the zone, and more than slightly worse than average at making contact outside the zone. It's no wonder they were sixth in the league in strikeout percentage.

The Dodgers, on the other hand, were about league average at both fishing outside the zone and at making contact outside the zone. Expanding the zone was hardly a problem for them, so maybe it's no wonder they were 22nd in the league in strikeout percentage.

We can stop here and add it all up. What we've learned is that the Dodgers look like a much tougher matchup for Adam Wainwright than the Pirates were because:

  1. They're a better offensive team.
  2. They're better against right-handed starters.
  3. They have some guys who can hit curveballs.
  4. They're generally not aggressive to a fault.

Now, none of this is me proclaiming loudly and boldly that Wainwright is going to get mercilessly shelled by the Dodgers. But the Dodgers did get to him for seven hits, two walks and three runs when they faced him in August. Such a performance looks pedestrian in light of what Wainwright just did to the Pirates, but it doesn't look like a fluke in light of what we just learned about the Dodgers offense.

I should state, for the record, that I actually picked the Cardinals to prevail in an NLCS matchup against the Dodgers. It's a pick I still like, as the Cardinals did enough in the NLDS to prove that they still feel as at home as ever in the postseason.

But with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and the capacity to knock Wainwright down a peg or two, the Dodgers definitely have what they need to advance to the World Series.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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