With the Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants ready to get the 2010 NLCS underway Saturday night, the Phillies are the heavy favorites. San Francisco beat a fiercer first-round foe than did Charlie Manuel's club, but the Phillies are a full-fledged National League dynasty. They will attempt to reach their third straight World Series this fall, after already having claimed their fourth straight division title.
This year's team may have the best shot at winning it all—even though they actually did win it all in 2008. The 2010 Phillies have balance unlike those before them, with a three-headed monster atop their starting rotation that looks to be unmatched by any team still standing.
The ace of that staff, of course, is right-hander Roy Halladay. Halladay no-hit Cincinnati in the first round, but that tells only a part of the story of his historic debut season in the National League.
That campaign has also seen him throw a perfect game (against Florida in May), win a league-high 21 games (finishing nine of them and shutting out the opponent four times, also NL bests), top 250 innings and set new career high-water marks for strikeouts and walks per nine frames--all at the age of 33. If he was not a Hall of Fame pitcher to begin this season, he may be a Cooperstown shoo-in now.
Assuming (and it seems a safe assumption) that Halladay will get a chance to make two starts in the NLCS, the Phillies ought to win, and Halladay (in his very first opportunity to earn a postseason award) has a very real chance to be NLCS MVP. Here are 10 reasons Doc will be crowned king of the NLCS.
If Halladay could cut so swiftly and smoothly through the Reds' high-octane offense, imagine what he can do to a much weaker Giants attack. Cincinnati led the league in runs scored this season, led by one of baseball's best hitters in first baseman Joey Votto.
San Francisco, meanwhile, finished ninth in that department, some 93 runs shy of the Reds' total tallies for the year. The best hitter in the Giants' lineup is either rookie catcher Buster Posey—whose .862 OPS for the year was some 140 points shy of Votto's—or first baseman Aubrey Huff, who posted an .891 OPS in the regular season but collected only four hits in 15 tries during the NLDS, none of the knocks for extra bases.
It may not even come up, but in the playoffs, there is always the lurking possibility that a manager will call upon his ace to pitch on short rest with a series on the line. If that happens to Halladay, it's a pretty safe bet he will perform up to his usual standards.
Halladay has never been to the postseason before, so he has made only six career starts on three days of rest. In those six, however, he is 4-2 with a 2.79 ERA. He has pitched 42 innings on those six occasions, striking out 27 and walking (are you ready for this?) one batter. Usually, pitcher's command is the first thing to go when they begin to tire. Apparently, pitching on short rest only heightens Halladay's sense of the strike zone.
Maybe he ratchets up his intensity; maybe he just knows better than to overthrow, and therefore find the zone more easily. Either way, if the Doc takes the mound more than twice in this series, he has a major leg up on winning the award.
Although the Giants certainly have their problems scoring runs, they have one key advantage on the offensive side of their game: platoon balance. Huff and Burrell are essentially the same dangerous power hitter, only Huff bats left-handed and Burrell bats right. Leadoff hitter Andres Torres is a switch-hitter. Opposing pitchers must be able to get out batters from either side of the plate to beat San Francisco.
Halladay is jsut such a hurler. For his career, he has allowed a meager .659 OPS to right-handed batters—and an only very slightly better .681 figure to lefty swingers. He does not rely on a slider to get outs, which would make him vulnerable to lefties, and while he throws a change-up against left-handers (he threw it about 11.5 percent of the time this year, a career high), he relies mostly on a fastball-cutter-curve mix that defies platoon manipulation.
In the last five years, six of the 10 Championship Series MVP awards have gone to starting pitchers. CC Sabathia became the sixth by winning the ALCS MVP last season.
In the AL, a strong pattern seems to be forming, with hurlers having won three straight awards. On the senior circuit, Halladay's Philly teammate Cole Hamels won in 2008, and Roy Oswalt (then of the Astros, but now another Philadelphia hurler) took home the hardware in 2005.
Halladay's curve ball and cutter were among the best in baseball for a decade before he came over to the National League this winter, but under the supervision or pitching coach Rich Dubee, Halladay has added another weapon to his arsenal: the aforementioned change-up.
Halladay had never before thrown a change more than six percent of the time, but this year, he used it almost twice that much--and nearly as often as his wicked hook. The pitch is not yet on a par with Linceum's or Cliff Lee's, but since Halladay is only now beginning to use it regularly, the change-up should still help him dominate the Giants' left-handed threats.
Believe it or not, San Francisco got to Halladay in a big way in his only start against them this year, racking up five runs on 10 hits in seven Halladay innings on April 26. Considering that he had surrendered only three earned runs in his first four starts and was coming off a five-hit shutout of Atlanta, that had to really steam Halladay.
Since that Giants squad did not yet even have key hitters Buster Posey or Pat Burrell in the fold, it would be easy to say that Halladay matches up rather poorly with them now. Ultimately, though, we must ask ourselves: Is it more likely that Halladay simply cannot figure out the Giants (against whom he has had only three career starts), or that he had a bad day in April and can pretty easily right the ship?
For those who wonder about these things, the two San Francisco hitters with the most exposure to Halladay are Pat Burrell (six hits in 18 tries) and Aubrey huff (10 hits in 42 at bats).
Halladay in any year would be a great October workhorse, but in 2010—arguably his best year yet—he is a rock-solid lock to perform.
Halladay's 2.44 ERA and 1.04 WHIP were his best since 2005, and his best ever over a full season (he missed the second half of '05 after a line drive broke his leg). He was 65 percent better than the league average based on ERA. Ice runs through his veins: He tied Hamels for the league lead in percentage of base runners left on base, although of course some of the credit for that is due to the Phillies bullpen.
Halladay also pitched smart, keeping the ball down in hitter-friendly Citizen's Bank park. He finished seventh in the NL with a 51.2-percent ground ball rate. Yet, he got somewhat unlucky based on the percentage of fly balls he allowed that left the park. Overall, he finished with the best xFIP (which removes luck based on batted balls, defense and home run rate) in the big leagues.
In 2008 or 2009, Halladay would have been tough to beat. In 2010, the Giants may as well forget it.
His no-hitter may be the best pitching performance in postseason history, and while it will never be forgotten, it would be nice to validate that accomplishment with some hardware.
He still needs to perform well to merit consideration, but if the Phillies do win the series, Halladay will get an extra boost in his effort to win the award from the reflected glory of his NLDS heroics.
For what it's worth, eight of the last ten Championship Series MVP winners were also stellar in the Division Series. That could be coincidence, or it could be karma.
Hamels won the 2008 NLCS MVP, but the best player on the diamond in that series was unquestionably Manny Ramirez.
Ramirez batted a preposterous .533/.682/.1.067 in the five-game Phillies series victory. He hit everything. He had an infield hit and four extra-base hits, seven walks and seven RBI. Even against Hamels, upon whom the Dodgers hung just three total runs, Ramirez went three-for-five with a home run, a double, a walk and two RBI.
Because the Phillies won the pennant, though, Hamels took home the trophy. In fact, the last member of a losing team to win a Championship Series MVP was Jeffrey Leonard of the 1987 Giants. Halladay has a great chance to win the NLCS MVP, in other words, because the Phillies have a great chance to win the NLCS.
Since 2007, Halladay has led the league in complete games every year. He has 34 since the start of that season, or six percent of the total number of complete games thrown by all big-league pitchers during that span.
It never even became an issue during the no-hitter in the NLDS, but here's betting that Manuel will have a tough time convincing his right-handed ace to exit the game under any conditions in this round. Halladay could easily rack up two complete games, and if the series stretches to six or seven games, we may see him get a third appearance, either as a short-rest starter or in relief.
By pure volume of work, Halladay stands a chance of affecting more of the series than any player has in recent memory: No hurler has thrown more than 20 innings in an LCS since John Smoltz in 1992.