On the Ball: NL Wild Card Preview
On the Ball: NL Wild Card Preview

Picking baseball’s postseason winner is about as easy as predicting the 68-team NCAA basketball tournament field victor—it’s anybody’s guess. Unlike the NBA, where you can take whatever team LeBron James plays for and put it in the finals every summer, baseball is much less predictable.

While James just finished leading Miami to four straight finals appearances, only two baseball teams have won even two straight pennants (Philadelphia 2008–2009, Texas 2010–11) in the last dozen years and none have won four in a row since the New York Yankees did it from 1998 to 2001.

But for picking an individual baseball game, like Wednesday’s NL Wild Card tilt between Pittsburgh and San Francisco, the pitching matchup is probably the best indicator, but we’ll break down all parts of the matchup here.

Starting Pitching

Unfortunately for the Pirates, they already used top-starter Gerrit Cole (11–5, 3.65 ERA) Sunday in a losing effort to win the division. So while Pittsburgh will send No. 2 starter Edinson Volquez, who has respectable numbers this season (13–7, 3.04 ERA) to the mound, San Francisco counters with ace Madison Bumgarner (18–10, 2.98 ERA).

Bumgarner, though only 24, already has plenty of postseason experience sporting a 3–2 record with a 3.79 ERA in seven games (six starts) in 2010 and 2012. He helped the Giants to hoist a pair of World Series trophies.

Volquez on the other hand, will be hoping to erase the memories of his only previous playoff start—a 2010 NLDS loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, while a member of the Cincinnati Reds, in which he didn’t even make it out of the second inning. Advantage: San Francisco.

Hitting

Beyond the starting pitchers, the two teams’ offensive outputs are actually fairly similar.

The Pirates ranked fourth in the NL in runs with 682 and the Giants were fifth with 655. Pittsburgh hit .259 as a team—third in the NL—while San Francisco was one place behind them at .255.

In addition, both lineups feature a potent middle-of-the order bat, surrounded by a number of average to above-average hitters. Pittsburgh boasts 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen (.314 average, 25 home runs, 83 RBIs) to anchor its offense while San Francisco counters with 2012 NL MVP Buster Posey (.311 average, 22 home runs, 89 RBIs).

Posey in particular will be looking to make amends for his last playoff performance when he hit an even .200 (12 for 60) in 2012; he is a career .244 hitter come postseason time. Although it matters little come October, Posey ended the season with a bang, hitting .354 in the second half of the season while driving in 43 runs over the final 62 games.

McCutchen hit .333 in his only postseason appearance last year, though he failed to drive in any runs in Pittsburgh’s six playoff games as he was walked five times. Advantage: Push.

Bullpen

The Pirates have a fierce threesome of relievers in Mark Melancon (33 saves, 1.90 ERA), Tony Watson (1.63 ERA), and Jared Hughes (1.96 ERA). Meanwhile the Giants have replaced Sergio Romo (23 saves, 3.72 ERA) with Santiago Casilla (19 saves, 1.70 ERA). Advantage: Pittsburgh.

Defense

The Pirates led the NL in errors with 109 (the Giants have an even 100). Meanwhile the statisticians at Baseball Reference have the Giants as a slightly worse team in terms of total defensive wins above replacement (a combined measure of each player’s defensive value given his position, and taking into account errors, chances, and putouts among others, and comparing it with the league average) of -2.4 than are the Pirates (+1.1). Advantage: Push.

Intangibles

The Pirates have played a total of six postseason games over the past 20 years, while the Giants have won two of the last four World Series. Advantage: San Francisco.

Prediction: San Francisco 4, Pittsburgh 2.

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