|Matt Cain will start Game 1 of the NLDS. (Getty Images)|
The Giants and Reds have met seven times this season, with three of those games decided by a single run. The NLDS shouldn't be any different, as the two teams start in pitcher-friendly AT&T Park with two impressive rotations and two offenses that can be streaky. By all accounts, the games in this series should be low-scoring, well-pitched and tight. Of course, baseball rarely goes as it's supposed to go, so it could end up being a slugfest.
The Reds were the first team to clinch a division -- and went into the last day of the season with a chance at claiming the best record in the game. Meanwhile, the Giants were able to hold off a charge from division rival Los Angeles and claim their second division crown in the past two years. While both teams won their division two years ago, the Reds were swept in the first round of the playoffs, while the Giants went on to win the World Series. There are some changes from this year's Giants to the one that topped the Rangers two years ago, but there are plenty of holdovers and that experience could be important.
With the series beginning Saturday at AT&T Park in San Francisco, let's take a look at how these two teams match up:
This is not the runaway you think it is. Posey is the likely MVP and deserves every single vote he gets. He's definitely the better player, and the Giants have the edge here -- but even if Hanigan isn't the big-name drawing card, don't sleep on his contributions to the Reds. Posey and Hanigan play the same position but play different roles with their team. Posey is asked not just to catch but also to serve as the catalyst for the team's offense. Hanigan is the catalyst for the team's pitching and defense. He's one of the best handlers of a pitching staff in the game, and his 48.5 percent caught-stealing percentage was tops in the majors. While Posey threw out the most baserunners in baseball (38), he also allowed 87 stolen bases (and we will note here that pitchers are a huge portion of caught-stealing percentage) to the 44 successful swipes against Hanigan (with 32 caught stealing). Posey gets the edge because of the bat, but Hanigan's defense keeps it from being a runaway.
Brandon Belt has had a fine season, hitting .275/.360/.421, but he's hit only seven home runs. The team has also used Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Aubrey Huff at first base and even experimented with Belt in left field recently. The Reds, of course, have former MVP Joey Votto. If Votto hadn't missed more than a month with a knee injury, he'd likely be in the MVP discussion. But he did, and since he's returned, he's hitting .316/.505/.421, but hasn't hit a home run in 105 plate appearances. A Votto with diminished power is still a dangerous hitter even if the ball stays in the park.
Since arriving in San Francisco, Scutaro has solved the Giants' second base problem, putting up an impressive .362/.385/.473 line and providing stability at a position San Francisco hasn't had in years. Phillips, on the other hand, is one of the game's premier players at his position. Last season he won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger at the position. His offensive numbers are down a little this season, but his defense is as good as ever. The only thing that doesn't make this a runaway is recent performance. While Scutaro has been hot, Phillips hit just .209/.269/.326 over the previous 28 days. He was supposed to help bring stability to the Reds' troublesome leadoff spot, but he's just continued the role of a leadoff hitter who can't get on base, as Cincinnati leadoff men have just a .208/.254/.327 line this season.
Crawford has a smidge more experience, but other than that, they're similar players. Both are very good defensive players, which is why they're the starters. Crawford has put up a .248/.304/.349 line, while Cozart is hitting .246/.288/.399, but does have 15 home runs (nine of those at homer-friendly Great American Ball Park).
Third base: Pablo Sandoval vs. Scott Rolen
The last time the Giants were in the playoffs, Sandoval was living in Bruce Bochy's doghouse, having gained weight and lost production. Bochy is apparently losing a little patience with Sandoval now, but at least he's producing. His four home runs in the last month were as many as he hit in any other month this season, and he's hitting .283/.342/.447 with 12 home runs. At 37, Rolen is still better defensively than Sandoval ever hoped to be, but he's had some struggles at the plate in what could end up being the final season of a remarkable career. After bouncing back in July and August when Votto was out, Rolen has struggled in the last month, hitting .222/.259/.370 since the start of September.
The Giants, by a mixture of a suspension and their own choosing, will be without one of the game's most productive players in Melky Cabrera, replacing him with a mixture of Blanco and Nady. Nady has played 19 games with the Giants after starting the season with the Nationals. Overall he's hitting just .184/.253/.316, but is hitting .240 in a Giants uniform. Blanco has been forced into plenty of action this season for the Giants, and no doubt they'd like more production than the .244/.333/.344 line he's put up. Belt could play some in left during the series. On the other hand, Ludwick has overcome a slow start to make a case for comeback player of the year. The 33-year-old has clubbed 28 home runs and put up a .275/.346/.531 line.
Pagan is hitting .288/.338/.440 and led the majors with 15 triples. He's been all the Giants could have hoped for when San Francisco sent two players to the Mets in return for the 31-year-old. Stubbs, meanwhile, has been a disaster at the plate, hitting just .213/.277/.333 with 14 home runs. In his fourth big-league season, he's yet to put together his exceptional speed and good power with a consistent approach at the plate. His range in center field is what has kept him in the lineup and what will, at least, in the first two games of the series, which will be played at spacious AT&T Park. Heisey (.265/.315/.401) could also play in center or left, depending on matchups.
Pence hasn't lived up to hopes, hitting just .219/.287/.384 for the Giants. Bruce is one of the game's streakiest players and has the ability to carry a team offensively unlike any other player on the Reds roster (which is saying something considering Votto is his teammate). It all depends on which Bruce shows up -- the April (.296/.337/.617, 7 HR) or August (.290/.349/.600, 7 HR) Bruce, or the May (.229/.296/.469, 4 HR) or September (.233/.295/.485, 6 HR) version of Bruce.
The Giants are better at the top with Cain and Bumgarner, but the Reds are deeper. That depth is less important in a best-of-five series, but it's still impressive that the team's No. 4 starter is coming off a no-hitter and has a 2.84 ERA and .207 batting average over his last 10 starts. Cain didn't give up a run in three starts in the postseason two years ago, while Bumgarner was 2-0 with a 2.18 ERA in three starts and a relief appearance. Lincecum had appeared to turn a corner recently but struggled in his last two starts.
Bullpen: Not Brian Wilson vs. Aroldis Chapman and company
Both teams lost their closer early in the season, but both have to be happy with their replacements. In Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo, the Giants have two pitchers who can close. The Reds have three -- Chapman, Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall. Both bullpens are deep and effective, but the Reds' 2.65 ERA from their bullpen was the best in baseball. Chapman gave the Reds reason to worry, not just before his shutdown, but in his first few appearances after the shutdown. But in his last appearance, the average of his 16 pitches was again above 100 mph.
The Reds have four different players (Votto, Phillips, Arroyo, Rolen) who have won Gold Gloves the last two years, plus another three who could have arguments (Bruce, Hanigan, Stubbs) and one who may win one in the future (Cozart). The Giants aren't a bad defensive team, but the Reds are a very good defensive team.
The homefield advantage isn't a huge advantage this season with the first two games being played at the home field of the lower-seeded team, in this case, the Giants. The Reds have benefitted from big home runs all season, while the Giants are last in the majors with 103, in part because they play at AT&T Park, where it is tougher to hit homers. With the first two games of the series at AT&T Park, plus Cain and Bumgarner on the mound, the Giants could take a commanding lead, much like the Phillies did two years ago, dismissing the Reds in three games. A two-game lead could be a death knell to Cincinnati again. With the Reds struggling to score runs of late, a good pitching staff and a pitcher-friendly environment for the first two games, the Giants get it done in four games.