The St. Louis Cardinals will host the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series beginning tonight, with the first pitched scheduled for 8:37 (Cleveland time). The Indians didn't play either of these teams all season, and in fact, haven't played the Dodgers since June of 2008 (Paul Byrd started for the Tribe, which makes it feel like even more than five years have passed). As a service to LGT readers who may not be entirely familiar with one or both of these two teams, allow me to present some pertinent information on each of them.
1. 2B Matt Carpenter (L) - .318/.392/.481, 147 wRC+
2. RF Carlos Beltran (S) - .296/.339/.491, 132 wRC+
3. LF Matt Holliday (R) - .300/.389/.490, 148 wRC+
4. 1B Matt Adams (L) - .284/.335/.503, 136 wRC+
5. C Yadier Molina (R) - .319/.359/.477, 134 wRC+
6. 3B David Freese (R) - .262/.340/.381, 106 wRC+
7. CF Jon Jay (L) - .276/.351/.370, 104 wRC+
8. SS Pete Kozma (R) - .217/.275/.273, 50 wRC+
In terms of National League lineups, that's as good as it gets, and by a wide margin. The Cardinals led the NL in runs scored, on-base percentage, and wRC+. The first five are better than even any American League team has, and Pete Kozma is the only bad hitter in the lineup, aside from the pitcher (watch out for Zack Greinke, who led all pitchers with a .409 OBP and 132 wRC+).
1. LF Carl Crawford (L) - .283/.329/.407, 108 wRC+
2. 2B Mark Ellis (R) - .270/.323/.351, 92 wRC+
3. SS Hanley Ramirez (R) - .345/.402/.638, 191 wRC+
4. 1B Adrian Gonzalez (L) - .293/.342/.461, 124 wRC+
5. RF Yasiel Puig (R) - .319/.391/.534, 160 wRC+
6. 3B Juan Uribe (R) - .278/.331/.438, 116 wRC+
7. CF Andre Ethier (L) - .272/.360/.423, 120 wRC+
8. C A.J. Ellis (R) - .238/.318/.364, 95 wRC+
The Dodgers aren't far behind the Cardinals in terms of offense, and realistically, they might be viewed as the even better lineup, given that they led the league in wRC+ after the All-Star break (Ramirez and Puig, their two best hitters this season, weren't in the lineup til June). There isn't a single bad hitter in the lineup.
The Cardinals get excellent defense from catcher Yadier Molina (maybe the best defensive player in all of baseball) and shortstop Pete Kozma (he ain't in there for his bat), but below average to outright bad defense around the rest of the field, particularly in the outfield.
The Dodgers, on the other hand, lack a standout defensive player of the caliber of Molina and Kozma, but are solid to strong at every position (though Ethier may be rusty, with tonight's Game 1 set to be his first game in the field in a month). Catcher and shortstop are the two most important defensive positions, but on the whole, Los Angeles has the better group.
Cardinals starting pitchers were the second-best rotation in the National League, runners up in ERA (3.42) and FIP (3.45). That's great production. The only team whose rotation did better than them was... the Dodgers (3.13 ERA, 3.39 FIP). It's somewhat misleading though, to look at such stats in trying to determine the quality of a team's pitching for a short series, since only four of each team's various starting pitchers from throughout the year will actually start in this series, some once, some twice.
Game 1: Joe Kelly (StL) vs. Zack Greinke (LA)
Kelly (124 IP, 2.69 ERA, 4.01 FIP) has been solid, but he doesn't strike many out and Greinke (177.2 IP, 2.63 ERA, 3.23 FIP) is pretty clearly better.
Wacha (64.2 IP, 2.78 ER, 2.92 FIP) was one of the best rookies in the National League this year, but Kershaw (236 IP, 1.83 ERA, 2.39 FIP) is the best pitcher in baseball.
The Cardinals needed Wainwright (241.2 IP, 2.94 ERA, 2.55 FIP) in Game 5 of the NLDS, so they can't turn to their ace til Game 2 here. He's a much better option than Ryu (192 IP, 3.00 ERA, 3.24 FIP), who may be running out of gas.
Lynn (201.2 IP, 3.97 ERA, 3.28 FIP) is was solid all year except a rough patch in August. Nolasco (199.1 IP, 3.70 ERA, 3.34 FIP) pitched well until his last 3 starts, when he allowed 17 runs in 12 innings.
The Cardinals are at a disadvantage in that their best pitcher won't take the mound until Game 3, which also means he won't pitch a second game unless the series goes 7 games. On the other hand, if the series does go 7 games, big edge to the Cardinals, because Wainwright over Ryu is the biggest mismatch of any of these duels.
Both teams are strong here. At closer, the Dodgers have Kenley Jansen (1.88 ERA, 1.99 FIP) who gets probably a very slight edge over the Trevor Rosenthal (2.63 ERA, 1.91 FIP) of the Cardinals. St. Louis is a little better in middle relief though, and will also have Shelby Miller available out of the pen. Miller is an NL Rookie of the Year candidate, but wore down in September. He's certainly the most intriguing long relief option on either squad.
This is only the second time these two teams (among the most storied in baseball) have met in the NLCS. Way back in 1985, the two faced off. The Dodgers used great pitching performances from Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser to take a 2-0 lead in the series. Action the moved to St. Louis, where the Cardinals took games 3 and 4 to tie the series. Game 5 entered the bottom of the 9th all tied up as well, until Ozzie Smith hit a rare home run, putting the Red Birds only one win away from advancing. Back in Los Angeles for Game 6, The Dodgers held a 5-4 lead with two outs in the 9th inning, only to see the game and series get away from them on a 3-run blast by Cardinals 1B Jack Clark, sending St. Louis to the World Series.
Who should you root for?
The Cardinals are the closest thing to a small-market team left in the postseason, and a lot of their talent is homegrown. Their payroll is dwarfed by Los Angeles'. The Dodgers went out and acquired hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts. If you prefer a franchise build its success through player scouting and development, and stand against the notion of buying your way to success, Los Angeles can't be your team.
On the other hand, St. Louis' payroll is still above average and they've got fans all over the country, so their attendance and TV ratings are not those of a small-market team. The Cardinals are also the only team to have won the World Series twice in the last seven years, and are playing in their 8th League Championship of the 2000s, the most of any team in baseball. If you get sick of seeing the same teams win again and again, St. Louis is not the squad for you.
The Dodgers have rubbed many the wrong way this season (notably for their pool-hopping in Arizona after clinching the NL West), but I find them a pretty likable bunch. I'm fully prepared to turn on them if they have too much success, for they're the team for me among the four still playing. Cardinals fans are reputed (largely by themselves) to be the best in baseball, while Los Angeles is known for being a city of late-arriving fans who don't care. I lived in LA, and in my experience, Dodgers fans were as passionate as they come. I'd rather they see their first winner in a quarter-century than St. Louis see its third in 8 seasons.
Also, the Dodgers winning means more Vin Scully.
Are former Indians a reason to root for a team, or against it???
Edward Mujica was signed by the Indians as an amateur free agent in 2001, and pitched for the Tribe from 2006 to 2008, compiling an ugly 6.04 ERA in 70 innings of relief work. He took over as Cardinals closer early this season, and did very well (he was even named to the All-Star team), before hitting a wall in early September and being moved into a lesser role.
Jake Westbrook pitched for the Indians from 2001 to 2010 and was the team's best pitcher and an All-Star in 2004. He's not on the NLCS roster, but he did throw 116.2 innings for St. Louis during the regular season.
No one. Manny Ramirez from 2008 to 2010 was the last LGFT of consequence to play for the Dodgers.
This is the NLCS as it should be, with the league's two best teams battling one another. They've got probably the two best lineups, and the two best starting rotations in the league. Anything can happen in a short series, but this one has all the ingredients of a great one. Eleven days ago I went on Canadian radio and predicted the Dodgers would beat the Cardinals in the NLCS. I see no reason to go against that now.