Each time the Pirates have played the Cardinals this year, the popular opinion has been that the Cardinals will be nearly unbeatable. Granted, a lot of the matchups between the two teams were preceded by the Pirates losing against bad opponents, which led to questions about how they could beat a good opponent.
The Cardinals were the number one seed in the National League, so viewing them as a difficult opponent is totally natural. But there has been a lot of disbelief in the Pirates this year, to the point that they’re not seen as a good team like the Cardinals. Let’s review the facts:
**The Cardinals finished with 97 wins.
**The Pirates finished with 94 wins.
**The Pirates went 10-9 against the Cardinals.
The Cardinals won three more games than the Pirates, and in the head to head matchup the Pirates edged out St. Louis. All year this has been a matchup seen as favoring the Cardinals, but the truth is that these two teams are pretty much even. Pirates fans will focus on the flaws of the Pirates (mostly an inconsistent offense), but the Cardinals have their own flaws, such as defense and a poor bullpen. This team probably won’t have Allen Craig in the NLDS, which will tip the scale a bit in the Pirates’ favor.
St. Louis has some good pitching. But the Pirates match up well. Adam Wainwright and A.J. Burnett could both make two starts this series. Both have put up strong numbers this year, and both have decent 2013 numbers against their opponents in this series.
The Cardinals will get one start from Shelby Miller, while the Pirates will send out Gerrit Cole for a start, giving each team a young ace.
Lance Lynn and Charlie Morton have both struggled against their respective opponents in this series, but both will be making their starts at home, where they each have better numbers.
Then there’s Joe Kelly and Francisco Liriano, who don’t really compare. Kelly put up big numbers this year, but is a huge regression candidate. Meanwhile, Liriano has the stuff and the secondary numbers to make his excellent season legit. It’s possible that the Cardinals could go with Michael Wacha instead of Kelly, but Liriano is still better.
Outside of Burnett/Wainwright, those aren’t the pitching matchups. It’s just how the two rotations for this series will be very similar. Both teams have a great rotation, and when you factor in the bullpen, the Pirates take an edge.
A lot has been made about the Pirates offense this year, but they finished with a 106 wRC+. The Cardinals have been much better on the season, with a 113 wRC+. However, in the second half the Pirates had a 111 wRC+, while the Cardinals had a 104 wRC+. The key to that for the Pirates was that they added players at the deadline and finished strong offensively in the final weeks. Meanwhile, the Cardinals lost Yadier Molina for a stretch, and lost Allen Craig for a longer stretch.
With Craig expected to miss the NLDS, the Cardinals shouldn’t be expected to perform as well as their season totals. Meanwhile, the Pirates offense right now isn’t the same as the offense from the entire season. They also have several hot bats in the lineup, which means they shouldn’t be expected to perform as poorly as their season totals. The two sides should be close to equal when you look at what they will each have in this series, compared to the lineups that made up their season stats.
Finally, there’s the defense. Overall the Pirates rank in the middle of the pack in UZR. The Cardinals are one of the three worst teams in the league this year in the same category. The Pirates do have an unquestioned advantage here.
The Cardinals are seen as the better team because they’re flashy. They get “clutch” hits, and they win with offense first, although their pitching does great especially considering the lack of defense. The Pirates aren’t as flashy. They win with pitching and defense, and a streaky offense. When the offense is going, they win like the best teams in the league. When the offense isn’t going, they win like a .500 team. Either way, both teams get the job done, even if the “offense first” approach by St. Louis gets more attention than the “pitching and defense” approach by Pittsburgh.
If you’re looking at how these teams stack up, then the #1 and #4 seeds don’t tell the story. The Pirates match up well with the Cardinals in every aspect in this series. That doesn’t mean the Pirates are guaranteed a win, just like noting this doesn’t mean the Cardinals are guaranteed a win. What it means is that this series could go either way. Neither team has a serious advantage here, and any advantage one team has is slight. Just like the one game against the Reds, on paper it looks even, despite the fact that the Cardinals are considered the much better team in this series.
Links and Notes
Wild Card Coverage