(4) San Diego Padres vs. (5) St. Louis Cardinals
In advance of the Wild Card round starting today, we’re going to break down each series for you. In this article, we cover the fourth-seeded Padres’ series against the fifth-seed Cardinals, broken down by Samuel In and Ryan Amore, respectively.
Game 1: Wednesday, September 30 at 5 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Chris Paddack vs. Kwang-Hyun Kim
Game 3 (if necessary): Friday, October 2, TBD, TBA vs. Jack Flaherty
San Diego Padres (37-23)
This is the San Diego Padres’ first playoff appearance since 2006. To put that in perspective, the Padres’ budding superstar shortstop, Fernando Tatis Jr., was seven years old the last time the team made the playoffs. After 14 long years of constant rebuilding, San Diego finally has the opportunity to grace center stage. And a big reason for this is the scariest lineup the Padres have put out in a long time. Slam Diego is no longer a stroll in the park for opposing pitchers. After putting up the fifth-worst OPS in the league last season, the 2020 team’s .798 OPS ranked fourth in the MLB this year. And a big reason for that has been because of that young shortstop, Tatis Jr.
As of September 6, 2020, Tatis Jr. was tied for the MLB lead in home runs with 15, led the league in WAR with 3.0 and had a 1.063 OPS. But then came his 14 game home run drought, a span in which he hit for a line of .163/.263/.184, struck out 12 times and only had a single XBH. The good news for fans is that Tatis Jr. has shown signs of life as of late. In the final three games of the regular season, he hit two home runs in that span, so hopefully, for the Padres, this indicates a return to form for the young shortstop.
Yet, should he not produce in the postseason, Slam Diego still has other weapons dispersed throughout its lineup. The Padres were one of two teams with three hitters that hit for 15 or more home runs this season. Tatis Jr. was one of those players, but the other two were four-time all-star Manny Machado and Comeback Player of the Year candidate Wil Myers.
Machado is having a near opposite season from his partner on the left side of the diamond. Through his first 25 games, Machado was hitting for a line of .213/.321/.415 with five home runs, 13 RBIs and 21 strikeouts. However, from then on, he has hit for a line of .369/.407/.700, accumulated 11 more home runs, 34 more RBIs and only struck out 16 times. He will need to stay on this tear for the Padres to make a deep playoff run.
But World Series contenders aren’t always just teams built on the backs of superstars. Sometimes these teams have surprise players that go beyond what’s expected of them. Wil Myers is one such player for the Padres. The 29-year-old outfielder has seen his line improve from a lowly .239/.321/.418 in 2019 to .288/.353/.606 in 2020. In less than half the amount of AB’s, Myers has hit 15 home runs this year after only hitting 18 all of last season.
These aren’t the only three hitters that matter; the entire Padres lineup is to be feared. Centerfielder Trent Grisham has burst onto the scene, adding 10 home runs of his own. Rookie utility player Jake Cronenworth is fourth amongst rookies in OPS with .831 and his .324 xBA is in sixth in the entire league. First basemen Eric Hosmer is averaging 15.89 AB/HR after averaging 30.49 throughout his career. There are no easy outs with this lineup.
Home run power could be a key in the series for the Padres. The team hit 95 home runs in the regular season, fourth-most in the MLB. Their opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals, on the other hand, hit 51, the least in the league. This is good news for the Padres considering all three games will be played at Petco Park. The stadium in downtown San Diego has turned from a pitcher’s dream ballpark to home run alley. The ballpark gave up the eighth-most home runs this season and the Padres hit 15 more dingers at home than on the road. So, although there may not be the roar of fans cheering on the team, Petco Park still could provide a big advantage for the Padres.
The biggest concern for the Padres is their rotation. RHP Chris Paddack is expected to be on the bump for game one. Paddack is having a sophomore slump this season with a 4.73 ERA. Batters’ average exit velocity off of him has been 90.9 MPH, putting Paddack in the bottom 9% of the league in this category, and hitters are hitting .308 on his fastball. So, even though the Cardinals have the 7th-lowest-scoring offense in the MLB, game one is no guarantee.
RHP Zach Davies is projected to start the second game. He too is having a good season with a 2.73 ERA and 1.067 WHIP. Although throughout his career he’s typically been a groundball pitcher that focuses on getting weak contact, Davies has improved his ability to get hitters to swing and miss this season. He is averaging the highest K/9 in his career, 8.2, and to put that in perspective, his career average is 6.5. However, one thing he has struggled with is giving up the long ball at home. In five home starts, he has given up six home runs, while he has only given up three in his seven road starts. Now again, the Cardinals are not a home run hitting team, so this isn’t something to be deeply concerned about.
If this series goes to a game three, it’s a complete mystery who will take the mound. The whole reason why Paddack is starting the first game is because both RHP Dinelson Lamet and RHP Mike Clevinger are injured. Lamet left his last start on September 26 with bicep tightness. Before the injury, he was having the best season of his career. The major statistics are there. He has a 2.09 ERA, 0.855 WHIP and is averaging 12.1 K/9. However, perhaps the most impressive underlying statistic with Lamet is the fact that opponents are hitting .080 on his slider this season. There are only four other qualified pitchers with a pitch that has produced a lower batting average. Lamet’s slider has been one of the best pitches in the MLB this year. The problem is that he wasn’t seen on the field nor seen throwing as of Tuesday, which likely means he won’t pitch in the series.
As for Clevinger, he left his last start on September 23 with elbow pain. An MRI showed that he has a right posterior elbow impingement and although he hasn’t been ruled out of the series, he also has not been confirmed to be available for the series. The good news is that he was seen throwing a bullpen session on Tuesday, which makes him a more likely starter than Lamet. Hopefully for Padres fans, Clevinger will be ready to go should the series go the distance, but as of now, the rotation has a lot of question marks.
St. Louis Cardinals (30-28)
Offensively, the Cardinals ranked 24th with a team wOBA of .306, 14th in OBP at .323, and 22nd in batting average at .234. They tallied 240 runs scored, third lowest in all of baseball. And they were tied with the Pirates with the lowest ISO in all of baseball at .137. Meanwhile, San Diego was third-best in ISO at .209 trailing only the Dodgers (.227) and Braves (.215). In terms of run differential, the Padres finished second in baseball trailing only the Dodgers (+136) at +84, while the Cardinals were 11th at +11.
This lineup could be best summed up as Paul Goldschmidt and company as the former Diamondback easily led his team in OBP (.417), SLG (.466), and batting average (.304). Simply put, this isn’t a deep lineup, and if they are to advance it will seemingly require a near immaculate effort from their pitching staff as this team doesn’t have the offensive firepower to win a slugfest. The Cardinals really struggled to get offensive production out of their outfield, with their outfielders combing for just a .290 wOBA, fifth-worst in baseball. Top prospect Dylan Carlson didn’t distinguish himself with just a .264 wOBA and 29.4% K rate across 119 PA. A bright spot for the Cardinals offensively was the veteran Brad Miller, who was second on the team in wOBA at .349 and tied with Tyler O’Neill for the team lead in home runs with seven. Miller had shown some power last season too hitting thirteen home runs then with the Phillies and Indians in 170 PA. In the case of O’Neill, the power came with a .173 batting average and .261 OBP. Against southpaws, O’Neill plays Left Field, shifting Edman to third and Carpenter to the bench. After a tremendous 2018 campaign that saw him post a career-best 36 home runs, Matt Carpenter has continued to decline precipitously, this season posting a career-worst .293 wOBA. A popular waiver-wire add in fantasy leagues last season, Tommy Edman slashed a comparatively modest .250/ .317/ .368. Although, he remained a very valuable player in terms of defensive versatility logging starts in every position sans catcher and first base.
Along with Goldschmidt and Miller, Harrison Bader was the only other Cardinal hitter to have a wRC+ over 100 (113), although his 32% K rate figures to be exposed by postseason pitching. He typically starts against southpaws as his career splits are pretty wide, .357 wOBA against LHP for his career compared to just .293 against RHP. After tallying eleven home runs last season, just one off of his career-high, Kolten Wong only produced one this season. His value to the lineup, though, lies in his .350 OBP which was third-best on the team. In what could potentially be his final appearance as a St. Louis Cardinal, Yadier Molina will look to add to his extensive postseason resume. The two time World Series Champion has participated in twenty-two playoff series and has slashed .273/ .327/ .356 across 380 plate appearances in the postseason.
It may not matter a whole lot since so much of postseason play is dictated by starting pitching, however, both offenses weren’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard through the season’s final two weeks. The Padres were 22nd in both wOBA (.295) and wRC+ (84) while the Cardinals were 30th in wOBA at .264 and 28th in wRC+ at 65.
Manager Mike Shildt tabbed the lefty Kwang-Hyun Kim to start game one. After starting the season as the Cardinals closer, the 32-year-old rookie Kim was eventually shifted to the rotation and produced a sparkling 1.42 ERA and 1.00 WHIP across seven starts (38 IP) with the Cardinals winning five of those seven contests. Kim isn’t much of a bat-misser as he showed just a 16.1% K rate, but he did, however, hold batters to an excellent .290 xwOBA and .255 xBA. It was somewhat of a surprise decision by Shildt, although maybe the thinking here is trying to get the Padres on the weaker side of their splits. Against RHP, the Padres produced a .347 team wOBA and 119 wRC+ this season compared to .327 and .106 respectively against LHP.
One of the holdovers from the last time these two clubs met in the postseason way back in ’06, the thirty-nine-year-old Adam Wainwright led this staff in innings pitched at 65 (Jack Flaherty was 2nd at 40 IP). This is going to sound cliché, but there’s something to be said about the value of experience when pitching in the postseason. To that effect, Wainwright has posted a remarkable 2.81 ERA and 1.07 WHIP across 105.2 IP in his postseason career.
Will the real Jack Flaherty stand up? In the second half of 2019, he was a sight to behold. A 0.91 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, and 27.6% K-BB% across 99.1 IP. Undoubtedly disrupted by the Cardinals season being put on hold amidst an outbreak, Flaherty ended the 2020 season with a 4.91 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. While his K rate remained stable, Flaherty’s xwOBA jumped considerably from .281 in 2019 to .328 this past season. And his xERA climbed from 3.30 to 5.01 this season. His slider remained electric this season, returning a 49.5% whiff rate. The results on his fastball, however, were drastically different as it returned a .386 xwOBA and .300 xBA this season compared to marks of .311 and .236 respectively in 2019. One of the keys to the series will be which version of Flaherty shows up. He’ll pitch the pivotal game three if we get there.
Much to the chagrin of fantasy managers everywhere, seven Cardinals relievers recorded saves this year, including Game One starter Kim. Overall, Cardinals relievers have combined for a 4.00 ERA (21st) and 4.63 FIP (17th). Giovanny Gallegos, who was the popular fantasy target in this pen early on, started the season on the COVID-19 related IL. He was activated on July 28th before eventually spending another ten days on the IL this time for a groin strain on September 11th. Overall, he was a big contributor for this pen tallying a 3.60 ERA and 0.87 WHIP, while also leading the team with a 36.8% K rate. RHB hit just .056 (.107 xBA) against his slider this year. You’d figure Shildt will be saving him for Tatís Jr and Manny Machado late in games. Not too long ago Alex Reyes was one of the game’s brightest pitching prospects. His career thus far has been sidetracked by injuries, but he was reinstated on August 15th. The walk rate is scary at 16.8% but there’s no denying the bat-missing ability is still there. His fastball has averaged 97.5 MPH this season while both his slider and curveball have returned whiff rates north of 45%. Remember Andrew Miller? He’s back and along with Gallegos tied for the team lead with four saves this season. This year’s 2.77 ERA and 1.08 WHIP were the best marks he’s produced since 2017, then a member of the Indians. His slider has held lefty bats to a .067 batting average (.048 xBA) this season. The lefty, Génesis Cabrera gives the Cardinals another weapon out of the pen. He’s a hard thrower as his fastball averaged a robust 96.2 MPH with an incredible whiff rate of 38.4% to boot. Similar to Reyes though, the control is dicey at best as he holds a 16.7% BB rate through 22.1 innings this season. He’s been very successful in spite of the wildness, though, as he held opposing hitters to a .187 xBA.
Oh, the irony. In almost classic Padres misfortune, the team has made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, just to face the same team that knocked them out 14 years ago. The last time these two faced off in the postseason was in the 2006 NL Division Series where the Cardinals upset the higher-seeded Padres three games to one. The Cardinals again have the opportunity to pull off an upset and continue the drought of championships for the city of San Diego.
Mike Piazza was the Padres’ starting catcher and David Wells started game two. Meanwhile, Adam Wainwright was coming out of the pen those days, and Yadier Molina was a 23-year-old second-year catcher. Meanwhile, Tatís Jr was likely terrorizing his local tee-ball league at seven-years-old. How times have changed. The Cardinals, of course, would win that series in four games before eventually toppling the Tigers in the World Series.
There’s no way the Padres lose to the Cardinals again, right? Even if Tatis Jr.’s slump continues, it’s hard to imagine the third-highest scoring offense failing to put up runs. The key will be Lamet and Clevinger. If this series goes to a game three and neither of these pitchers are available, it’ll be a toss-up. Sure, the Cardinals have one of the lowest-scoring offenses in the league, so I’m betting that the Padres will take the first two. But should this series go the distance, and the Padres run out of healthy pitchers, the Cardinals have a good chance at pulling off the upset.
If Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet are cleared to play and more importantly start that would swing the series overwhelmingly in favor of San Diego. But that scenario would seem incredibly unlikely considering the timing of the injuries and that both are dealing with arm issues, an elbow impingement in the case of Clevinger, and biceps tightness for Lamet.
Chris Paddack will start game one. Despite the lackluster 4.73 ERA and 1.22 WHIP this season, we know Paddack certainly has the ability to pitch well. The likely game two starter would be Zach Davies. He had a career year this season, but I do think Davies is someone who if we had played out a normal-length season would have regressed some considering his 5.01 xERA and 17.3% career K rate. Regardless, the Cardinals likely don’t have a big enough advantage in starting pitching to overcome the seemingly huge gap in offense between the two.
But in a season like this and in a best of three series no less where’s the fun in saying the chalk hits? I’ll say the Cardinals do enough to take one of the first two games and the Flaherty we saw in the second half of last season shows up and pitches a gem in the pivotal third game. Cardinals in 3.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@FreshMeatComm on Twitter)