NLCS Preview: An Illusion of Dominance

Posted by Taylor Nigrelli on October 11, 2014 · 7 mins read

Twitter was hit with a barrage of eye-rolling and dismissive tweets when it became clear the Giants and Cardinals would face off in the National League Championship Series. Fans seemed to be sick of the two teams and the matchup in general.

As impossible as it sounds, these teams have faced off in just one NLCS in the past 12 years – in 2012. That time around, the Giants fell down 3-1 in the series only to come back and win in seven en route to sweeping the Tigers in the World Series. The Giants also appeared in the 2010 NLCS, where they beat a loaded Phillies squad before thumping Texas in the World Series.

This is the Cardinals fourth consecutive NLCS appearance and ninth in 15 years. They’ve been to four World Series in that time and won two. The Giants and Cardinals also faced off in the 2002 NLCS – San Francisco went on to lose to Anaheim in the World Series.

We’ve seen these teams before, basically.

Whenever a team dominates for long enough, people get sick of them. The Los Angeles Kings and Miami Heat from this spring come to mind – they haven’t been good more than a few years and people are sick of them.

I, unlike the average sports fan, would want watch a historically-dominant team as much as a major underdog. I love watching greatness. But whatever’s going on in the NL, it’s not dominance.

The 2013 Cardinals were great. Their 97 wins and plus-187 run differential were both tops in the National League. They were the only St. Louis team to win more than 91 games since 2005. This iteration of the Cardinals won 90 games and sported a plus-16 run differential. The 2006 champs won just 83 games while the 2011 champs needed a late-season Atlanta collapse to make the playoffs.

The 2004 and 2005 squads were legitimately great, winning 205 games between the two seasons. Both teams fell short in the postseason, however, making them very un-Cardinal-like teams.

But, when Twitter folk discuss being sick of the Cardinals, they aren’t talking about teams 10 years ago. They’re talking about the past four years where the Cardinals have shown a ‘90’s Yankees-like ability to win in the playoffs no matter how dominant or average the regular season was.

But who, specifically, are people sick of watching? I was very young for the Yankees reign at the top but I imagine many people grew tired of the core four, plus Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, David Cone and company. The team was essentially the same in 2001 as it was in 1996.

Not so with the Cardinals. According to wins above replacement (WAR), the 2011 Cardinals best hitters were Albert Pujols (5.3), Matt Holliday (3.9), Lance Berkman (3.5), Yadier Molina (2.8), Jon Jay (2.8), Allen Craig (2.3), David Freese (1.7), Nick Punto (1.5), Colby Rasmus (1.5) and Rafael Furcal (.9) Only Molina, Jay and Holliday remain with the team.

The starting pitching staff of the 2011 team: Chris Carpenter, Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Kyle McClellan/Edwin Jackson platoon. Adam Wainwright missed the whole year getting Tommy John surgery.

The starting staff this year: only Garcia (out for the season) and Wainwright remain. Thus, no one who started for the 2011 team in the playoffs will start in the postseason this year.

This is an entirely different team. Baseball Twitter isn’t sick of the Cardinals, it’s sick of Cardinals fans. Which is entirely understandable.

But this doesn’t change the fact that the Cardinals are 1. not as dominant a team as one would think and 2. not even remotely the team they were in 2011.

The Giants, on the other hand, are just a strange group.

They missed the playoffs six years in a row before breaking through and winning the World Series in 2010. The team was built on pitching and the ace of the squad was Tim Lincecum, who posted very good numbers despite cooling off a tad after back-to-back Cy Young awards.

Lincecum continued to cool off in 2011 as Matt Cain emerged as the ace. The pitching remained dominant but the offense fell from average to terrible and the Giants won just 86 games and failed to qualify for the postseason.

Lincecum was downright bad in 2012 (and beyond) but Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito picked up the slack. Offensively, Buster Posey returned and won the 2012 NL MVP as the offense returned to its “good enough” status. San Francisco won its second World Series title in three years despite winning just 94 and 92 games, respectively.

Last year, the Giants were pretty much bad wire-to-wire and finished with just 76 wins.

Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum were both in the opening day rotation this year, but neither provide much value anymore. It’s Bumgarner’s turn to lead the Giants deep into the postseason (I’m not sure if this whole “taking turns being the ace” thing was agreed upon beforehand but that somehow seems more plausible than how it has developed). Vogelsong has rebounded after an awful 2013 and Tim Hudson joined the staff. The team nabbed Jake Peavy at the deadline. This group is still strong.

As you’ve probably gathered from all this, the Giants haven’t really been a dominant team either. In fact, they haven’t won more than 94 games since the 2003 season.

For San Francisco and St. Louis, it’s been about staying healthy and getting hot at the right time. These teams aren’t so much dominant as always there.

I could try to detail how the two teams match up with each other but that seems to stop mattering to both teams once the playoffs start.

I’m not sure who will win. We’ll go with Giants in six because they seem to like even-numbered years.