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NL 2014 Wild Card Game Preview: Giants vs. Pirates Q&A

The Pirates host the Giants in a one-game, winner-take-all elimination round for the right to face the Nationals.

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation 2014 MLB Bracket

I just got here. Who are these guys?

The Pirates are plucky, young, and sneaky in that they have one of the better lineups in the National League.

The Giants are familiar and confusing, as they started the season 60-2 before giving away the division in their last 100 games.

Why should I watch this?

Q: These teams didn't even win their divisions and are probably bad. Why do I care about them facing off in a one-game playoff?
Because it's baseball, dummy. It's an elimination game in postseason baseball. What kind of question ...

One of these years, we'll get a truly bad wild-card team. It will be a team that squeaks in with 82 wins, even though their expected record by runs scored/allowed would be more like 76-86. They'll start Jeff Suppan in the wild card game and probably win, just to bug the heck out of us.

This is not that year. Both of these teams are good, if flawed. They feature the last two National League Most Valuable Players, both of whom have been playing at an MVP pace this season, too. Andrew McCutchen is on the cover of the leaflet you hand out to nonbelievers. Buster Posey is the guy you follow when things start exploding in the Michael Bay movie. If you need a reason to watch beyond the elimination factor, those two will do.

Okay, I'm watching. Keep going.

Q. Gimme some stats. What are some neat stats?

The Giants were dead last in the league in both stolen bases and sacrifice bunts. They're a station-to-station team of the highest order, which works out fine when their high-average players like Posey, Pablo Sandoval, and Hunter Pence are all hitting. When the hits aren't falling, though, it's a painful team to watch.

The Pirates are markedly worse against left-handed pitching, losing 10 points of OBP and 44 points of slugging percentage. The difference is in the lefty-on-lefty matchups.

RHB vs. RHP: .751 OPS
RHB vs. LHP: .738
LHB vs. RHP: .734
LHB vs. LHP: .530

The Pirates can stack the entire lineup with right-handers against Giants starter Madison Bumgarner, though, replacing Travis Snider with Jose Tabata and Ike Davis with Gaby Sanchez.

Madison Bumgarner

Madison Bumgarner (Stephen Dunn).

Q. Just kidding. I hate stats. Can you give me something without numbers?
Travis Ishikawa is an emergency fill-in for the Giants in left, and he was the Pirates' Opening Day first baseman. Hunter Strickland is the best reliever you've never heard of, throwing 99 mph with superlative command, and he was released by the Pirates to make room for Jonathan Sanchez last year.

The Pirates weren't very good against winning teams. Against the losing teams, they were 63-46 on the season -- including a 14-5 mark against the Cubs -- but against teams over .500, they were just 25-28. They won the season series against just two of the eight good teams they played.

One of those teams was the Giants, though. They took four of six from the Giants, winning both the home and road series.

Q. What about the pitching?
Bumgarner is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and he's also a freakishly young veteran. He just turned 25, yet he's already started 148 games in his career and boasts an ERA of 3.06 (3.15 FIP, 116 ERA+). His strikeout-to-walk ratio is among the best in the game (219 K, 43 BB in 217⅓ innings), and don't assume his 2.98 ERA this year was a product of AT&T Park: He was actually dreadful at home for whatever reason, yet he was 11-4 with a 2.22 ERA on the road. In his last 10 starts, he walked seven and struck out 76.

Edinson Volquez is ... good now? No, that's probably a typo. Let me see that. The Volquez I remember was one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball with a regular job. Here's how he ranks in ERA+ since the 2000 season among pitchers with 1000+ innings:

Rank Player ERA+
1 Adam Eaton 84
2 Kevin Correia 87
3 Shawn Estes 87
4 Edinson Volquez 88
5 Nate Robertson 88
6 Mike Pelfrey 88
7 Sidney Ponson 88
8 Roberto Hernandez 89
9 Josh Fogg 89
10 Jeremy Bonderman 89

He was also one of the wildest:

Rank Player BB9
1 Russ Ortiz 4.54
2 Shawn Estes 4.53
3 Edinson Volquez 4.49
4 Kip Wells 4.28
5 Hideo Nomo 4.26
6 Ubaldo Jimenez 4.18
7 Carlos Zambrano 4.13
8 Doug Davis 4.11
9 Matt Clement 4.11
10 Jorge De La Rosa 4.07

Yet for whatever reason, he was basically the big offseason move for the Pirates. With all that momentum, with all the good spirits and tiding of a surprise postseason appearance, the Pirates left for the offseason and returned with Volquez. That was it. That was the cavalry.

It worked?

On June 18, Volquez was shelled for eight runs, bringing his ERA up to 4.67. He looked like an dead man walking. Literally a dead man walking. He didn't know where the ball was going, so he walked a lot of people, and the pitching coach had to come out and prop him up like Bernie. Since then: 111⅔ innings of 1.85 ERA ball. The Pirates were 12-5 in his starts. It's hard to figure out what happened. He didn't start throwing harder. He didn't strike out more hitters. He still walked about four batters per nine innings. He just stopped allowing runs.

Edinson Volquez starting a playoff game for the Pirates. Mail that back to 2012 and cause mass hysteria.

Q: You said something about the Pirates being a solid offensive team?
Yes. The Giants are, too, surprisingly. Using adjusted OPS, which accounts for home park, the Pirates were the second-best team in the NL, with a 107 OPS+. The Giants were fourth with a 99 OPS+. The Pirates tend to walk more, and that's almost the entire difference between the two teams.

What both teams lack is that bottomless lineup pit of doom right before the pitcher. Even down in the seventh and eight spots, both teams can put up reasonable-if-iffy options. Ike Davis and Jordy Mercer are strangely comparable to Travis Ishikawa and Brandon Crawford at the bottom of the Giants' lineup. The middle of both lineups features a star surrounded by complementary pieces.

The Pirates have the superior on-base percentage, but that's partly because of the talents of Russell Martin, who is dealing with a hamstring issue. He's expected to play at this writing, but it's not a sure thing. Two reserves, Chris Stewart and Tony Sanchez, will be on the roster just in case.

Q. Uh oh. What are the injury situations for both teams?
Not good? Pedro Alvarez is out for the year with a stress fracture. Martin might not play. Charlie Morton is out for the year, too, though that won't make much of a difference in the one-game play-in. Alvarez's injury isn't that noticeable, considering his production was down, and the Pirates have more than enough depth to make up for Morton. The drop-off from Martin to Chris Stewart is significant, though, should it come to that.

On the Giants' side, Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan, and Matt Cain are all out for the year. All three of those players were huge parts of the last successful run for the Giants, and the team has had to scramble to patch the holes. Rookie Joe Panik has been a revelation at second, Gregor Blanco is a capable replacement in center, and Jake Peavy was acquired specifically to replace Cain. Michael Morse has a strained oblique and is unlikely to play, with Travis Ishikawa starting in his place.

Edinon Volquez seriously

Edinson Volquez (Kevin C. Cox).

Q. Who should I root for?
Look, I'm a Giants fan. I can't possibly pretend to be objective. I'm not going to tell you to root for the Pirates.

/taps side of nose

The Giants have a lot of things going for them. Have you watched Hunter Pence play? He's a fuzzy paradox, just a delight. Madison Bumgarner's slider/cutter/slutter combo is amazing, and you'll never go wrong rooting for it. There are a lot of reasons to root for the Giants, so I'm not going to suggest you should root for the Pirates.


The Pirates have a good story, though! They have a great story, coming back from decades of misery to field an exciting team with one of the most likable players in professional sports. All things being equal, this is where I'd suggest you should root for the Pirates.


But I'm biased. I cannot even hint that you should root for the Pirates.

/taps side of nose, winks, and nudges

Prediction time!

Q. Who's gonna win?

Here is a link to my preseason predictions. It includes words like ...

Prince Fielder will hit a million-billion home runs. He will do in Texas what everyone thought Adrian Gonzalez was going to do in Boston.

Staring at those predictions too long will make you sterile. Do not do that.

However! I was five-for-five with my National League predictions. I didn't get the right permutation of the Division Series, but that's quibbling. And for the Wild Card Game, here were my predictions.

Wild Card

A's over Red Sox

Pirates over Giants

Ugh, my edsox keys always get stuck when I'm trying to type oyals. Happens all the time. But considering the Pirates were my pick before the season, I'm sticking with it. Pirates win 3-1, with Volquez continuing to defy Newtonian physics and general logic.