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Do the Nationals match up better with the Giants or Pirates?

The San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates will meet in PNC Park on Wednesday for the NL Wildcard game. The Nationals await the winner in the NLDS. Which team presents the better matchup for the Nationals? Why?

Madison Bumgarner will take the hill for the San Francisco Giants in the NL Wildcard game Wednesday.  The fact that he would be able to make just one start in the NLDS is just one of the reasons that Nats match up better with San Francisco.
Madison Bumgarner will take the hill for the San Francisco Giants in the NL Wildcard game Wednesday. The fact that he would be able to make just one start in the NLDS is just one of the reasons that Nats match up better with San Francisco.
Stephen Dunn

After watching one of the craziest games I've ever seen Tuesday, I can only hope that Wednesday's NL Wildcard game can match it.  The Nationals await the winner of that game in the NLDS.  Over the course of 162 games, the Nationals scored more runs than either the Pirates or Giants.  They also allowed fewer runs than either team.  Regardless of who wins, the Nationals have proven over 162 games that they are the better team.

The best team doesn't always win a short series, though.  With that in mind, I've decided to put together a breakdown of how the Nats match up with the two teams in the Wildcard game.  We'll go a little more in depth with the opposing roster in a few days when we know which team the Nats will face.  For now, let's take a broader look and see if the Nats match up better with the Pirates or the Giants.

Season Series

Opponent Wins Losses Home Road Runs For Runs All. Run Diff.
San Francisco Giants 5 2 3-1 2-1 41 30 11
Pittsburgh Pirates 4 3 3-0 1-3 26 24 2

We can't put too much stock in the seasons series between the Nats and their two potential opponents.  The MLB season is a 162 game marathon filled with ups and downs (and injuries!).  For example, let's look at the Nats season series with the Pirates.

  • When the Nats played a four game series in Pittsburgh in May, they were missing Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper, and Ryan Zimmerman.  They lost three out of four.  Some of you may remember Josh Harrison making a couple of ridiculous catches in the outfield, one of which ended a game.
  • When the Pirates headed to D.C. in August, they were without 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen.  The Nats swept the three game set.
So the Nats won four of seven games against Pittsburgh, but both teams were missing some of their most important players in the series that they lost.  The Nationals were also running on an incredible high when the Pirates came to D.C. in August, as it was the second series during the Nats' ten game winning streak*.  I just don't think that a lot of stock can be put into the Nats winning the season seires with either of these teams.

*San Francisco ended this streak at ten games, though the Nats would go on to take the final two games of that series.

Still, looking at the 2014 season series is better than using a historical outlook.  We see these invoked more often with individual player splits.  For example, Tim Hudson's dominant career record against the Nats has far less meaning when you consider how much has changed between when he signed with the Braves in 2005 and now.  The fact that Tim Hudson beat up on Ronnie Belliard, Nick Johnson, and Cristian Guzman in 2008 has nothing to do with how he'll perform against the 2014 Nats.  Similarly, the performance of the 2012 Nats against either of these two teams has little to no bearing on their upcoming matchup.

Anyway, the season series isn't that important.  When the Nats square off with one of these two teams on Friday, the two teams will be tied 0-0.  Let's spend more time focusing on the two teams the Nats could face.


Pirates 156 .259 .330 .404 682 659 104 8.4% 20.0% .325
Giants 132 .255 .311 .388 665 636 56 7.0% 20.5% .308

By pretty much any measure, the Pirates were the better offensive team.  They finished with better production in all three triple-slash categories.  They hit 24 more HR than the Giants did.  They stole 48 more bases than the Giants did. What's remarkable here is that Pittsburgh only scored 17 more runs than San Francisco.

Though I'm going to spend a lot more time on the Nats opponent later this week once we know who it is, let's go over each team's projected lineup and bench in a more broad sense today.

Pirates Projected Starters

Russell Martin Right 460 .290 .402 .430 11 45 67 4 .370
Ike Davis Left 397 .235 .343 .378 10 39 46 0 .323
Neil Walker Switch 571 .271 .342 .467 23 74 76 2 .356
Josh Harrison Right 550 .315 .347 .490 13 77 52 18 .365
Jordy Mercer Right 555 .255 .305 .387 12 56 55 4 .299
Starling Marte Right 545 .291 .356 .453 13 73 56 30 .358
Andrew McCutchen Right 648 .314 .410 .542 25 89 83 18 .412
Travis Snider Left 359 .264 .338 .438 13 37 38 1 .343

Pirates Bench

Gaby Sanchez Right 290 .229 .293 .385 7 31 33 2 .301
Chris Stewart Right 154 .294 .362 .331 0 9 10 0 .311
Clint Barmes Right 116 .245 .328 .294 0 15 7 1 .280
Gregory Polanco Left 312 .235 .307 .343 7 50 33 14 .293
Andrew Lambo Left 39 .256 .256 .359 0 3 1 0 .269
Pedro Alvarez Left 445 .231 .312 .405 18 46 56 8 .316
Jose Tabata Right 186 .282 .314 .333 0 14 17 1 .289


Andrew McCutchen is the best hitter that either of these teams features, but the Pirates lineup around him has gotten a lot longer the past two seasons.  Russell Martin and Josh Harrison have received a lot of (well deserved) praise from the media for having breakout seasons.  Neil Walker and Starling Marte are two of the better players at their position in the National League.  If their worst starters are Travis Snider (also broke out a bit this season), Ike Davis (.343 OBP even if the power is down a bit), and Jordy Mercer (plus glove who isn't a zero with the bat), they don't have many hitters that are easy outs.


The Pirates tend to platoon Davis with Gaby Sanchez, which they will do during games as well.  I recall Nats beat writers tweeting that they were surprised when the Bucs came to D.C. and Clint Hurdle pinch hit for Davis when the Nationals brought Blevins in.  However, that is what the Pirates do.  Davis played 143 games this season (mostly starts) and had 427 plate appearances.  He had just 35 plate appearances against LHP.

The other bench bats to focus on are Pedro Alvarez (who may be ready for the NLDS [unlikely]), Gregory Polanco (their top prospect), and Andrew Lambo.  Alvarez is boom or bust, but led the NL with 36 HR last season.  Polanco hasn't shown he can hit left-handed pitching at all (.171/.222/.244), though he may start a game or two instead of Snider.  Lambo is a pure hitting prospect with terrific power (32 HR in the minors last season) that doesn't really have a position.  He hasn't faced a lefty in the majors yet, so there are probably some platoon issues.  He reminds me of a left-handed Steven Souza Jr., though Souza is probably a slightly better defender.

Feel free to note that the three best potential bench bats are left-handed.

Giants Projected Starters

Buster Posey Right 605 .311 .364 .490 22 72 89 0 .371
Brandon Belt Left 235 .243 .306 .449 12 30 27 3 .330
Joe Panik Left 287 .305 .343 .368 1 31 18 0 .317
Pablo Sandoval Switch 638 .279 .324 .415 16 68 73 0 .323
Brandon Crawford Left 564 .246 .324 .389 10 54 69 5 .309
Juan Perez Right 109 .170 .224 .270 1 13 3 0 .225
Gregor Blanco Left 444 .260 .333 .374 5 51 38 16 .317
Hunter Pence Right 708 .277 .332 .445 20 106 74 13 .341

Possible Giants bench options

Michael Morse Right 482 .279 .336 .475 16 48 61 0 .355
Andrew Susac Right 95 .273 .326 .466 3 13 19 0 .348
Travis Ishikawa Left 81 .274 .333 .397 2 7 15 0 .321
Ehire Adrianza Switch 106 .237 .279 .299 0 10 5 1 .256
Matt Duffy Right 64 .267 .302 .300 0 5 8 0 .273
Adam Duvall Right 77 .192 .234 .342 3 8 5 0 .257
Joaquin Arias Right 204 .254 .281 .301 0 18 15 1 .255


The Giants enter the postseason a bit banged up.  Starting left fielder (and former Nat) Michael Morse is recovering from an oblique injury.  Angel Pagan had season ending back surgery on Monday.  Brandon Belt is just finding his swing after missing six weeks to a concussion.  Still, overlook them at your own peril, right?

Buster Posey hasn't received much hype in the MVP race, which is stunning.  Maybe his 2012 MVP season spoiled us all a bit, but we don't often see catchers turning in a .311/.364/.490 line with 22 HR.  Hunter Pence may be the most awkward looking baseball player of all time, but he does everything well.  He'll keep a strong OBP; He's a consistent 20/20 threat; He has a rocket arm in the outfield; He even has good range... even though it looks like he's going to fall over with every step he takes.  Sandoval isn't coming off of his best season, but he still has tremendous contact-hitting ability and has the power to run into one every now and then.  Belt is the only other hitter in this lineup that really poses a major threat.  All in all, they don't have a lineup as deep as Pittsburgh's even when players like Morse and Pagan are healthy.


Unless Morse is good to go, they don't really have much in the way of an intimidating bench presence.  Arias may see a start either at second base or in left field.  Susac, probably their best hitter off the bench, could see a start behind the plate, which would force Posey to first base (maybe Belt to LF?  I couldn't imagine them benching Belt with their current lineup).  Adrianza is a light-hitting infielder who has rejoined the Giants in Pittsburgh (recovering from a hamstring injury) and may be ready to go for the NLDS.  Ishikawa would seem more likely to make their roster than Duvall, though they could carry Duvall anyway just to carry someone with some pop off the bench.

Advantage: Pirates.... It's really not particularly close.


Team K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP xFIP
Giants 7.52 2.42 0.83 3.50 3.58 3.59
Pirates 7.59 3.08 0.79 3.49 3.80 3.71

Based on these numbers, there's not a lot of separation.  The Pirates finished with a .01 better ERA, though the Giants FIP and xFIP were stronger.  Pittsburgh's staff as a whole is more likely to issue a free pass.  Instead of looking at this like we did with the offenses (starters/bench together), let's separate the starting staffs and bullpens.

Pirates Rotation

Name Throws IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP ERA FIP xFIP
Francisco Liriano Left 162.1 9.70 4.49 0.72 1.30 3.38 3.59 3.40
Gerrit Cole Right 138.0 9.00 2.61 0.72 1.21 3.65 3.23 3.25
Edinson Volquez Right 192.2 6.54 3.32 0.79 1.23 3.04 4.15 4.20
Vance Worley Right 110.2 6.42 1.79 0.73 1.21 2.85 3.44 3.54

The Pirates figure to be able to align their rotation however they'd like, so I've left it in the order that I figure the Nats would see.  They'll start Edinson Volquez in the Wildcard game Wednesday, which would put him on regular rest for Monday's Game 3.  Liriano is the nominal ace and had a terrific September, though his season-long numbers aren't all that impressive.  He struggled out of the gate before losing a month to an oblique injury in June.  Since his return, he's been terrific in all but one of his starts.  Cole, the first overall pick in 2011, spent the better part of two months on the disabled list with shoulder and lat injuries this season.  He figures as a front of the rotation starter down the line, and he's not far from his ceiling.  Volquez and Worley are both rehab projects who have had phenomenal seasons.  While this rotation doesn't have any overwhelming starter, all four figure to be dangerous.

Giants Rotation

Name Throws IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP ERA FIP xFIP
Madison Bumgarner Left 217.1 9.07 1.78 0.87 1.09 2.98 3.05 2.99
Jake Peavy Right 202.2 7.02 2.80 1.02 1.28 3.73 4.11 4.18
Tim Hudson Right 189.1 5.70 1.62 0.71 1.23 3.57 3.54 3.57
Yusmeiro Petit Right 117.0 10.23 1.69 0.92 1.02 3.69 2.78 2.84
Ryan Vogelsong Right 184.2 7.36 2.83 0.88 1.28 4.00 3.85 3.96

Bumgarner is the best starter that either team has.  Thankfully, he'll pitch Wednesday's wildcard game for the Giants, which would make him unavailable until Game 3.  I've decided to include Peavy's full season statistics, though he's been a different pitcher since being traded to San Francisco.  In his starts since the trade, Peavy has a 2.17 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP.  He will be their Game 1 starter if the Giants advance past the Wildcard game.  Hudson was off to an outstanding start this season, but has struggled down the stretch.  The 39-year-old has been complaining of hip soreness, which could be the reason for his recent ineffectiveness.  Based on his performance this season, I would expect that the Giants will reward Petit with the fourth spot.  Petit is, however, a journeyman who has been shuttled back and forth between AAA and the majors since 2006.

Advantage: Pittsburgh... Not having to face Bumgarner twice is a major factor here.  I would feel more comfortable using the Pirates third and fourth starters as well given Hudson's current injury issues.

Pirates Bullpen

Name Throws IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP ERA FIP xFIP
Mark Melancon Right 71.0 9.00 1.39 0.25 0.87 1.90 2.09 2.47
Tony Watson Left 77.1 9.43 1.75 0.58 1.02 1.63 2.69 2.84
Jared Hughes Right 64.1 5.04 2.66 0.56 1.09 1.96 3.99 3.79
Justin Wilson Left 60.0 9.15 4.50 0.60 1.32 4.20 3.62 3.88
John Axford Right 11.0 9.82 4.91 0.00 1.36 4.09 2.86 3.76
Jeff Locke Left 131.1 6.10 2.74 1.10 1.27 3.91 4.37 3.90
Jeanmar Gomez Right 62.0 5.52 3.34 0.87 1.50 3.19 4.37 4.25
John Holdzkom Right 9.0 14.00 2.00 1.00 0.67 2.00 2.13 1.65

The back of their bullpen has been tremendous all season long.  Melancon has a sub-2.00 ERA, a sub-1.00 WHIP, and a strikeout an inning as their closer.  Watson has overperformed his peipherals a bit, but their primary setup man has a 1.63 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP, and over a strikeout per inning.  Hughes has also emerged as a strong right-handed setup man.  Wilson has had a bit of a down year, but was a key to their bullpen success in 2013 (2.08 ERA, 1.06 WHIP in 73.2 IP).  Axford has been uninspiring since being acquired during the season, but held the Brewers' closer's job down for a couple of seasons.  Either Gomez or Locke (their fifth starter) could be the long man, while I've included Holdzkom as the flamethrowing rookie who could sneak his way onto the roster.

Giants Bullpen

Name Throws IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP ERA FIP xFIP
Santiago Casilla Right 58.1 6.94 2.31 0.46 0.86 1.70 3.18 3.45
Sergio Romo Right 58.0 9.16 1.86 1.40 0.95 3.72 3.94 3.40
Jeremy Affeldt Left 55.1 6.67 2.28 0.16 1.10 2.28 2.86 3.23
Javier Lopez Left 37.2 5.26 4.54 0.48 1.33 3.11 4.33 4.49
Jean Machi Right 66.1 6.92 2.44 0.68 0.95 2.58 3.43 3.37
Juan Gutierrez Right 63.2 6.22 2.26 0.99 1.19 3.96 4.03 4.29
Tim Lincecum Right 155.2 7.75 3.64 1.10 1.39 4.74 4.31 3.81
George Kontos Right 32.1 7.52 3.06 0.28 1.08 2.78 2.88 3.90

Sergio Romo's struggles earlier this season made Bruce Bochy change his closer in July.  Santiago Casilla responded, converting 17 of 18 chances after assuming the closer's role while maintaining a 1.70 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP.  Casilla has never been a big strikeout guy, so the peripherals don't love him.  However, this was the third time in the past five seasons that his ERA finished below 2.00 (his highest ERA in that span was 2.84).  He's tough no matter what inning they're using him in.  The same can be said for Romo (now a setup man whose devastating slider destroys right-handed hitters), who put his first half struggles behind him with a 1.80 ERA in the second half.

The Giants also have two dominant lefties in the bullpen with Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez.  Lopez is the traditional LOOGY, while Affeldt will work against right-handed hitters as well. Machi gives them a strong bridge from the right side who will usually work the sixth or seventh inning.  Gutierrez has been pushed down the depth chart a bit, but it's more because of the strength of the rest of the bullpen than anything else.  Lincecum hasn't seen a lot of work since moving to the bullpen, but it's hard to think that he could miss the postseason roster.  A starter (either Vogelsong or Petit) could move to the bullpen as well.

Advantage: Giants... They're both really strong at the back of the bullpen, but the Giants bullpen just seems deeper

The Verdict

While the Giants bullpen is both deeper and just as strong at the back end, the Pirates just look like the better team.  I might think differently if Bumgarner would be available for Game 1 (if I thought he could make two starts), but he won't be.  The Pirates won't lose any type of edge by starting Edinson Volquez on Wednesday, and will actually set their rotation up exactly as they would have liked.  I'd much rather face Peavy (twice), Hudson, Bumgarner, and Petit/Vogelsong.

Furthermore, the Pirates lineup runs seven spots deep while the Giants lineup figures to run about four or five players deep because of their injury problems.  I don't see the Giants top few hitters (Posey and Pence) as having an edge over the Pirates top hitters (McCutchen, Walker, Martin, and Harrison) either.  With Pagan and Morse healthy, the gap is a lot smaller, but the Pirates are still the better offensive team.

If it were up to me, I would much rather see the Giants win tomorrow's game.


Anything can happen in a one game playoff.  While Volquez has been a fantastic pickup off the scrap heap for Pittsburgh this season, the Giants have a big edge in the starting pitcher matchup Wednesday.  The Giants don't have a lot of depth throughout their lineup, but they do have veteran hitters such as Posey, Pence, Belt, Blanco, and Crawford who have historically worked deep counts.  With a pitcher like Volquez, who has a history of control problems, I think they'll get to him for a few early runs.  Bumgarner will shut it down from there.

Giants 4, Pirates 1