I received several queries about my recent prediction that the St. Louis Cardinals will prevail over the Houston Astros in five games in the National League Championship Series starting Wednesday night. I used the Cards’ 11-5 record against the Astros this season as one data point, but there are many more.
Since that story didn’t allow the space to elaborate, that is the purpose of this article. As an aside, one benefit of the unbalanced schedule is that 16 games-worth of stats against each other is enough against which to start to draw some conclusions.
Without further ado, here are my ten reasons:
1) Astros starting pitching not dominant. The Astros’ “Big Three” of Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens are positioned to start the first three games of the NLCS. So what? While Pettitte has a tidy 1.35 ERA against the Cards this year, his record against them is 0-1 in three starts. Oswalt is 1-2 with a 5.21 ERA and Clemens only won one of four starts against St. Louis.
While everyone remembers Clemens’ gutty relief appearance to close out the Braves in extra innings last Sunday, how many recall that he was pounded for five runs in five innings, taking the loss in his last start - Game 2 against Atlanta? If it ever got to a number four starter, Houston’s Brandon Backe registered a 10.32 ERA in two starts against St. Louis this season. He only fared slightly better against the Braves in the NLDS with an 8.44 ERA.
2) Cardinals starting pitching is stronger. By himself, Chris Carpenter has won twice as many games (4-0) against the Astros this season as their “Big Three” have combined against St. Louis (2-5 record). This season in aggregate, the Cardinals starters won 11% more games than the vaunted Houston staff (81 wins versus 73). With Carpenter positioned to start Games 1 and 5, I believe that he will win both the first and last games of this NLCS.
The other guys should be ready, too. Mark Mulder has a 2.48 ERA against Houston and after struggling late in the season, Matt Morris is coming off a very effective win against San Diego. Jason Marquis was 4-0 over the Astros in 2005, but Jeff Suppan did not face them.
3) Astros bullpen is vulnerable. Why did the Astros’ vaunted "Big Three" win only two of the ten games they started against the Cardinals this season? One reason is that their bullpen can be beaten. As long as the Cardinals’ hitters remain patient, the games could be settled before closer Brad Lidge ever warms up.
Over the entire season against all opponents, the ‘Stros pen put up a 3.65 ERA. As a point of comparison, the Cardinals’ relief corps’ mark is a half-run better per game at 3.17. On the year, the St. Louis pen posted a 19-15 record, while their Houston counterparts won 16 games and lost 20.
Looking at the entire staffs of the two teams just against each other, St. Louis’ ERA was 3.11, while Houston’s was 4.33.
4) Long balls hold no advantage. While many worry about the home run proclivity at Minute Maid Park and the purported advantage that gives Houston, the fact is that both teams will get to play there for two or three games. In addition, at home this season, Houston hit 93 home runs, while the Cardinals launched 92 at Busch. The Cards also had a ten home run edge on the road compared to the Astros’ away mark in 2005 (78 to 68). It is difficult to see how any of this benefits Houston.
5) Astros’ table setters don’t. While much has been made about veteran Craig Biggio and speedy rookie Willy Taveras at the top of the Astros line-up, they have been ineffective against the Cardinals all season. Biggio’s on-base percentage versus the Cardinals is 100 points less than David Eckstein’s mark against the Astros (.269 compared to .368). That is huge. In the number two hole, Taveras’ OBP is a most ordinary .318 versus the ‘Birds, while his counterpart, Larry Walker, sports a .407 OBP against Houston.
6) Speed doesn’t equate to steals. The speedy Taveras swiped 34 bases this season, which led all MLB rookies and was sixth-most in the National League. However, against the Cardinals, Taveras stole just one base, as did Biggio. But, four Astros were gunned down trying. Yadier Molina behind the plate for the Cardinals effectively negates the Astros’ legs.
7) Few Astro runners to drive in. Because the runners weren’t on base, Houston’s RBI men couldn’t do their jobs. Against the Cards this season, Morgan Ensberg and Lance Berkman combined for nine home runs, but only 16 RBI. In the other dugout, Jim Edmonds alone had 14 RBI against Houston, while Reggie Sanders added 13.
8) Double plays matter. While the two teams’ fielding percentages are almost identical (Houston’s .985 to St. Louis’ .984), the Cardinals turned 196 double plays during the regular season, while the Astros registered just 146. That equates to a whole lot more baserunners that the Cardinals sent back to the bench without their touching home plate. That trend continued in the NLDS, where the Astros turned six twin-killings in the equivalent of five games, while the Cards generated seven in just three games.
9) Cardinals’ hitting on a roll. In the NLDS against San Diego, five Cardinals regulars hit .333 or better – Albert Pujols at .556 (remember him?), Eckstein at .385, Edmonds and Abraham Nunez at .364 and our NLDS MVP, Sanders at .333. The Astros have but two hitters coming out of their DS win against the Braves hitting that well – Berkman and Taveras both at .357.
10) Home field advantage. The Cardinals have the postseason track record of success that the Astros still aspire to achieve. With Games 1 and 2 at home, the Cardinals have a decided advantage. If the Series gets to Games 6 and 7, the Cardinals can close out the series in front of the Busch Stadium faithful. St. Louis defeated Houston 6-of-8 games there and took 5-of-8 at Minute Maid Park during the regular season.
So, there you have it – 4-of-5 in the NLCS on top of 11-of-16 in the regular season seems about right to me.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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