Craig Calcaterra

Blogger at NBC Sport.com's HardballTalk. Recovering litigator. Rake. Scoundrel. Notorious Man-About-Town.
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Braves let pitching coach Roger McDowell go. This could mean something.

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The Braves just announced that they have declined to pick up 2017 contract option on pitching coach Roger McDowell’s contract. McDowell has been in his position for the past 11 seasons.

While this has obvious implications for McDowell and for the future instruction of Braves pitchers, it may likewise be a bit of foreshadowing in the Braves managerial search. When the season ended, interim manager Brian Snitker was thought to be the favorite to retain his post for the 2017 season. In the past several days, however, former Padres manager Bud Black has emerged as a possible replacement, with some saying he is the favorite.

Black, of course, was the Angels’ pitching coach under Mike Scioscia and, even when managing the Padres, took the lead with San Diego’s pitching staff. Could it be that Black told the Braves that, if he took the job, he’d like to put his own man in the pitching coach position? Could letting McDowell go be a sign that the Braves are, in fact, going to go with Black over Snitker?

The Braves tend to follow Major League Baseball’s rules of postseason decorum pretty closely. Those rules counsel against making big moves like managerial hirings on days when there is playoff action. At the same time, it’s seen as a courtesy to let coaches who will not be back the next year know as soon as possible to they can have the best chance to latch on someplace else in the coming year. A Bud Black hire, therefore, might very well look like what we’re seeing in Atlanta right now.

We’ll know soon.

Playoff Reset: Giants vs. Cubs, NLDS Game 1

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The Game: San Francisco Giants @ Chicago Cubs, NLDS Game 1
The Time: 9:00 PM EDT
The Place: Wrigley Field, Chicago
The Channel: FS1
The Starters: Johnny Cueto (Giants) vs. Jon Lester (Cubs)

The Upshot:

  • The Curse of the Billy Goat vs. Even Year B.S.! Which of these entirely baseless and ridiculous bits of superstitious nonsense narratives carry the day?! Sorry if that deromanticizes things for you, but around these parts we don’t cotton much to such hooey. If the Cubs had less feckless leadership before Theo Epstein came along they probably would’ve won a pennant at some point since 1945. If Buster Posey doesn’t break his leg in 2011 there’s a chance the whole even year thing gets broken before it even takes hold. I dunno, I just get grumpy when people attribute the successes or failures of complicated systems like baseball teams in hyper-competitive and frequently random environments like baseball seasons to black magic and the universe’s alleged preference for temporal symmetry.
  • Now that I’ve taken all of the fun out of this for you, let’s talk baseball. The Cubs are, without question, the best team in the game this year. The Giants, however, actually had the best record at the All-Star break before their second half collapse. I don’t think they’re as good as they looked in early July but I likewise don’t think they’re as bad as they looked in August and September. And, for all that was written about Madison Bumgarner‘s dominance in the Wild Card game, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the Giants are a one man team. Johnny Cueto (18-5, 2.79 ERA) gets the start tonight. He finished the season strong — bouncing back nicely from a strained groin late in the season — allowed one run on five hits, struck out five and walked just one over seven innings when he faced the Cubs on September 4. This is a two-ace club.
  • Jon Lester (19-5, 2.44 ERA) goes for the Cubs. He’s a Cy Young candidate. As is teammate Kyle Hendricks, who will go in Game two. Last year’s Cy Young winner, Jake Arrieta, will go in Game 3. The Cubs have at least three aces. They’re kinda not fair. And that’s before you get to their offense, which features MVP favorite Kris Bryant and a guy who will get a lot of MVP votes himself in Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs led all of the non-Coors Field teams in the NL in runs scored this year. They even topped the Rockies — and everyone else — in team OBP and once you adjust for ballparks, they had the top OPS in the league. Their pitching staff allowed the fewest runs per game in the league as well. Their 103 wins was not a fluke. Indeed, they actually underperformed their Pythagorean record by four games. The only hope you have against them, on paper anyway, is the fact that the team with the best record in baseball frequently does not win it all in the expanded playoffs era. Cold comfort when you actually gotta play these guys, but some comfort I suppose.
  • Oh, and beyond the starters and the offense, Joe Maddon has some fun toys in the bullpen in the form of Aroldis ChapmanTravis Wood and Mike Montgomery, all of whom destroy lefties (Chapman destroys everyone, of course). The Giants struggle mightily against lefthanded pitching, so that’s not good. And the Cubs’ defense was probably the best in baseball this year, depending on how you measure it.
  • Not that the Giants should just forfeit and go home. The Giants’ certainly struggled in the second half, but they had the lowest strikeout rate in the NL this year. They put the ball in play. That has been a pretty successful formula in the playoffs for the past couple of years. Just ask the Royals. Beyond that, Cueto is a stud and they will start Jeff Samardzija in Game 2. While he has been no Kyle Hendricks this year, he’s capable of a big game at any time. The Giants could steal one of these first two games and then bring back Madison Bumgarner in San Francisco for Game 3. Suddenly, the Cubs are in some trouble, what with MadBum being invincible in October and all.

But, eh, I dunno. The Cubs are stacked. Predictions are made to look foolish, but I’m not gonna start to get into the business of picking against the Cubs.

At least until Game 3. Check back with me then.

Playoff Reset: Dodgers vs. Nationals NLDS Game 1

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The Game: Los Angeles Dodgers @ Washington Nationals, NLDS Game 1
The Time: 5:30 PM EDT
The Place: Nationals Park, Washington, D.C.
The Channel: FS1
The Starters: Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers) vs. Max Scherzer (Nationals)

The Upshot:

  • Max Scherzer (20-7,  2.96 ERA) vs. Clayton Kershaw ( 12-4, 1.69 ERA)? Yes please. One of the top Cy Young candidates for 2016 and the league leader in strikeouts facing off against the best pitcher on the planet is my kind of party. Kershaw is 10-2 with a 2.02 ERA in 14 games against Washington in his career and faced them once this season, allowing one run on seven innings in June. A couple of Nats — Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman — hit Kershaw pretty well. Most others don’t. Scherzer has faced Los Angeles ten times in his career, but not even once this season.
  • After the aces, things get a lot more uncertain for each team. Dusty Baker has been cagey about his rotation, but will probably go with Tanner Roark in Game 2 and then Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross. Although if their backs are up against the wall, Baker may call on Scherzer on short rest for a Game 4. The loss of Stephen Strasburg is looming large. For L.A., Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda are named for Games 2 and 3. Game 4, if necessary, would feature either Julio Urias or a short-rest Kershaw, again, depending on the state of the world.
  • Health is definitely an issue for Washington. I just mentioned Strasburg. Wilson Ramos, the catcher on whose offense the Nats so greatly depended for much of the season, is out for the duration with a torn knee ligament. 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper is in the lineup but has fought all manner of ailments this season and has not been himself at the plate. Infielder Daniel Murphy, who just missed snagging the batting title after hitting .347 this year, has missed the past couple of weeks with a strained glute, but he took BP and ran a bit yesterday and is expected to play.
  • There are a lot of familiar faces on these two teams, from Kershaw to Scherzer, Adrian Gonzalez to Jayson Werth, Yasiel Puig to Bryce Harper and so on. But one person you may not know unless you watched a lot of Nats games this year is a rookie, Trea Turner, who may have a bigger impact than anyone in either lineup. Turner, the Nats’ center fielder and leadoff hitter, hit .342 with 13 homers and 33 steals in 39 attempts in 73 games after his midseason callup. The Nats are really going to want Turner to get on base and distract Kershaw as much as possible.
  • Both of these teams have playoff demons to exercise. The Dodgers have won the past four NL West titles, but could not get past the NLCS in 2013 and have been bounced from the NLDS each of the past two seasons. The Nationals, for their part, won NL East titles in 2012 and 2014 but failed to advance past the NLDS. One of these two teams has to win this series, right?

Like the two ALDS pairings, this one is a pretty even match. Today we’ll see two of the best pitchers in baseball go at it. After that things get a little more . . . uncertain.