ATN Baseball

We’re down to ten teams with a chance to win the World Series, as the MLB playoffs kick off tonight with the American League Wild Card Game. The Twins will visit the Yankees in the Bronx, then on Wednesday, the Diamondbacks host the Rockies. Two Division Series, Astros/Red Sox and Nationals/Cubs, are set, with the wild-card winners advancing to play the Indians and the Dodgers, respectively.

The common refrain in baseball — I’ve said it myself — is that the postseason is a crapshoot. That’s not quite true, but the short series in a sport best played out over the long haul means that everyone is pushed towards the middle. Over a full season, the difference between the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks was 11 games; over a best-of-five, that’s nothing. With that said, heading into the playoffs, there are some clear tiers, and a relatively clear favorite. Let’s work through the ten contenders, starting with the one that may have the shortest stay.
Minnesota Twins (85-77, +27 run differential). Not only do the Twins have the worst record and worst run differential of the 2017 playoff teams, they open the postseason in their own house of horrors. The Twins are 33-90 against the Yankees since 2002, and have lost nine straight playoff games to the Yankees dating to 2004. They’ll face Luis Severino, the sophomore righty who was one of the top five pitchers in the AL this year. Just two weeks ago, the Twins were swept at Yankee Stadium, being outscored 18-6 in three games. The Twins counter with Ervin Santana, who has one of the largest gaps between his ERA (3.28) and his FIP (4.46) of any full-time starter. The Twins were 12-26 against the other four teams in the AL playoffs, and they’re unlikely — a +225 dog overnight — to get many more chances to change that. Great story, ending imminent.
Colorado Rockies (87-75, +67). Like the Twins, the Rockies are a surprise entrant in the tournament. They got off to a big start in April and May, 33-22, and held on to their playoff berth while playing barely .500 baseball over the final four months. If you’re expecting the Blake Street Bombers, think again. The Rockies had one of the worst offenses in baseball, with raw numbers bolstered by 81 games at Coors Field. Only the Pirates, Padres, and Giants were worse at the plate than the Rockies were. They’re here because they played some of the strongest defense, especially in the infield, in team history, and because their bullpen, bolstered by veteran Greg Holland and trade-deadline pickup Pat Neshek, turned up in big spots. The Rockies were 21-14 in one-run games, and that’s how they edged out the Brewers and Cardinals. They have a stronger chance of advancing than the Twins do, because they’ll put Jon Gray on the mound. The power righty has a 3.58 ERA since coming off the DL June 30. Beating the Dodgers in the next round with Gray available just one time, however, would be a big challenge.
Boston Red Sox (93-69, +117). No division winner feels as shaky as the Red Sox do, after they needed 161 games to fend off the surprising Yankees and dropped three of four to the Astros in the season’s final weekend. Then again, the Sox didn’t use their ace, Chris Sale, who struck out 300 men in his first season in Beantown. Boston’s problem isn’t Sale or closer Craig Kimbrel, it’s what happens when anyone else is pitching: it’s hardly clear who their #2 starter is right now from among Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez and Rick Porcello, and their bullpen in front of Kimbrel is a relative weakness — although David Price may help patch that this month. They aren’t wired to win slugfests, either; the Red Sox had the third-worst offense in the AL, with the fewest homers and the second-worst slugging percentage. In their favor is facing an Astros team with its own rotation questions, and whose bullpen was one of the worst in September, but they are clearly the lowest-rated division champ.
Arizona Diamondbacks (93-69, +153). The Diamondbacks lost 2016 to injuries, and bounced back under new management to post the sixth-best run differential in the game. They’re going to be a sexy upset pick, because should they win behind Zack Greinke in the wild-card game, they’ll have power lefty Robbie Ray lined up to face the Dodgers twice in the Division Series. As with the Rockies, don’t be fooled by their stats: the Diamondbacks are in the postseason because they had the second-best pitching in the National League, even after losing Shelby Miller for the season back in April. Righty Archie Bradley was one of the best relievers in the game, and he’ll be worked hard if the Snakes go deep — he’s by far the best reliever in a so-so-bullpen. It would be an upset to see the Diamondbacks get to the NLCS, but not as big a one as you might think.
New York Yankees (91-71, +198). It was the Yankees, not the Dodgers or the Astros, who had the second-best run differential in baseball. There’s no magic formula for winning in October, but it’s the Yankees who have the most popular one in today’s game: power from every lineup spot, with eight of the nine playoff starters hitting at least 15 homers; and a deep bullpen with six pitchers who struck out at least 11 men per nine innings. They can control a game if they can get to the sixth without trailing. The challenge comes in facing the vaunted Indians’ rotation having burned Severino. The Yankees will have the lesser starting pitcher in all but one game of the ALDS, hurting their chances of getting a game to the late innings with a lead. If they can hit enough long balls off Corey Kluber and his crew, they can upset the Tribe.
Chicago Cubs (92-70, +127). The defending champs took their time putting away the competition this year, clinching the NL Central Wednesday in St. Louis. The Cubs struggled all year with young hitters who didn’t develop, a starting rotation that was both more hittable and more fragile than it had been in 2016, and a sharp decline in their defensive performance. Even as they head into the Division Series, they’re pushing back Jake Arrieta (hamstring) for a couple of games, opening the series with lefties Jon Lester and Jose Quintana. It seems strange to say of the defending champs, but the Cubs might be this tournament’s wild card; they obviously have the talent to repeat, and they could also get knocked out of the playoffs by Sunday night if the starters continue to spit the bit. There’s no playoff team that has the roster depth, 1-25, that the Cubs do. That’s their edge in what has become a marathon baseball postseason.
Houston Astros (101-61, +196). Like a number of this year’s playoff teams, the Astros locked up their postseason berth by Memorial Day, winning the AL West by 21 games. They had the best offense in baseball, leading in batting average, OBP, slugging, and outscoring the second-place Yankees by 38 runs. Their story heading into October, though, is on the mound, where Justin Verlander rescued an injury-riddled starting rotation in September, with a 1.06 ERA in five starts. With Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers alternately hurt and ineffective over the season’s final four months, Verlander has gone from a luxury item to, perhaps, the team’s most important player. They’re a solid favorite (-165) over the Red Sox, although their chance to win the AL pennant hinges on being able to win the Division Series without having to start Verlander twice.
Washington Nationals (97-65, +147). We’ve been here before. The Nationals have won the AL East four of the last six seasons, but have never gotten out of the Division Series. They’ve played some doozies, too, blowing one series in the ninth inning of the deciding game, losing an 18-inning contest in another, and succumbing to the Dodgers last year in a five-game series in which the shortest game ran three hours and 44 minutes. I’ve slotted them in this #3 spot, but truth be told, they’re impossible to peg. Bryce Harper went 3-for-18 in five games last week, coming back from a knee injury suffered in August, and he came off the field early in every game. Max Scherzer injured his right hamstring Saturday night in his final tuneup start, and his status for Game One of the Division Series in in question. The Nationals have better depth than they’ve had in past seasons, as well as the strongest postseason bullpen they’ve had after midseason trades for Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler. If their superstars are compromised, however, it makes their Division Series against the Cubs a toss-up.
Los Angeles Dodgers (104-58, +190). You could have gotten a good number, on September 1, had you bet that the Dodgers would be any less than big favorites going into the playoffs. An 11-game losing streak undercut their air of invincibility, although they still finished with the best record in baseball. They’re rooting hard for the Rockies to pick off the Diamondbacks, as the underdog would make for a far less dangerous matchup in the Division Series. Against any opponent, they’ll be holding their breath hoping Clayton Kershaw, who hasn’t been impressive since coming off the disabled list, reverts to form. Every starter the Dodgers might use in this postseason has been on the DL this year, with Rich Hill, of all people, the only one who has taken the ball every time over the last two months. Like the Nats, the Dodgers are trying to shake off some nasty recent playoff history, with five straight division titles, but no NL pennants. They’ll advance as far as Kershaw and Yu Darvish take them, which could very well be to the Commissioner’s Trophy.
Cleveland Indians (102-60, +254). This is the time to mention that there’s no relationship between how a team ends its season and how it does in the playoffs. The Indians are the postseason favorites not because they closed 33-4, but because they have one of the best pitching staffs we’ve ever seen, and a superstar shortstop in Francisco Lindor and an emergent star in Jose Ramirez. Terry Francona is the best tactical manager in these playoffs, as he showed by running circles around the opposition a year ago. If there’s a concern here, it might be the defense, with the Indians messing around with converted second baseman Jason Kipnis in center field after losing defensive whiz Bradley Zimmer to a wrist injury last month. The Indians will have the worst outfield defense in the postseason no matter who they play out there, and in a short series, a couple of extra balls dropping in could be the difference between a championship and another close miss.
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