It’s that time of year again baseball fans. We already know will have a new champion this year as the analytics community rejoices over Ned Yost’s Kansas City Royals not getting a chance to repeat as World Series champions in 2016. The baseball playoffs are always one of the hardest things to predict in sports. Since 2000, the team with the best regular season record (close your eyes Cubs fans) has gone on to win the World Series just twice. We have real parity in the postseason this year. In addition to Kansas City not making it back, we have four new teams playing in Division Series that missed the playoffs last year. Take that NFL. So without further adieu, here are my predictions that I of course feel very confident about today, but will more than likely hate in about 10 days because that’s baseball and that’s why we love it.
Cleveland Indians vs Boston Red Sox
Starting pitching: Around the All-Star break I was talking to a friend about how I thought the Indians would be the American League team no one would want to face this postseason with the trio of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Fast forward three months and it looks as if Kluber is the only one of the three who will pitch in the postseason, and even he is dealing with a quad injury that forced him to miss his final start of the regular season. The Indians need former top pitching prospect Trevor Bauer to finally put all his tools together right now if Cleveland wants to advance. On the Boston side, there is more to be optimistic about. They will need ace David Price to put his past playoff demons behind him (5.12 ERA in playoff career) and hope that Rick Porcello’s dominant 2016 (3.15 ERA, 1.01 WHIP) continues and that the flaming hot garbage Porcello from 2015 (4.92 ERA, 1.36 WHIP) is long gone. Both of these teams will be playing with fire when it comes to the rest of the rotation. The Indians Josh Tomlin allowed 36 home runs this season which was the second most in the American League and because of an injury to young lefty Drew Pomeranz, Boston will have to choose from either Clay Buchholz (4.78 ERA) or Eduardo Rodriguez (4.71 ERA) to take the hill at some point in this series.
Bullpen: Cleveland had the fourth best bullpen ERA (3.45) in all of baseball this season led by closer Cody Allen and lefty Andrew Miller who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Yankees. Right hander Dan Otero will also be a big piece for the Tribe this postseason as he held opponents to .211 batting average and allowed just 2 home runs in 70.2 innings this season. With the questions surrounding the starting staff for Cleveland, they will need their to pen if they hope to advance. This is the area I am most concerned about if I’m a Boston fan. There is no true shut down reliever in this pen outside of closer Craig Kimbrel and even he allowed a run in three of his last four appearances to end the season.
Hitting: Throughout the entire season, manager Terry Francona did an excellent job using platoons at multiple positions and seemingly a new lineup everyday to get the most out of his hitters. Francona will have to push all the right buttons when filling out his lineup card this series as you can make an argument that Boston has the hitting advantage over Cleveland at every position. The Red Sox led all of Major League Baseball in hits, runs scored, on base percentage and slugging percentage. There really is no soft spot in this Boston lineup and even if the Sox pitching isn’t up to par, you can bet their hitting will be.
X-Factors: 1. Big Papi’s farewell tour 2. Francona’s revenge 3. Is this the year of Cleveland?
Prediction: Red Sox in 4
Texas Rangers vs Toronto Blue Jays
Starting pitching: With the recent injuries to the Indians rotation the Rangers duo of former World Series MVP Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish now stands as the best 1-2 punch in the American League. As we know sometimes in a short series all you need is two ace pitchers starters to pitch at a high level. What the Blue Jays lack in top end starting pitching talent they make up for in depth. It is likely that Marcus Stroman who just started the Wild Card game Tuesday night wouldn’t be available until Game 3 at the earliest, Toronto still has J.A. Happ (3.18 ERA), Aaron Sanchez (3.00 ERA) and Marco Estrada (3.48 ERA) to choose from. One of these four starters will likely be moved to the bullpen this series to help out a pretty pedestrian unit.
Bullpen: I’m not overly impressed with either of these two groups as both bullpens were bottom 10 in the majors in ERA this season. I do like Texas closer Sam Dyson who had the third best ground ball rate among relievers in the majors this season at 65.2% and still managed to strike out almost 20% of the batters he faced. Setup men Matt Bush and Jake Diekman both have big time swing and miss stuff in front of Dyson as the two combined to strike 120 batters in just under 115 innings pitched. As of writing this, it is uncertain if Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna will be healthy enough to pitch in this series meaning Toronto will likely have to rely heavily on veteran Jason Grilli. Grilli walked 12.8% of the batters he faced this season which was the fifth highest rate in the majors among qualified relievers.
Hitting: Each of these two lineups are major forces to be reckoned with this postseason. Texas and Toronto both finished in the top 10 in runs scored, home runs and team OPS. Toronto does most of their damage with the murders row of Donaldson, Encarnacion and Bautista whereas Texas is built similar to Boston with a great overall lineup. When these two teams met in the ALDS last season, they combined to score 45 runs in the series. I could see a very similar outcome again this year.
X-Factors: 1. The bad blood from Bautista’s bat flip last year 2. Rougned Odor’s right hook 3. Beer bottles flying from the left field bleachers at Rogers Centre
Prediction: Rangers in 5
Washington Nationals vs Los Angeles Dodgers
Starting pitching: If you like lots of runs scored, this is not the series for you. Both of these teams finished in the top 10 in starting pitching ERA as well as overall team ERA. The Dodgers still managed to be a top of the league pitching staff without the league’s best pitcher Clayton Kershaw for over two months and trade deadline acquisition Rich Hill also missed time with a blister. Both appear to be healthy heading into the playoffs however and, with right hander Kenta Maeda (3.48 ERA, 9.2 K’s per 9 innings,) form a trio no team wants to see on the other side of the diamond. Washington has arguably the second best pitcher in the game in ace Max Scherzer on their side, but will be without co-ace Stephen Strasburg for this series. The Nats will need Tanner Roark’s career year to continue and for Gio Gonzalez to regain his All-Star form if the Nats have any chance of keeping pace with Kershaw and company.
Advantage: Los Angeles
Bullpen: Remember what I said about not expecting a lot of runs scored in this series? On top of the quality starting pitching these teams have, the Dodgers and Nats finished first and second in bullpen ERA in 2016. Washington upgraded their closer at the trade deadline when they acquired Mark Melancon from Pittsburgh. The veteran had a 1.82 ERA with Washington over the final two months of the season and unlike the closer the Nats traded for in 2015, Melancon didn’t choke out Bryce Harper in the dugout. The Dodgers bullpen lead by all star closer Kenley Jansen who had the third highest strikeout rate (41.4%) among relievers, makes this about as even as a matchup as you can get.
Hitting: There are a lot of similarities between these two lineups. There are several great individual hitters on both sides that include Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Adrian Gonzalez. Each team has an impressive rookie near the top of their order in Corey Seager and Trea Turner. Both teams were in the top half of the league in runs scored and both were in the bottom half of the league in team batting average. The one big difference between the two teams is the Nationals were 7th in the majors in stolen bases whereas the Dodgers had the fourth fewest steals in all of baseball. As close as these lineups are, the Nats have the best hitter between the two teams in Harper.
X-Factors: 1. The good vibes from Vin Scully’s final season 2. Kershaw’s 4.59 career playoff ERA 3. D.C. sports teams never win anything including the Nats who have zero playoff series wins
Prediction: Dodgers in 4
Chicago Cubs vs San Francisco Giants
Starting pitching: The Cubs starting pitching ERA of 2.96 was the best in all of baseball. Their starting rotation in my opinion is the best one of all the playoff teams led by ace’s Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester as well as potential 2016 N.L. Cy Young winner Kyle Hendricks. While Hendricks doesn’t quite have the strikeout potential Arrieta and Lester do, he was the best pitcher in all of baseball this year at inducing soft contact (25.1%). Not to be out done, the Giants have two World Series heroes on their staff in Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner might not be available in the series until Game 3 after shutting out the Mets in Wednesday’s Wild Card game, or Bumgarner might just pitch every inning of this series. I wouldn’t be surprised by either.
Bullpen: At the trade deadline, an already good bullpen added flame throwing closer Aroldis Chapman and finished with the eighth best reliever ERA (3.56) in the Majors. The Giants side of things is pretty ugly when it comes to their bullpen. They tried desperately to acquire a big time relief arm during the season, but just couldn’t snag one. The trio of Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo and Hunter Strickland have been either hurt, bad or both for most of this season. Bruce Bochy will have to lean heavily on his two horses Bumgarner and Cueto in this series.
Hitting: The Cubs have the best lineup in the National League and it’s really not that close. They were on an historic first half pace and the only thing that really stopped them was Joe Maddon getting bored and wanting to constantly play different combinations of players in the second half. The Giants scored the fewest runs of all the teams in division series and had the third fewest amount of homeruns in all baseball this season. Being outmatched offensively is something Giants have overcome many times in the past, but they will have their work cut out for them in this one.
X-Factors: 1. Jake Arrieta’s walk rate increased by 4.1% from 2015 to 2016 while his strikeout rate dropped by 2.2% 2. It’s an even year so the Giants will win the World Series 3. That little 106 year championship drought for the North siders
Prediction: Cubs in 5
Rest of Playoffs Predictions
ALCS: Rangers over Red Sox in 7
NLCS: Cubs over Dodgers in 6
World Series: Cubs over Rangers in 6
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs
Photo Credit: CSN Chicago