Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Your On The Field Of Play Postseason Primer

Postseason play starts today. I'm going to throw out some opinions and predictions. I don't pretend that they'll be right or anything like that. I'll update them as we get deeper into October. For a clever, funny take on the postseason, check out Hardball Talk's Craig Calcaterra on whom to support in the American League and the National League.

American League Wild Card Game. Predicting the outcome of one game in baseball is sheer folly, and I'm not going to do it. This isn't the NFL, where bad teams almost never beat good teams. This year the Los Angeles Angels had the best record in the American League (and, for that matter, all of baseball). The Texas Rangers had the worst. The Angels, as you might expect, beat up on the Rangers, winning the season series 14-5. That means the Rangers won 26% of their games with LA. That's dominance over 19 games, but for any one game between the clubs, the Rangers had a better than one-in-four chance of winning. So predicting the winner of one game between two good clubs? It's just silly.

Anyway, tonight's AL wild card game is Oakland at Kansas City. (Throughout this post, the links will be to my most recent 30-day flyovers of the teams. Keep in mind that the data and commentaries in the links are relevant as of the day of the post.) Whatever happens, this game will break my heart, because these are possibly the two most compelling teams in the entire postseason as far as I'm concerned. Consider:

  • The Royals are making their first postseason appearance since they won the World Series in 1985. By contrast, the A's have been to the postseason seven times since the current format (Divisional Series-Championship Series-World Series) was instituted in 1995, and they've lost seven Divisional Series excruciatingly, three games to two. In the other year, 2006, they were swept in the ALCS by the Tigers. So both teams are due.
  • I am a sucker for small-market, low-payroll teams. This year, only three teams made the postseason with payrolls below the major league median of $95.8 million: The Royals ($89.3 million), the A's ($74.9 million), and the Pirates ($71.5 million). Those three teams were 17th, 26th, and 27th in total payroll. The other seven playoff teams were 1st, 4th, 6th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 15th. The A's-Royals game will eliminate one of the three low-payroll teams.
  • The A's were tied for the second-worst record in baseball (5-8) over the last two weeks of the season. They had the worst record (10-18) over the last 30 days. They tied for the fourth-worst record (29-38) since the All-Star break. Yet they finished with the best run differential (729 scored, 572 allowed) in the majors. Kansas City, by contrast, scored only 27 more runs than they allowed, the second-lowest differential (St. Louis' was 16).
  • The Oakland Moneyball teams were famous for drawing walks and hitting home runs. (This year's version was only eighth in homers but lead the league in walks.) The Royals were last in the league in both.
  • The starting pitcher for the Royals, James Shields, was acquired by the team in a big trade last year (that many criticized because of the hitter that they gave up, Wil Myers) specifically for his ability to win big games like tonight's. The starting pitcher for the A's, Jon Lester, was acquired by the team in a big trade this year (that many criticized because of the hitter they gave up, Yoenis Cespedes) specifically for his ability to win big games like tonight's.
That's a lot of words for a single game that I think is unpredictable. Either way, it's going to be sad to see the loser go.

National League Wild Card Game. Again, predicting the outcome of one game in baseball is sheer folly, and I'm not going to do it. A few interesting points about San Francisco at Pittsburgh: The Giants travel to PNC Park, where the Pirates tied for the league lead for the best record at home (51-30). The Giants' road record of 43-38 was the third best in the league, however. The Giants' starting pitcher, Madison Bumgarner, will get Cy Young Award votes this year: He was fourth in wins (18), innings pitched (217.1), strikeouts (219), and strikeouts/walks (5.1), and seventh in WHIP (1.09). He also led all pitchers in home runs (4), RBI (15), and, among those with over 40 plate appearances, batting average (.258), on base percentage (.286), and slugging percentage (.470). The Pirates' starter, Edinson Volquez, had a career-best 3.04 ERA, aided by a career-low walk rate of 8.8% of plate appearances. On the other hand, he batted only .038--he's no Madison Bumgarner--and in his one postseason appearance, for the Reds in the 2010 Divisional Series against the Phillies, he didn't make it out of the second inning: four hits, two walks, and no strikeouts in an inning and two-thirds, good for a 21.60 ERA. If the Pirates lose, we'll be down to just one small-market low-payroll team in the postseason.

American League Divisional Series: Detroit-Baltimore. Let's go over the negatives first: The O's have been lucky (32-23 record in one run games--that's luck, not skill), they don't get on base enough (.311 on base percentage, fifth worst in the league), and they're without three of their best players (catcher Matt Wieters, third baseman Manny Machado, first baseman Chris Davis). The Tigers' supposedly invincible rotation of Max Scherzer, David Price, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello had the sixth-worst ERA (3.95) in the league since the All-Star Break; and defending two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera has been only really good (seventh in batting average at .313, tenth in on-base percentage at .371, seventh in slugging percentage at .524) instead of sensational. Overall, there's part of me that thinks that the Orioles have been doing it with mirrors: Starting rotation led by Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, and Miguel Gonzalez, 54-29 with a 3.44 ERA after a combined 109-104, 4.16 ERA in their prior seasons? Home run champion Nelson Cruz with 40 bombs at age 33 after never hitting more than 33 in a season? Outfielder Steve Pearce with a .556 slugging percentage after slugging .377 in seven prior seasons? Still, I think there are legitimate questions about the Tigers pitching, and I have a mild aversion to first-year managers (the Tigers' Brad Ausmus) in the postseason, particularly when the other guys have Buck Showalter. I favor the Orioles.

American League Divisional Series: Wild Card-Los Angeles. The Angels had the best record in baseball at 98-66; a three-game losing streak at the end of the year prevented them from getting 100 victories. And they will play, with home field advantage, a wild card team with serious flaws, as the A's can't win (at least since the All-Star Break) and the Royals can't hit. Still, I could see a potential upset here. The Angels' best starting pitcher, Garrett Richards (13-4, 2.61 ERA), is out for the year with a knee injury. Their second-best starter, Matt Shoemaker (16-4, 3.04 ERA) hasn't pitched since September 15 due to a strained oblique. Jered Weaver (18-9, 3.59) has had a good season, but after that, they are probably going to tax their pretty-good-but-not-great bullpen. They're the best hitting team in the league (4.8 runs per game, 0.1 better than the Tigers) and they have the league's MVP, Mike Trout, so I'm not going to pick against them. But I wouldn't be surprised if they were to lose.

National League Divisional Series: St. Louis-Los Angeles. For whatever it's worth, I'll bet you there are more people rooting against these two teams than the other eight in the postseason combined. Of course, the biggest reason for that is that the Yankees and Red Sox aren't playing. But the Cardinals have become a postseason constant (they've missed it only four times since 2000) and their claim to the "best fans in baseball" annoys everyone who doesn't follow the team. As for the Dodgers, they've supplanted the Yankees as the big-payroll behemoth ($213 million payroll vs. $208 million for the Yankees) and they have one of the most polarizing players in baseball, Yasiel Puig. (I like him, but his antics irk a lot of people). As for the teams, they have their weaknesses--the Cardinals' offense (tenth in the league in scoring 3.8 runs per game), and the Dodgers' bullpen (eighth in the league in runs allowed per nine innings at 3.8). They have the likely 1-2 Cy Young Award finishers: The Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw (21-3, 1.77 ERA) is a mortal lock, and the Redbirds' Adam Wainwright (20-9, 2.38 ERA) is almost certainly the runner-up. The Cardinals, though, have been kind of lucky, as their run differential (619 scored, 603 allowed) is the lowest among the playoff teams, aided by a second-in-the-league 32-23 record in one-run games. That's enough for me to think the Dodgers will avenge last year's NLCS loss.

National League Divisional Series: Wild Card-Washington. As I said in my Nationals 30-day flyover: 
The Nationals don't seem to me to have any noticeable holes. The bullpen's not great, but with that starting rotation, they aren't overly reliant on their relievers. They'll get the winner of the Giants-Pirates wild card game for a five-game series starting Friday. They will be favored to win, with good reason.
(I also added, "which probably means they'll get swept or something." As FanGraphs managing editor Dave Cameron said in a chat last week, referring to success in the postseason, "There's no secret formula that works better than others. It's basically random.") This isn't a knock on the two wild card teams. I think the Pirates and Giants are both better teams than the American League entries. It's just that the Nationals have the league's best starting rotation, no glaring weaknesses in the lineup, and a bullpen that's not sensational but good enough. They're my pick to go all the way.

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