Wild Card Round Recap
The very quick best of three wild card round is over and most of the results were predictable. The Twins continued their playoff choking ways and lost to the Astros, who finished this regular season with a losing record after being exposed as cheaters. The Twins set the record for consecutive playoff games lost at 18. Most of these losses were to the Yankees. But it is worth noting those were not the Yankee teams of the late 90s. These were the same Yankee teams that have been disappointing the hardcore New York fan since the Great Collapse of 2004 against Boston. With the notable exception of the 2009 season where a juiced out A-Rod carried them over the finish line, the Yankees have failed to measure up their New York sized expectations. Titles are still the standard despite The Boss being gone.
The Yankees disposed of the Indians in two games but played the most compelling game of this season’s playoffs to date. They had a wild back and forth Game 2, featuring several lead changes and walks. A-Rod’s boyish happiness could be heard palpably as he called his second game of the day. Any time broadcast legend Matt Vascursion would cite a stat about the absurdity and length of the game, A-Rod would chipperly and genuinely chime in “love it.”
There was a lot to love about that Game 2 despite it not being an ace dominant pitchers duel a true baseball fan craves in October. The tag team of A-Rod and Matty V was noticeably more fluid and palatable without dreaded 3rd wheel Jessica Mendoza.
Mendoza is another demo who was clearly not talented enough for the prominent position she was given. ESPN is certainly not what it used to be back in the days of Stuart Scott. The fact that Jamele Hill was given the the most prominent spot on the network as part of SportsCenter 6 (SC6) is evidence of this. SportsCenter 6 (nicknamed SC6, presumably in an effort to make it sound more casual and ‘cool’ to a younger audience) marked the end of an era for the landmark television network. In short, the creation of SC6 was the day ESPN, as we knew it, died. It signalled a shift in the focus of the network: from sports to social issues. SC6 was the nail in the coffin for any sort of journalistic integrity at ESPN. From that point on, the network has become myopically focused on race. No longer are the long-winded race rants saved for the colorful and charismatic Stephen A Smith, they are now intentionally brought to SportsCenter, the flagship, bread and butter program of the network that made it what it is. Sports were pushed to the side, odd long form interviews ate up large portions of the program and sports was rarely the topic being discussed. The wildly unpopular SC6 is no longer on the air, but ESPN’s assigning of on air talent has maintained similar patterns since.
Mendoza’s voice was like nails on a chalkboard. She frequently interrupted. She was brutally unfunny. She knew next to nothing about baseball history. Her analogies or idioms were non-existent.
Her ineptitude and fraudulence was put on full display when she ripped Mike Fiers of the Oakland A’s for exposing the Houston Astros cheating. Her comments prove two things beyond a doubt: she does not know the first thing about journalism and covering stories; because for Mike Fiers to have the stones to actually go on the record (as opposed to make off the record remarks in confidence, not allowing his name to be used) was the difference between that piece being an insipid rumor VS the truthful, scene-shaking bombshell it was. It also proves she does not respect the history of the game and the impact of cheating. This does not surprise me considering she can sit next to A-Roid night after night without making quips about his excessive cheating, which lasted longer and was more pervasive than that of Barry Bonds. Because of this awful take, and the fact she was almost universally disliked, Mendoza was demoted, but not fired, similar to Jamele Hill.
A-Rod himself lacks severely in many elements of broadcasting. He misspeaks frequently. He has an annoying accent that is especially prevalent when he says “yestahday.” A-Rod’s genuine love of baseball and baseball history makes these flaws much more palatable. He also has a nearly limitless well of anecdotes to draw from, many of them referencing current players or former legends. All those years of being phony in New York equate to on camera experience, I suppose. God Bless Matty V for dealing with those two for hours and maintaining his sanity. Not only did he keep his marbles, but he was razor sharp every night and gets the most out of A-Rod as a co-commentator when many others would not be able to hide their contempt for such an obviously shallow and fake person.
Remember when A-Rod got popped for cheating late in his career and went on Mike Francesa’s show (numbah 1 rated New York afternoon drive sports talk show) to indignantly proclaim his innocence? A-Roid neurotically rambled on about unfair treatment, as well as his plans to sue and fight back. The whole time flashing the same incredulous, exasperated face he had in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS when he slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove and was called out. A-Rod was terrible in that series and a huge reason the Yanks got reverse swept in the best series comeback in sports history.
This moment was arguably worse for his career and image though. A-Rod was guilty. He was obviously guilty, the MLB got it right. To act so indignantly and absurd when he actually did do what he was being accused of says a lot about Alex as a person. He was going to move forward with his scorched earth policy until he remembered even his own “fans” had been calling him A-Fraud for years. The damage to his reputation was already done. Most of the Wild Card games were on ESPN, as you have surely deduced by now.
The Oakland A’s faced off against the White Sox in the opening round. This was this best, most exciting series overall. It pitted the once lowly White Sox, who have been awful for years and made big free agent moves this offseason to supplement young talent against Oakland. They had the defending batting champion, Tim Anderson, who is a young marketable star. Yoan Moncada is a scary young hitter. Jose Abreu was their best hitter this year. Anderson narrowly lost the batting title to Bronx Bomber DJ LeMahieu, an inverse of what occured last year.
The series began with an exceptional performance by Sox starter Lucas Giolito, who was an All Star last year for the first time and is rapidly coming into his own. He is vastly underrated and has a wicked changeup. Giolito developing last year along with Tim Anderson were the two biggest factors that made the Sox buyers this offseason. Giolito had a perfect game after 7 innings, and it appeared Billy Beane’s Boys were going to choke in the playoffs again. Giolito lost the perfect game but got the victory.
Game 2 featured the A’s ace, Chris Bassitt. Bassitt was electric and carried the A’s. Free agent acquisition Dallas Keuchel is a ground ball pitcher and started this game for the Sox. The problem with being a ground ball pitcher is you rely heavily on defense. The Sox booted the ball around in the 1st to give the A’s a crucial lead. The importance of this cannot be understated. Remember: The A’s are regarded as playoff chokers. They have done nothing in the playoffs for over a decade despite having big leads and enormous talent. They always seem to find a way to choke. Oakland jumped out to a 5-0 lead. Ace Bassitt was yanked in the top of the 8th and closer Liam Hendricks was inserted to get the infamous 6 out save.
The use of this tactic in the playoffs is a controversial and somewhat humorous one. All season, the notoriously emotional closer (not Hendricks specifically, this is a general point about the role of closer that applies to this game) is asked to do the same thing in a predictable pattern: start the ninth inning with no one on base and get three outs in a save situation. Closers can fizzle out insanely quickly after a few bad outings in the same way a kicker in the NFL can. If a closer has a bad two weeks, blows a few games, and gets demoted they are never the same frequently. The closer is usually your most lethal power pitcher. The hardest thrower, the intimidator, a guy that often comes out to the mound with metal music blazing and a malevolent look in his eye. This chauvinistic, macho ritual is an essential part of many closers being sharp and many managers fail to understand this.
Coming into a clean inning (no one on base) to your signature song after knowing exactly who you will face for the past 15 minutes is much easier than being dropped into another pitchers’ disaster, with runners festooned across the bases forcing the closer to pitch from the stretch immediately. This element is seemingly not considered by skippers, or at least all the elements are not fully understood. Closers rarely become Big League Skippers. It is almost always middle infielders or catchers. Sometimes a Starting Pitcher, but rarely a reliever. Closers are also underrepresented as pitching coaches compared to their SP brethren. This is mainly due to the closer being such a volatile position where players can burn out the fastest and hardest.
It is vexing to see managers use deeply formulaic bullpen combinations throughout the season and then deviate from that tactical order in the playoffs. This is especially perplexing in the sport with the longest regular season, where things like bullpen order have the time to be optimized night after night. Teams like the 2015 Champion Royals were a great example of a highly structured bullpen. Kevin Herrera was the 8th inning man. He was a consistent bridge to Wade Davis, who was unhittable that year. Franklin Morales would frequently handle the 6th inning. Luke Hochever and Ryan Madson were frequent hurlers of the 7th inning. The Royals won because when they got to the playoffs they did not deviate from their tried and true build order. They did not ask their closer to do something different from what he was doing all year.
Some might say: “well, it’s the playoffs, you have to manage differently!”
Really the only thing that should be done differently is asking a little more out of your SP pitch count wise, assuming he is still sharp. Completely nixing 162 games worth of effective bullpen strategy is nonsense we see lose playoff games year after year. Bob Melvin and Dave Roberts have made a career out of making these silly bullpen moves. What 2015 Ned Yost understood is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Yost employed the same defense focused, contact heavy approach that got him to the Series. He also understood the playoff adjustments regarding pitching, as evidenced by Game 2 of the 2015 World Series when he allowed ace Johnny Queto to complete his game despite the Royals being up 7-1 and Queto over 100 pitches going into the 9th.
That diatribe was necessary for two reasons: This Postseason will feature a plethora of closers being asked to do way more than they are used to. This is one of the most controversial subjects not related to an insipid rule change in baseball this year. The impact and average salary of the MLB skipper has been sharply declining recently. As the importance and workload of the SP steadily decline too, more bullpen moves are required. This puts managers in positions to look bad more frequently than in the days of Ron Guidry and the late great Bob Gibson.
Starters’ innings have gone down, and puzzlingly, severe arm injuries have increased too. As bean counting front office executives get more power, even to the point of being able to dictate strategy on the field, the manager is marganizled. Managing by gut, picking up live reads, and aggressive strategies on the basepaths are all things that are seen by these stuffy executives as obsolete. Many executives want to pay a figurehead ex-player the Major League minimum to copy/paste the lineup they are emailed onto the wall and fall on their sword if the homers do not come.
Managers are frequently fired after one of these reliever laden playoff games gets out of hand. Games like Indians vs Yanks Game 2 is a great example of why this bullpen heavy approach is risky. Every reliever brought in is also more likely to be nervous in the playoffs, making the variance higher.
Despite the Yanks high dollar bullpen full of big names, they still could not stop the bleeding. They only won because Cleveland out-choked them, something that town is famous for. Granted, the Bombers would have won Game 3 regardless. At the end of these playoffs you will surely see a manger fired to appease fans after a bullpen disaster. One must consider if the skipper has absolute power when he makes these decisions, because if not, he is the ultimate scapegoat. The diminishment of the MLB skipper should be abhorred. Skippers like Billy Martin were able to turn around awful, hapless teams like the 1973 Texas Rangers with tactics and coaching. The modern coach is nothing more than bilingual figurehead.
Astros vs Athletics
This AL West matchup is particularly interesting because Mike Fiers, the player who exposed the Astros as cheaters, is an Oakland starter. Fiers shouldn’t even start a game, he did in the previous round. This could lead to a tumultuous, heated rivalry series. It is such a shame no fans would be allowed, as all 9,000 people that would’ve shown up at the Oakland Coliseum could’ve given the Houston Astros players the heckling they missed out on all season due to the virus.
The Astros benefitted from the virus the most out of any team. In a season where every road game would have had the atmosphere of a road playoff game in New York, they instead got to play in a tepid, exhibition style environment. The dead air of the empty stadium also inhibited any more trash can banging.
The Commissioner showed his compliance with the Astros cheating when he issued Joe Kelly a ludicrously long suspension after he was the first player to openly beef and throw at the cheaters in orange and white. The Commissioner’s cowardly message was clear: “The Trashtros are sacrosanct. Memory-hole them cheating. Pretend it didn’t happen.”
Baseball players and hockey players have both been able to police their own game and “settle the score” so to speak with bean balls in baseball and fights in hockey. In a very competitive thing like baseball with some of the most ferocious competitors in the world, being able to alleviate bad blood in an understood exchange has a way of preventing wounds from festering and things to getting truly ugly. The MLB not punishing the Astros players or revoking the title left a bad taste in the mouths of many, and they never really took their licks. They were spared suspensions, they were even spared immature taunts by the fans. The Commissioner overstepped his role with the Joe Kelly suspension, because he took away baseball’s ability to police itself.
Most of the Astros regressed, as many cynics expected. George Springer was still sharp, and their best hitter. Young star Yondar Alvarez hurt his knee, he looked like he was poised to become a premier power bat last year. His injury hurts especially badly when considering the sub 100 OPS+ seasons from Martin Maldonado, Carlos Correa, Josh Reddick, Yuli Gurriel, Jose Alruve. OPS+ and ERA+ will be the most useful stats for summing up a player’s performance in a gimmick, 60 game season. 100 is average. Higher is better.
Justin Verlander blew his arm out. Jose Urquidy came into his own and was the best starter with an ERA+ of 166 (high number better, just like with OPS+.) The Astros have some above average young arms, but not the insanely lethal triple threat of Cole, Verlander, Grienke. Grienke is the only one available for this series, and he was barely above average this season with a 111 ERA+.
The Astros have some lethal bullpen arms. Most of them are young power pitchers. They will be tested deeply as Chris Devenski and Roberto Osuna are both going to be out until next season. Andre Scrubb, Blake Taylor, and Ryan Pressly will be responsible for holding leads as the best men out of the pen. This Astros team is much weaker than the previous ones, even if you ignore the cheating element. Obviously Cole and Verlander at the top of a rotation can almost hard carry any team through a series, but they are both gone.
This is a vulnerable Houston team that has not looked the same all season and even finished with a losing record despite getting to beat up on the Rangers, Angels, and Mariners, a trio which boasts a total of two good starting pitchers. This was sort of a doomed, weird year for the Astros. The cloud of the scandal hung over them and having to play 100% straight up did not help either.
The A’s are the same sort of team they usually are. Efficient on a small budget. Good defense. Lots of underrated pitching, like the Rays. The best example of this was former Texas Ranger Jake Diekman, who posted a staggering 993 ERA+ and gave up 1 run all year. The nasty lefty is the cornerstone of the bullpen despite fireballer Liam Hendricks being the closer.
Chris Bassitt is the lone scary starter. This is a bullpen heavy team. Yusmerio Petit and JB Wendelken both turned in excellent seasons and will try to get the ball to Hendricks and Diekman in the late innings. Diekman was razor sharp in the previous round and the main reason the A’s did not choke for once. Especially after the 50 pitch Liam Hendricks disaster of Game 2.
The A’s are the most healthy team in the playoffs. Matt Chapman is their only real injury. Chapman is a 2-time defending gold glove with pop. Losing him at 3rd was somewhat mitigated after they picked up Jake Lamb off waivers. Lamb was having a horrific year but the change of scenery helped him remember how to play. The A’s will use a balanced lineup that is more pesky than potent. Khris “Krush” Davis had another down year. Catcher Sean Murphy led the team in OPS+ at 131. Left Fielder Robbie Grossman was right behind him at 130. Ramon Laureano is exceptionally underrated in CF. Neither one of these teams looks particularly strong and will probably lose to the AL East winner of the other ALDS.
Prediction: A’s use monster bullpen and defense to get out of their own way long enough to beat a team that is basically dead on arrival. This series is interesting, because the A’s are famous for constant choking and self-sabotage to the point of high comedy, and the Astros look gutted and without their two best aces of previous pennants to carry them. A’s win 3-2.
Yanks vs Rays
The big names vs the small names. Tampa has the most lowkey flamethrowers than any playoff roster in recent memory. Their bullpen is an embarrassment of riches. They are similar to Oakland in many ways. The teams are small market clubs that get a ton out of young talent. They also do not have lineups full of household names and monster sluggers. Both teams use good coaching and a sharp bullpen to hold leads.
The Rays plethora of elite arms is their greatest asset in an era dominated by bullpen use. The Rays bullpen performs like how the Yanks wanted their bullpen to perform. The Yanks and Rays both understand how the metagame is shifting to heavy bullpen usage in the playoffs. This inspired the Yanks to go after big names like Zach Britton and Adam Ottovino. These squads’ GMs know the direction the game is moving, but crucially do not neglect Starting Pitching.
Both teams have solid rotations. The Rays have focused on spin rate to maximize the potential of their pitchers. This is also why they have so many guys with nasty breaking balls. Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell, and Charlie Morton all jump out in this regard. They all have insane curveballs and have clearly benefited from the top tier Rays coaching staff that helps stretch every small market dollar. The Rays seek out pitchers with nasty breaking stuff and help them improve it, a developmental strategy that stands in stark contrast to teams like the Orioles who tell pitchers straight up not to throw certain pitches or try to change them completely. This is how the early years of Jake Arrieta’s career were wasted. The Texas Rangers are the talent blackhole of baseball history. They have ruined more highly touted prospects than even the clueless O’s.
Ryan Yarbrough was also a solid starter for Tampa this year. He had a better season than Charlie Morton but has less playoff experience. Morton also matches up stylistically very well against the Yankees, a team full of sluggers with high strikeout rates. The Yankees struggle against pitchers with excellent curves, which is why the Tampa squad could easily quiet the streaky bats of the Bombers like the Astros did in the 2019 ALCS.
The Astros and Rays are the two organizations using coaching and new statistics available via statcast the most effectively. They take average arms and make them lethal. They take stars on the decline like Verlander and revitalize him. Even though the Astros are without pretty much every big name reliever their recent playoff squads have relied on, they were still able to rapidly coach young kids into very effective arms. This is very difficult and should not be dismissed as easy, or something that was inevitable.
The Rays have several pitchers on the IL, including the incredibly filthy Chaz Roe. But they still boast the best pen in the AL, despite the Yanks having bigger names. Diego Castillo, John Curtiss, Aarron Loup, and Pete Fairbanks all had an ERA+ of 150+. Castillo led the team with 257. Their offense is somewhat underwhelming on paper, but gets on base the 4th most in the AL.
Bradon Lowe is this team’s best offensive player. Frankly, this is a lineup that cries out for Tommy Pham to be back. This lineup is not top heavy at all, but not really a relentless stacked 1-9 lineup you would expect to win a title. This lineup average. There are few blackholes, enough walking is done to make up for the 8th ranked AL slugging team. The Rays are hard to judge. The casual baseball fan will edge NY in this series.
10/10 times, especially looking at the Yanks bullpen and lineup full of household names. Let us not forget it was the Rays with the best record in the AL. Not the Yanks. The Yanks were red hot initially, but faltered greatly. The fact that so many teams made the playoffs makes the daily nature of baseball feel arduous and pointless, as opposed to a riveting marathon with significant implications. It is obvious the format used in 2019 was superior to the one used this year. The first round of the playoffs was a cute novelty but the quality of the games was pretty poor and many of the teams clearly did not belong in the playoffs. Like the Brewers and Reds. Baseball is at risk of being permanently damaged if some of these changes ramrodded through because of the virus stick on a permanent basis.
This would be damaging long term for the game, but knowing MLB’s penchant for self-sabotage in addition to the false narrative repeated in other sports that all fans want is more offense. The NFL has changed for the worse over the last 15 years, constantly trotting out this idea that fans simply want more points. Points, points, points. This lie is pushed and parroted by the media ad nauseum to obfuscate the real issue causing a declining product: excessive advertisements and constant left-wing political virtue signalling.
The Yanks were the sweetheart pick of most people to win the AL after they landed former Astros Ace Gerrit Cole. Under Mike Fiers, Cole is #2 on the list of Players In The AL I Want To Face the Astros. The Yanks got out to a fast start, and had all the prognostics and reactionaries patting themselves on the back. Then what happens to them every year happens. Judge and Stanton get hurt. Despite this, Luke Voit won the homer title and DJ LeMahieu won the batting title after narrowly missing it last year. DJ is the best, most consistent Yanks hitter by far. He and Cole are the stars of this Yanks squad, despite the sluggers getting more attention.
Clint Frazier improved a lot and posted a OPS+ of 149. He also improved his defense and is no longer a liability out there. Which is good, because with a team that boasts a plethora of hefty and injury prone sluggers, having Frazier eat up the DH spot permanently is a huge detriment to this roster.
Gary Sanchez had the worst year of his career by far. He was the worst Yanks hitter and regressed defensively. He was bad defensively to begin with. He has some new goofy catching stance and it seems to be inhibiting his already limited catching skills. Sanchez is probably a few years away from being moved to 1st base. Not because he is old, but because he cannot field his position well. The Yanks have a slugger choked roster, and that is obviously not an option currently. If someone else catches this series for the Bombers, it is because Sanchez got benched, not because he is DHing. Sanchez had an awful 69 OPS+ this season hitting in a lineup full of protection and RBI chances. Expect him to be the target of the Yankee fan’s animosity if the Yanks lose, especially after his poor season this year is merely a continuation of his playoff performance last year.
Sanchez was the key Yankee exposed as being too much of an incomplete player. He strikes out way too much, especially on breaking balls. That is the case for Judge, Voit, and Stanton too. The Yanks have the kind of hitters that destroy bad and mediocre pitching but struggle more against good pitching more than other players billed as Stars. The strikeout is being lovingly embraced by the front office execs who have figured out the best way to absolve themself of blame and accountability is to rely on the homer. When series like last year’s ALCS happens and the Yanks’ bats go ice cold because everyone in the lineup is swinging for the fences and are all one-dimensional power hitters the GM can simply dismiss the playoff loss. GMs will cite their regular season win total and dismiss the lack of playoff hitting as some sort of bizarre aberration.
“If my hitters spent all year hitting homers off Matt Moore and Kolby Allard, why is it unreasonable to assume they will do the same off of Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander?”
This seems to be the common sentiment every year from Yankees brass when they inevitably fail to win a pennant again. The constant failure in the playoffs by Yankee teams since 2016 are seemingly dismissed by the front office as bad luck or something that just did not quite break their way. When in reality, if you look at why this era of Yankee teams has failed to win, an easy comparison can be made to another Yanks squad who was seeking their first title in over a decade at the time as well. Compare the core lineup players of the 1996 New York Yankees roster to the current squad.
The 1996 squad was famous for grinding pitchers down with their patient approach. This works exceptionally well in the playoffs because you face better pitchers in the playoffs. The better the starter, the quicker you want them out of the game. This might seem obvious to some, but the 2020 Yanks keep trotting out these slugger laden lineups with little discipline in the playoffs and act surprised at the result.
The 1996 Yankees lineup was full of grinders. Guys like Wade Boggs and Bernie Williams who had incredible discipline. The eye of Boggs’ was notoriously sharp, second only to that of Ted Williams according to some. Boggs was famous for never expanding the zone and swinging at balls. The only player in the 2020 Yanks that does that is DJ LeMahieu. DJ is a complete player and has really come into his own. But the other faces of the Yanks? Stanton, Judge, and Sanchez make up a big part of the Yankees payroll. They make up an even greater part of their identity. This team went all in on their Bronx Bomber identity when they took on the massive contract of notoriously injury prone Stanton.
Too much of their lineup is invested in boom or bust, streaky power hitters to be consistently good in the playoffs. The ability to wear a pitcher down is crucial to playoff success. After going down 1-0 to the Texas Rangers in the 1996 ALDS, the Yankees used their methodical, “next guy up” approach at the plate to wear down Rangers workhorse ace Ken Hill. Hill lasted only six innings despite throwing over 100 pitches. The Yankee’s commitment to patient, correct play was one that was pervasive throughout the entire team. Because everyone played properly and was committed to the same patient approach, their lineup was brutal to deal with 1-9.
The 1996 Yanks were selfless, which is a necessary trait in the “next man up” approach. The average baseball player wants to be the one to drive in the runs, even if it means swinging at a bad pitch. The average player might consider swinging at almost anything because they have no faith in their teammate on deck. The Yankees of 1996 proved how using an intelligent, patient approach at the plate as a unit could spawn rallies and chase aces from games, even if they had their good stuff. It came down to them trusting each other as teammates, having the faith that if you worked an 8 pitch walk the guy behind you would get the job done.
The 2020 Yankees lack not only the true faith in one another that the 1996 squad had, but the strategic intelligence as well. The 2020 Yankees go up to the box swinging for the fences, hoping their big name bullpen can make up for the lack of starting pitching. This was the team’s identity before Gerrit Cole joined. Luis Severino blew his arm out. He was solid, but always injury prone and wild. JA Happ is above average, but probably what you would consider a 3rd or 4th starter. James Paxton is about that level too, but is very injury prone and if he pitches it will be on the heels of an injury. Masahiro Tanaka and Cole will be the pillars of the rotation. Cole is a top tier ace. But Tanaka is a notoriously low stamina pitcher, something that is troubling considering the injuries. They also lack bullpen arm Tommy Kahnle, a particularly troubling revelation when one considers Adam Ottovino has struggled so much his manager has lost all confidence in him to the point where he is essentially going to make the roster as the mop up man. The Rays definitely have the pitching advantage. Their rotation is deeper and matches up stylistically well against the Bombers swing and miss guys. The Rays bullpen is also deeper, despite not having as many big names.
Prediction: Because of the aforementioned stylistic identity of the Yankees slugging lineup, the Rays will be able to neutralize them with their plethora of unknown but nonetheless lethal arms. The Rays offense will be good enough to cobble together leads just like they did all season. The Rays strike out too much as well, the difference is the levels will not sail like in a lineup full of flawed, streaky mammoth sluggers. Ultimately the Yanks will be billed as the favorite and everything you hear about the series from the media would make you think it was the Yankees who had the best record in the AL, and not Tampa. Tampa Wins 3-2.
Marlins vs Braves
The Miami Marlins are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2003. That was the year Pudge and Josh Beckett carried them past the Kerry Wood/Mark Prior Cubs that Dusty Baker (current Astros manager) drove into the ground the season after he choked away the 2002 World Series. History repeated itself: The Marlins came in as huge underdogs and rode hot young pitching to a crushing upset just like the 2003 NLCS. A longform article dedicated to the last 20 years of Chicago Cubs baseball is badly needed, but now is not the place. Essentially, this is what you need to know: They were the biggest losers in sports (titless year streak) and after tons of chokes and underperformances (the height of which was the 2003 NLCS against the Marlins) decade after decade, they lucked out got to face the only organization more known for losing and disappointment than them in the 2016 World Series: Cleveland. The Cubs barely eked out a win in a series that went 7 games, with the 7th game going into extras. Since then, the Cubs have been on a sickening downfall despite a massive wealth of young talent they tanked for and a nice mix of vets like Yu Darvish.
According to many, Cubs GM Theo Epstien rebuilt the Cubs “how you are supposed to.” That is to say, he dumped anyone good on the Cubs for prospects, put a poor product on the field on purpose for years to tank for draft picks, then when the stench of failure that hung over Wrigley like open sewage was partially cleared enough by the young stars developing way ahead of schedule, salty vets like Cole Hamels or Aroldis Chapman were brought in to augment the team on a blatantly temporary basis. The crux of the issue is this: Theo Epstien, who broke the Red Sox curse in 2004 as GM, was lauded as a god and genius in 2016 when the Cubs broke their streak of ineptitude. Long suffering Cubs fans who had been watching since the days of Ernie Banks were finally vindicated, which is great! But the media attention heaped on the lovable losers was immense and grew tiresome quickly. This was mainly because of the amount of fair-weather fans it spawned. The big market team that had not won a World Series in over 100 years had an oddly severe effect on the non-sports fan. The fact that the streak was over 100 years long seemed to have an enrapturing effect on people who did not even like sports. What these people, many of whom went out and bought Cubs hats and deemed themselves fans, do not understand was that them doing that was a direct slap in the face to all the ancient old head true Cubs fans whose misery was so interesting to them.
An insane deluge of bandwagoners was spawned by the long awaited success of the 2016 Cubs. The tide was stemmed in 2015 in the NLCS by Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy’s god tier performance; a season where a long struggling big market team like the Cubs is going to get new “fans” regardless because they made the playoffs. The bandwagoner we saw in 2016 was distinctly different to that normal 2015 bandwagoner. These people seemed to view the Cubs cap as some sort of vapid signal of fitting in with the now mainstream story. Since the Cubs title chase of 2016 went well beyond the sports media, and bled over into the mainstream very visibly, it attracted a plethora of the most callous and vapid people to trend follow and chase the attention and camaraderie others suffered decades for and earned. The Marlins repeating the 2003 NLCS was an appropriate way for the Cubs core of 2016 to go down in 2020.
The Marlins are essentially a poor man’s Tampa Bay Rays. The other team from Florida, led by Yankees legend Don Mattingly, really cobbled together an impressive season considering the circumstances. The Marlins were ravaged by injuries and set records for most players used. Despite their small budget, they kept the team going through the injuries and adversity. This team finished the season a game above .500 and is really only in the playoffs because the Phillies do not have any pitching and The Mets are The Mets. Give credit where credit is due, this team was not given a chance in the preseason, faced a plethora of adversity, and made the playoffs and beat the Cubs. Their top OPS+ player is SS Miguel Rojas, at 141. A few old vets like Matt Joyce help supplement the lineup. Jesus Aguilar and Garrett Cooper are the main offense threats on this team along with the SS.
The Miami bullpen is somewhat deep but lacks any big names. Brandon Kintzler is the closer and best pitcher at 203 ERA+. Brad Boxberger is the next best guy from the pen. Starters Sandy Alcantara and Daniel Castano anchor a solid but inconspicuous pitching rotation. Much credit and adoration should be heaped upon Don Mattingly. Hopefully he can build on this success and get that team to a respectable place again. The season is already a huge success for him and he probably deserves the Manager of the Year Award.
The Braves, like the Dodgers, have been in the playoffs several years in a row with the same core. The most notable thing about the Braves going into this series against their division rival as heavy favorites are the injuries to Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels. Soroka was exceptional last year, especially on the road. He looked great in his playoff start too. He tore his achilles early in the year and he is out for months. Former Phillies ace Cole Hamels has a plethora of playoff experience and verteran moxie. He is also out with a severe injury.
This leaves young Ian Anderson, who embarrassed the hapless Reds in the first round. Chan Ho Park probably could have held the Reds scoreless that game, they looked so insanely lost and undeserving of a playoff spot. It was particularly brutal to watch future Hall of Famer Joey Votto fail again and again as his team was shutout for 22 innings in a best of three series. The former MVP was remarkably quiet in a series where the Reds did nothing offensively. The other options the Braves have at SP are junkballer Josh Tomlin, who is definitely a Bronson Arroyo Game 4 type starter. The other option is Kyle Wright, who was poor all year and the Braves will opt for a short rested starter or a bullpen game if the prospect of having to start the hapless Wright occurs. Then of course they have their lethal cornerstone, Max Fried. Fried is proven despite his youth and a legitimate number #1 ace. The Braves would feel a lot better about the prospect of an NLCS showdown with the presumed (since the preseason) NL pennant favorite Dodgers if they had young Soroka, who is electric and infallible.
Soroka was one of many stars to get severely injured in this herky jerky, joke of a season. Many speculate this was due to lack of routine and how the shutdown occurred at the worst possible time, right before the season started. Baseball players are creatures of habit, especially pitchers. The nature of baseball is that it is a marathon of a season where players develop a groove and daily habits more than any other sport. Baseball is unique because it is there with you every day. This is a big reason the playoffs do NOT need to be expanded. The last month of the season lacked any suspense, many teams clinched super early and were never at risk of elimination because of the two wild card spots.
Look at the NL East
The Mets and Phillies threw up on themselves all season and a 31 win team made it in the playoffs from the second divisional spot. Two teams were taken from each division (NL West, Central, East. AL West, Central, and East.) 2 wildcard teams from each league. This was simply too many teams and devalues the regular season. These changes would be even worse in a longer season because it would essentially make the last 2 months of the season not worth watching. Not only is the season less interesting, but the quality of the games in the first round was poor and sloppy. The fact that the first round was best of three was the worst of both worlds in terms of what was seen in the 2019 playoff format (3 division winners from each league, 2 Wild Cards from each league, wildcards play a BEST OF 1 to face top seed.) This format is superior because it makes the wild card really risky, encouraging division winning to avoid the dangerous BO1 where aces reign supreme. These BO1 games are must watch TV, and do not oversaturate the market to the point where even the biggest seamhead cannot watch all the playoff games.
Understanding MLB’s attitude towards all the changes made this season is critical when considering playoff formats. Because the MLB has already used the virus to get their foot in the door with these changes, they will now be able to say “see, that’s not so bad! We’ll keep it!” The most staunch opposition to long term game damaging format changes is circumvented when dismissed in this foolish way.
The integrity and history of baseball is more important than that of all other sports. It is also more rich and well-documented. Baseball is the sport for the intellectual. The man who can appreciate the call on the radio and does not need to be staring at a TV to take in a game. Once the series concludes, the continuing war against baseball will be waged again by Rob Manfred, a warpath he has been on his entire tenure.
The Braves have a deep enough bullpen to survive their lack of starters. Former Texas Rangers Chris Martin and Darren O’Day anchor the pen from the right side. Grant Dayton and AJ Minter from the left. Minter led the team with 580 ERA+. Mark Melancon closes the games. Shane Greene and Tyler Matzek also had great years. This is a tremendously deep bullpen.
The hitting is what you have come to expect from the Braves of the Brian Snitker era. Freddie Freeman continues to be top tier at 1st base and will probably win the NL MVP. He had an OPS+ of 186 and played every game. He is the gasoline of this potent lineup. They were 1st in the NL in hits, RBI, OBP, SLG, OPS, and TB. They are a loaded team that performed up to expectations and stayed healthy on offense. Marcell Ozuna had a great comeback season and smoked fastballs all year. He is one of the best heater hitters in the league; the constant barrage of Braves on base put him in position to see more fastballs than he did on the weak Cardinals offense last year. He comes in with an OPS over 1.000 and an OPS+ of 175.
Ronald Acuna Jr mans the outfield with bright-eyed pep. He also gets on base a 4th of the time. Former Mets washout Travis d’Arnaud rekindled his career taking the Number 7 Train to Citi Field as a visitor. He thrived against his old team and batted .321 for the season. Familiar names like Ozzie Albies, Nick Markakis, and Ender Inciarte round out this potent lineup. Those players had off years but are undeniably talented.
Prediction: This Braves squad is scary. The Marlins have enough momentum to steal a game, but the Braves are too well rounded. The disparity between the two lineups is pretty large honestly. Braves 3-1.
Padres vs Dodgers
In what is easily the most exciting Divisional Series matchup, the plucky young Padres are facing off against the heavy NL favorite LA Dodgers. The Padres have been rebuilding and losing for the past five years. This high variance season gave them just the incentive they needed to be aggressive in free agency to supplement their #1 ranked farm system. Crucially, the Padres GM saw the interest in the team growing rapidly and bought at the deadline this season. Padres fans heard non-stop hype about the farm system for five years and finally got to see the prospects hit the MLB and thrive. Fernando Tatis Jr is the embodiment of this. He was the #1 ranked prospect in all of baseball for years, and he is hitting his stride in the MLB as the cornerstone of the team. He is clearly the one the Padres are building around. Part of what makes the Padres exciting, other than the plethora of young talent, is that they have not been good in a long time and face the playoff mainstay Dodgers. Not only do we get a unique divisional rivalry matchup, it is something distinctly new, but not in a way that feels flukie like the Marlins. The Pads are a legitimate young team on the rise that could challenge the Dodgers for division titles over the next few years. They are a compelling team because they have been working towards this outcome for five years. They were going to be solid even in a normal season. Their success is not a fluke due to the virus. That’s why narrative wise this matchup is so compelling, instead of seeing the Dodgers play the same three teams they always beat in the Division Series, we get to see a matchup that has implications for their division and rivalry for years to come. This is a big way divisional foes become true rivals. Facing each other in the NLDS or NLCS. The flukey best of three Wild Card round can not build rivalries in the same way.
The Pads batting order is dangerous and does not really have a distinct weakness. The position players all have an OPS+ of over 100. Wil Myers, Manny Machado, and Tatis Jr all have 150+ OPS+. Vets like Eric Hosmer and Jurickson Profar round out this solid lineup. Tommy Pham struggled in his new home but is still talented. The pitching is the question for this team. They got Indians flamethrower Mike Clevinger at the deadline, but he is coming off of an injury going into the series. He will pitch, but he could be diminished.
Dinelson Lamet was exceptional this season for the Pads. He led SPs on their team with a 205 ERA+ and 69 IP. Chris Paddack was amazing last year but regressed severely this year. Kirby Yates is hurt. Zach Davies and Pierce Johnson were both very good from the right side in the pen. Drew Pomeranz reinvented himself as a closer. The biggest weakness of this team is inexperience. Many of their youngsters who did well during the regular season have miniscule playoff experience.
This will be especially obvious facing the Dodgers, a rich perennial playoff team that has made the playoffs so frequently recently it seems as though their fans are fed up with bullpen disasters and no new rings. The Dodgers have spent a remarkable amount of money over the past eight years or so to try to buy a title and have failed again and again. The face of their organization and this era is Clayton Kershaw, a man who is incredible in the regular season. Kershaw struggles to get it done in the playoffs. He is rarely as sharp as he is in the regular season. He has also had a surprisingly high amount of blow up starts and chokes in big moments. If this Dodgers era squad never wins a title, Kershaw will be the face of that failure and that will be a career defining blow to his legacy. Kershaw was touted as the best arm in baseball year after year and had the regular season stats to back it up. Kershaw continues to struggle with back issues and no longer has the same life on his heater. The clock is ticking for Kershaw and Dave Roberts.
As far as rosters go, this one needs the least amount of explanation. It is the same deep core you have been seeing for years, plus Mookie Betts. The Red Sox were dead on arrival and essentially quit before the season even began. So they traded Mookie for pennies on the dollar and he led the Dodgers in WAR this season after they re-signed him. Will Smith was exceptional behind the dish, getting on base a 4th of the time. Justin Turner played good defense and batted over .300 as usual. Corey Seager found his form after being hurt last year. He hit over .300 as well. Enrique Hernandez, Joc Pederson, Max Muncy, and Chris Taylor round out this lineup. Even if those guys had a bit of an off year, they are still incredibly talented and the entire Dodgers roster knew they were essentially guaranteed the 1st seed. Streaky but scary Cody Bellinger is also a part of this insanely stacked lineup. The Dodgers famously have a ton of bench depth and can platoon excessively. The Dodgers and Yankees both have a ton of above average players who would be starters on other teams but split time on their squad. These are not “prospects” because they are already able to play in the MLB. The Yankee and Dodger benches are by far the deepest. Lots of big name players on both squads too. Probably why the World Series predictions of them meeting were so common. Being the two biggest markets does not hurt either.
The Dodgers pitching is deep and solid as usual. Healthy Kershaw is a big bright star at the top of the rotation. The Dodgers are one of the healthiest teams left, this magnifies their depth. The incredibly hard throwing lanky rightie Dustin May will probably start one of the games. He started the Opening Day game Kershaw missed due to injury. May is a rising young star with an electric 2 seam fastball. Julio Urias is another very young, very nasty starter the Dodgers boast. Walker Buehler is also considered a playoff tested ace. Tony Gonsolin turned in a 183 ERA+ season. The Dodgers moreover have Blake Treinen, Ross Stripling, and Kenley Jansen. They are stacked. But they also have the highest expectations.
Prediction: Due to the Dodgers superior pitching, depth, hitting, and bullpen they get the edge over the plucky upstarts. The health of Clevinger looms too large against a team with such an insane amount of proven pitching. Dodgers 3-1.