Breaking down the playoffs

Ranking the 10 playoff teams, in order of who’s most likely to win:

  • 1. Houston: Why they’ll win: The Astros won the World Series last year and 103 games this year, and will start Justin Verlander (2.52 ERA, .602 OPS against, 290 strikeouts), Gerritt Cole (2.88, .600 OPS, 276 strikeouts) and Charlie Morton (3.13, .659 OPS, 201 Ks) three of every four postseason games. If that doesn’t intimidate opponents, the Astros were No. 1 in bullpen ERA. Good luck scoring runs agains them. Why they won’t: Because no one has repeated since the Yankees won the last of three straight World Series in 2000, and no defending champ has even returned to the Series since the Phillies in 2009. And there are four 97-win teams or greater in the AL. Unsung hero: Josh James didn’t debut in the majors until Sept. 1, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be on the Astros’ postseason roster. But he should be. He can throw 100 mph, struck out 171 in 114.1 minor-league innings, and is a starter who can close, as Lance McCullers did vs. the Yankees in the ALCS Game 7 and Morton vs. the Dodgers in the Series last year. James attributes his breakout to a diagnosis and treatment for sleep apnea. Batters might prefer hearing the sound of James snoring to that of his fastball soaring.
  • 2. Boston: Why they’ll win: The Red Sox were the best team most of the season, won the most games (108) and outscored their opponents by the second-most runs (plus 229; Astros were +263). They also scored the most runs (876) and have two of the three probable MVP finalists in Mookie Betts (.346/438/640; remember when the 30-30 club was a thing? Mookie hit 32 homers and stole 30 bases if it still is) and J.D. Martinez (.330/402/629). Remember how it took into spring training for the Red Sox to sign Martinez? Agent Scott Boras on Martinez in February after signing; “(It’s) very clear that this player has not reached his optimum. He is really starting to understand his swing …, ” which sounds a lot like Boras underselling a client. There’s a first time for everything. Why they won’t: Because David Price and Rick Porcello have a combined 5.14 postseason ERA, and if they pitch like that, even the best offense in MLB may not be able to score enough runs. And because Chris Sale, who was on his way to his first Cy Young, hurt his shoulder, went on the DL twice and was throwing 91 mph in his last start. There’s not enough guile in his repertoire to get hitters out with a Brandon Workman fastball. Unsung hero: Steven Wright. Tim Wakefield had some horrid Octobers for the Red Sox, and his best one in 2003 ended with Aaron Boone’s home run. But in an era where everyone seems to throw 95, Wright’s knuckleball is an a la carte offering that might befuddle batters dug in for power. Wright pitched 13.2 September innings with an 0.66 ERA, and won the division-clinching game vs. the Yankees.
  • 3. N.Y. Yankees: Why they’ll win: The Yankees hit home runs, 267 of them, more than any team ever, 40 more than any team they’ll face in the AL playoffs. Twelve players hit at least 10 homers, including Luke Voit, who hit 14 in 39 games. And the Yankees hit those  267 homers with Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez missing large parts of the season. Why they won’t: If you want to maintain an image — and the Yankees did of the Bronx Bombers — what better way than to build a stadium to conform to it? Yankee Stadium was sixth this season in promoting offense, according to ESPN, and for all their record power, the Yankees were only second in road home runs. First were the Athletics, whom the Yankees play in the wild-card game. With the A’s on the road. Unsung hero: Neil Walker didn’t do much for the Yankees, hitting .219 with a .664 OPS, 104 points less than his career OPS. The Yankees paid him $4 million, and he wasn’t even worth that. But on a team heavy with right-handed power hitters, Walker is better as a lefty and can reach a right-field fence in Yankee Stadium so short it almost makes the Wall in Fenway seem distant. Walker hit six homers in August and 10 of his 11 this year as a lefty.
  • 4. L.A. Dodgers: Why they’ll win: The Dodgers are in the NL, which were this college football, is playing the role of the Sun Belt Conference to the AL’s SEC. And the Dodgers hit home runs — 235, most in the NL — and score runs — 804, most in the NL. (The Dodgers haven’t led the NL in home runs and runs scored in the same season since 1978. They won the pennant that year, but lost in the World Series thanks to a Game 4 shake of Reggie Jackson’s hip.) And the Dodgers did all that with just half a season of Manny Machado. Why they won’t: The Dodgers hit home runs, but Kenley Jansen has been throwing them. Jansen threw 13 home runs this year, more than twice his previous career high of  six. Of the 48 career homers Jansen has allowed in a nine-year career, he’s thrown 27% of them this season. Since August 1, Jansen has thrown seven home runs in 20.1 innings. What could go wrong with a closer who throws home runs? Unsung hero:  David Freese, who saved the Cardinals in 2011, knows something about October heroics. Freese had only 39 at-bats with L.A. after being acquired from Pittsburgh, but he can still hit lefties — .321/387/489 this year. And though he hasn’t appeared in the postseason since 2014, he has eight playoff homers and a career .517 slugging percentage which is 102 points better than his regular-season one.
  • 5. Cleveland: Why they’ll win: No one expects them to. The Indians only won 91 games, but they outscored opponents by 170 runs, won their division by 13 games, finished ninth in MLB in team ERA and third in runs scored. And they added 2015 MVP Josh Donaldson at the Sept. 1 deadline. He played 52 games all season; he should be fresh. Why they won’t: Because the Indians still send out Yonder Alonso (.738 OPS) and Jason Kipnis (.704 OPS) almost every day. And because the bullpen, even after trading for Brad Hand, may not be that much better. Andrew Miller missed much of the middle of the season and was erratic on his return, giving up five hits and a home run while getting two outs in his final appearance. Unsung hero: Jon Edwards may not make the final roster, but if Terry Francona didn’t use Dan Otero when he was good in 2016 (.526 OPS against), why would he now? Edwards was released by the Padres in 2017, which might be as good as a Yelp review. He pitched only 8.2 innings for the Indians but fanned 10 after fanning 56 in 39.2 minor-league innings, and his fastball averages 95.1 mph.
  • 6. Milwaukee: Why they’ll win: Because who’s playing better? They were six games behind in the NL Central after losing to the Reds on Aug. 28. They finished the season 23-7 and won their last eight. And since the All-Star break, MVP-to-be Christian Yelich triple-slashed .367/449/770 over 294 plate appearances. Why they won’t: Because this is the franchise that started as the Seattle Pilots with Jim Bouton and Ball Four. In their 48 years in Milwaukee, they’ve won two playoff series, and one of those was against Gene Mauch with a 2-0 lead and three elimination games (1982 vs. the Angels). And because their starting rotation isn’t much better than the original Pilots’: Chase Anderson, Wade Miley, Gio Gonzalez and Jhoulys Chacin. The Rays gave us the concept of bullpen games; can a team bullpen a whole series? Unsung hero: Miley pitched only 80.2 innings because of injury this year, so he’s not tired. And he pitched well — a 2.57 ERA, .636 OPS against and just three homers. It’s fair to doubt because those 80.2 innings were far more impressive than Miley’s career 4.26 ERA and .751 OPS against. But keeping the ball in the yard and turning over a mess to the bullpen is better than the alternative.
  • 7. Oakland: Why they’ll win: Because the A’s won 97 games, good enough for the second wild card in the AL but more than any team in the NL. No team hit more home runs on the road than the A’s, which is good because that’s where they’ll be playing a majority of their games, if more than one. And though the A’s staff ranked 11th in ERA, it’s third in bullpen ERA, which is how they’re handling Wednesday’s wild-card game. Why they won’t: Who needs to ask? The A’s are 15-23 in the postseason this century, and have lost eight of their last nine playoff series and/or 2014 wild-card game. The postseason this century has been one long water-boarding session for A’s fans. Unsung hero: This is Edwin Jackson’s 16th season, and if his career lasts long enough, he might play for every team. The A’s are his 13th, and he joined them after he exercised his opt-out clause when the Nationals refused to call him up. Jackson and reliever Shawn Kelley, whom the Nats released in a fit of pique, are two reasons the A’s are in the playoffs and the Nats aren’t. Jackson pitched 92 innings for the A’s, had a 3.33 ERA and .687 OPS against, and might just give them length when they need it.
  • 8. Atlanta: Why they’ll win: Because the Braves have been losing the last three years to win now. They were a year removed from 2013’s 96-win division title when they set out for three years of ineptitude. They kept Freddie Freeman, discarded everyone else and waited for Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies. They’re here, and they’re good. Why they won’t: Because the Tomahawk Chop is annoying, if not offensive. And at most Braves games the last three years, you couldn’t get a minyan to perform it. Also, the Braves’ bullpen was 17th in team ERA and as inexperienced in the postseason as most of the fans at their home games will be. Unsung hero: Like Josh James and Jon Edwards, Touki Toussaint might not be on the postseason roster after pitching only seven games and 29 innings. But he should be. He fanned 32 in those 29 innings after whiffing 163 in 136.1 minor-league innings. Brad Brach (72 hits and 28 walks in 62.2 innings) might have experience, but Touki has talent.
  • 9. Chicago Cubs: Why they’ll win: The Curse is over. And the Cubs have starting pitching. They were third in MLB in ERA and can throw a postseason rotation of Jon Lester (3.32 ERA), Kyle Hendricks (1.79 in September) and Cole Hamels (2.36 in 12 Cubs starts). Why they won’t: Their bullpen looks like July’s waiver wire. Pedro Strop became the closer when Brandon Morrow was lost for the season; he hasn’t pitched since Sept. 13 (hamstring). Carl Edwards has a forearm problem, and the Cubs’ bullpen is full of guys like Jaime Garcia and Jorge de la Rosa and Jesse Chavez. Unsung hero: Terrance Gore, who would have been Charlie Finley’s favorite player. Gore is as close to Herb Washington as we’ve had since Mike Marshall picked Herb off first in Game 2 of the 1974 World Series. Gore has a .606 career minor-league OPS and he can left his bats in the bat rack. He won’t be using them. But if it’s a tie game late, Gore will pinch-run. He has only 16 at-bats in his major-league career, but 27 steals in 31 attempts, an 87% success rate. You don ‘t need a sabermetrician to analyze that.
  • 10. Colorado: Why they’ll win: They won’t. But play along. Rockies pitchers were 20th in team ERA, but 12th away from Coors Field, and all five starters — Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Tyler Anderson, Antonio Senzatela and Jon Gray — have pitched only for the Rockies. As harrowing as that is in Coors, they’ve come out OK. Freeland, who pitches the wild-card game Tuesday, was 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA and .666 OPS against. That’s a far cry from the 2007 World Series-losing Rockies, who started Jeff Francis, Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Fogg and Aaron Cook in getting swept. Why they won’t: The Rockies won 91 games, but they weren’t that good. They outscored opponents by 35 runs, which was worse than four teams that didn’t make the playoffs, three in the NL. And though they were seventh in runs scored, that was a Coors creation. They were 20th away from a Coors, with a .665 road OPS that ranked 27th and was 187 points worse than their home .852 OPS, which ranked first. Since the Rockies won’t have home field, that’s a problem. Unsung hero: Scott Oberg pitched in 14 games in September and Monday’s playoff. He allowed runs in only one of them and pitched in more than one inning in five of them. He finished with a .571 OPS against, and since the All-Star break, he has a 2.01 ERA, five walks and 36 strikeouts in 31.1 innings. If the Rockies need a reliever to throw multiple middle innings, it’s Oberg.
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